Old Boat, Inland: The Story of Eileen

Eileen waiting to enter Broadmoor Lock on the South Oxford Canal, early Summer 2012. (Photo by Nick Holt)

The information included here is still very much a work in progress it’s a first draft based on the information I’ve so far been able to gather on the ‘day’ boat Eileen.

My intention in putting the information into the public domain is to (hopefully) prompt a response from readers more knowledgeable than me. I really hope that someone out there will be able to fill in the gaps and add to what I believe to be a fascinating and evolving story of survival.


The principle routes of the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN), extending on three levels, connected not only to the rest of the canal network, but also, vitally to innumerable colliery and factory arms across a relatively small geographical area, as a result there developed a uniquely intense system of waterways with its own unique working practices. It was here that the slab-sided open ‘day’ boats, often with a straight stem and stern, strongly built but with a minimum of fancy frills, developed and flourished until the 1950’s.

Day-boats were wooden, and later iron, workhorses, they could be double-ended (so that the rudder could be hung on either end to avoid the need to turn them around) or single-ended ie. similar in shape and measurement to their long distance cabin boat cousins found on the rest of the network. However, the method of working the boats on the BCN was markedly different than that of the long-distance boats and they were treated very differently as a result.

Day boats were just that, they were not lived on, as a result there was less personal involvement with any one boat as the boatman-steerer, or steerer and mate, would transfer from boat to boat, often on a daily basis.

Distances travelled were relatively short, and most journeys would be completed in a day, so that crews could generally spend most nights back at home. If there were cabins on these boats they tended to be small and sparsely furnished box cabins and not designed to be lived in.

Day boats were fantastically important to the canal industry of the Midlands, however despite them being one of the most successful, and certainly most numerous, class of boats ever found on the inland waterways, only a tiny proportion of the thousands that were still at work around the BCN in the 1950s now exist at all.

Restoration or Renovation?

I should make clear from the outset what our intentions are for Eilenn / BCN18686, as they may not meet with the full approval of some purists.

What we’re planning to do is empathically and unapologetically not a restoration project, after all full restoration would involve stripping out the engine, ripping off much of the steelwork above the gunnels and purchasing a tug or a horse! No, what we envisage is much more a renovation project based on as detailed an understanding of her history and use(s) as possible. A renovation that will peel back the layers. Our aim is to celebrate her fascinating and tantalising story, as it’s a story that mirrors many of the profound developments that have taken place on the inland waterways over the last century, and to ensure that the boat survives.

Above all else we’re aiming to create a family boat, one that’s respectful to tradition but not in an inflexible or dogmatic way.

BCN 18686 – a mongrel amongst thoroughbreds?

18686 has had what might be charitably called a mongrel existence, and that, what might be called utilitarian flexibility probably explains her longevity. Whilst the majority of iron day boats had a modest, hard working life around the collieries and foundries of the BCN, and then were unceremoniously cut up; a few, like 18686, enjoyed new leases of life, and were used over the decades by a number of owners, for a variety of purposes.

In 18686’s case she evolved from horse drawn single-ended cabin boat to converted motor in the 1960’s; from converted motor to camping boat, to a base for Canalware Supplies in the 1970’s;  to a powered, then unpowered houseboat in the 1980’s; to a working motor in the 1990’s and finally to a pleasure boat as she entered the 21st century.

Eileen being moved from Great Haywood Marina for South Oxford Canal, Easter 2012 (Photo by Nick Holt)

18686 was accepted as a vessel meriting inclusion on the National Register of Historic Vessels in 2012.

This is her known story to date.

Her story begins on the Toll End Communication Canal, at the side of which BCN 18686 was constructed. Toll End Communication Canal came into being slowly, and was the result of patchwork development over a number of years.


The canal began in the west with the short Tipton Green Branch, completed around 1805, which branched eastwards off what’s now called the Old Main Line and in its short quarter mile length dropped through 3 locks terminating near today’s New Main Line adjacent to Watery Lane Junction.

In 1806 the Tipton Green Branch was extended north easterly for about a mile descending a further four narrow locks.

Meanwhile, rising towards it from the east was the Toll End Branch. It had been authorised by Act of Parliament as early as 1783 to provide access from the Broadwaters Canal (now part of the Walsall Canal) to a proposed new coal mine. It wasn’t completed until 1801.

