Back to the beginning…

Since writing the last post-I’ve gone back at the beginning,the beginning of canals. Trying to learn the history of in order to understand The Shroppie, so I am well equipped when I walk her length (and it feels to me that canals like boats should be ‘a she’). I’m doing the leg work,  the building, the constructing of knowledge that may not even be specifically involved in the final words or performance, but I have to know it. To a certain extent.  I go back to the knowledge of the people in the museum, understanding gleaned and known over years, and years of experience.  I’m starting with books, and boxes of papers, notes, ledgers, minutes from meetings. And for me it’s the older books, written in the late 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s about the histories of canals that helps me get to grips with it. We are so used to typing a question, pressing a button and expecting an answer. Sometimes it’s good to work for it, cross reference understand how it all starts to piece together.

I’m reading The Canal Age by Charles Hadfield, (written 1968) it’s enjoyable, accessible, funny even, and early on there is a series of maps of the UK that show the building of each canal through the years from early beginnings in the 1700’s through to Canal Mania and later editions.  Scan through the maps quickly and it’s a flick book animation; like cracks spreading across pottery,  creases in the palm of a hand as it grows older, those inland waterways splinter the country connecting together, making a spread inland from the sea. We are an island nation, surrounded as we are, but we dug, we built with hands and carts and horses, ditches, channels filled with water through the heart of our country. Using water, controlling it, as much as we could, through the landlocked center’s so we are never far from it. Although I knew it as a fact that has been repeated from childhood through to me finding myself in residence at the Waterways Museum, I never really understood: canals gave birth, and transport to industry. That revloution. Those short lived years when everything was for water, equivalent of motor ways (or high speed railways, or whatever Richard Branson might be cooking up) now.

The Shropshire Union- the vein from the heart of industry in the midlands toward the sea through Liverpool.  And the Shropshire Union has it’s chequered history of really being three canals built at separate times, of the landed gentry throwing in their lots and money, giants of industry. Competition with the tracks, canal men telling farmers of the fire breathing dragons railways omitting poisonous smoke to keep them on board with the canals. Or making the canals in line with tracks and working together.  Ditches being cut through land by hand, hundreds of men, hundreds of horses. No machinery, taking out soil by wheelbarrow and rope. A high bank cut through a different way to keep a man and his pheasants happy.

I’m looking through boxes marked ‘Shropshire Union’ all mixed in through the ages, there are beautiful flow diagrams like records on circular paper showing the rise and fall of water in inky needle 1946-48. Log books for Junctions, names of inspectors, lists of boats and cargo’s. A poster on how to look after your horse properly from 1873. And there were lots of horses, I read of Shroppie Fly Boats running from Birmingham at 5pm on Tuesday and Saturdays and arriving in Ellesmere Port 29 hours later, no stopping for the boat just the swapping over of horses. Perishables, cheeses carried fast as they can along the waterway. The way I’ll be walking.

Plans for a railway by The Shropshire Union Company, and canals that never got built. Ghost canals. And in other boxes, notes for letters officiating events and notices written on the back of wage slips from 10 years before. The recycling and saving of paper with each side telling a different time. Small accidents and accusations, dramas played out in typed up letters and long hand: ‘Planks thrown in by youths’ ‘Lads fiddling with locks’. The names of those small time criminals. And I think of Just William and seemingly harmless fun, and back to now with youths hanging out on disused bridges pushing Pringles cartons through iron ridges.  There are log books of meeting minutes typed up and filed each note under a letter. And in the front of these precious books, a child has scribbled practised their looped handwriting in the front , a welcome addition to the stern and formal words contained within the pages. All of this history, all of this traffic in coal, grain, wood, cheese, chocolate and iron, sailing down the Shropshire Union, all of this gone before as we amble along the paths now looking for Herons and ducklings in Spring. Paths out of Birmingham where I will walk.

And there is some concern about my walking, as a woman on my own-I am inviting people to join me-long or short distances, and places to stay incidentally along the way. So if that is of interest franms@mac.com, it will be in September (dates still being decided). Those canals that have seen so much.

I go back to look into The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company, those workers that became the population of parts of Ellesmere Port. The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company, eventually became a subsidy of another company and then was Nationalised under the Steel and Iron Act of 1951 (I also get slightly distracted by learning facts about corrugated iron, but that  is a digression too far). I discover that a proportion of their records are kept somewhere else, Tata Steel UK at Shotton Records Centre. Which upon further internet investigation appears to be a huge archive resource complete with fork lift trucks and boxes and boxes of records. I admit my heart beats faster at this picture. Like some sort of fantasy archive hub that I’ve made up in my head. Oh the filing. My thoughts are that if they hold meeting minutes for the company at the time they moved to Ellesmere Port, then there maybe names I can trace, families I can find. Ones that I imagine may walk to a new life near the Mersey.

I talk to Cath Turpin, an expert of everything canal and boat based, I imagine the inside of her brain like the records office at Shotton, she is able to recall such detail in different subjects at quick request. She wrote an article on The Wolverhampton Iron Company for the Waterways Journal (link here) and has done some further research. The story of the workers walking, is just that: a story. Cath has spoken to different people who tell tales that have been passed down through the generations of their grandfather, grandmother, Aunts, Uncle’s making that journey by foot. There is no official corroboration, of course there wouldn’t be, and 1904/5 there were railways for people to travel upon. But it seems to me, that in stories passed down such as this there is truth, and if I walk those footsteps I am walking in someway in the footsteps of those people that changed the location of their lives. 300 men, and their families moving ‘down north’ (while the tow path is flat, it is downhill from Wolverhampton I am delighted to find).  Cath later sends me a copy of  the WW1 Memorial of ‘the names of the workers from The Mersey Iron Works (as it became know) who fell during the great war’. Some 10 years after the move to Ellesmere Port. She has a list of their histories, where they born, a number of them Wolverhampton, born and bred. This is the beginnings of tracing, perhaps some of these families. Names to hold on to. That war memorial was in The British Legion at Ellesmere Port until the building was knocked down some years ago, Cath took the picture before it went. The memorial is now in Manchester, but there is some talk of bringing it back here, to Ellesmere Port where those men, those boys lived and worked.

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