This is the text of the chapter “The Steam Narrow Boat” from C.P. and C.R Weaver’s definitive book “Steam on Canals”, published by David & Charles in 1983.
It provides an excellent introduction to the craft researched in this website. The book is available through specialist booksellers or on the Internet under ISBN 0-7153-8218-7
The Steam Narrow Boat
The cargo-carrying steam narrow boat was always something of a rarity because the space taken up by the smallest steam plant so reduced the carrying capacity that the boat became uneconomic unless it towed at least one other craft. Such operation was practical only on long, lock-free stretches of canal, or on a wide canal where both boats could use the same lock; thus the steam narrow boat was largely confined to the wide Grand Junction Canal and its narrow connections to Birmingham and Leicester. The most successful operator of such boats was Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd, who got results by working their craft really hard. Even so, the small FMC fleet fell somewhat short of the perfection with which legend has endowed it.
Attempts to perfect steam road vehicles in the 1820s led to the first light and compact steam engines capable of being fitted into a canal boat. Probably the first to install a steam engine into a narrow boat was John McCurdy, who in 1826 attempted a voyage from London to Oxford in a boat fitted with his patent `duplex steam generators' and propelled by a rear-mounted paddle wheel that could be lifted inboard while passing through locks. The duplex generator was a form of flash boiler in which water was sprayed into a number of small iron cylinders set around the furnace, one of the first reasonably successful low-water-content, high-pressure boilers. In 1828 McCurdy made a successful trip from London to Manchester in the same boat, or one quite like it, and on this trip hauled a butty. His contemporary, David Gordon, the inventor of bottled gas, tried hard to establish regular steam services between London, Bristol, the Midlands and Merseyside in the late 1820s. Such plans were nullified by the overnight success of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway and subsequent railway construction.
In 1837 John Ericsson tested his newly invented screw propeller in a narrow boat fitted out by his good friends Braithwaite, Milner & Co. This boat, too, made a successful London-Manchester trip and subsequently operated a regular service over this route for a few months. Ericsson had failed by a few weeks to be the first with a truly workable screw propeller, and shortly afterwards he emigrated to the United States. Eight years later the Birmingham engineer John Inshaw built the first of his notable twin-screw canal steamers. Among his pupils who worked on later versions of this boat was William Stroudley, later to find fame as Locomotive Superintendent of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway. Inshaw's success was due to the use of simple and well-tried equipment. Located right in the stern of the boat was a small locomotive type boiler beneath which was the crankshaft of a two-cylinder horizontal engine, one cylinder lying either side of the boiler. From bevel gears at the outer ends of this shaft were driven the twin propeller shafts. The large blade area and low speed of Inshaw's twin propellers gave a high propulsive efficiency and the wash produced was correspondingly small in relation to the useful work done. This was demonstrated in 1859 when the Midland Railway, owners of the Ashby Canal, banned the Inshaw steamer Pioneer on the familiar grounds of bank erosion. The dispute went to the Court of Chancery, whereupon Mr W. Pole was engaged to investigate the MR's claims. He found that the wash was not damaging below 4mph, and the court ruled that steam craft should be permitted to operate subject to observance of a speed limit. This set the fashion for other waterways.
The success of Pioneer encouraged the Grand Junction Canal to build some steamers for its Carrying Department, set up a few years earlier and never really profitable. Their first boat, too, was named Pioneer, but it was a very different affair from its namesake. It was designed by Edwyn Elliott, who was the engineer in charge of the company's boat dock at City Road Basin. Elliott's machinery was more modern than Inshaw's and his layout established the classic form of motor narrow boat that has survived to the present day, the engine-room being a forward extension of the cabin. To save space, a vertical-flue boiler was used, which supplied steam at 75psig to a large single-cylinder engine. The vertical-flue boiler was a type that would not appeal to a present-day boiler inspector, for having an annular flue surrounding the circular firebox it was impossible to inspect much of the internal structure. The earliest engines had cylinders 9in bore x 8in stroke (8nhp) and generally ran at about 180rpm, cut-off being 50 per cent. A large, two bladed Griffith's propeller was fitted, this being an unusual design with a large spherical boss and blades angled forwards. Later boats had engines of l0nhp (8in x l0in) or 12nhp (7in x 12in). An idea of how they worked is given by the records for Dart, launched in 1864. In her first twelve months of service, she covered 11,280 miles, towing a butty, and carried 3,182 tons of cargo. This is equivalent to thirty-eight round trips between London and Birmingham with an average load of 42 tons, only one-third of which would be carried in the steamer. Though somewhat short of later Fellows, Morton achievements, this was still hard work and probably meant running round the clock with duplicate, all-male crews.
