This is the first installment in a new series of posts about BCN tugs. Other posts in the series list below can be accessed by clicking on the links below:

1.   Introduction (this post)
2.  Tug Portrait: Enterprise No. 1
3.  Tug Portrait: Bittel No. 5
4. Tug Portrait: James Loader
5. Tug Portrait: Judith Anne
6.  Tug  Portrait:  Caggy
. Tug Portrait: Pacific

Introducing BCN Tugs

The long, lock-free Wolverhampton and Birmingham levels of the BCN allowed for the possibility of trains of unpowered day boats being hauled, originally by horses or teams of horses, and later by a single motorised tug. As soon as steam tugs were being used successfully in some of the long tunnels on the Trent & Mersey and the Grand Junction Canals (also on the Coventry Canal for tugging boats in the coal fields) the possibility of powered tugs on the BCN became a reality. However, the move to power was constrained by the costs involved; a steam powered narrow boat was expensive, both  in terms of requiring a larger crew (needed to tend the boiler), and the outlay for the steam plant.

The coming of the internal combustion engine made powered narrow boats a more practical solution, and prior to the First World War a number of motor narrow boats were employed on the BCN, for example from 1912 to provide power haulage through Gosty Hill Tunnel. A specialist tug, designed by ship architects James Pollock & Son, was built for this purpose. (Incidentally Pollocks were also the agent for the Swedish Bolinder Company. Bolinder supplied semi diesel engines (other wise known as Hot Bulb) and the design, prepared for the BCN, included a Bolinder engine.)

However, the real impetus for the introduction of powered tugs on the BCN was the First World War. There was a national shortage of horses and labour, and at the same time a large increase in manufacturing.

Early innovators, such as W.H. Bowater & Co., were responding to the fact that by the early 20th Century coal production had moved from the traditional areas of the Black Country to the Cannock Coalfield, and therefore enabled the company to experiment in using tugs to haul trains of day boats along the Wolverhampton level, which served the Cannock Coalfield, to Walsall and Wolverhampton and as far as Tipton, Oldbury and Smethwick.

The experiment was obviously deemed a success as other companies quickly followed suit, Chance & Hunt the Oldbury chemical makers for example, had two tugs supplied during and just after the war.

As well as new tugs being built by local boatyards such as W.Harris of Netherton, and Worsey’s of Walsall; many tugs were fabricated from existing long distance narrowboats cut down in length to suit. A good number of ex FMC boats became tugs; both motor and butty conversions. Also, some ex GUCC boats were also converted by W.Harris for Stewarts & Lloyds of Coombeswood, Halesowen.

Economically, tugs made increasing sense, in that 4 or 5 loaded boats could be pulled at a time, and even more empty boats hauled back to the coalfields.

The essential features of the BCN tug were; approximately 50ft in length; a tug deck in front of the cabin; large cabin for the engine and crew daytime accommodation; a large counter with two substantial towing studs; deep draughted to swing a large propeller; and very little decoration or polished brass. Tugs were of both wooden and iron construction.

Despite these common features, which evolved as tugs were fine-tuned to be efficient and fit-for-purpose workhorses, no single standard design for tugs developed. Hauliers utilised whatever spare boat was available, shortening some boats or just adapting others. Some companies, drawing on the experience of earlier converted boats, did built boats for their own needs with each boat perhaps loosely resembling others in the company fleet, but none of these boats, when compared to each other or with other companies boats, could be said to fit a formula that could be classified a standard design.

Some tugs had a livery that stated the company name, but many were painted in whatever spare paint was laying around in the yard, and the paint work on these craft was never as cherished or as decorative as many of the long distance family boats on the Midlands canals. In fact few tugs had the facilities for living aboard, at best the day accommodation would consist of side benches and stove, somewhere for the steerer and mate to shelter whilst awaiting loads.

In the inter war years the main use for tugs was servicing the electricity generating stations at Wolverhampton and Walsall. Firms such as Leonard Leigh, Ernest Thomas and Yates Brothers were involved in this trade until the final days of commercial traffic on the BCN when the power stations finally ceased taking coal by boat in the 1960’s.


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