In 1806 it was decided to extend the Toll End Branch to meet the Tipton Green Branch via two further locks, and in January 1809 the Toll End Communication Canal was completed.

In 1829 Thomas Telford’s New Main Line cut across the Tipton Green Branch, forming Watery Lane Junction, and creating a de facto Tipton Green Locks Branch of three locks and a Toll End Locks Branch of seven locks.


And it’s this end of the branch that’s linked to the history of BCN 18686. The makers plate shows the boat was built by Eli Aston of 50, Waterloo Street, Tipton, at some point before 1903.

Eli Aston original maker’s plate. (Photo by Nick Holt)

The 1911 Census states that Aston was trading as an Iron Canal Boatbuilder. He would have been in his early fifties when 18686 was built. The census also records that working in the company were his son Isaiah Aston then in his thirties, as a Canal Boat Riveter and a younger son, Eli Aston Canal boat Rivet Heater.

Kelly’s Trade Directory of 1912 records Eli Aston iron boat builder, as working in Iron Boat Dock, Alexandra Road, Tipton on the Toll End Communication canal.


A look at the 1904 Ordnance Survey Map shows that a basin once stood close to what is now called Alexandra Road in what was then Workhouse Lane, however I couldn’t prove that this was the location of the Iron Boat Dock until Martin O’Keeffe confirmed that the BCN’s Table of Distances show Aston’s Iron Boat Dock to be situated in a side basin between the top and second lock after the London & North Western Railway bridge on the north side of the canal. He was also able to confirm that the dock was located on the western side of the basin where buildings and hard-standing are shown on the 1904 O.S. map.

Ray Shill added that the Tipton Tithe Survey of 1894-49 shows that the side basin had once extended to Tipton Green Furnaces and was the original link to the Furnace Yard. The line of that extension can just about be made out on the map above. These furnaces loaded ironstone and limestone at an upper level and iron was sent out by boat from this lower level arm onto the Toll End Communication. The making of the Three Furnaces Branch rendered the link to the Yard redundant and it was given over to other uses. Interestingly Ray notes that the Tipton Rate Books list James Fellows (father of Joshua & James Fellows of FMC fame) as being located here in the early days of his involvement in canal carrying, when associated with the iron master, Thomas Bagnall.

The Toll End Communication Canal is long gone, a ghost canal, part of the Lost 60 miles of the Birmingham Canal Navigation. It’s decline typified the fate of many of the minor branches that once served industry in that having suffered from a century or more of declining traffic due to competition first from the railways and then road haulage, the Tipton Green Branch became disused in 1960, and the Toll End Branch in 1966.The locks and canals were infilled in 1976.

With a little imagination, and the help of aerial maps, it’s still possible to resurrect the ghost of the Toll End branch.

From the Watery Lane Junction (a short section of which later became Caggy’s Stevens’ boat yard) the canal passes beneath the railway and across Alexandra Road.

A peek into Caggy’s Yard or Watery Lane Junction as it once was…
yellow caggy end
After Watery Lane Junction the canal dived under the LNWR line. All sign of the first two locks and the basin where Iron Boat Dock was located have been lost to infilling and the later tunneling works prompted by the extension of Alexandra Road across the old basin and beneath the railway.
yellow industrial estate 1
The line of the canal from this point continues eastwards through the industrial area to the north of the railway where stands of trees and the line of warehouses seem to indicate that it followed the southern perimeter and car parks of two industrial estates.
yellow inudtrial estate 2
Once out of the second industrial estate the canal passed across what is now Brooks Meadow where a shallow open drainage ditch marks the likely course. There was a lock along this stretch, and a short coal wharf to the North.
yellow across church lane
Just before Upper Church Lane the canal turned sharply to the right. This was where the Toll End Communication canal, rising through two locks, joined the Tipton Green branch (which had originally continued across Upper Church Lane to Cotterill Farm Colliery). The turn and lock chambers are defined by a stand of trees and rough shrubland.
yellow playing fields
The canal, having turned abruptly right, then veers left and beneath Upper Church Lane (just north of a zebra crossing shown on Google Maps) and continues along the back of the Tipton Community Fire Station.
yellow Tipton Cemetery
It then crosses what is now a playing field and skirts the top of the Tipton Cemetery where there was a lock.
yellow industrial estate sweeping road
There was another lock just before the canal passed over Bridge Road, this bridge was removed when the canal was in-filled and the road levelled.
yellow joining the walsall canal
The line of the canal is now echoed in the line of a service road within another industrial estate until it passes beneath Toll End Road where the bridge abutments are still visible. The final stretch of canal is lost beneath later industrial building and a car park before it’s junction with the Walsall Canal. The junction is now hidden, with the line of a pipe bridge parallel to the towpath the only remaining evidence of where the Toll End Communication Canal ended.

