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The evolution of the narrowboat

Narrowboats have been a well-known feature on our canals for hundreds of years, but where did the design originate?

While there are no strict definitions, a narrowboat is considered to be less than seven feet (2.13 metres) wide. Barges or wide beams, on the other hand, are boats wider than seven feet.

The maximum length of a narrowboat is 72 feet (21.95 metres) to navigate the largest locks on our system.

How did this distinctive shape come about? Why are they long and narrow? Who decided the standard size?

Starvationers – the first narrowboat model

The Industrial Revolution saw an incredible number of inventions – one of which was the ‘starvationer’ boat in mines. So-called because of its exposed ribbed sides, this thin wooden boat could go directly into the mines on underground canal systems (like at Harecastle Hill or Worsley Delph) to load the cargo.

Starvationer on the Bridgewater Canal on display at the National Waterways Museum Ellesmere PortStarvationer at the National Waterways Museum is listed as one of the 100 objects of the North

Starvationer sizes differed greatly, carrying anywhere from two to 12 tonnes and were the forerunner of today’s narrowboat.

Standardising the ‘narrow’ boat

The narrowboat as we know it now is attributed to James Brindley. A highly influential canal pioneer, Brindley reached an agreement with the Trent & Mersey Canal Company to build the first lock that standardised the maximum narrowboat dimensions of seven by 72 feet.

The narrow proportions made sense for a number of reasons. It would be easier to tunnel under hills and require less effort to expand the canal network throughout the midlands and beyond.

Man with a horse walking along a towpath

Horse-drawn boats

Hundreds of companies transported goods using narrowboats on the UK canal system throughout the late 1700s through to the First World War.

The earlier boats were pulled by horses. We can still see remnants of this hard life on our network today. For instance, small gaps in bridges allowed the horse to cross the canal without detaching the rope from the boat, while underwater ramps in the Regent's Canal helped fallen horses climb out.

Originally, boatmen travelled on the boats while their families stayed on land. However, as time went on and railway competition increased economic pressure, families moved on to the boats and worked without pay.


A butty boat is when two boats work in a pair. The horse pulls one boat, which tows the other. This meant more space to live and carry cargo.

Today, you might see hotel boats work as butty boats, replacing the horse with an engine.

Number Ones

You’ll see ‘No. 1’ painted on plenty of historical canal boats. This means they were independent self-employed workers who owned their boats. The tradition of painting a number on the side continues today.

Steam and gas engines

In the late 19th century, steam engines began to replace horses. Fellows Morton & Clayton operated one of the largest horse-drawn fleets and started converting these boats as early as 1886.

Steam-powered boats could be used on longer distances and were known as ‘fly’ boats – meaning they moved without stopping night and day. The downside of steam engines meant less cargo capacity as the engine, boiler, coal, and larger crew took up valuable space.

In 1906, Fellows Morton & Clayton began experimenting with gas engines and fitted their first Bolinder in 1912. By the 1920s, most boats had been converted to run off Bolinder engines.

Lots of narrowboats, widebeams, and cruisers moored in a busy basin, surrounded by blocks of flats and Canary Wharf visible in the distance.

Leisure boating and beyond

The nationalisation of the canals and later decline left many narrowboats abandoned in the mid-20th century. The rise of leisure boating was slow – with many beginning life as converted working boats.

By the 1960s, purpose-built hire boats and holiday boats grew in popularity. Today, you’ll find as many as 35,000 boaters cruising the canals, with boats ranging from preserved historic working boats, privately owned leisure boats, continuous cruisers and liveaboards to hire boats and hotel boats.

Volunteering outside

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Last Edited: 01 May 2024

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