Bargees and the TGWU



The biggest dispute ever organised by a trade union, which only concerned canal boat workers was the strike of Transport & General Workers Union members that broke out on August 13th 1923, with barges being moored up initially started at Branson, a little to the south of Burton-on-Trent, on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, at Birmingham where all canal routes met, and at Rugby Wharf, on the North Oxford Canal. (Middlesex County Times – London, 8 September 1923) 

Of course, as a quick glance of the waterways map of Britain will readily show, an entire interconnected network of criss-crossed canals has spread right across the industrial Midlands and beyond for hundreds of years, now, linking it with ports to the outside world. Although not used for freight transport for some decades now, massive bulk supplies of non-time critical goods were still carried at the time of extensive unionisation of both the canal carrying companies and the owners of the infrastructure.   

Contrary to a retrospective perception that bargees were unionised, the trend within the canal carrying industry in general was for collective bargaining over substantive agreements to be conducted on a local or district basis for the first two decades of the twentieth century. The First World War, largely as a result of government control of key industries, brought about a widening of agreements and a general move towards nation-wide collective bargaining. In the inland waterways industry, however, collective agreements remained very much local affairs until as late as the Second World War.

Trade unions involved in water transport had identified canal boatmen over a decade before as a group requiring special help, for the union ‘keenly realises that there are many things from which these people have to suffer and some of them can only be described as scandalous’. (The Record Vol II -April 1923, p. 14) In 1919, the Transport Workers Federation had set up a joint committee with employers to consider canal workers’ hours of work, whilst in November 1919 a sub-committee began to investigate the question of living-in on canal boats.   The May of that year, municipal school attendance officers in Birmingham had met in conference and dubbed the situation with so many canal boat children missing school a national scandal. 

Between 1917 and 1920, growing discontent produced several short strikes and eventually resulted in the formation of the Midlands Canal Boatmen’s Wages Board. This body, which was formed on 21st May 1920 in order to settle a pay dispute, consisted of twelve representatives of ironmasters, coal merchants and other traders using the canal, and twelve trades unionists including Ernest Bevin of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union. Its decisions covered 1,300 men employed on horse-drawn barges engaged in the carrying of coal from collieries to works and power stations and the carriage of brick, stone, lime, slag ashes and pig iron. Even so, conciliation was not resolving all problems.  There were unofficial disputes of Midlands canal boatmen, as in 1921 against pay reductions and disciplinary suspensions, and the following year action that extended to the Preston area. 

During the 1923 strike, boats and their occupants that would normally be engaged in constant movement tended to congregate where the company had depots, mostly in large towns right across the Midlands, so the impact of the dispute on the wider community was slight. The exception was that at Braunston, a village near Daventry, Northamptonshire, at the junction of the Grand Union and Oxford Canals. Unlike the locks on many surrounding canals those around Braunstone could accommodate two narrow boats working in pairs.  The village became a key change-over point and attracted extensive wharfage, stabling and warehousing as well as boatbuilding and repair facilities.

Meanwhile, between September 1922 and March 1923, the TGWU journal, The Record, indicated that the union was successfully negotiating agreements with several canal companies, such as the Midlands & Coast Canal Carrying Company, the Severn & Worcester Canal Company and the Birmingham Canal Navigation Company. The TGWU’s General Executive Council approved a national programme for canal workers drawn up by a conference of Waterways officers, giving them plenary powers to take the bargaining forward: 

“1. The working week shall be based upon forty-eight hours. Where a shorter working week is in operation the arrangement shall continue and the minimum wages shall apply.

2. That where necessary, a joint committee shall work out time to be taken for each trip and fix tonnage rates accordingly. 

3. That the weekly wages shall be £1 5s for captains and £1 for mates, plus tonnage rates as arranged.

4. That within twelve months of the date of this programme, two adult males shall be employed on each boat, both of whom shall be paid direct by the employers and recognised as ordinary employees.

5. That the agreed rates shall not be subject for any deductions in respect to the provision of horses, provender, gear, or any other extraneous charges. 

6. That the captains of steamers shall be paid £1 12s 6d, and drivers £1, plus tonnage rates in each case.  Drivers to be paid 2s 6d extra for washing boilers.

