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In contrast to many other waterways horses were commonly used on the BCN to work day boats up to the end of commercial carrying in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. In this photograph a rubbish boat is being worked up Farmer’s Bridge Lock No. 4 above Saturday Bridge by Geoff Bennett. The horse calmly draws forward, following a regular routine without the assistance of a boatman. (Photo from Geoff Bennett collection, text drawn from pg. 62 of Birmingham’s Canals by Ray Shill)

In researching the photograph above I was delighted to find an extended essay ‘Ow Things Was’ written by Malcolm ‘Blossom’ Edge, in one chapter he describes his early encounters with the BCN and in this extract his meeting Geoff Bennett and Alan ‘Caggy’ Stevens in the early 1960’s:

In September 1963 […] we went down to Camp Hill locks [to] see Birmingham Corporation Salvage Departments boats. See them we did, or should I say smell them!

At Ocker Hill my friend left and headed home to Leabrook, I however continued on up the Ryder’s Green locks Known to boaters as the graysey ate (‘Greasy Eight’) where I would rejoin the New Main Line at Albion Junction and then back to Tipton.

As I came up from under the Great Bridge Road bridge-hole and looked on up the rest of the flight I could see an empty wooden Joey boat being hauled into the tail of lock number five by a horse. I quickly sped up the flight to catch up and observe closely as the boat was effortlessly locked through the remainder of the locks.

As I drew near I at once recognised the young man who appeared to be doing most of the work opening gates, paddles etc. He was a lad four or five years older than me who lived ‘down the steps’ at the end of our street and came from a very large, well known, Tipton family the ‘Bennetts’– a family not to be messed with!

Geoff Bennett, as I recall, was a very amicable young man, that is if you did everything he said; so when he recognised me and shouted, “Goo on then, dow just stond theer, open the gaytes up.” I jumped to it without question. (I would have done anyway even if I had not wanted to!) As my bike had been commissioned by Jeff so he could set the last of the locks, I was left to walk the rest of the flight which I didn’t really mind as it gave me an opportunity to watch the steerer and the horse work as one.

The second fellow who so far hadn’t moved off the back end of the boat was much older, quite round with a ruddy complexion. He wore a small trilby hat and a light coloured trench style coat. At this point in my life I thought that all horses understood but two words ‘gee up’ to go and ‘woh’ to stop. This chap, it appeared, could converse completely fluently in ‘Horse’ as the animal pulling the boat responded to his every command to start, stop, speedup, or slow down most of which I couldn’t understand apart from ‘gerron’ or ‘hold’.

As the boat entered the lock, the paddles were drawn and the bottom gate slammed shut by moving water. I watched while the horse munched on the sparse yellow grass. The towrope was passed over the top balance beam as the bows nudged the top gate, then two turns were put around the step on the balance beam and a loop poked under them. This held the boat steady while the water rose. As the water levels equalled the steerer called out and the horse began to move forward until all the slack had been taken up, the slip knot freed itself off the step and the horse continued to walk forward until the towrope was taught between the towing mast and horse. At this point the horse stopped walking and just leant on the rope, the boat and gate moved until the horse was leaning well into the line then the steady clop, clop, clop, clop up the towpath in a slightly crablike fashion. I ran on up to the next lock in order to see everything. As the bows entered the tail of the lock the steerer shouted and waved his arm signalling, “Gerrout the rowd!” I didn’t know why but without question I moved away and stood clear. As the boat entered the lock the horse eased off and Jeff lifted the tow line and flicked it effortlessly over the open bottom gate and paddles, So as not to get tangled, and said “e cussed yow ‘cause yow was in the rowd, yow gorra keep out the way.”

I felt guilty for not knowing. As the boat rose in the lock the steerer called me over and told me to get onboard “as yow’ll be safer” I agreed and jumped aboard. Again he spoke, “Dow ever get between the ‘oss an’ the cut, the line ul av yow in.” we continued up the remaining four locks with me asking most of the questions and this fellow explaining his preference to horses. He also asked me how I knew Jeff so I told him that I lived near to him to which he replied, “Oh ar see yow’m ‘nuther Tip’n chap then”

At the top of the flight my bike was handed back with a, “I’ll borrow that again aer kid.” And so I got off and bade my farewell to Jeff, then as the tow rope tightened and the boat lurched off at a right old rate the steerer turned back and said, “See ya again ‘Tip’n and remember—Beware of the red faced mon.” I was later to find out that this was the first of many meetings with Alan Stevens known locally as ‘Caggy’.

I hope Malcolm Edge will forgive me for quoting this wonderfully described encounter at length.

More posts in the Horse Boating on the BCN series can be accessed by clicking HERE.

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One thought on “Horse Boating on the BCN: Refuse and Salvage

  1. That’s my dad Gordon Thomas holding the rope. I have a picture from a magazine called waterways history August 2005 . It shows same scene but a few frames earlier. My dad worked with Caggy since a schoolboy wagging days off to go off on the canals .Also my uncle Geoff is in picture.

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