The article below is an abridged version of a fuller illustrated history of Eileen I’m working on as time allows. The was to share the main leads so far, and perhaps encourage others to share new leads.

A Mongrel Amongst the Thoroughbreds?

The information included in this article is very much a work in progress, my intention in putting it into the public domain is to hopefully prompt your response and be able to draw on the huge collective knowledge within the HNBC membership. I really hope you’ll help to fill in the gaps and add to what I believe to be a  fascinating and evolving story of survival.

The principle routes of the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN), extending on three levels, connected not only to the rest of the canal network, but also, vitally to innumerable colliery and factory arms across a relatively small geographical area, as a result there developed a uniquely intense system of waterways with its own unique working practices. It was here that the slab-sided open ‘day’ boats, often with a straight stem and stern, strongly built but with a minimum of fancy frills, developed and flourished until the 1950’s.

Day-boats were wooden, and later iron, workhorses, they could be double-ended (so that the rudder could be hung on either end to avoid the need to turn them around) or single-ended ie. similar in shape and measurement to their long distance cabin boat cousins found on the rest of the network. However, the method of working the boats on the BCN was markedly different than that of the long-distance boats and they were treated very differently as a result.

Day boats were just that, they were not lived on, as a result there was less personal involvement with any one boat as the boatman-steerer, or steerer and mate, would transfer from boat to boat, often on a daily basis. Distances travelled were relatively short, and most journeys would be completed in a day, so that crews could generally spend most nights back at home. If there were cabins on these boats they tended to be small and sparsely furnished box cabins and not designed to be lived in. Day boats were fantastically important to the canal industry of the Midlands, however despite them being one of the most successful, and certainly most numerous, class of boats ever found on the inland waterways, only a tiny proportion of the thousands that were still at work around the BCN in the 1950s now exist at all.

I should be clear from the outset what our intentions are forBCN18686, as they may not meet with the full approval of some purists. What we’re planning to do is empathically and unapologetically not a restoration project, after all full restoration would involve stripping out the engine, ripping off much of the steelwork above the gunnels and purchasing a tug or a horse! No, what we envisage is much more a renovation project based on as detailed an understanding of her history and use(s) as possible. A renovation that will peel back the layers. Our aim is to celebrate her fascinating and tantalising story, as it’s a story that mirrors many of the profound developments that have taken place on the inland waterways over the last century, and to ensure that the boat survives.

Above all else we’re aiming to create a family boat, one that’s respectful to tradition but not in an inflexible or dogmatic way.

18686 has had what might be charitably called a mongrel existence, and that probably explains her longevity. Whilst the majority of iron day boats had a modest, hard working life around the collieries and foundries of the BCN, and then were unceremoniously cut up; a few, like 18686, enjoyed new leases of life, and were used over the decades by a number of owners, for a variety of purposes.

In 18686’s case she evolved from horse drawn single-ended cabin boat to converted motor in the 1960’s; from converted motor to camping boat, to a base for Canalware Supplies in the 1970’s;  to a powered, then unpowered houseboat in the 1980’s; to a working motor in the 1990’s and finally to a pleasure boat as she entered the 21st century.

18686 was accepted as a vessel meriting inclusion on the National Register of Historic Vessels in 2012. This is her known history to date.

The makers plate shows the boat was built by Eli Aston of 50, Waterloo Street, Tipton, at some point before 1903. The 1911 census states that Aston was trading as an Iron Canal Boatbuilder. He would have been in his early fifties when 18686 was built. The census also records that working in the company were his son Isaiah Aston then in his thirties, as a Canal Boat Riveter and a younger son, Eli Aston 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.

I’ve so far been unable to confirm that the boat was originally built for a Benjamin Pearson. However, what is known is that Pearson was born in 1853 in Brierley Hill and, according to the 1891 Census, lived at 15 Dudley Road, where his occupation was recorded as Canal Carrier. This is again confirmed in the 1901 Census, though interestingly, by the 1911 census, the family are found residing at 50 Sedgley Road, Tipton, the household having a servant and Pearson is by then describing himself as a Mineral Merchant.