7 Butty boat men   )

8 Tradesmen           ) Statistics to be collected and rates to be put forward.”

9 Lockkeepers         )

(12 May 1923 GEC, Minute No. 566 p18)

In the meantime, a separate dispute in Britain’s ports developed, which would impact heavily on the burgeoning dispute on the canals.  Labour’s Cabinet set up a sub-committee was set up to plan how to combat the effects of a dock strike (Cabinet paper CAB23/47/img0006)  and the Minister of Labour made a full statement to the Cabinet that the dispute had been brought within sight of an immediate settlement on terms that included an immediate wages increase, followed by others. The decasualisation would be addressed in a more long-term way. (Cabinet paper CAB23/47/img 0010) 

But this was not good enough and, eventually, in June 1923, a strike began in Hull but soon spread across the country as tens of thousands of mainly dockers, but also other port workers, walked out, deeply unhappy at Ernest Bevin for having agreed a with a 31.25% pay reduction for four-hour minimum employment period. Many left the TGWU to join the Amalgamated Stevedores’ Labour Protection League, later the National Amalgamated Stevedores, Lightermen, Watermen and Dockers, which only joined the TGWU again in 1971. Others stayed to continue the struggle to make the new union deliver on its early promise, some would help canal workers in their own aims.  

The dispute with Fellows, Morton and Clayton Ltd (FMC) now arose in the August, when the employer provocatively announced reductions in boatmen’s rates of pay averaging 6.47 per cent, which the boatmen declined to accept.  On 16 August, an early meeting was convened involving Harry Gosling and Jim Crump Snr, representing the Union, and FMC, at which the union offered a resumption of work in return for independent arbitration on the boatmen’s case. This FMC refused this and later liquidation if the wage reductions were not accepted.

There was much public sympathy for the strike, since the atypical workforce was formally the male breadwinners of a family but his wife and children lived with him at, or rather on,  his workplace, spending day after day in cramped cabins, not 6 feet square … they toil along the weary miles of muddy inlands waterways, amid the smoke of cabin chimneys, taking turns at driving the horses along the tow-paths – paths sometimes under water, always muddy, and wretched with slush and stones.   

The women folk are kept busy “from early morning to late at night” with the “laborious work” of steering the boat and attending to the numerous locks as well as managing domestic duties. It was no fault of theirs that the clothes of canal families were “ragged and torn, patched to threadbare, which makes them easy victims to the winter winds, and boots are just memories of what ought to be”.  Captains off barges now moored at Wolverhampton Level had shown the reporter “journey bills showing that during the previous six months they had not received an average of 30 shillings in wages between the two men in the crew that FMC allowed for.  At 15 shillings a week, this was barely 40 per cent of normal worker’s wages.  

 W Shepherd, a union organiser who had spent “the best part of his life along the canals” had briefed a clearly sympathetic Industrial Correspondent of the Daily Herald with great effect. (Daily Herald, 24 August 1923.    Area 5 (later Region 5) of the TGWU, a land-locked part of the union covering central England, no doubt preparing hard for the fight of its life on the canals of the Midlands, and with new recruits amongst bargees coming in hard and fast,  had put right at the start of the dispute to the union’s General Executive Council (GEC) that it be allowed to form a Waterways Trade Group. This was denied as the membership was so relatively small. (TGWU GEC Minute 697, 14thAugust 1923 p10)      

The strike lasted for fourteen weeks and involved 684 men and their families working mainly for FMC but the Chester and Liverpool Lighterage Company, and The Midlands and Coast Canal Carrying Company also became involved. Small carriers, such as Green and Walker, that worked as contractors for FMC were also caught up in the stoppage, but many were sympathetic to the boat people. 

One of the weakest areas organised by the TGWU at this stage was Trent Navigation Company but its employees were not without militancy or support.  Seven strikers employed by FMC and all their families went into Nottingham in late August to collect their strike pay from W Pendleton and P W Boyle of the TGWU. Although the local paper reported them as being from the United Vehicle Workers, which had entered the amalgamation the year before, this was almost certainly the Nottingham City tramway branch. Anyway, having met up with them to hand strike pay over but they also promptly took the lot of them off and entertained them to a substantial meal”! (Nottingham Journal – 28 August 1923)

The boat Cassandra, probably on contract to FMC, was involved in a row over bringing the FMC steamer Speedwell, laden with 17 tons of sugar, and possibly tea, which would be classed as a perishable cargo, into Braunston wharf to unload. FMC’s management claimed it was entitled to unload Speedwell but, when this was attempted, the entrance arm to the wharf was blocked to prevent, or at least delay, the cargo’s transfer to road vehicles. With feelings running high, an FMC manager, a Mr Harris, was allegedly thrown into the canal by the captain of Cassandra, Joseph Roberts. 

Four or five police were placed on constant watch round Braunstone, Northamptonshire where many boats and their crew of families congregated to sit out the strike, although some hovered around wharves in the central Birmingham district, where the company’s offices were based. Two photographs were taken of boats moored in Birmingham during the strike, but it is certain that boats also gathered at Wolverhampton, Nottingham, Coventry, Leicester and Market Drayton. 