18686 the early history

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’.”

One of the boat’s two BCN registration.gauging plates. (Photo by Nick Holt)

The BCN gauging plate can be found below the gunwales on the port side at the stern of the boat. 18686 was engaged in and around Bilston Steel Works, at Spring Vale, Bilston for the next 40 years.

The story of Bilston Steel Works – in brief

It’s difficult to imagine the hostility of the environment of the Works today, the burning slag heaps and smoking chimneys at the heart of the Victorian industrial revolution.© Christopher R. Bayliss; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 I’m in the process of researching the Spring Vale Steel Works where 18686 spent upwards of 30 years.

These are my draft notes so far, there are many clarifications needed, lots of questions need answering and, hopefully, more illustrations too…

The opening of the Birmingham to Wolverhampton Canal in 1770 industrial activity in the Bilston area increased, and by 1780 the first blast furnaces were in use.

The Hickman family had bought the Springvale Works, Bilston in 1866. Hickman’s not only made iron at the site but also installed ball furnaces, puddling furnaces and mills to process the iron.

It was this farsightedness and ongoing investment in plant and innovations, allied to securing a stable supply of raw materials, that saw Hickmans expand through long periods of boom and bust in the iron industry and, following rationalisation in the early1890’s, Alfred Hickman had become the only ironmaster left in the trade in the Bilston area, and was in a position of strength to invest in new equipment to produce steel using the more abundant and cheaper phosphoric iron ores.

In 1882 Hickman set up the Staffordshire Steel & Ingot Iron Co. Ltd. to manufacture iron, and produce steel by the Gilchrist-Thomas process. It was an investment that gave him an edge over other manufacturers and which turned Bilston from an iron town into a steel town.

The Works extending over a huge area, the chimneys dominating the skyline, marking Bilston out as first an ‘iron’ and then a ‘steel’ town.
postcard scan
By the 1900s the Works were in operation around the clock, 24 hours a day. This postcard really captures so much of the character of the works, but also, fascinatingly the day boat fleet too. Hickman’s worked a large fleet of both leased and company-owned (often second-hand) wooden and iron open day boats at the Spring Vale Works. In my imagination I can see18686 in the lines of the boats in the foreground.

BCN Expert Ray Shill kindly shared the following information in responding to a question about the Spring Vale works I posted in the Canal World Forum site:

The Springvale Steelworks came to occupy a long stretch of canal frontage that extended north from the junction at Coseley (with old main line/ Bradley Branch)to Millfields. The original furnace was located close to a private branch (Bickleys)- the most northern branch- which extended towards various mines and came to serve both the furnace(s) (originally with the Bickleys but later with the Jones family and then Alfred Hickman. There was an ironworks at the end at one time associated with the Sparrow family.

There were two more basins south of Bickleys Arm. The first came to serve two later smelting furnaces. The steel works came about in the 1880’s with a new process that made Basic steel. This steel making produced a basic slag that was broken down and used as manure. The southernmost basin that once served Ladymoor Colliery also came to be used to load this slag.

The steelworks site was enlarged by Stewarts & Lloyds with mills extending across to the Ladymoor Colliery Site. In their days and that of British Steel there was a scrap recycling plant on this southern part of the estate.

Awesome industry.

Hickman not only took up the process but also employed Percy C. Gilchrist. In 1883 Hickman bought all the equipment from the Mersey Iron & Steel Company, which had gone bankrupt and installed it at Bilston with modifications and improvements suggested by Percy C. Gilchrist, who had joined the board. The works had the capacity to turn out 400,000 ingots, and 30,000 tons of finished steel plates and bars per year.

Steam, heat, water, ore and deafening noise…

An article in the Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire Illustrated of 1898 describes two works belonging to Alfred Hickman at the Spring Vale, Bilston site, the Staffordshire Steel & Ingot Works of the Staffordshire Steel & Ingot Iron Co. Ltd. and the Spring Vale Works of Springvale Furnaces Ltd. these amalgamated in 1897 to become Alfred Hickman Ltd.

