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Modern narrowboat on the Kennet and Avon Canal

Narrowboat , also narrow boat, refers to a type of boat that has been used on the inland waterways in England and Wales since around 1750 . The eponymous distinguishing marks based on the fact that a Narrowboat Although up to 22 m long, but only to 2.20 m wide, so very narrow (English: narrow ). It is because of its flat hull, which the shallow depth of the channels requires, and because it originally had no drive of its own, to be classified in the boat category Lighter . The variants used today, equipped with diesel engines, are now to be regarded as an independent type of boat.

The reason for these special dimensions was, on the one hand, the size of the locks , which were manageable with the technical and economic means available around 1750. On the other hand, the boats should be able to carry a load of up to 25  metric tons that a horse could pull on a towpath . The compromise was such a narrowboat. Also at that time the canal bed itself was only built with shovels, wheelbarrows and, above all, manual labor by the canal builders (English navvies ), who built a canal only so wide that two narrowboats could meet each other . A narrowboat is therefore a type of boat that was built according to the requirements of a traffic route, precisely the Narrow Canal , and shared its fate with it in terms of ascent, fall and rebirth.


In the middle of the 18th century, the need arose in England for the means of transporting large quantities of goods between cities, but also for raw material sources (namely coal mines) in these growing cities. The roads still built by the Romans were unsuitable for the economic overland transport of bulk goods. The existing natural waterways did not always meet the requirements either. Either they were too small, meaning they did not have enough water, or they did not go where there was a supply of raw material sources or where demand in the growing cities required it.

The canal construction technique has been known since the construction of canals in Northern Italy, France ( Canal de Briare , Canal du Midi ) and Ireland (Newry Canal). However, an initial spark came when the third Duke of Bridgewater placed an order with James Brindley (1716–1772) to build a canal between his coal mine in Worsley and the growing industrial metropolis of Manchester, financed exclusively by him . The Bridgewater Canal opened in 1761 and was an instant commercial success. Within a few years, the capital used for the construction was generated and profits were made through user fees. The price of coal in Manchester fell within a year to around a third of the original price, triggering a significant surge in demand.

James Brindley (1716–1772)

This previously unprecedented economic success of a privately financed transport route in the context of the industrial revolution caused a revolution in the field of transport. The golden age of the founders of the narrow canals began, the so-called Canal Mania . Within a few years, hundreds of kilometers of canals were built between the up-and-coming industrial cities, the raw material deposits and the large port cities. The main means of transport on these was the narrowboat with its size, based on the lock dimensions of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal , about 2 m wide and a good 22 m long, and a horse-drawn payload of about 25 tons. The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal was built just a few years after the lockless Bridgewater Canal, also under the direction of James Brindley. Due to the terrain, it was not possible to run the canal on a level without locks. Brindley decided for commercial reasons and in contrast to the Bridgewater Canal for the construction of brick locks with the internal dimensions of 2.20 m wide and 21 m long. These could be set up quickly and inexpensively with the technical means available at the time and largely local resources. The water consumption per lock passage was also low (approx. 80-100 m³ corresponding to the annual drinking water consumption of a family of four in Germany today) compared to a lock in the north German Mittelland Canal . There, a good 40,000 m³ are used for a lock process, such as the Anderten lock in Hanover-Anderten .

However, Brindley's choice of size was the reason for the rapid success of the narrowboat and canal as well as for their decline, because at the latest with the appearance of the railroad it turned out that a 25-ton cargo could hardly be transported economically with an inland waterway vessel. At first, at the end of the 18th century, narrow boats and canals were unrivaled high technology.

The narrowboats were initially made of wood, later planked with iron plates as protection at the particularly stressed areas. Today the ship's hull is welded entirely from steel plates. Since wood was the cheaper building material and easier to repair, wooden boats were predominant until around the middle of the last century. Furthermore, the construction of a narrowboat differed due to the special use. There were those that were used in long-distance traffic and had a cabin as a small but complete apartment for the crew who lived permanently on the narrowboat. There were also narrowboats for local transport, so-called dayboats , which had no or no full cabin for the crew, because the skipper did not live on the boat, but returned to his home in the country after his daily work.

Mainly goods were transported at that time, namely raw materials such as coal, stone and earth, but also finished products such as pottery and porcelain. In particular, the porcelain and earthenware producer Josiah Wedgwood in Stoke-on-Trent benefited significantly from the safe and low-breakage transport via the Trent and Mersey Canal .

But there was also the narrowboat as a passenger boat. Such post boats, so-called packet boats (so called because of the letters and parcels transported next to the passengers), even ran regular scheduled services between the cities. Colin Dexter's crime novel Murder on the Oxford Canal offers an insight into this world .