Events at Braunstone are the most documented, perhaps giving rise to a perception that the canal folk working for FMC were from that area. In fact, almost all boat families hailed from the Black Country, where FMC had originated.  A boat named Australia was the only boat at Braunston when the strike began and this was probably loaded with coke used as fuel for steaming vessels, which was usually brought from Leamington Spa or Rugby gas works and kept at Braunston as a sort of halfway mark. Reinforcing that the boats were going nowhere, many were secured together with chains rather than being loosely tied with ropes to moorings, as would normally be the case on a stop.  In Braunston, boatmen set up swings for the children in a field opposite the basin. 

The resulting strike was managed by 42-year-old Sam Brooks, sent from the TGWU’s West Bromwich office for the period of the strike. Lodging for the period at the Ship Hotel, by the wharf entrance at Braunston, Brooks made a big impression, despite his lack of experience of the canal trade. A tall, well-built man, he must have known that striking is often a waiting game. The way he organised a wide range of social activities for the men and their families, keeping an already close community even closer, was impressive. After a period of service in the Royal Navy, Brooks worked at Spreckley’s Brewery at Worcester, becoming an officer of the National Union of Vehicle Workers in 1919, one of the founding unions of the TGWU. (The Record, XXXVIII – April 1958)

A sad event during the strike would have drawn the canal people even closer. Strikers turned out in large numbers for the funeral of 12-year-old Edward Walker, who fell from his father’s butty (an unpowered but towed vessel) during the strike and drowned.  The cortege walked from the Castle Inn, where the body had been resting, to the church. As the Rugby Advertiser reported: “Many of the followers carried touching bouquets of wildflowers to place on the coffin.”

Sam Brooks appears in many surviving contemporary photographs, hunted down in recent years by canal enthusiasts, easily identified by a distinctive trilby hat. ((Several strike photographs are preserved in Charles Hadlow’s album in the British Waterways Archive.)

The President of the TGWU, an honorary position only ever used once, the Labour MP Harry Gosling, who was also National Secretary of the Waterways Trade Group, appears in some of the images, taken during a solidarity visit in September. 

While in Braunston, Gosling emphasised the need for the organisation of canal workers in order to improve working and living conditions.  He focused strongly on the importance of regular schooling for boat children, who he spoke directly to: “When I got among the children and they heard who I was, they began to enquire if the strike was over. I told them I was very sorry, but it was not over yet. They did not appear to mind in the least, though I thought it would be bad news for them. In fact, they seemed relieved, so I asked why they wanted to know. They told me enthusiastically that because of the strike they had been able to go to school.”

The resulting strike brought to a halt virtually all long-distance traffic on the canals between London, the Midlands and north-east England.  There was still stalemate by September, when a “lively scene” occurred at Crescent Wharf when an attempt was made to unload a boat load of wheat on the towpath. Three office employees of FMC tried to tow the barge to the wharf for unloading but strikers quickly manoeuvred their boats to block the entire canal.  Boat families then indulged in “jeering and booing”. Although a police superintendent and several of his men were present, along with union officials, the actions of the bargees were not thought to justify police interference. The strike was now biting on the Liverpool canals and was being referred to as a national canal workers’ dispute.  (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 8th September 1923)

FMC’s hard stance continued, especially when, in October, all the strikers were sent formal notice from FMC’s solicitors that as they had “ceased work without proper notice”, the company required them to “forthwith quit the cabin which you occupied as their servant’. The TGWU advised their members to ignore the provocation.  (Rugby Advertiser, 2 November 1923) 

Eventually, the dispute was taken to arbitration and an Industrial Court imposed an adjusted reduction of 5 per cent to take effect in two equal instalment stages on 19th November and 18th December 1923. The union rightly claimed this as something of a victory since they had succeeded in sustaining a lengthy strike involving a significant number of men by the standards of the sector. Most importantly, teaching the employers a lesson, they had won recognition, arbitration and a revision of the employers’ proposals. 

But many commentators have in recent years assumed that this was bluster, perhaps applying modern eyes, used to perpetual wage increases. But the two-year period after 1921 had been replete with negotiators across all sectors arguing about how much wages would be cut. This experience faded a little only to reappear strongly in the 1931-2 period. The bargees were fighting to limit the damage, just like everyone else at the time – and they succeeded.

Contrary to past assumptions, it is now clear that the dispute still rumbled on until December,  making it almost a  five not three months event, whilst it is necessary to consider the outcome at the end of the year, not in the hiatus when an all-out stoppage took place to be clear about victory or defeat.  Whilst bargees would continue to be subject to collective bargaining for another half century, something hardly ever mentioned in accounts of the events of 1923.

Factors that seem to be poorly grasped in accounts popularised by modern narrow boat enthusiasts focus on the fact that the Watermen had been brought into the amalgamation by Harry Gosling in the wake of support, especially on the Rover Thames by lightermen. As it turned out, they were now tied to a national wage award focusing on dockers made by an inquiry headed by Lord Shaw in 1920, which resulted in detested cuts every year thereafter. Even lowly bargees were affected by all this, although the short-lived breakaways of coastal maritime workers did not extent much to the canals. But Gosling had much to deliver in the circumstances and this impacted importantly on the nature of the victory canal workers gained. 

