In trying to uncover (or navigate) the lost history of our old Birmingham Canal Navigation iron day boat Eileen it’s been necessary at times to rely on creative leaps of imagination to help bridge the current gaps in my knowledge.

For some time I’ve been thinking about the yard where she was built by Eli Aston around 1903. Contemporaneous maps provide a tantalising blank canvas. The yard seems to have been little more than a huddle of sheds on flat land adjacent to the canal.

I’ve been considerably helped in my imaginings by the very real, and very wonderful, Castle Fields Boat Dock at the Black Country Living Museum, which is located just a few miles from where the Iron Boat Dock, Tipton would once have been.

In a previous post (HERE) I’d only had the opportunity to glimpse across the canal at the site, recently I was able to get a little closer, and this is what I found…

I’m a sucker for a simple bit of sans serif… a sign of beauty!
To my mind the juxtaposition of painted decoration, weathered timber and the iron boats oozes authenticity, and comes about as close as I’m likely to get to looking at Eli Aston’s wharf…
It’s an odd thing to say I know, but this yard is my kind of paradise. If I were a lottery winner I’d think in terms of a wharf, a yard, old boats, a hearth for metal working, a shed on rollers under which to spend my days restoring and painting up boats – dreamland!
Stour is an all-wooden motor narrow boat powered by a Bolinder 15 h. p. diesel engine. It was built as a tar tanker in 1937 by Fellows Morton and Clayton at their Uxbridge dockyard for fuel oil carriers Thomas Clayton Ltd of Oldbury. The hull has oak planked sides, elm bottoms and pine deck with a fully fitted traditional boatman’s cabin. She was one of a large fleet of all wooden boats used by that Company for liquid cargo carrying, the main hold area being fully decked over. When new it would have carried refined fuels such as gas oil for powering machinery but as it got older it was used for carrying heavier lubricating oil from the fuel distribution plants on the Manchester Ship Canal. She’s now owned by the Black Country Living Museum, and is based here.
I imagine a working yard would have been like this, a treasure trove of useful odds and ends, the grind stone, the chains, the ash used to dry out the walkways, all against a background of heavy industry, of chimneys, wharves and stores.
Looking into the moveable shed. These open sheds on wheels and rails would have provided boat builders and painters with a degree of cover/protection when working on sections of a boat.
A line of elum (or wooden helm) taken from different narrow boats including day boats. Historically if steerers were changing from one day boat to another they could unhitch their wooden elum and transfer it to the next boat. This collection, leaning against the side of one of the yard’s sheds, seems to include the lighter-built BCN elums and more substantial elums from long-distance butty boats.
Soak up that atmosphere.
The main shed block constructed from a combination of eponymous red brick, corrugated iron and fantastically weather timbers, I’m guessing but sense that the timbers were recycled from the bottom planks of scrapped wooden narrow boats…
An imagined interior, the forge hearth would have been an essential part of Iron Boat Wharf… “Vital to a boat dock was the blacksmith’s forge where knees were shaped, stem bars forged, beam bars and corner plates cut, along with clip plates and shoeing plates to protect bottoms. Helm pintles and gudgeons, tee studs, stove pipes all came from the blacksmith…” Commentary from Drawing 7. in ‘A Boat Builders Sketchbook’ by Ken Keays
A rusting sign from Alfred Matty’s yard, were the buildings saved from that site?
More details of the weathered timbers…
The paint shop? Brushes cleaned against the timber doors?

You can read previous posts on this subject HERE.

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2 thoughts on “The Story of Eileen: The ‘Imagined’ Yard

  1. Hi Amy, thanks for that nugget of information. Castle Fields Yard is a wonderful place. ps. Lovely to be able to follow your summer journey, very envious at you being able to spend so long boating,
    Best wishes Nick


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