Life on the Canal - Lodgings Afloat

A Home on the Regent's Canal

Building, 1861

One part of the world has no idea how the other parts live. The census returns will tell how many men, women, and children were on board barges and other vessels on the canals of England and Scotland on the night of the 7th of April last, and part of the world will be surprised to learn that several thousand persons live for the chief part of each year on board the canal vessels. These are generally a hardy race, industrious, and in the main sober and careful. Strangers not residing in the neighbourhood of the canals, and who may be visiting the neighbourhood of London, are struck by the picturesque appearance of the boats, particularly those of the Grand Junction Company. They are usually painted in bright colours, vermilion, emerald green, and shades of blue are made to form diamond and other Patterns, names, etc. There are Susans, Fannys, Janes, and other familiar female names; and some are called after eminent statesmen, or literary and other celebrities.


 London's Waste

Besides the household waste which was used to burn bricks, soot, horse manure, and night soil, were carried away from London each day, and bought eagerly by lowland farmers lucky enough to be near the canals. Their fields increased in fertility, while the more distant hill farmers, who could not afford the extra transport costs, saw the fertility of their fields leached away each year by the rain. Profits in hill farms fell sharply. Many hill farmers went bankrupt and their farms were bought up as country estates by the wealthy. Prosperous people like Disraeli became landed gentry. Old farmhouses, often Tudor or even earlier, were refurbished, extended, re-fronted to become small country mansions. An unexpected effect of the canal trade.

Schools for Canal Children

The education of children living on boats was a perpetual problem. Most boats visiting Paddington Basin were in and out, but sometimes children could attend St Michael's School, or Star Street School for a day or so. However, often they did not learn much, being told to sit at the back and draw a boat. London schools were proud of taking their children to the public swimming baths each week and at that time Water Companies supplied the water free as a gesture of goodwill. No group needed to learn to swim more urgently than the canal children, yet at first they were not allowed to join in. The boats carried all kinds of cargoes which meant that the children were not very clean.

In 1927 a Dr Wilson decided that ' sufficient improvement in cleanliness had occurred for the children to join the regular pupils for swimming lessons' In 1930 the barge Elsdale, moored at Bull's Bridge, Slough, was converted into a floating school for canal boat children.1

Paddington Canal and the Metropolitan Line

Most boats turned round quickly at Paddington, discharging and loading within the day. In the midst of all this confusion, children insisted on getting under their mother's feet and lying flat on the floor of the tiny cabins, to hear the rumble of the Metropolitan Line trains running regularly below the Basin.2


  1. Information from Sheila Stewart, author of 'Ramlin Rose', an absorbing book on canal people.
  2. Ditto.
Page 103
Page 105
Updated June 28, 2011