There were 56 barges lying at Braunston in early September when an attempt to unload three of them “now lying idle at Braunston in consequence of the boatmen’s strike….was made on Saturday and although the presence of about 30 members of the Northamptonshire Constabulary suggested that some disorder was expected, the matter was temporarily arranged in a manner between the two parties”.  (Rugby Advertiser – 7 September 1923)

On Wednesday there were lively scenes when aa further attempt to unload the barges was made and the strikers were at times threatening and the women became very excited. Ultimately it was agreed the barges should be unloaded, and four transport lorries, which were held up in the morning by a picket, were able to take the sugar to Birmingham.

Manoeuvres commenced after 8am on Saturday with the arrival of about 25 policemen under Superintendent Brumley, of Northampton, Inspector Hobell, of Wellingborough, Inspector Barkley, of Brackley, Sergeants Dunkley, Gupwell, Roughton, and Jowers. They were placed at all points leading to the wharf belong to Fellows, Morton and Clayton and everyone except the people living on the boats were ordered off. It was found that the three barges which had cargos of  about 30 tons of sugar and tea had been removed from the wharf, where they had lain until Thursday, and put into the canal, and that the entrance to the wharf had been closed by four barges loaded with barrel of pitch, belonging to the Midland and Coast Canal Company of Wolverhampton. 

A tug of war commenced when four of the employees and owners of the boats attempted to move those blocking the arm. Weighted by the strikers and put in such a position that they were difficult to pull from the place, it was some time before they could be moved, and then the men on the boats promptly pulled them back again,  whilst from a field opposite a crowd chiefly composed of women – for all captains of barges were on their boats – cheered them and uttered such witticisms as they could think of and deemed appropriate to the occasion. 

There were now 375 men, women, and children at Braunston holding up 600 tons of sugar and an undocumented amount of other goods from travelling to their market in the Midlands.  Police were billeted in the village over the weekend after “motor lorries” which had been sent from Birmingham to pick up the sugar were turned away by pickets at Willoughby Wharf, across the county line, about five miles south of Rugby.  This is on the northern section of the Oxford Canal between Braunston Turn, where the Grand Union and Oxford Canals meet and Rugby Wharf Arm Junction to the north.

On the Sunday, “upwards of 50 men were marshalled by Mr S Brooks” their families and many of the villagers turned out to join them in a service at All Saints Church in Braunston. The Reverend Humphries said that the bargees had “gained the admiration of the whole parish while they have been there”. Seemingly, on the part of both the community and the local newspaper, it was commented that “Mr Brooks is to be congratulated on the way he leads the men, who all treat him with admiration and respect”.    

Now, an “armistice emerged” and a meeting between Mr Anderson for FMC and Sam Brooks agreed that the offending obstructing barges should be moved, and three awaiting unloading be towed to where they had been previously moored until further arrangements were made.  On this basis, no other boats would be moved while the strike lasted and, out of this goodwill, aa promise not to victimise any of the strikers extracted. The strikers were now reported as contending that “as the lines and straps, and the gear necessary for working the boats, are their property, no other person can use them”. (Rugby Advertiser 7 September 1923) 

This issue would become centrally relevant to the dispute, since a decision of  the Court of Exchequer, which became defunct in the late 19th century but the precedents of which still held force, made the boatment wholly responsible for all cargo from the point of loading to the point of discharge, thus preventing claims against canal carriers for lost cargo.  Since a striking boat could be held to be still in transit, any attempt by FMC to unload the boats could be taken as breaching this, as well as potentially putting towing and mooring ropes at risk, equipment FMC obliged its employees to purchase and which remained their property. 

The uneasy truce negotiated around this expired on the Wednesday and the cargo was sent westward but only from eight o’clock in the evening; it had taken all day for the authorities to get aaround the bargee offensive.  The alert had been sounded by the leader’s whistle at fifteen hours before, at 5am when it became clear something was afoot. A cycle corps of pickets, surely the first ever `flying pickets’, was imediately sent out to Dunchurch to greet the lorries as they made their way to the cargo.  But police arrived in cars and escorted the scab vehicles to Braunstone where they got a hostile reception. A day of baattle commenced.

FMC white collar staff tried to wrestle control over, threatening to cut ropes. Bargemen crawled all over the boats and managers seemed set to fall in the canal. Gramophones and melodians were produced and played by the women who “danced the hornpipe, reels, and Highland flings on the towing path and cheered themselves by singing popular songs”. About 11 o’clock in the morning, Sam Brooks received a telegram and read it out, saying that the canal families “had the support of the whole of the Transport and General Workers Union behind them”.    The Chief Constable arrived and consulted with the leaders of both sides. The Strike Committee met “to which Mr Anderson was summonsed”. Eveerything went quiet until 2.30 pm when Brook blew the whiistle and read an agreement that he and Anderson had signed. Speedwell and Rose Agnes, which had five tins of tea would be unloaded on to lorries but nothing else would be moved for the duration. The captain of the Speedwell refused to untie ropes, or permit them to be cut, leaving Anderson to fumble his way to slow release. After five slow hours of unloading to constant booing and whistling, the goods left the wharf.    

