The Story of Eileen: ‘Images of Coombeswood’

I’m very excited today to be able to share some evocative images which, to my mind, capture something of the working reality for the steerers of BCN tugs and day boats. They were taken c.1959 by Max Sinclair, former owner of Stewarts & Lloyds tug Vesta, and it’s with his kind permission that I reproduce them here.

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2013 Braunston Boat Show 4. The Right Colours?

One of my main reasons for attending the show this year was to look at the Stewarts & Lloyds tugs on parade to help clarify in my own mind the colours we’ll use when re-painting our Eileen in September.

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Day Boat Decoration 2: Decoration on ‘open’ boats

In this post I’m looking at decoration on the most basic of day boats, the ‘open’ wooden or ‘open’ iron boat.

‘Bessie’ an open iron day boat, seen here at the Black Country Museum undergoing a paint job, and showing the most common BCN colour scheme of ‘bright’ red and ‘grass’ green, and the crescents finshing off the colour ground.

Open Boat Decoration

The conventions dictating a ‘open’ day boat’s colour scheme would have been fairly standard throughout, with the paint scheme used to 1). identify the boat and 2). protect the hull from the elements. The boat’s painted decoration therefore having a totally utilitarian rather than aesthetic function.

The exterior of the hull would have been painted in whatever oil-based paint or pitch the yard had at hand, it’s function simply to protect the wood or metal and to ensure that the life of the boat was sufficient to make a return on the company’s investment.

In addition some companies who owned wooden boats might use red oxide, or what was called common blue to paint the vertical sheering in the hold. Common blue was created by dissolving early ‘blue-whitener’ washing tablets such as Reckitt’s Blue into white lead paint. On wooden boats, where the sheering wasn’t painted, often the lining board or top inner plank that ran horizontally beneath the gunnels was painted in red oxide. Cross timbers or stretchers tended to be left unpainted.

A recent re-enactment of a tug hauling a train of day boats. Bernard Hales Partnership’s day boat No. 2 in the foreground.

Given that both wooden and iron ‘open’ day boats had no foredeck, and no top cloths (with their associated equipment of masts, stands and planks) all other decoration, used to help a steerer identify an individual boat, was confined to the top bends or top planks at the bow and stern, often described as the fore end and the shoulders of the boat.

Fore end and shoulder designs were commonly painted onto bright red panels utilising the whole width of the top plank/top bend with a symbol or writing placed in the middle of the colour block. The colour panel would often be finished off with yellow or white crescents, with the convex side facing to the front (in the case of the fore end) or the back (in the case of the shoulders) of the boat.

Stewarts & Lloyds’ Coombeswood site, day boat No.108 being poled into place to received a shipment of tubes for internal transit around the site..

The vast majority of companies plying their trade on the BCN would have a design, a symbol for their company if you like, made up from a combination of 2-D shapes such as circles, crescents and diamonds, sometimes quartered in contrasting colours.

Simplicity, impact and ease of recognition were the bye-word, with the most common design (used by a number of companies including Stewart & Lloyds and the Wilfruna Coal Company) being variations on the theme of a single white diamond painted on a red ground.

Simple shapes, on a plain coloured ground, seen on the fore end of a day boat.

Use was also made of company trademarks and trade symbols to create, in effect, a visual coded message for steerers who, often unable to read, would use the symbols to speedily, and with some certainty, identify which boat belonged to which company.

Stewarts & Lloyds used a variety of methods, initial, words and symbols to identify their fleet of day boats…

The symbolic designs, taken alongside the boat’s BCN gauging number, and any name or number provided by the company, allowed individual boats to be identified.

The shoulders tended to carry the boat’s own name or number, put on a similarly coloured panel to that found on the fore end. The lettering would most often be white or cream with shading in a strongly contrasting colour or two-tone colour.

Next time we’ll take a look at how the sides of cabin boats were used to help identify boats.

Day Boat Decoration 1. Introduction

Stewart__Lloyds_2Alan Fincher c1975
Stewart & Lloyds OI or open iron day boats moored at Coombeswood with a tug in the background c. 1975 (Photo by Alan Fincher)

This series is not about the construction of day boats but rather an attempt to describe what a Birmingham Canal Navigation day boat actually looked like – their external appearance – their liveries and colour schemes, and explore how their painted decoration and numbering was used for boat identification.

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Colour Scheme for ‘Eileen’


The boat is currently carrying the same colour scheme as when restored after fire damage in the late 1980’s ie. white main panels, blue border and red lining. It’s an attractive colour scheme designed by the then owner Jim MacDonald, and still used on his wonderfully characterful Elizabeth.

However, I want the boat to now have a colour scheme that marks the next phase of it’s existence, as our family boat.

Deciding on a new colour scheme isn’t easy.

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Horse Boating on the BCN – Approaching Netherton Tunnel

Two forms of boating on the BCN captured in the one image as a lightly loaded, horse-drawn BR (ex LMS) day boat passes a Stewart & Lloyds tug (Bittel?) towing a train of heavily loaded day boats lying deep in the water, from the southern end of Netherton Tunnel. (Image by TW King from Ms. Ruth Collins, Dudley Archives Centre)
The southern end of Netherton Tunnel today, as shown on Google Maps. A previous post in this series featured day boats at the northern end of the tunnel close to the Tividale Viaduct, click HERE….
Close-up of BR (ex LMR) day boat No. 48. (Image Black Country Museum)
And, BR (LMR) No. 22 in action at Brierley Hill, loaded with firebricks from the Delph to Tipton (Watery Lane) transfer shed. (Image by TW King from Ms. Ruth Collins, Dudley Archives Centre)

(The Industrial Canal Volume 2 The Railway Interchange Trade by Tom Foxon was used in creating the captions for this post.)