Canal boat people, 1840-1970
This thesis seeks to examine the social and economic standing of the men, women and children who lived and worked on the canal boats of England and Wales during the decline of canal carrying between 1840 and 1970. Its main purpose is to analyse how and why this social group, with its peculiarly anachronistic way of life and work, survived until well into the second half of the twentieth century. It discusses the range of survival strategies open to the group ranging from family, through community, voluntary agencies and the state as providers of welfare, together with the relationship between these agencies. This has involved an investigation of kinship patterns among land-based and boat-based boat families and the relationship between boat people and the rest of society. Of particular concern has been the way in which the boat community emerged as a distinctive and cohesive social group based on occupation rather than class. It has not generally been appreciated that the decline of this industry was very long and, up until the First World War, quite gradual. Thus, opportunities for enterprise and remunerative employment continued for long after the appearance of the steam locomotive. At most times throughout the history of canal carrying, boatmen were able to earn money wages on a par with, or even in excess of those paid to manual workers in other old staple industries. This thesis also shows that the decision to live on board was a matter of regional custom and personal choice and not merely a result of straitened economic circumstances. Furthermore, it appears that the majority of those men who did take their families on board retained a house on land. Nevertheless, those who chose to live on board with their families did so at considerable social cost and thus it emerges that social deprivation and some forms of poverty are not merely a reflection of low pay.