It is a deficiency of past comment on the dispute that the perception that the TGWU, which became a general union and was subject to ridicule by other apprentice-trained workers in some industries as not being sufficiently skilled, to imagine that the domestic lives of bargees were somehow  a comment on their skilled status. But living, as it were, on the hoof, in cramped conditions, was not the same as living rough or dirty. Being exploited and despised by others was not the same as not having pride in craft.      

On the contrary, centuries of craftsmanship and the intrigue that went with the art of mystification of a valuable skill was at root here. If a capitalist employer often supplied the basis infrastructure, the barge, the workers brought both their skilled labour and accoutrements of their trade. Just as aa bricklayer worked the boss’s bricks and mortar with his trowel, or an engineer set the boss’s lathe with his micrometer screw gauge, so too did the bargemaster employ his own ropes, leathers, and chains in speedy and skilful ways that amazed others.     

Like its competitor the Workers’ Union, which it later absorbed, the TGWU has always had an element of skill trades in its membership. Always evident in the Waterways Trade Group, this became added to with the addition of craft unions as varied as vehicle builders, plasterers, and even pilots in the latter part of the 20th century. Being general did not necessarily equate to being unskilled and the prestige of being part of the wider world of skilled watermen would have been a powerful draw from the amalgamation.  

Today, whilst the vocation of boatman is not widely employed on Britain’s canals, the navigation of which are largely the preserve of the amateur, European comparability exercises have resulted in a recognised professional standard for water transport applying in all ports, on rivers, and on canals. Generally requiring five years’ experience and training, especially in mooring, helmsmen are subject to extensive training.  There are standards of competence, statutory instruments, and workplace operational standards to comply with.    

It took FMC two months to get to grips with this new logic, which turned the capitalist property ethos on its head. Only in November, after the bargees used their labour power over the boats to inhibit trade, did FMC retaliate by seeking an injunction for the return of their property, the boats. These, the barge masters had conspired to prevent from being available in a way only they were skilled in performing, although barge mates would no doubt be aware of what remains a trade secret. Bargemasters tried to explain that they “in conformity with an old Watermen’s custom have remained in possession of their craft”.  What reporters could grasp was that the boats were padlocked in threes with intertwined chains, enabling the shifting of the chain in a trick kept as secret as a Magic Circle prestidigitator would, so that the lock reimagined under the water, all cunningly organised in a complex manner known as “the Waterman’s riddle”. (Sheffield Independent – 9 November 1923) Now you see it, now you don’t! Not one bargee, or former bargee, ever revealed exactly how the riddle worked. 

Frustrated beyond common sense, FMC’s injunction for the return of their property was heard at a court hearing on 9thNovember 1923. The TGWU was cited in the application since Sam Brooks was refusing to allow the company access to “a number of barges at Brentford”. (TGWU GEC Minute 782, 12 November 1923) The workers had stuck again and were blocking the main route from the Midlands into London. In the course of this, FMC boatmen would certainly have mingled with long-unionised Thames watermen at the Six Bells Inn at Brentford, which lies at the confluence of the River Brent and the River Thames.  Brentford Dock was a major trans-shipment location lining the railways, canals, and rivers to the Port of London. The final lock on the Grand Union canal is located there and it can be said to be the gateway to London and trade routes to the Empire.   

So specialised was the Six Bells that the custom was that the landlord would provide its water transport customers with a free copy of the annual tide tables for the navigation of the river.  In a more general sense, canal boatmen were always in contact with all port and dock workers, but it would seem to be London dockers that had forged links that led to the 1923 strike. It seems certain that London dockers were behind the new blockade, tantalisingly so close to the River Thames and the Port of London, enabling perhaps a tenth of the entire country’s freight to pass back and forth.  As late as the 1950s, Morris cars from Oxford were being exported through this route.   

