The following post will probably make more sense if you read a brief history of a boat called Eileen.
A iron narrow boat was commissioned at the turn of the 20th century by a Midland mineral merchant called Benjamin Pearson. She was built by Eli Aston of Iron Boat Wharf, Tipton Birmingham in 1903 and went on loan to the Birmingham Canal Navigation Company before entering service, first as a lease boat, in the Alfred Hickman fleet based at the Staffordshire Steel & Iron Ingot Works at Spring Vale, Beeston. After several decades as an unpowered ‘open’ day boat ferrying raw materials (coal, iron ore, slag) and finished products (iron ingots & pipes) this most basic of iron working boats was decommissioned and sold on. At this point there’s an enigmatic gap in the story and nothing is known of the boat’s whereabouts until the late 1960’s when she was sold on by ‘Steve the Lollipop Man’ of Skipton to Sidney Merrell of Beeston Castle Cruisers on the Shropshire Union Canal. During the period since decommissioning from the Hickman fleet the boat had been shortened from 71′ to 60′ and the stern remodelled to receive a motor and propeller. In the late 1960’s she was bought from Sidney Merrell by Mick & Judy Vedmore who christened her Eileen after Judy’s mum. The couple completed the motorising and fitted the first of several wooden cabins. After periods in Manchester and Leeds Eileen finally ended up at the cross-roads of the canal system at Braunston, Northamptonshire. The Vedmores lived aboard and traded from the boat for nearly a decade before selling her, in 1978, to an Australian couple who commissioned a full wooden cabin conversion over the hold. Whatever grand plans they had for the boat seemingly never materialised and she was soon sold on into the ownership of actor Peter Pepperell and used as a residential boat moored on the River Thames. By the late 1980’s she had been sold several further times, she’d her engine removed and, after a catastrophic fire, sold for scrap value to Jim & Mig MacDonald who did a miraculous job rebuilding the boat as a working motor boat in the early 1990’s. They sold her in 2007 to Lesa Valentine who commissioned the steel hold conversion she carries today. Lesa sold Eileen on to us in 2011.
Failing to ‘navigate’ Eileen
…but what shall I be called am I the first have I an owner what shape am I what shape am I am I huge if I go to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me for the moment if I sit still how everything stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre but there’s all this what is it roots roots roots roots and here’s the water again very queer but I’ll go on looking.
From Wodwo by Ted Hughes from the Selected Poems 1957-67 published by Faber Paperbacks ISBN 0 571 08926 7
I’ve been trying to reach the centre of Eileen since we bought her. The linear history of her existence has slowly come together. But I wanted to navigate beyond the known narrative towards an understanding of the pervading spirit of the boat – and that’s a more slippery process than accumulating the historic record. It’s about getting to know her stories through their relationship to time, people and place and that process is having an impact on re-knowing and re-writing my own stories (memories) too.
It’s proved a daunting challenge to navigate Eileen without a map.
However, even the dead-ends and the dud posts have had a certain value as they’ve forced me to take stock, to look around, to turn around and, in retracing my steps, hopefully learn a little from my mistakes.
I know now that it’s time to take a different, more personal tack, and in doing so I feel I’ll find a new route to follow on my journey around Eileen.
Part of the reason for my previous sense of failure is that whilst I found ‘raw’ historical information in the form of images, publications and maps; I didn’t find any sense of ownership of the materials and as a result I felt unclear about the story I was trying to tell. Was it industrial research pure and simple? Was it biography? Social history? Psychology?
I was in a maze, and hesitating, unwilling to strike out on my own way for fear of getting lost.
How can I navigate?
Well, I have a bit of a plan – I’ll go on looking.