Monday, September 21, 2020

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley


It sometimes seems to me that I don’t have to go very far before, as I look at some timber-framed building, someone will come up and tell me that ‘It’s built from old ship’s timbers, you know’. That is invariably the phrase, ‘old ship’s timbers’. I am often sceptical of such claims, as I look at a building full of straight lines and right-angles, and think of a ship, with all its curves. And yet, perhaps I am wrong to doubt. After all, a ship was a valuable item, and if it was towed, like Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, to be broken up, there would no doubt be much salvaging of its precious timbers. The great battleship in Turner’s painting was said to have been built using the wood of 5000 oak trees.* There would be planks and beams and posts and masts that a builder could make use of. And watching a neighbour repairing the roof of his cottage last year revealed that many of the roof timbers were little more than debarked tree trunks – there was hardly a straight line to be seen.

As I contemplated the tiny building above, my thoughts could not have been further from Turner’s Temeraire, This is recycling in the raw, a building made by cutting off the stern of a boat and turning the sawn-off part through 90 degrees.§ A bit of weatherboard for the rear wall, an old shed door at the front, some iron to hold everything together and the men of the boatyard had got what they needed – a small privy to make the yard more convenient and decorous.

The vessel that was dismembered to produce this almost-instant privy was a joey boat. This was an open boat, built with a square section to accommodate a large cargo, which it was designed to haul over a short distance. Most were built of wood and horse-drawn; many were double-ended, so that when you got to the end of the journey you could remove the rudder, fit it at the other end of the boat, and return home without turning round. There’s not usually much in the way of a cabin – a Joey was expected to travel a short distance, deliver its load, and return to base before nightfall, so crew did not have to sleep on board. Joey boats† were especially common on the Birmingham and Black Country canals, so it’s appropriate that this recycled one is at the Black Country Living Museum. No longer used for its second purpose (the museum has perfectly good modern facilities!), it stands as a testimony to the longevity of recycling. Exemplary.

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* According to the website of the National Gallery, where the painting, a great pictorial elegy for the age of sail, hangs.

§ Buildings were also made from upturned boats. They can be seen on the shore at Lindisfarne (and in sets of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes).

† Why Joey? Opinions differ. It could be after Joe Worsey, a boat builder who made numerous such vessels. Or it could be a tribute to Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914), Birmingham’s Radical Liberal mayor, who led efforts to improve the city and the lives of its working people.


Chris Partridge said...

A great piece of improvisation. And, of course, there is Ham Peggotty’s house in David Copperfield.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes! It's about 40 years since I read David Copperfield. One lockdown distraction activity I adopted was rereading some Dickens. I got through three whoppers (Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend) and then ran out of puff. When I get a second wind maybe I'll go back to DC.