This week’s post brings you a further update on the period when 18686 travelled hundreds of miles across the Northern canals, and around her 65th birthday was converted to a working motor for the first time. New information came to light following an e-mail exchange with Mick Vedmore, the new additions are highlighted in RED.
The late 1960’s: from open iron day boat to working motor
It’s likely that 18686 remained part of the Hickman/Stewarts & Lloyds fleet of day boats, working in and around the Spring Vale/Bilston site, until being sold on, at some as yet unknown date.
It has been suggested, by former owner Jim MacDonald, that after being sold the shortening and remodelling of the stern in preparation for the motorising of 18686 were done on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. Whilst this hasn’t yet been confirmed, Tom Merrall has been able to confirm that his parents Sidney & Marion Merrall, operating Beeston Castle Cruisers from Beeston Wharf (on the Shropshire Union Canal) bought the hull from ‘Steve’ a lollypop man in Skipton, on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, in about 1966 and towed it back to Beeston using their shortened Cowburn & Cowpar motor ‘Starling’ (incidentally ‘Starling’ has since been restored to full length and is again to be seen operating in the C&C livery, see below). Tom believes that ‘Steve’ was a friend of relations of his parents who lived in Skipton. How a lowly BCN open day boat ended up 100+ miles from the Black Country in the ownership of a Skipton lollypop man is a mystery yet to be solved?!?
Tom recalls that the hull of 18686 was in poor condition, and copious amounts of clay had to be used on the long journey back to Beeston Wharf to prevent her becoming overwhelmed by incoming water and sinking.
Sidney Merrall went on to renew the bottom and about 12ft of the footings which were badly rotted.
For reasons not immediately apparent, given that the hull is quite conventional, Sidney Merrall often referred to the day boat as the ice boat.
Within a couple of years of being towed to Beeston Wharf 18686, by then standing on blocks at the wharf, was purchased 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.
Mick Vedmore has confirmed that when they bought 18686 it was a 62’ hull, the stern had been altered to accept and engine and that the engine bearers were already fitted, Judy added that whilst at Beeston she and Mick would travel from Leeds where they were Art students by train, bus and on foot, to work on the boat. Sidney Merrall helped them to fabricate the shell of a basic cabin and fitted the Fowler also bought from him.
They finally returned to Leeds with the newly motorised 18686/Eileen, who for the first time in her 65 year history moved under her own power. Mooring above River Lock at Armley further work was done to the boat to complete Eileen’s first, marine ply cabin. Judy recalls it was, “…under the arches by a scrap yard with a guard dog called Sabre Tooth…”
Mick went on to say that following completion of the cabin Eileen was moved to Timperley, north east of Altringham, on the Bridgewater Canal where he lived on the boat for a year whilst undertaking a PostGrad Course at Manchester College of Art. Interestingly, given that the engine had been originally fixed to engine bearers close to the stern of the boat, the living cabin was constructed forward of the engine in a similar way to a Severner motor.
Following completion of the course the Vedmores moved with Eileen to bottom lock at Braunston where they would later work a pair of Union Canal Carriers Ltd boats.
(Janusz Rockiki, a refugee, had fled to London following the the nazi occupation of Poland where he met and married Ruth. They developed a passion for the waterways and bought ‘Bexhill’ in 1964. Bexhill, a large Woolwich motor had been built by Harland & Woolff in 1936 for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Co (GUCCCo), and given fleet No. 116.
In 1967 Janusz and Ruth Rockiki went on to form Foxton Boat Services and in 1970, became partners with Robin Hewitt who’d established Union Canal Carriers at Braunston Bottom Lock in 1964.)
During the next four years whilst Mick and Judy skippered an number of UCC pairs including former ‘River’ Class ‘blue top’ butties Ant & Exe (Ant having been motorised) as camping boats, Eileen didn’t stand idle. At busy periods UCC would sub-contract surplus camping boat bookings to private boats, and Eileen, fitted out as a rudimentary camping boat, would then be skippered by Geoff Mason (latterly proprietor of The English Bookshop, Gent, Belgium), who’d go on to skipper Bexhill & Brighton. Iris Hewett of Union Canal Carriers has confirmed that Eileen, owned by the Vedmores, was available for hire on the books of the company in the early 1970’s.
At some, as yet unconfirmed, date ex. boatman and fitter Ted Ward, of Willow Wren, Braunston, replaced Eileen’s Fowler engine with a Lister HA2.
Alongside skippering Judy supplemented their income through selling hand painted canalware from a tinsmiths handcart on the towpath or from Eileen. It was the start of their Canalware Supplies business. Judy had learned tin-smithing in Leeds and one of her early attempts at a three gallon fully painted water can was for Eileen. She recalls getting the pattern wrong and making the Can too tall. [If it’s out there I’d love to find it!]. Later she would contract tinsmithers Meridian Pattern Makers, Birmingham to set up, using patterns they supplied, to make traditional Cans and hand bowls with rolled seams.
“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.”
By the mid-1970’s Mick and Judy took Eileen and their fledgling Canalware Supplies business north and were based by Taylors Boatyard Tower Wharf, Chester, where they shared the wharf buildings with Jim Marshall’s ‘Chester Packet’ horse-drawn butty ‘Beetleguese’, pulled by Snowy the horse. Between 1971 and 1978 the Eileen was home to their growing family, indeed one of their children was born on the boat.
The Vedmores returned to Bottom Lock Braunston in May 1978 they moved into Bottom Lock Cottage and set up shop in the old Willow Wren stores (now Wharf House Chandlery) where they traded in Judy’s painted ware and a burgeoning market for canal antiques, brassware, Measham pottery, prints and books.
In June 1978 Eileen, still a working motor, was sold to an Australian who planned to travel the system before returning to Australia. Mick believes that the name of the boat was for a short time changed to Isis however numerous enquiries of ‘Isn’t that the old Eileen?’ persuaded the Australian to revert to the original name!
In 1981, after some energetic dredging by BW the canal bank at bottom lock collapsed, taking a corner of the shop with it.
And that’s where this part of the story ends… for now.
(My thanks to Cyril Wood, Tom Merrall, Mick Vedmore and Judy Baker, who’ve so generously given their time to share their memories of Eileen/18686 in the late 1960’s, vital pieces of her mid-period history are falling into place.)