Monday, April 26, 2021

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

In motion and at rest,1: Immortal Diamond

A memory from a visit to the Black Country Living Museum in 2019. Diamond is part of the museum’s fine collection of canal boats. The museum is crossed by canals that belong to the Birmingham Canal Navigations and on a small branch of this network the museum has built a boat dock populated by vessels that were once common on the canals around Birmingham and the Black Country. Many of these are day boats – designed to take cargoes such as coal, iron, limestone, and clay over short distances that you could cover in a day. Among their number are one specific type – the Joey boats, steerable from either end, that I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post.

Diamond is not a Joey boat, but an impressive composite narrow boat (with metal sides and a wooden bottom). She was first registered in 1928 and was built by John Crichton & Co of Saltney, Chester, for the Midland and Coast Canal Carrying Company of Wolverhampton. She was no day boat, but had two cabins, making her suitable for long journeys between the Black Country and the Mersey. She was damaged in an air raid on Birmingham in 1944, and rebuilt, after which she was renamed Henry, under which name she had 16 years carrying coal, after which she was sold again, rechristened Susan, and continued to work until the museum acquired her in the 1970s.

The fact that a narrow boat could be built in the 1920s and see the best part of 50 years’ service before being ‘retired’ to a museum reminds us how long-lasting canal transport was in Britain. Canals began before the railways, survived the coming of rail, and were only really killed off by the inexorable rise of road transport.* So boats sporting the delightful paintwork of Diamond – both the bright colours of the exterior and the lovely images of castles and flowers that appear when the folding doors are opened – had a long innings. That we can still appreciate these beautiful boats is due largely to the canal revival, spearheaded by campaigners such as Tom Rolt and bodies like the Inland Waterways Association in the postwar period. Museums like the BCLM have also played their part. Thank heaven they did, so that such things can still be appreciated and enjoyed, and so that, in these confined times, I can remind my readers of the richness of colour, historical interest, and folk art that’s available online. 

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* For a vivid account of the lives of those working and living on narrow boats in the 20th century, see Sheila Stewart, Ramlin Rose: The Boatwoman’s Story (OUP, 1993)


Unknown said...

I’m sorry to be pedantic about this but Dudley has never been in Warwickshire so far as I’m aware. It was an “island” area of Worcestershire, surrounded by Staffordshire.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Oops. My apologies. I'd missed this particular 'island', and have now removed the reference to the county.