Rail and water integrated in serving the needs of the Works, bringing raw materials in, taking finished product out…

The Spring Vale site was huge, and included adjacent collieries and brickworks covering some 200 acres connected by sidings to the main line of the London & North Western Railway and the Great Western Railway; and having extensive wharfage on the BCN, including their own maintenance wharf. The site was intersected by an extensive internal railway on which the firm’s own locomotives ran.

In the early part of the 20th C the canal was still intensively used by the Works…

In the year BCN18686 was made Alfred Hickman was created a baronet, and Sir Alfred Hickman went on to live grandly at Tinacre Hall on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, far from the dirt and dust his works were creating in Bilston. He also became an MP for Wolverhampton.

hickman sir alfred
Sir Alfred Hickman
hickman lady
Lady Hickman

Innovation and investment continued apace: in the 1900’s gas turbines were installed to provide electricity and to blow the blast furnaces; an extensive experimental refrigeration plant was installed to remove the moisture from the blast of the furnaces; in 1907 a 36‑inch cogging mill was installed (this equipment remained in use until the late 1950s and during the Second World War, would be used to roll 22 ton ingots of armour piercing steel for the production of 25‑pounder shells and produce all the steel for P.L.U.T.O (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) and they achieve a change‑over to the slower but more controllable open hearth technique of steelmaking.

Stewarts & Lloyds Limited acquired the works in 1921 to provide a source of steel for tube making.

Stewarts & Lloyds Limited was another example of a dynamic and entrepreneurial business which had grown rapidly, mainly through mergers and acquisitions, through the latter half of the 19th C.

Andrew Stewart was originally employed as a salesman by Eadies of Dalmarnock, South Lanarkshire, specialists in the manufacture of lap-welded and loose flange tubes. Stewart saw a market for gas pipe but the company would not support his proposals for expansion and so in 1862, along with his brother James, he set up business as a maker of butt-welded and lap-welded tubes establishing a small works at St. Enochs, Glasgow. The company met with rapid success and by 1867 had moved to a large site at Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire, where they built the Clyde Tube Works. In 1882 the company was incorporated with limited liability as A. & J. Stewart Ltd.

In 1889 Andrew Stewart’s sons set up their own business in Glasgow as tube manufacturers under the name of Stewart Brothers. In a rationalisation of the tube making industry in Scotland, A. & J. Stewart Ltd merged with Stewart Brothers and the Clydesdale Iron & Steel Company to become A. & J. Stewart & Clydesdale Ltd. In 1898 the company expanded still further when it acquired James Menzies & Company becoming A. & J. Stewart & Menzies Ltd. From 1 January 1903 the company merged with English counterparts Lloyd & Lloyd Ltd.

The newly merged company, now named Stewarts & Lloyds Ltd set about securing its position by acquiring companies which would enable them to control all of their supplies, manufacture and distribution.

In 1908 the company became colliery owners when they acquired the control of Robert Addie & Sons (Collieries) Ltd., although this interest was sold in 1924. Before the outbreak of the First World War the company bought the British Welding Co of Motherwell, manufacturers of hydraulic welded tubes and established a new works at Tollcross, Glasgow. Following the end of the war the company gained control of the North Lincolnshire Iron Co Ltd, followed shortly afterwards by Alfred Hickman Ltd. and their subsidiaries.

Railway wagons dwarfed by the furnaces…

Between the wars, under the new ownership, a spirit of inter­-dependence was fostered and despite incorporation into Stewarts & Lloyds, Hickmans retained a good deal of autonomy in running the vast Spring Vale site.

During the Second World War most of the iron and steel production went into the making of tubes not only for use carrying liquids but also using tubes structurally for boom defences, aircraft hangers, mounts for air raid sirens, ships masts, derricks, conveyors, service huts, gun mountings and a myriad other things. The Spring Vale Works were never busier.

A much later shot of the works, shortly after closure, the use of the canals long since passed, the Works gradually falling silent.

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?!?

‘Starling’ (photographed at Coventry in 2010 by Phil Prettyman). Notes on ‘Starling’ on the HNBC site (where this image and others can be found) state that she’d been shortened to 40′ in the 1960’s with her mid-section used to create another boat. Cyril Wood adds in Canalscape: “Starling” (the bow and stern sections of a full-length narrowboat welded together, fitted with a distinctive cabin and a BMC “Commander” 2.2 litre engine) and “Swan” (the centre section of “Starling” fitted with a cabin similar to “Skylark” and also an air-cooled Lister engine). “Swan” was renamed “Jacqueline Yvonne”, moored at Lymm and then Grappenhall on the Bridgewater Canal before changing owners and moving to the Macclesfield Canal.