Fred Potter, an officer of the union with a very left-wing reputation who had been a stern critic of Bevin during the recent docks strike, was seen on board FMC boats at Brentford and thus served a restraining writ on 6 November.  He is known to have been close to Fred Thompson, who had been London District Secretary of the dockers’ union before the merger and who is usually closely associated with the Communist leader, Harry Pollitt, in accounts of the refusal of dockers to load munitions on to the ship, Jolly George, which should have been bound for Poland’s fight against Soviet Russia in 1920. Although Thompson was associated with the Minority Movement, a kind of early `broad left’, led by the Communist Party, the preferred left-wing stance in British unionism was more a kind of `constitutional militancy’, erring just in the side of not breaching union rules and regulations as to not be thrown out of mass organisations. Yet, after the General Strike of 1926, circumstances caused the creation of a breakaway from the TGWU, by no means the first or the last, the National Union of Transport & Allied Workers. But this does not seem to have taken off at all. (A Bullock. The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, I, Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940[1960])

Sam Brooks now made an offer of a return to work, but only if status quo ante was conceded whilst the issues were put to arbitration, meaning that the employer would have to back down on the full pay cut. The judge adjourned the hearing for one week to enable a bargaining solution. The GEC endorsed all actions of President Gosling, which would appear to have been militant and supportive of the bargees. Unambiguously, the demand of the workers and their union was arbitration over the cuts and the establishment of a mutual collective bargaining framework.  (TGWU GEC Minutes 912,913, 12 November 1923) 

The adjourned court hearing of 16 November 1923 saw FMC finally concede arbitration on mutually agreed terms of reference.  The Minister of Labour would be asked to appoint an arbitrator who, after hearing all submissions, would decide whether the employer’s stated reasons were justification for reducing wages. Two days later, it was clear that the bargees had accepted the union’s recommendation to return to work and, on the morning of 19 November 1923 some boats began to move. 

The TGWU had no hesitation in publicly declaring the fact that the main employer had agreed to untrammelled arbitration meant that this was complete victory.  (Daily Herald, 17 November 1923) After all, it is exactly what the workers had been consistently asking for three months total strike involving the mooring of 500 boats, followed by a guerrilla struggle, comparable to a factory occupation – except the barges were their home! In the context off the difficult economic conditions of the time and the scattered nature of the workforce, whatever the material outcome, a complete change in power relationships had emerged from the strength of the canal workers and the solidarity of other waterways and port workers with them.

Arbitration on the case took place at the industrial court which met in London on 20 November. After hearing evidence from both sides it decided that “the average reduction of 6.47 per cent proposed by the company went further than was necessary”, though it expressed the opinion that, with the revival of trade after the cessation of the strike, FMC should be capable of paying a fair remuneration to its employees. An outcome very similar to that which Bevin had forced through on the docks emerged of two staged reductions of 2.5 per cent. Other companies that had become involved in the strike, such as the Midland & Coast Canal Company and the Chester & Liverpool Lighterage Company Ltd would go along with the settlement imposed upon FMC.

Only now did relatively normal work resume. But “in view of the congested state of the canals some delay in resuming work would be occasioned in many instances, and also, in view of the fact that certain of the employers had disposed of the horses utilised on the towpaths prior to the dispute”. Since many TGWU members were simply unable to start work due to this short sighted cost cutting (the employers would have had to feed and house the horses for the duration), the union’s  General Executive Council (GEC) agreed to pay dispute benefit up to and including December 8th. (TGWU Minute 912, 20th November 1923)

Some benefited from payments after even that, with the Finance & General Purposes Committee (F&GPC) being authorised to assist with special payments.  A knock-on effect to the Manchester Ship Canal even required special dispute pay as 26 TGWU members employed on barges and lighters owned by its Bridgewater Department had been laid off by the dispute for up to ten weeks due to the absence of cargos bound for Liverpool and beyond.  (TGWU GEC Minutes 912-3, 20 November 1923)

A renewed sense of vigour arose in the December 1923 general election when the Tories, although being the largest party could not form a government. Albeit a minority government Labour formed a government in which Gosling was Minister of Transport.   When a dispute affecting the entire ports, sector looked like happening the following year, it seemed certain that canal workers would be asked to strike to prevent bulk food distribution. (Yorkshire Evening Post 20 February 1924; Dundee Evening Telegraph 20 February 1924)  

The sense of power and strength that the TGWU ports membership must have brought to canal workers cannot be understated but previous commentators seem not to have understood the connection.  Yet both the 1923 and 1924 annual TUCs saw the TGWU significantly prioritise canal workers.  Clearly, the regard for each other was mutual. The TGWU successfully proposed a motion in 1923 that urged the Government to end the “deplorable conditions” associated with limiting the number of residents “living in” on board boats. It also demanded TUC support for facilities for the education of the children of boatmen and to compel local authorities to provide “reasonable accommodation” at large centres by canal sides.  Extending the Workmen’s Compensation Act, which provided monetary awards for accidents at work, to cover all canal workers was the final demand. (TUC Report 1923, p390) Whilst in 1924, escalating the importance  of canals to the highest level of agenda, the union moved a motion at congress calling for the major development of the canal system, which would not only be a great addition as a “national asset” but would also have the added benefit of providing mass employment, thus alleviating unemployment. In addition, the motion went back to the issues raised in 1923. (TUC Report p371)   Bargees were prepared to strike in solidarity in 1924 out of loyalty to the union but were not ultimately convinced to leave the TGWU. 