It’s unlikely that 18686 was owned by Pearson for long as, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the boat doesn’t seem to have been registered by him. The first known registration on 13th July1903 was by Alfred Hickman of Bilston, where it’s believed that the boat carried No.105 in their fleet. Can anyone confirm this or know the livery of the Hickman fleet?

The BCN gauging register entry reads:

Gauge No.: 18686
Gauge Book Origin: BCN
Registration Date: 13.07.1903
Name of Vessel: none
Owner Name: Hickman
Owner First Name: A
Owner Residence: Spring Vale
Length: 70-0
Beam: 7-1/2

The BCN gauging plate can be found below the gunwales on the port side at the stern of the boat. 18686 was engaged in and around Bilston Steel Works, at Spring Vale, Bilston for the next 40 years.


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.

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.

And this is the point where the 18686 trail goes cold.

What is known is that the boat was sold by Stewart and Lloyds and, at some point, perhaps in the late 1950s she was shortened to 62ft and the stern swim cut away below the waterline to accommodate a conventional motor boat propulsion system. It has been suggested, by former owner Jim MacDonald, that the shortening and motorising were done on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, however I’ve been unable to find any documentary evidence of this so far. Jim has confirmed that he first saw her on the Buckby Flight in 1967, at that time she had a Fowler 16HP 2cylinder engine.

Things become a little clearer again in the late 1960’s when 18686 was bought by Mick and Judy Vedmore and christened ‘Eileen’ after Judy’s mother who’d lent them £300 to buy her, as seen on blocks, at Beeston Castle Cruisers.

(It’s amazing what ‘nuggets’ the internet can throw up, just as I was finalising this article an internet search on ‘Beeston Castle Cruisers’ delivered a new line of enquiry, an e-book by Cyril J Wood, ‘Canalscape Book 1. 1960-1982’ [http://www.canalscape.net/Book%201/Canalscape%20Book%201.htm#Chapter 7 – Beeston Days] contains the following quote:

[…] Sidney did build other boats… the “Seagull” was one of them but was sold after a few years in the hire fleet. On one occasion, he bought a sixty foot Leeds and Liverpool “Ice Boat” hull and brought it back from Skipton on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, powered by a “Seagull Century” outboard motor. He planned to fit an engine, counter stern and cabin and add it to the rest of his fleet. Unfortunately, the conversion never took place and the hull ended up being sold to a private buyer.

Judy Vedmore has stated that 18686/Eileen had been used as an ice breaker, could the ‘Ice Boat’ mentioned by Cyril J Wood be her? Could she have been cut down and used as an inexpensive supplement or replacement for one of the original wooden, v-section purpose-built ice boats?)

Judy goes on to recall, “Being 62′ and tough, we travelled absolutely everywhere, summer and winter and in ice. We earned our living by her as ‘Canalware Supplies. We took her everywhere on the system and on rivers, trading.”

A marine ply cabin and fitting out was completed whilst moored at Armley, Leeds. Judy remembers it was, “…under the arches by a scrap yard with a guard dog called Sabre Tooth, and above the lock.”

Judy also confirmed that, “…Ted Ward of Willow Wren, Braunston, ex. boatman and fitter, fitted the Lister HA2 engine and a weed hatch which was the envy of all…”

In the early 1970’s Mick Vedmore re-built a more substantial cabin in planked wood, sealed and covered in a thin layer of fiberglass, whilst the boat and their ‘Canalware Supplies’ business was, “…based up by Taylors Boatyard Tower Wharf, Chester. There we shared the wharf house buildings with Jim Marshall’s ‘Chester Packet’ horse-drawn butty ‘Beetleguese’, pulled by Snowy the horse.

Judy also recalls that from1971 onwards, “… our two eldest children were brought up on her and one was born whilst on her; although the first was born going down Stoke Bruerne whilst we were [working] on m/b Bainton & b/b Axe. We moved back on to her [Eileen] after about a year or so.”