In the golden years of the Canal Age (1760–1830), the canal network in England and Wales grew to almost 7,000 km of canal stretch, used by thousands of wooden narrowboats. During this period, the narrowboat was the most modern means of transport and unrivaled as far as the mass transport of goods over land was concerned.

Railway as competition

The invention and construction of the railway from 1830 changed the situation decisively. The railroad transported larger quantities of goods over longer distances significantly faster and more cheaply, and its transport route (the railroad tracks) was easier to build. This ultimately ushered in the demise of the narrowboat as a commercial means of transport .

Much traffic and thus income was withdrawn from the canal companies by the new railway companies, whose routes partly ran parallel to the canals and which were built by the same navvies that had previously built the canals. Some of the canal companies became insolvent and the canals fell into disrepair. Some companies were bought by railroad companies, which got rid of unpleasant competition in this way. In general, the sewer system suffered from financial exhaustion. Maintenance was limited to the bare minimum. There was practically no modernization, i.e. adaptation to technical progress such as on the continent, so that the canal system was ultimately only poorly preserved, but by no means further developed.

Instead, freight could only be transported reasonably economically with a narrowboat if the operating costs were minimized. This was achieved by the fact that the boat operator let his family live and work on the narrowboat. The wife operated the tiller, the child led the horse on the towpath; A home of one's own in the country was saved, and there was no need to pay rent for an apartment. The rear cabin, usually just one room, served as an apartment for a whole family with a floor space of just a few square meters. It contained a stove, benches and a table top that served as a bed at night, as well as various cupboards. A barren home that was made as homely as possible by painting the cabin doors, the drinking water bucket and other utensils. Locks and roses appeared as recurring motifs on these objects.

The horse remained the only economical form of propulsion until the beginning of the 20th century, after experiments with the installation of steam engines in narrowboats ultimately failed because they took up too much cargo space for themselves and the coal to be burned as fuel. Since there were no towpaths at the canal tunnels for reasons of cost , the crew pulled the boats through shorter tunnels (e.g. Kennet and Avon Canal ) with their hands on chains that were attached to the walls for miles (e.g. B. Sapperton Canal Tunnel ), however, legging (English leg: "leg") was the only way to move the boats forward: One, usually two people lay down on planks attached to the bow of the boat (the legs up, the Upper body leaned against the superstructure at about 45 °) and “walked” with their feet along the tunnel wall, and more rarely the tunnel ceiling. The towing horses were led on paths that followed the course of the canal in the area to the next tunnel portal, and of course there was no space for the animals on the small boats.

It was not until shortly before the First World War that diesel engines were used which, more powerful than a horse, could pull another non-motorized narrowboat (a so-called butty ). The resulting doubled freight capacity quickly established the diesel engine as the drive source. Such boat pairs were built in large numbers in the first decades of the 20th century for both individual hauliers and large companies such as the famous Fellows Morton and Clayton or the Grand Union Canal Company (GUCC), which owned several hundred narrowboats.

The latter operated the Grand Union Canal , the main link between London and the Black Country , the industrial area around Birmingham . The GUCC initiated the last major modernization of the canal system at the beginning of the 1930s. The Grand Union Canal was widened, the narrow locks were replaced by wide locks , which were twice as wide as the narrow locks. Bridges were widened or replaced and the narrowboats were to be replaced by barges with a payload of 66 tons. But the Second World War ultimately thwarted this, so that even after the partial modernization, the double team of motorized narrowboat with non-motorized butty in tow remained the standard inland cargo ship .

During the Second World War , there was once again a brief boom in goods transport using narrowboats. The boatmen drafted into the army were replaced by specially trained women who formed the backbone of the ship's personnel during the war years. So that they could find their way around the sewer system, they were given special maps, the so-called lockmaster maps , which are still popular black and white representations of the sewer system today.

After the Second World War, however, the economic decline of the English canal system and with it the narrowboat as a transport vehicle continued. In 1948 much of the English sewer network was nationalized and some canals closed and abandoned.

The harsh winter of 1962/63 , which kept the canals frozen for weeks, gave commercial freight transport the fatal blow. Freight transport customers were forced to look for alternatives and found them in the railroad and mainly in the truck. When winter was over and the canals were navigable again, there were no more transport orders. The state-owned transport company British Waterways stopped transporting goods, some private companies survived until around 1970. As a result, hundreds of the abandoned narrowboats rotted in the docks and on the banks of the canals.


