In trying to clarify the early life of a day boat one of the most valuable sources are the Birmingham Canal Navigation Gauging Tables or Registers. There are a number of transcriptions of the registers in existence, either held in public collections such as the Waterways Archive at Ellesmere Port, or created by diligent independent researchers, experts in the history of the BCN.

In the last couple of weeks the Canal World’s History & Heritage forum pages have enabled me to contact a number of ackowledged experts in BCN matters and they have generously provided a number of tantalising pieces of new information about the early years of BCN 18686’s existence.

The information has enabled me to change the text of ‘The Story of a Boat’  from:

“I’ve so far been unable to confirm the suggestion that the boat was originally built for one 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.”

to the much more detailed:

The boat was originally built for one Benjamin Pearson. 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, he’s residing at 50 Sedgley Road, Tipton, the household having a servant, and Pearson is by then describing himself as a Mineral Merchant.

The transcript of the Birmingham Canal Navigation Gauging Tables held in the Waterways Archives now at Ellesmere Port states that BCN 18686 had only one operator Alfred Hickman of Spring Vale. However, further research shows that this was not actually the case.

It’s been suggested that an explanation for the inaccuracy in the register held at Ellesmere Port may be because their copy is in fact itself a transcription of an earlier copy (these registers were in very heavy use and when worn out would be copied). When copied often only the current operator would be listed in the ‘new’ register and previous operators would be left off as they were seen to be no longer relevant, therefore giving a misleading impression that there had only been one operator.

However, in all three versions of the Gauging Tables transcribed by Pete Harrison, who generously provided the following information; the plate BCN 18686 is shown to have been issued on 13 July 1903 to Benjamin Pearson, Tipton with both the BCN Company (hiring the boat from Benjamin Pearson) and Alfred Hickman Ltd. being listed as subsequent operators.

It was a common practice to hire boats on the BCN. The gauge table does not say how long Benjamin Pearson hired his boat to the BCN Company.

BCN Company gauge records suggest that BCN 18686 was the only boat that Pearson hired to the company.

Pete Harrison adds that these records are a little unreliable given that, for example, they suggest that the BCN Company only ever hired 8 boats in total, which is hard to believe.

BCN 18686 is also recorded as being re-weighed at Tipton on 17 March 1927 for Alfred Hickman Ltd., Spring Vale where its fleet number was 105. This table was not altered or amended after its transfer to Alfred Hickman Ltd. in 1927.

The re-weighing in 1927 would have been prompted by a structural change to the boat rather than a change of ownership.

The actual table used during the re-weighing gives the following dimensions and telling details:

Length: 71’3”
Beam: 7’1½” (18686 had ‘spread an inch’ since gauging in 1903)
Stowage length:   63’0”
Open iron (i.e. no cabin)
4 beams

The only real difference from the original 1903 gauging is that it listed 18686 as having 5 beams.

Beams were the fixed (iron/wooden?) cross members that sat across the hold and, in holding the side together, prevented flaring-out or spreading whilst the boat was in use and under a load.

Despite this photo not showing Hickman boats, but rather day boats in Noah Hingley’s fleet what it does show are boats with both 3 beams and 5 beams. The number of beams clearly depending upon the most regular work a particular day boat was undertaking eg. coal carrying, or the carrying of pig-iron or steel tubes… (Photo: Black Country Living Museum, text based on pg. 98 Black Country Canals by Paul Collins)

It is possible that the 1927 re-gauging was prompted by the removal of a beam to facilitate loading and unloading of, for example steel tubes, and that this marks a change of use, and potentially the change of ownership from Pearson to Hickman. However, Hickman’s could have owned the boat for some time in its unaltered 5 beam form and it would not therefore have required re-gauging until the change was made.

The longevity of iron day boats, and the flexibility and utility of the design, make it likely that minor variations occurred to virtually every boat over time.

In addition, the Gauging Tables have no reference to BCN 18686 ever being directly attached to Stewarts & Lloyds Ltd. fleet or being given an S&L number, following the company’s take-over of A. Hickman Ltd., despite several BCN Company gauge tables latterly referring to A. Hickman as being a ‘branch of Stewarts & Lloyds Ltd’.”

Next Steps

Well it’s been a really rewarding fortnight, with lots of fascinating new information coming to light, not least the confirmation of Benjamin Pearson’s ownership of the boat in 1903, it’s subsequent leasing out to the BCN Company and later sale to Alfred Hickman Ltd. (already a subsidiary of Stewart & Lloyds) and confirmation of her Hickman fleet number as 105.

In the next phase of my journey I want to:

  • find out more about Alfred Hickman and the Spring Vale works
  • seek to source any photos of the Spring Vale site
  • take a look at the impact of the company becoming a subsidiary of Stewart & Lloyds in 1920 (much earlier than I’d previously realised)
  • find out more about the Iron Boat Dock run by Eli Aston

Also, following this message from Lawrence Hogg:

Hickmans had their own dock at Spring Vale, the slips are just about discernable after the first bridge after the site of Bantocks travelling south on the main line. Alfred Hickman had no emblem as far as I know and most of the boats were ugly basic cabinless Joey’s full of dents and character.

I’d like to source further images of Hickman boats and particularly Hickman Dock.

Lawrence also shared the fact that a book Stewarts & Lloyds 1903-1953 exists, a copy of which I’ve just sourced a copy on Amazon. Perhaps it’ll provide further clues as to the fate of the Hickman/S&L day boat fleet after WW2?


One thought on “The Story of Eileen: ‘BCN Gauging’

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