Rename It the Ark!

One of Fellows Morton and Clayton’s last three narrowboats, Clee was offered to boatman John Henry ‘Jack’ Meredith – a waterways veteran whose family had worked the canals for generations – in 1947.

Clee was one of the new ‘Hill’ class, fitted with a 9hp Bolinder and intended to work in the company’s Northern fleet based at Wolverhampton. But FMC – a family firm that had been looked on as the Pickfords of the canals since 1837 – was destined to fall victim to nationalisation. In 1948 the company incurred the first trading loss in its history and went into voluntary liquidation. All its assets – lorries, properties and boats – were acquired by the British Transport Commission early the following year.

For Jack Meredith and his family, 1948 was also a watershed. After a lifetime on the canals, he and his wife Sarah decided that the time had come to make sure their two daughters, Ethel and Mary, received a proper education. So Jack took a tied canalside house and a position with British Waterways, for whom he captained a tug until he retired.

Ethel & Mary today.

Ethel & Mary today.

When they said goodbye to Clee, Ethel was 10 years old, and little Mary was just two. Most of Ethel’s early childhood was spent on Jack’s first motor-driven narrowboat, Perch, which he took over in 1935. To this day, she clearly remembers what life was like for a family of four. ‘A caravan’s bigger than that,’ she says, ‘but you enjoyed it. You didn’t get that much time to be in there.’

Jack and Ethel on Perch, 1939. At some point the photo fell into a canal.

Jack and Ethel on Perch, 1939. At some point the photo fell into a canal.

She also remembers getting little formal education before they moved canal-side. When Perch tied up for a short while at one of the company’s depots, she was sent off to the local school – but only for the afternoon. ‘I had a note card and I could go half days whenever we stayed there. Couldn’t learn anything – by the time you told them your name it was time to go home.’

Both sisters remember that Jack and Sarah came from a very extended family of boat people. At one point, Jack’s parents may have had as many as eight children on their boat – ‘rename it the Ark’ Mary says today – so living conditions for his own family must have seemed luxurious by comparison. Ethel remembers chequered curtains covering her parent’s bed, and sleeping on what was effectively the sideboard while Mary was in a cot.

Ethel &Mary on Clee at Birmingham 1948 approx.

Ethel &Mary on Clee at Birmingham 1948 approx.

Ethel remembers Clee and Perch carrying ‘smelter’ for the steel works, pure chocolate, or ’crump’, for Cadbury’s – ‘the best chocolate you’ve ever tasted in your life’, and crates full of finished pottery. She even recalls going into the factory when the pottery was being collected, and watching it being painted by hand.

Ethel and Mary sitting on a bogey for carrying spelter and copper.

Ethel and Mary sitting on a bogey for carrying spelter and copper.

Ethel remembers times when the boat was empty for a short while – ‘If the boat was empty, we’d play – I had a bike in there. When we went through the beams I had to go down and come up and pedal again.’

But the work almost never stopped. Jack often worked fly loads – night deliveries to get in the right place for the next load – while the girls slept straight through. He talked about carrying bombs during the war – and about ‘swapping’ goods with other boat people as they went about their business. Even when he had time off, he spent every spare minute painting roses and castles – on stools, boxes, buckets, water cans, mops, and every part of the boat itself.

Jack, still painting, age 82.

Jack, still painting, age 82.

It sounds an idyllic life, but there were dangers too. Ethel’s mother described how she used to tie her to a water can for safety when she was very little – only for Ethel to fall into the water, can and all. Neither parent could swim – in fact few boat people were able to – but ‘they’d jump into the canal to fetch you out.’ And when the boat went into a lock they would tie Ethel to a post, with a rope ‘just long enough so you didn’t go to the lock side, while she worked the locks’.

Despite occasional dangers, both girls remember their brief childhood on the narrowboats with affection. To this day they wax lyrical about the sound of a Bolinder engine – and Sarah’s prized Measham teapot still has pride of place in Mary’s china cabinet.

The Heasham Teapot (Bargee Teapot).

The Heasham Teapot (Bargee Teapot).

After the family parted company from their last boat, Clee went on to a very different life. Initially purchased by the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, she worked in the NW division until she was finally sunk and abandoned in one of two flash locks near Anderson. She lay there, ‘pickled’ in salt water, until 1983, when she was refloated and continued her working life on the Oxford Canal – eventually finding her way to retirement at Alvecote Marina.

Keen to find out more about Clee’s history, we searched the internet – and that revealed a tiny picture of Clee with two little girls standing at the stern. Meanwhile, a health survey record for 1948 revealed that her boatman was Jack Meredith. Usually health records only listed the number of children on board a boat, not their names, but in Clee’s case both girls’ names and year of birth were recorded because they had contracted scarlet fever.

A quick search of national records led to a distant cousin who had them listed on a family tree, and as a result the NBHF was able to contact both sisters – and share a very enjoyable day reminiscing about the last narrowboat they knew as bargees: NB Clee.