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Researching Vessel History using The Waterways Archive

Vessels found on inland waterways are very varied; they can range from barges and lighters to narrowboats and from tugs to dredgers. The histories of these different types of vessels are well documented and some of the resulting publications are listed in further information.
There are many reasons why you may want to know more about the history of a particular vessel, you may own an ex-working boat or you may have found a narrowboat or barge mentioned during family history research. Most enquirers to the Waterways Archive want to know about a narrowboat or barge and the Waterways Archive has a variety of documents that can help with this research.

Getting started with your vessel research

First you need to gather all the information you already know about the boat, any numbers associated with it and any previous names you know of can all be helpful. You will know its dimensions, but do you know what it is made of? Do you know whether it was a different type of boat in a previous existence? For instance some modern leisure boats used to be Birmingham dayboats. All this information can help to pin down your particular boat in the documents held at the archive.

Searching the Virtual Waterways Catalogue

The Virtual Waterways online catalogue can be used as a point of reference for The Waterways Archive. The catalogue is a database of the documents held by the archive, it gives the reference number of the document and a brief description of what it contains.

· Whilst many records contain the names of specific vessels, these will only rarely be mentioned in the catalogue description. In most cases it is unlikely you will be able to pinpoint a specific vessel via a catalogue search.
· The best place to start will be with documents relating to carrying or boatbuilding companies.
· If you locate material in the catalogue that sounds useful, you will need to arrange a visit to the archive to consult the documents to find out if they contain the information you are looking for.

Of all the documents held at the archive, the following categories of records are those most likely to be of use:

Gauging tables

Gauging is the process whereby a boat's capacity is measured by the amount of water it displaces when loaded with a cargo. It became commonplace on major waterways such as the Grand Junction, Oxford and Birmingham canals and also some rivers such as the River Trent from the early 1800's, as a means of calculating how much cargo was being carried, in order to be able to charge the appropriate toll. Information for each boat gauged was stored in a table; this information included the individual gauging number, the name and/or number of the boat, the name and address of its owner, its dimensions and construction and the date of gauging. Early tables have rarely survived although The Waterways Archive does have Grand Junction Canal tables from 1804 and River Trent tables from 1813. Fortunately for the researcher you do not need to search the many volumes of tables to find a boat as the Grand Junction Canal, Birmingham Canal Navigations, Warwick and Napton Canal and Oxford Canal tables held at the archive are all databased and can be searched on request.

Health Registration Volumes

The Registration of boats began in 1795 when the Clerks of the Peace registered many inland waterway boats; this registration was not enforced and did not exist for long. The introduction of the Canal Boat Act in 1877 meant that every boat with an accommodation cabin had to be registered and regularly inspected. The registrations and inspections were carried out by urban and rural sanitary authorities, which kept records of the registrations and inspections in journals.
Health Registration Journals hold a lot of information about a boat, including its name and number, the name and address of its owner, its dimensions and construction, including what cabin space it has as well as the name of its master at the time of registration. Inspection journals also show who was on board at the time of inspection and the condition of the boats, including the last time it was painted.
As these journals are local authority documents most are held at local record offices or in local history collections, but the archive does have databases of 21 journals which again can be searched on request.

Traffic Records

Traffic records comprise those documents that record journeys undertaken by boats. These can include toll or traffic tickets and permits, barge check sheets and loading or unloading tickets. In general these all show the same sorts of information: the names or gauging number of the boat, its owner and master, how much it is carrying of what commodity, the route it is to take and how much toll is payable. The archive has traffic records for many canals but the main canal covered by the collection is the Grand Junction/Grand Union Canal.

Company Records

The most useful company records will be those of a carrying company or a boatbuilder. Carrying company records might include plans of the boats they had built, lists of boats they ordered, which might include details of engines installed or boats they were paired with when new, docking books and manning lists which show who was manning a particular boat at a particular time. Boatbuilders records might include plans of boats, yard books, docking books and financial records.
Navigation company records can also be useful if you're looking for other types of vessels such as dredgers or other maintenance vessels, in which case engineering records, financial records and plans can be of interest.

The Waterways Archive holds approximately 20,000 photographs, many of which show boats of one type or another. These are currently not available as part of the online catalogue but if you feel they would be of benefit to your enquiry please contact us for more details.

Contact details
To arrange to visit the archive or to obtain further information on our photographic collections, please contact or our research assistant, Caroline Jones, on 01452 318224 or at The Waterways Archive, 7th Floor, Llanthony Warehouse, The Docks, Gloucester GL1 2EH.

Further information
For further information on vessels that worked on the inland waterways see the following websites:

The Historic Canal Boat Website at

The Historic Narrowboat Owners Club at
Jim Shead's Waterways Information, Boats of the Inland Waterways pages at:

The Waterways Object Name Thesaurus at, the most useful section will be that on transport, which list vessels by type and gives descriptions.

The following books also give information on vessels:

Paget-Tomlinson, E. Britain's Canal & River Craft. Landmark Publishing Ltd, Ashbourne, Derbyshire. 2005.

Chaplin, Tom. Narrow Boats. Whittet Books, London, 1989

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Rosie Agnes on Barlows, 1930s-1940s, Ref. 3783
Rosie Agnes on Barlows, 1930s-1940s, Ref. 3783
BW117/1 - Register of Canal Boats, Hinckley Urban Sanitary District, 1879-1921
BW117/1 - Register of Canal Boats, Hinckley Urban Sanitary District, 1879-1921
BW118/2 - Fellows Morton & Clayton Docking Book, nd 1940s
BW118/2 - Fellows Morton & Clayton Docking Book, nd 1940s
BW40/3 - Permits issued to carry goods on the Cromford Canal 1849
BW40/3 - Permits issued to carry goods on the Cromford Canal 1849