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.

Ex-working narrowboats moored at Beeston Wharf in 1969
A working pair at Beeston Wharf in the late 1960′s. The image can be found on Cyril Wood’s excellentCanalscape site, click HERE.

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.

CJW - 1966
Cyril Wood on 18686 soon after it’d arrived at Beeston Wharf in 1966.The hull is certainly BCN 18686 as the elum or rudder in the foreground of the picture is still on the boat today, as is the T-stud on the stern, and the clear ‘kink’ seen on the left-hand side of the hull is also still apparent… Photo by James Wood courtesy of Cyril J. Wood

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.

Eileen Beeston2
’18686/Eileen’ as seen ‘on the blocks’ at Beeston Wharf. Photo courtesy of Judy Baker

Mick Vedmore has confirmed that when they bought 18686 it was a 62’ hull, also that the stern had been altered to accept an 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…”

Eileen with her first cabin, seen here newly built and freshly painted in ‘Vedmore & Patterson’ colours. River Lock, Leeds, late 1960′s (Photo courtesy of Judy Baker)

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 for Janusz Rockiki.

(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.)

eileen vedmore and patterson bot Lock Braunston 70s
A full length shot of cabin boat Eileen/18686 at Braunston Bottom Lock, early 1970′s in the Vedmore & Patterson livery (Photo courtesy of Judy Baker)
Eileen Bot Lock Braunston0027
Same day, different viewpoint, the stern of Eileen/18686 photographed from the bridge at Braunston Bottom Lock, 1970′s (Photo courtesy of Judy Baker)

During the next four years Eileen didn’t stand idle whilst Mick and Judy skippered a number of UCC pairs as camping boats. Their boats included former ‘River’ Class ‘blue top’ butties Ant & Exe (Ant having been motorised). 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 she 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.”

Chester Packet
1974-75 Taylors Boatyard, Tower Wharf, Chester – the narrow boats are, on inside ‘Eileen’, then horse drawn butty ‘Betelgeuse’. In foreground by steps is the old tinsmith’s cart used by, ‘Canalware Supplies’. (the tin-smithing equipment was on boat and in warehouse). The following quote (from 1974) comes from Chris Leah and can be found in full on the Wooden Canal Boat Society website: ‘Opposite my adopted mooring spot was Taylors boatyard. Lines of wooden cruisers and trip boats stood on blocks on the two slipways under the long roof supprted by ancient girders. The boatyard was silent as Taylors had gone out of business some months before. The area around the stables at the head of the top lock of the Dee arm was more animated. The horse drawn trip boat Betelgeuse was tied up there when it was not doing trips. The Chester Packet’s proprietors, Jim Marshall and Di Garland, lived aboard and the horse lived in a stable beside the lock. Alongside the bank was usually a shortened, converted iron joey called Eileen. Mick and Judy who lived aboard, ran a chandlery in the adjacent building.’ (Photo courtesy of Judy Baker)

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 Eileen was home to their growing family, indeed one of their children was born on the boat.

1st 3 gal can handbowl john Page
A later photo of young John Page steering Eileen and showing the tall 3 gallon Can made by Judy in the background. In this shot you can also see that the cabin now has a chimney, it’s not there on the earlier shots above. (Photo courtesy of Judy Baker)

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 couple with a very young baby, 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 new owners 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 WoodTom 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, abd help bring to life the mid-period history of the boat.)

The Theatre Boat?

An intriguing footnote in the boat’s log brought the story back to life, in one margin are the words ‘Day-Star?’. The note prompted me to e-mail Day Star Theatre in the hope that they might be able to provide more information, and Pete Marshall e-mailed straight back, very kindly providing the following information:

Basically before Day-Star Theatre set off to find fame and fortune as full time performers in 1981 we did some pilot shows in the late 70s with a bigger cast of performers, more for the fun of it than anything. From 1977 Jane and I lived on nb. Day-Star the boat on the Thames in Surrey. One of the other performers was Paul Pepperell who lived on nb. Eileen at the same mooring as we did at Abbey Chase below the weir at Chertsey Lock. When we started performing we named our company after our boat and took a show, using both boats, to the 1980 IWA National Waterways Festival at Lea Bridge on the River Lee. The play about life on the Thames was actually performed on the top of the two boats breasted up.