The amazing rebirth of the English canal system and with it the narrowboats has both name and date. It was the writer LTC Rolt who, under the impression of his honeymoon on the narrowboat Cressy in 1944, published a book called Narrow Boat . This sparked a wave of enthusiasm for the industrial heritage of the English canal system and its main means of transport, the narrowboat. In 1946 Robert Aickman met Rolt on Rolt's narrowboat Cressy near Tardebigge on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal . The result of this meeting was the founding of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), which will in future campaign for the preservation of the English waterways.

Between 1935 and 1939 the first boat hire company was established near Chester, renting out narrowboats to paying holidaymakers. Only two more companies were added until 1963, but then a real leisure boom developed from it. Today there are numerous commercial boat rental companies who rent out narrowboats to recreational captains, which can be compared to a small holiday apartment in terms of their equipment and space. The number of privately used and rental boats now far exceeds the number of narrowboats ever used for commercial freight transport.

Brindley's decision in favor of the small locks and thus the small narrowboats was therefore both a blessing and a curse. For the commercial freight transport of too small dimensions, never seriously modernized over the centuries, the English canal system presents itself today as a nationwide living open-air museum that is increasingly noticed by its own population and perceived as worthy of protection. And it's also turning out to be a tourist attraction that attracts many visitors, including foreigners, to the tiller of a narrowboat for a houseboat vacation in the UK's license-free inland waters.

Relay locks in Devizes (Kennet and Avon Canal) on a summer afternoon

James Brindley is “to blame” for the attractiveness of narrowboat canals for another reason: he built contour canals. Brindley had his canal route follow the contours of the landscape for cost reasons or because he lacked the technical capabilities. Only when the construction of locks, embankments, cuts or even a canal tunnel was unavoidable, Brindley actually commissioned them. Today, therefore, when traveling in a narrowboat, one has the impression of following a meandering natural watercourse rather than an artificial waterway that was used to transport goods.

In the 1980s and 1990s in particular, some canals that had been abandoned in 1948 were restored and given over to public leisure traffic. T. under royal patronage. A particularly successful example of such a restoration is the Kennet and Avon Canal .

Modern narrowboats

Modern narrowboats; left in the foreground with camouflage nets

Today's narrowboats are either used privately as a mobile temporary holiday home or (less often) as a permanent mobile home, but most often as a commercial charter boat.

Another distinguishing criterion is the external appearance. Either it is a restored working narrowboat (rather rare) or a closed hull with small porthole windows (again rather rare) or large windows.

Finally, modern narrowboats also differ in terms of their aft control deck. First there is the traditional stern deck , secondly the semi-traditional stern deck and finally the cruiser stern deck .

The traditional stern deck is characterized by the fact that the side walls and the roof are drawn almost to the end of the boat and the skipper stands at the tiller, protected and warmed in the cabin entrance. A second or even third person would not have room there. While this meets the requirements of a work boat, it does not meet the needs of a recreational crew. The members would like to all stand on the platform at the tiller handle so that it cannot be big enough. This is provided by a so-called cruiser stern deck , where all boat occupants are given the opportunity to stand and even sit in the immediate vicinity of the tiller. Finally, the compromise between the two, the semi-traditional stern deck .


  • Hugh McKnight: The Shell Book of Inland Waterways . 2nd Edition. David & Charles, Newton Abbot et al. a. 1981, ISBN 0-7153-8239-X .
  • Tony Conder: Canal Narrowboats and Barges . 1st edition. Shire Publications, 2004, ISBN 0-7478-0587-3 .

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d e f g Sven Pieper: The era of the canals . In: Bauwelt . No. 14 , 1991, pp. 724 .
  2. Narrowboat or barge? Canal boats explained . June 15, 2014. Retrieved March 21, 2017.
  3. ^ Hugh McKnight: The Shell Book of Inland Waterways. 2nd Edition. David & Charles, Newton Abbot et al. a. 1981, ISBN 0-7153-8239-X , p. 130.
  4. ^ A b c d e Peter L. Smith: Canal Barges & Narrowboats . Shire, Princes Risborough, 1994, ISBN 0-7478-0230-0 , pp. 15-16 .
  5. Colin Dexter: Murder on the Oxford Canal. Translated from the English by Christiane Friederike Bamberg. Rowohlt. Reinbek near Hamburg 1990, ISBN 3-499-42960-8 .
  6. Harecastle Tunnel. on: (engl.).
  7. ^ Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt: Narrow boat. Eyre & Spottiswoode, London 1944, OCLC 752787370 .
  8. a b Richard Stinshoff, The "new navvies", Bauwelt 1991, page 737.

Web links

Commons : Narrowboats  - collection of images, videos and audio files