The Boatman

by Wendy Freer

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Chorus
But we carried our load, hoping for a good road 1
With our butty2 trimmed well, swimming3 behind us
But the end was in sight, we locked down the last flight
Soon at Brentford Wharf4 that’s where you’ll find us.

It was nineteen o three (1903) when mum gave birth to me
In a narrowboat cabin at Leighton
By the time I was eight, I could work the lock gates,
And drive our old 'os from Cow Roast to Gayton.

I was thirteen no more, when me dad went to war
And I found meself made up to steerer5 .
With five kids and me mum, well I had to keep on
'Cos the life it was hard and the bread it got dearer.

In nineteen twenty three, working for FMC6
Well they told us they’d cut back our money7
Well I’ve never had time for the Union line
But when gaffers said that it just wasn’t funny.

So we put up our feet, for forteen long weeks
Down at Southall just by the jam factory
And when it was done, Unions told us we’d won
But they still cut our pay, seemed a bloody queer victory.

Well a few more years passed and I married me lass
Soon I’d kids of me own all around me.
Now they’re telling us all, they’re making some new law
And they reckon it’s bound to break up the family8 .

‘Cos they say it’s all wrong to take children along
An a narrowboat cabin’s no place to live in
For they must go to school, and live life by their rule
But they’d better think twice ‘cos we’ll never give in.

For we’ve lived here on board, generations and more
With our goods and our chattels all round us
And before they’ll part me from me own family
Well I reckon that first they’ll have to drown me.

Well the years have turned round and the trade has gone down
No more coal, no lime, no chalk and no plaster
And our trips are all done, and the old boats are gone
‘Cos they’ve lorries today can do it much faster

But we carried our load, hoping for a good road
With our butty trimmed well, swimming behind us
But the end was in sight, we locked down the last flight
Soon at Brentford Wharf, that’s where you’ll find us.
Soon it’s just in museums, that’s where you’ll find us.

Wendy Freer has kindly provided the following notes :

Because there are quite a few verses I usually put the chorus in at the beginning and then after every two verses – except at the end because there are an odd number of verses!

1 A stretch of canal where all the locks are set in your favour
2 Canal boat without an engine, towed by a motor boat
3 Boat people always referred to the boat as ‘swimming’ rather than floating or sailing
4 Main depot at the Thames end of the Grand Union Canal (formerly the Grand Junction Canal)
5 Steerer is another word for the captain of a narrowboat
6 Fellows Morton and Clayton, well known canal carrying firm
7 It was common in the 1920s for employers to cut wages. Narrowboat men had no union of their own but other unions took up their cause and brought them out on strike. At the end of the dispute, pay was still cut but not by quite as much so the unions claimed it as a victory.
8 Around 1930, Harry Gosling, a Labour MP and leader of the Transport Unions introduced a Private Members Bill to Parliament with the aim of banning women and children from living on canal boats. The stated reason for this was to improve the social circumstances and educational opportunities for the families although it is suspected that the real motive was to keep wage levels up (as women employees always brought wage levels down). At any rate, the Bill was ultimately unsuccessful but it attracted a fair amount of attention to the canal boat people and particularly to the children. The boat people themselves were always dead against the proposed new law. One group of boat women actually entered one of the committee rooms where the Bill was being debated and declared that if the government tried to break up their families they would take a child under each arm and jump into the canal.
Wendy Freer is the author or co-author of the following books :

Women and Children of the Cut and
Canal Boatmen's Missions with Gill Foster

which are available from the Inland Waterways Association Shop.
women missons