a former dayboat built in 1903

BCN 18686 was  used over the decades by a number of owners, and for many different uses. From what I’ve discovered so far it’s a fascinating and tantalising story of  a basic workhorse of a boat.


The boat was built by Eli Aston of 50, Waterloo Street, Tipton, the 1911 census states Aston was trading as an Iron Canal Boatbuilder [this is how the words are written on the census]. He would have been 55 years old when 18686 was built. The census also records that working in the company were his son Isaiah Aston then 30yrs. as a Canal Boat Rivetter and a younger son, Eli Aston (Junior) Canal boat Rivet Heater. Kelly’s Trade Directory of 1912 records Eli Aston iron boat builder, as working in Iron Boat Dock, Alexandra Road, Tipton [on the Toll End Communication canal].

The boat was built for Benjamin Pearson. Pearson was born in 1853 in Brierley Hill and, according to the 1891 Census, lived at 15 Dudley Road, [ie. adjacent to The Black Country Museum site], where his occupation was recorded as Canal Carrier. This is again confirmed in the 1901 Census, though interestingly the 1911 census records the family then residing at 50 Sedgley Road, Tipton, the household having a servant and Pearson describing himself as a Mineral Merchant.


The boat was sold to Alfred Hickman of Bilston where the boat carried No. 105 in their fleet. The BCN gauging register entry reads:

Gauge No Gauge book origin Registration Date Name of Vessel Owner surname Owner first name Owner residence Length Beam
18686 BCN 13/07/1903 Hickman A Spring Vale 70-0 7-1/2

18686 would be engaged in and around Bilston Steel Works, at Spring Vale, Bilston for the next 40 years.

Additional unattributed notes in the log read:
Spring Vale / gauged at Tipton / 13703 / Fleet No. 105 / former owner B. Pearson – ???
18832 [Basingstoke] Nov 1903 / 18816 ditto / re-number 1920 23272 – ? 23003 – 1919 ???]

(above) Bilston Steel Works c. 1920

(above) Bilston Steel Works, pre-war

(above) Bilston Steel Works, pre-war aerial view

The story of Bilston Steel Works – in brief:

With the opening of the Birmingham to Wolverhampton Canal in 1770 industrial activity in the area increased, and by 1780 the first blast furnaces were in use.

In 1866 the Hickman family acquired the works then known as the Springvale Furnaces Ltd. At the time there were three square old type brick furnaces known locally as ‘The Hot Holes’ on the site.

Between 1866 and 1883 six new blast furnaces were built at Springvale. The furnaces were hand-fed and the molten iron was run off into pig beds. Despite the crude nature of production the furnaces produced iron of good quality and in large quantities.

By the early 1880s five blast furnaces on the site produced 24,944 tons of iron a year.

In 1897 the Springvale Furnaces and the Staffordshire Steel & Ingot Iron Co were amalgamated to become Alfred Hickman Ltd.

The site continued to expand. In 1907 the first mills powered by electricity were installed, an open-hearth furnace was built in 1911, followed by additional furnaces during the First World War.

The Bilston works were a major industrial site. During the Second World War the company was an important shell-making centre.

(above) Atmospheric Poster of Bilston Works

At the end of the WW2 Alfred Hickman and its subsidiaries were bought out by Stewart and Lloyds. It’s likely that 18686 was absorbed into Stewart and Lloyds’ huge fleet of day boats for a further decade before being sold on.


The boat was shortened to 62ft and the stern swim cut away below the waterline to accommodate a conventional motor boat propulsion system. It is believed that the shortening and motorising was done on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

At some point the boat, perhaps as a result of motorising, acquired a more substantial cabin. One of the interesting features of the conversion was that the engine was astern of the cabin, rather like a ‘Severner’.

It is not know when the name ‘Eileen’ became associated with 18686. The BCN Gauging Register records no such name.

Circa. 1967

Reported as being fitted with a twin cylinder 16HP Fowler engine.


Joined the fleet of Union Canal Carriers. The engine was replaced by a Lister HA2.

Early 1980′s

There was an intriguing note in the boat’s log stating that, at one point, she had been the base for a touring theatre company, and the words ‘Day-Star’ written in the margin with a question mark.

I e-mailed Day Star Theatre in the hope that they might be able to provide more information, and Pete Marshall e-mailed straight back, very kindly providing the following information:

Yes I can fill in the details from the dark and distant past. Basically before Day-Star Theatre set off as full time performers in 1981 we did some pilot shows in the late ’70’s with a bigger cast of performers, more for the fun of it than anything else. From 1977 Jane and I lived on the Day-Star on the Thames in Surrey. One of the other performers was Paul Pepperell, who lived on the Eileen at the same mooring as we did at Abbey Chase, below the weir at Chertsey Lock.

When we started performing we named our company after our boat and took a show, using both boats, to the 1980 IWA National Waterways Festival at Lea Bridge on the River Lee. The play, about life on the Thames, was actually performed on the top of the two boats breasted up.

The following year – 1981 – the IWA National Festival and Waterside Arts Festival took place on the Aire & Calder Navigation at Leeds, and although we were unable to make the journey on the Day-Star, Paul took the Eileen and she became Day-Star Theatre’s base for the festival…

Thanks again to Pete Marshall of Day-Star Theatre for this wonderful photograph of 18686 [centre of photo] which shows a wooden full conversion. Pete remembers that:

…she is tied up on the Thames at Old Windsor at the Bells of Ousley pub. This would be something like 1979-80 She has ‘Day-Star’ on the outside and another friends boat ‘Sarat Khan’ on the inside…

Sadly, within 10 years of this photo being taken, and having had the engine removed; BCN 18686 had became a neglected, static houseboat in a chronic state of repair, on the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union at Highline, Greenford.