Also at this time, Iris Hewett of Union Canal Carriers confirms ,18686/Eileen, though still owned by the Vedmores, was available for hire on the books of the company.

It’s here, again that the story goes cold…

…until an intriguing find in the boat’s log brought the story back to life, in one margin are the words ‘Day-Star?’. The note prompted me to e-mail 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:

Basically before Day-Star Theatre set off to find fame and fortune as full time performers in 1981 we did some pilot shows in the late 70s with a bigger cast of performers, more for the fun of it than anything. From 1977 Jane and I lived on nb. Day-Star the boat on the Thames in Surrey. One of the other performers was Paul Pepperell who lived on nb. 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 Festivaltook 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…

It was the heady mix of applause and beer and the fact that we were fed up with ‘proper jobs’ that spurred myself and Jane to take off the following year and go full time as performers.

Having not seen Paul for years we did actually meet up last year. He still lives in Chertsey but on dry land.

Paul had bought Eileen from an Australian, who I am pretty sure was moving back to Australia, between Kiddlington and Thrupp. I was there when he first fell in love with her and handed over the cash.

At the time we knew her she [Eileen] had a full wooden cabin and Lister HA2 engine

Sadly, within 10 years, and having had the engine removed, 18686/Eileen had become a neglected, static houseboat in a chronic state of repair, on the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union at Highline, Greenford.

In Winter 1988 she burst into flames and was completely burnt out from stem to stern, with serious distortion occurring to the hull.

In 1989 she was bought from a K. Tomlinson, via the surveyor Douglas Cormack, as an insurance right-off by Jim & Mig MacDonald. Eileen/18686 is described as an ‘engineless hull’ on the Bill of Sale in my possession, 18686/Eileen had travelled full circle, back to the engineless state that defined her first 60+ years!

The boat was towed from Greenford to Cassio Wharf with the Jim’s nb. Elizabeth and over the winter of 1989-90 the hull was stripped out, stern deck fabricated and engine installed, an early BMC 2.2, rebuilt by Pete Thompson.

In Summer of 1990, the 18686/Eileen was towed behind nb. Elizabeth from Cassio Wharf, Watford to Warwickshire Flyboat Co. Ltd. at Stockton where the hull distortion was straightened out, and a 16′ cabin, gunwales and foredeck added. 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.

In keeping with the evolving character of the boat the cabin did not attempt to replicate a typical day-boat box cabin but is closer to a traditional back cabin fit-out with ticket drawer, range, table cupboard, side bed and bed hole etc. The remainder of the fit-out work was completed on the cabin by the Autumn of 1992. 18686/Eileen had been transformed once more, from a burnt-out hull to a fully motorised ‘motor’ with cabin, fore deck and open hold, in just over two years.

Between Autumn 1992-95, under Jim’s ownership, she began a period of extensive cruising. And then lay idle for long periods, until Winter 2005 when, according to the log 18686/Eileen went ‘English boating for the Winter’.

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.

In 2007Jim sold 18686/Eileen to a L.Vallantine who later added a riveted steel ‘long cabin’ over the former open hold to create the current main accommodation space. We bought her in October 2011.

The renovation of 18686/Eileen continues, informed by the evolving research into her history. I believe it was fascinating story of  a mongrel existence, perhaps not as glamorous as the Midland motors, but still exemplifying the flexibility of a class of boats sometimes dismissed as ‘little more that floating skips…’.

If you have any further information or suggested avenues for further enquiry, I’d love to hear from you. In particular we’re interested in the period from the 50’s to the 80’s as information in these decades is scarcest. Also if you have any photographs in your collection relating either to 18686/Eileen or the environment in which she worked I’d love to have an opportunity to copy them, every care would be taken to protect any original source material.

Nick Holt 

I can be contacted at: nickholt@live.com   or you can follow the renovation and journey of 18686/Eileen at: https://inlanding.wordpress.com

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