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The dark side of the cut

A new book from journalist, social historian and canal volunteer, Susan C. Law, delves into the dark side of Victorian canals.

Do you know someone with a passion for crime stories as well as canal history? Then a new book from journalist, social historian and canal volunteer, Susan C. Law, might make the ideal Christmas reading gift. Drawing on a rich collection of Victorian press cuttings and court reports, Susan’s historical detective work uncovers a time when canals were notorious for rough characters, racketeering, explosive incidents and even gruesome murders.

“The message of the book,” explains Sue, “is that canals were a secret world on the edge of society. Today, canals are lovely peaceful places where we can escape the stresses of our lives, but back then the cut was a rough, tough, hard-working place that attracted crime.

History is often the story of the rich and powerful, but since my time as a young reporter sitting in Crown Court, I’ve been interested in social history and the lives of ordinary working people. Crime is an area where you really get down to brass tacks and understand human motivation.”

Sue’s book explains how the gangs of hard-working and hard-drinking navvies who built the canals were treated with fear and suspicion by members of more settled communities living nearby. But she also sets out how the riots and mayhem they sometimes wrought were often, in reality, a fight for justice by workers who were regularly exploited and who risked their lives to build our canal network at speed. The sixty navvies who died building the Blisworth Tunnel on the Grand Union Canal, for example, attest to the dangers they faced.

Group of navvies ©National Waterways Archive/Michael Ware Collection/Manchester Ship Canal Co.

Sue also looks at the lives of the boatmen some described as ‘Water Gypsies’ and again she clearly feels sympathy with their plight: “Just imagine, you are tired, hungry with a boat to unload. The canal is icing over and soon you won’t be able to move. You’ve got six kids shivering in the cabin, and whoever gets through the lock first, gets paid first. So, what do you do? Do you sit there quietly, or after a drink or two, do you have a fight with another boatman to get through?

Fly boats had the worst reputation, as they worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These boats often attracted crew escaping crimes elsewhere. It’s easy to disappear when you are constantly on the move.

My book investigates the notorious Christina Collins murder, that was later fictionalised in the Inspector Morse novel The Wench is Dead. Her body was found floating in the water during a fly boat journey from Liverpool to London. That case caused such a national outrage, it left the reputation of boatmen at an all-time low. Sadly, the whole boating community suffered, from a press eager to sell lurid stories about a rogue minority.”

Reading through more than a hundred canal crimes outlined in the book, consistent themes begin to emerge. Much of the crime can be traced back to drunkenness, as the government tried to wean the working classes off gin, and onto the cheap, plentiful beer now available at canalside public houses. There are tales of fraud, theft, black market racketeering and gang warfare from the likes of ‘Peaky Blinders’ who were drawn from the ranks of Birmingham canal workers.

Historic illustration of boat explosion © National Waterways Archive / Illustrated London News

Meanwhile, criminal neglect put the lives of ordinary Londoners in danger. Sue explains how on 2 October 1874, Londoners were woken by an enormous explosion, as a barge carrying five tons of gunpowder blew up on the Regent’s Canal. In the nearby zoo, cages were blown open and exotic birds escaped. Over 1,000 buildings were damaged in the blast and panic spread through the streets, with the shockwaves felt as far away as Gravesend.

It was thought that the blast was caused by a stray spark from a boatman’s clay pipe and eventually The Grand Junction Canal Company was found guilty of gross negligence, and new health and safety regulations were brought in by the government. But, as Sue reflects: “When you look at history, human nature really doesn't change. We live in changing circumstances, but you get the same things happening at different times.”

Last Edited: 13 March 2024

photo of a location on the canals
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