The following year – 1981 – the IWA National Festival and Waterside Arts Festivaltook place on the Aire & Calder Navigation at Leeds, and although we were unable to make the journey on the ‘Day-Star’, Paul took the ‘Eileen’ and she became Day-Star Theatre’s base for the festival…

It was the heady mix of applause and beer and the fact that we were fed up with ‘proper jobs’ that spurred myself and Jane to take off the following year and go full time as performers.

Having not seen Paul for years we did actually meet up last year. He still lives in Chertsey but on dry land.

Paul had bought Eileen from an Australian, who I am pretty sure was moving back to Australia, between Kiddlington and Thrupp. I was there when he first fell in love with her and handed over the cash.

At the time we knew her she [Eileen] had a full wooden cabin and Lister HA2 engine

Eileen 1979-80 Thames @ Windsor
1979 or 1980, the only image found to date showing Eileen’s first full cabin conversion, seen here tied up on the R. Thames at the Bells of Ousley pub, Old Windsor. This would be something like 1979/1980 She has Pete Marshall’s Day-Star on the outside and Sarat Khan on the inside (Photo courtesy of Pete Marshall)

Sadly, within 10 years, and having had the engine removed, 18686/Eileen had become a neglected, static houseboat in a chronic state of repair, on the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union at Highline, Greenford.

In Winter 1988 she burst into flames and was completely burnt out from stem to stern, with serious distortion occurring to the hull.

In 1989 she was bought from a K. Tomlinson, via the surveyor Douglas Cormack, as an insurance right-off by Jim & Mig MacDonald. Eileen/18686 is described as an ‘engineless hull’ on the Bill of Sale in my possession, 18686/Eileen had travelled full circle, back to the engineless state that defined her first 60+ years!

The boat was towed from Greenford to Cassio Wharf with the Jim’s nb. Elizabeth and over the winter of 1989-90 the hull was stripped out, stern deck fabricated and engine installed, an early BMC 2.2, rebuilt by Pete Thompson.

In Summer of 1990, the 18686/Eileen was towed behind nb. Elizabeth from Cassio Wharf, Watford to Warwickshire Flyboat Co. Ltd. at Stockton where the hull distortion was straightened out, and a 16′ cabin, gunwales and foredeck added. The boat, as yet unfinished and not fully fitted, attended the National Rally at Windmill End in August 1991.Work continued to fit out the back cabin over the Winter of 1991 and into 1992.

In keeping with the evolving character of the boat the cabin did not attempt to replicate a typical day-boat box cabin but is closer to a traditional back cabin fit-out with ticket drawer, range, table cupboard, side bed and bed hole etc. The remainder of the fit-out work was completed on the cabin by the Autumn of 1992. 18686/Eileen had been transformed once more, from a burnt-out hull to a fully motorised ‘motor’ with cabin, fore deck and open hold, in just over two years.

Between Autumn 1992-95, under Jim’s ownership, she began a period of extensive cruising. And then lay idle for long periods, until Winter 2005 when, according to the log 18686/Eileen went ‘English boating for the Winter’.

The final entry in the log reads: On dock Bridgewater Basin, late October 2006 for insurance survey by Mike Carter. Epoxy pitch on hull below waterline and flat bottom. Bigger pits on bottom welded up. Off dock 01.11.06. 25.11.06 single-handed to Ricky for demonstration re. DEFRA/BW cuts. 26.11.06 return to Cassio single-handed.

In 2007Jim sold 18686/Eileen to a L.Vallantine who later added a riveted steel ‘long cabin’ over the former open hold to create the current main accommodation space. We bought her in October 2011.

The renovation of 18686/Eileen continues, informed by the evolving research into her history. I believe it was fascinating story of  a mongrel existence, perhaps not as glamorous as the Midland motors, but still exemplifying the flexibility of a class of boats sometimes dismissed as ‘little more that floating skips…’.

If you have any further information or suggested avenues for further enquiry, I’d love to hear from you. Also if you have any photographs in your collection relating to 18686/Eileen, I’d love to have an opportunity to copy them, every care would be taken to protect any original source material, and authorship would be fully credited.



I can be contacted at: nickholt@live.com or via the comment box at the bottom of each post.


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