Another factor that seems to have clouded retrospective judgement is that arbitration did not then have the bad reputation that it would acquire in modern times. Indeed, the system that Britain’s employer-employee relations machinery very much focused on Industrial Courts. This stemmed from an act of the government that empowered its appointment, created by the Industrial Courts Act of 1919, which was empowered to settle disputes. Following the recommendations of the Whitley Committee on the Relations of Employers and Employed in 1917, Whitley Councils were established in individual industries for the negotiation of overall wages, conditions and problems of management. These led to Joint Industrial Councils in many sectors, a sort of voluntary system of sectoral collective bargaining.  The acceptance of the TGWU Waterways Trade Group as the bargainer for FMC employees would go on to further development, again something not much commented on by those previously celebrating 1923. 

Midlands canal boatmen are known to have strictly observed the General Strike of 1926, whilst haulage increasingly went to rail and road, the former was well-unionised, the latter poorly.  After the strike, from 1938 until he retired in 1944, Sam Brooks would focus on the growing road haulage industry as Area Trade Group Secretary for Road Transport (Commercial), replacing John Corrin of Birmingham who went on to become National Secretary. (Brooks died in 1958.)

The canal children’s’ voluntary school that had thrived during the strike was long gone when, in 1929, Harry Gosling, introduced a Private Members’ Bill proposing to remove children from working canal boats during school term time. But the Bill got nowhere by the time Gosling had died. The truth is that, despite the hope that their children would do better than them in life, practical and economic calculations never warmed canal workers’ families to the idea, especially the women, who relied on children to ease the hard burdens they had.  

In the 1930s, in the inland freight sector, waterways would decline as road haulage became a major competitor to the extent of undermining the profitability of railways. A Royal Commission on Transport meeting from 1929 to 1931 finally condemned the anarchy and wasteful competition. In a meek approach to the problem, in 1933, the National Government introduced the Road and Rail Traffic Act’s differential licensing system, separating out general haulers, carrying goods for oneself, and mixed self-haulage and for customers. Only very light touch regulation was involved, although quantity licencing applied to holders of all but total self-haulage in accordance with perceived needs.

There was no sign of defeat amongst the bargees, as sectoral agreements began to come thick and fast over the next ten to fifteen years covering inland waterways. The growing influence of the Transport and General Workers’ Union as a negotiating body for canal labour can be traced through the number of agreements it made in the 1920s with employers operating on all the canals of England. 

An agreement on trip and tonnage rates for canal boatmen employed by the Severn & Canal Carrying Company was reached in 1927, between Gloucester and Birmingham district, including Wolverhampton and other places in South Staffs, and the Stourbridge Canal.  A Boatmen’s Wage Rates Agreement and Working Rules was voluntarily created by the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company Conciliation Board in the early 1930s and this was improved on and revised in 1937.  In parallel with this, inland waterways joint industrial councils for national and regional levels began to be established. 

As part of a negotiated process, GUCCC began to make improvements to cabin accommodation through its own Conciliation Board, which folded into National and Regional Joint Councils for the Inland Waterways Industry, when these were established. Dried milk and vitamin supplements were distributed through GUCCC depots and travellers’ vouchers were issued for medical treatment and other welfare entitlements. Exceptionally, but like many manufacturing firms in the Midlands, the company heavily contributed to the men’s Saturday Hospital Fund subscriptions.  GUCCC also paid an honorarium to Sister Mary Ward at Braunston for medical services. She and her husband ran a small business in a shed by the side of Lock 15, which became an unofficial surgery for boat people, which she initially subsidised herself.  In time, she became a consultant nurse and midwife to boatmen and their families, acting as advisor to the mostly uneducated canal folk. 

If this was by far the best employer, Birmingham and Black Country TGWU canal workers were still the most militant, so far, the last discovered industrial action taken by them seems to have been in 1938. But they would be at the forefront of the canal schools’ movement in the post war era.

The Trent Navigation Company was the last to hold out against recognition, until independent arbitration forced it in 1936 but the company was on its last legs. The following year, the bulk of the Nottingham Canal was closed except for the stretch through Nottingham, from Trent Bridge to the junction with the Beeston Canal at Lenton and this was taken over by Trent Navigation. In 1940, the company ceased to exist in 1940, when it was taken over by the Trent River Catchment Board.

Both the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company and Fellows Morton and Clayton embarked on expansion programmes. But in the run up to the war, some companies were experiencing labour shortages as younger workers found the way of life on the boats unacceptable.  During the Second World War, canals again came under government control.  