Winter 1988

She burst into flames and was completely burnt out from stem to stern, with serious distortion occuring to the hull


Bought from K. Tomlinson, via the surveyor Douglas Cormack, as an insurance right-off by Jim & Mig McDonald on 22.08.89. BW 78869 nb. Eileen was described as an ‘engineless hull’ on the Bill of Sale. The boat was towed from Greenford to Cassio Wharf with the ‘Elizabeth’ and over the winter of 1989-90 the hull was stripped out, stern desk fabricated and engine installed, and early BMC 2.2 rebuilt by Pete Tomlinson.


In Summer 1990, the ‘Eileen’ was towed behind the ‘Elizabeth’ from Cassio Wharf, Watford to Warwickshire Flyboat Co. Ltd. Stockton, Warwickshire.There the hull distortion was straightened out, and a 16′ cabin, gunwales and foredeck added.


A colour scheme… white panels, red coach lines and blue border was agreed. The boat, as yet unfinished and not fully fitted, attended the National Rally at Windmill End in August 1991.

Work continued to fit out the back cabin over the Winter of 1991 and into 1992. It’s a traditional back cabin fit-out with ticket drawer, table cupboard, bed hole etc. A Diamond range was installed.

The remainder of works were completed on the cabin by the Autumn of 1992. Cabin scumbled by Jim McDonald and decorated by Moreen Nicol. Mattress and covers were ordered, chimney, chain, Elsan etc. completed the boat.

18686 had been transformed from burnt-out hull to a fully motorised ‘motor’ with cabin, fore deck and open hold, in just over two years.

Over the Autumn & Winter of 1992

18686 journeyed from  Teddesley : Great Haywood : Stone : Kidsgrove : Whaley Bridge : Ashton Canal : Manchester : Worsley : Wigan [Hugh McKnight joining the boat at Blackburn] Leeds : Selby : River Derwent to Stamford Bridge : Pocklington Canal : Selby : Castleford : Wakefield [National Rally] : Keadby : River Trent : River Soar : Sileby Mill : Red Hill : Branston : Fradley : Wolsey Bridge : Etruria : Stockton Brook : Denton : Froghall [cabin painted over Winter]


18686 journeyed from Froghall : Barbridge : Llangollen [and back] : Barbridge  : Streethay Wharf [hull gritblasted and painted Summer 1993] : Shardlow : Sandiacre : Langley Mill [over-wintered]


18686 journeyed from Langley Mill : Boston : Witham Drains to South Kyre Rally : Cobblers Lock : Streethay Wharf : Cudworth : Pelsall Campaign Rally [towed by Skylark then Seagull following water pump breaking] : Norton Canes [for the next 16 months]


18686 journeyed from Norton Canes : Jolly Collier, Horsley Fields : Teddesley : Trentham : Wheelock : Church Minshull : Audlem : Round Oak : Wolverley : Tewksbury : Evesham : Wilmcote : Lapworth Junct. : Hatton : Braunston : Buckby : Stoke Bruerne [Loaded 2 tons coal & homefire nuts and 1/2 ton sandstone & other sundries] ; Yardley [loaded another ton of homefire nuts] : Bulbourne : Cassio Wharf [breasted with the Elizabeth again, first time since Xmas 1991].

Engine and gearbox stripped down and rebuilt.

In November 1995 ‘Eileen’ was loaded with timber, steel and 3 tons coal and travelled from Cassio Wharf to ‘MLCB’ and back.

The only note in the log after this point [until 2005] is: ‘paint cabin in wet dock, strip & paint foredeck’ April 1999.

The ‘Eileen’ then lay idle at ‘MLCB’ until 2000, and then at Cassion Wharf until…

Winter 2005

‘Eileen’ went, according to the log ‘English boating for the Winter’. On 16.12.2005 from Cassio Wharf : Berkhamstead : Cowroast : Wendover Arm : Bulbourne : Leighton Buzzard : Wolverton : Stoke Bruerne [for new years eve] and then back mooring at Jackdaw Pound and Cowroast, where the boat was left until 20.01.06, before returning to Cassio Wharf.

The final entry in the log reads: On dock Bridgewater Basin, late October 2006 for insurance survey by Mike Carter. Epoxy pitch on hull below waterline and flat bottom. Bigger pits on bottom welded up. Off dock 01.11.06. 25.11.06 single-handed to Ricky for demonstration re. DEFRA/BW cuts. 26.11.06 return to Cassio single-handed.


Jim McDonald sold BCN 18686 ‘Eileen’ to Lesa Vallantine 20.03.07.


3 thoughts on “The Story of Eileen: ‘Or BCN 18686’

  1. Hi- it’s fascinating to read about your Eileen. It makes me wonder what tales my own boat (Aspen) could tell. Sadly she is missing her BCN gauge plate but I believe she was built in 1896 and recently I have been told by Richard Booth of the Historic Narrow Boat Club, that she looks like an Eli Aston boat… Hence I started reading about Eileen. Certainly her bow looks very like Eileen’s. She has Harts Hill Iron Co embossed on her knees, does Eileen have that too I wonder?
    I would love to know more about my dear Aspen. Do you have any tips for how I might begin to find out more, without her gauge plate? I am currently on the Grand Union, in the Uxbridge area of London but continuously cruise. It would be lovely to chat if you feel like it. Best wishes, Rachel.


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