In 1943 an all-encompassing National Joint Industrial Council for the Inland Waterways Industry was created, which permitted things like sugar to be supplied free of charge or ration on the boats. Health schemes were adopted and a joint approach to the design of new boats adopted. Wage levels rose slightly, and although reform of the family boating system was never achieved and, except on the stretch between Birmingham and the Severn, there was no over-arching minimum hourly rate, national agreements for long distance and short distance boatmen with some minimum weekly wages and charges payable by customers for delayed operations laid down.  

The Midlands Canal Boatmen’s Wages Board, which had been founded as far back as 1920, had continued to meet to negotiate agreements on pay and working conditions, now merged with the West Midland Joint Council for the Inland Waterways Industry, also formed in 1943.

Women crews were trained in order to try to remedy the labour shortage, but these complained of the low wage levels, although some of this arose from inexperience. When lodging, travelling and other expenses were considered the wages were probably not very different to those earned in munitions factories. Even so, an intensive recruitment drive via Labour Exchanges failed to produce new boatmen, although the failure to consider how a crew bonded might have been a problem. 

The 1945 Labour government introduced nationalisation of the whole road haulage industry, although self-haulage was eventually exempted from the Transport Act of 1947.  At the same time, the new, publicly owned British Waterways took over control of the canal system. In February 1945, the Ministry of Education had met members of the National Association of Canal Carriers to consider the implications on the sector for school attendance as required by the 1944 Education Act but not much came from this. A rare exception was Birmingham Education Authority, which established a hostel in Erdington in 1952, accommodating thirty canal boat children during term time, and allowed them to attend local schools at other times. 

Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd carried on into the post-war era, its business diminishing every year until the first six months of 1948 saw it incur its first trading loss of £5,000. To put that into context, the average wage at the time was about £4 a week, so the loss would have been enough to pay 125 workers for a year.  Measuring worth across history is notoriously difficult but, with average earnings in 2019 around £500 a week, the loss would have been around £62,500. But the writing was on the wall and, in November 1948, the company went into voluntary liquidation, with agreement that its assets would be taken over by the British Transport Commission on 1 January 1949. By 1951, some 3,700 businesses had passed into the control of the British Transport Commission and integrated as British Road Services.  

After nationalisation, the industry continued trying to attract new labour and regional canal committees were required to submit recruitment and training schemes. In the 1950s the nationalised canal carrying industry was again complaining of crew shortages.  Perhaps this explains the crop of new “canal schools that appeared in the 1950s and early 1960s? As early as 1930, a floating open-air school was provided for the education of 40 canal children in West Drayton. Fully qualified teachers were to be supplied by the Middlesex county council (Daily Herald – 14 July 1930).

In the post war era, in Coventry, Major Fielding of the Salvation Army and his wife were stout defenders of the canal folk and lived on a canal boat themselves. Fielding’s parents had kept a canal side shop in Buckinghamshire and now he ran a voluntary school in a hut.  Although there was a special school at Brentford, most of barge children got there no more than a day or two in a month. “Each night during the winter anything up to 60 alert children will crowd into a tiny hut on the misty banks of Coventry Canal, not far from the giant water-coolers of Longford Power Station to learn to sing songs about Jesus and write their own name”. (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 18 November 1954)

The carriage of bulky, non-perishable, and non-vital goods by water was still feasible on some inland waterways but when the especially cold winter of 1962–63 kept goods icebound on the canals for three months some remaining customers departed to road and rail haulage to ensure supply. Canal traffic slowed with the change from coal to oil, and the closure of factories on the towpath.  Amongst the last long-distance cargoes were coal from the Midlands to Dickinson’s paper mills at Croxley, near Watford, and the Kearley & Tonge Jam Factory at Southall, both of which ceased in 1970.  Lime juice was carried from Brentford to Boxmoor, Hemel Hempstead, until 1981, while aggregates were carried on the River Soar until 1988.

The TGWU’s Waterways Trade Group and its Docks Group were merged as major reorganisation of all transport occurred. Over many decades, independent unions in the sector joined the Transport & General Workers Union, growing the variety of membership in what would finally become the Docks, Waterways, & Fishing Trade Group. Eventually, the T&G took into Unite its dominant role in inland and estuarial and coastal waterways, involving pilots, tug-boat crews, bargemen, and lightermen (some of whom are now even women!). 

Although their job roles and the character of their employer are fundamentally different, Unite’s membership in British Waterways’ successor from 2012, the Canal and River Trust, trading as Scottish Canals north of the border, continues to care for the two thousand miles of our nation’s historic waterways. Thus, a direct line of descent exists between the bargees of 1923 and today.  

Sources: Numerous local newspapers; TGWU GEC Minutes 1923; Birmingham Daily Gazette; Wendy Freer (1991) Canal boat people, 1840-1970. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. Access from the University of Nottingham repository:; Richard Thomas, Picturing the Past,, Spring 2012; K B Sherwood,  The canal boatmen’s strike of 1923, Journal of Transport History, September 1986.


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