The GJCC's Carrying Department was never a success and came to an abrupt end in 1876 when the company counted the cost of the disastrous explosion in Regent's Park on 2 October 1874, caused by a spark from a GJCC steamer igniting a cargo of gunpowder.*
* Although the official investigation determined that the cause of the explosion was petroleum fumes from a leaking barrel had been ignited by the oil lamp in the cabin
The effects of the Carrying Department were sold in October 1876 and included twenty steam `tugs', as the cargo-carrying boats were officially termed.
Most of them went to a new company headed by Joshua Fellows, this concern later becoming Fellows, Morton & Co. The fleet was gradually modernised, either by rebuilding the old boats or replacing them with new ones. A new design of engine was introduced, devised by their engineer, W. H. Haines. The `Haines' engine was a vertical tandem compound, and may well have been produced by fitting a new high-pressure cylinder to the existing Elliott engines, the original cylinder becoming the low-pressure one. Compounding meant the use of higher steam pressures, and many of the early FMC boats had the newly patented Cochrane vertical boiler. In 1889 Fellows, Morton & Co amalgamated with two other concerns to form Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd. The steamer fleet was increased by four craft in this operation, these having two-cylinder simple engines though otherwise similar to the old GJCC craft, but of more importance was the acquisition of the Saltley (Birmingham) boat dock formerly belonging to William Clayton & Co. This was to be the birthplace of many FMC steamers during the next twenty-three years.
The definitive FMC steamer, as built around 1900, was of composite construction (iron sides, elm bottom) and fitted with a 'Haines' engine made by FMC themselves. The Cochrane boiler gave way to a small `Scotch' return-tube one in boats built or reboilered after 1895. A typical engine had cylinders 5in/10in bore x 10in stroke, using steam at 110psig and developing about 11 bhp at 160rpm. A large, three-bladed propeller was fitted. The boats could run condensing or non-condensing at will, a feature which did not make for the most efficient use of steam, nor indeed of compounding. They were worked hard, being on the move day and night except when stopped for loading or by a canal stoppage. The average pair of boats would make fifty-two round trips between London and Birmingham in a year. An all-male complement of six was carried, split into two working crews of three who changed places at set points along the canal rather than at set times. Despite this intensive working, the boats were not entirely satisfactory, either mechanically or financially. The use of three bearings on the propeller shafts of earlier craft was a mistake in something as flexible as a narrow boat, and there were numerous breakdowns until one of the bearings was eliminated. There were, too, many cases where boats or boilers were damaged by careless handling. One wonders how many boats were damaged because their single-crank engines chose to stop on centre at the wrong moment, as for example when entering a lock. FMC tried numerous alternatives to steam, but in 1912 settled on the extremely simple and highly reliable Bolinder two-stroke oil engine. Adoption of this legendary power plant spelt the end of steam (and horse) traction as far as FMC were concerned. Not only was it more economical but it occupied only half the space of the steam plant, thus increasing the carrying capacity of the motor boat by 5 tons, and as it did not require a full-time engineer it enabled boat crews to be reduced. But for World War 1, it is likely that FMC's steamers would have disappeared before 1920; they were, however, reprieved and ran until 1927. A few lasted even longer in the hands of smaller carriers.
There were some belated attempts to build `modern' steamers using steam-lorry power plant. One such was the Sentinel of 1927, which as its name suggests used the engine and boiler of the famous Sentinel steam wagon. The engine was a single-cylinder unit, half of a standard lorry engine in fact, but even so it was far too big. None of these craft made any impression on the growing number of diesel-engined boats because they could not overcome the dual handicap of a larger engine-room and the need for an extra crew member.
The narrow steam tug had a longer history. Such tugs were used for two distinct purposes, towing boats either for a fairly long distance on a relatively lock-free canal or through tunnels that did not possess a towing path. Once again John Inshaw led the way, when in 1855 he won the £100 prize offered by the Regent's Canal for the most practical steam tug able to haul trains of boats on that waterway. Inshaw's Birmingham was a full-length tug of similar layout to his carrying craft mentioned earlier, and though of only 8nhp was capable of hauling trains of barges weighing up to 600 tons. Two more tugs of the same design were purchased by the Regent's Canal and the trio remained in service until 1870.
The only narrow tugs to copy Inshaw's basic layout were those of the Bridgewater Canal. These, though built for a wide canal, were of only 8ft beam and like Inshaw's Birmingham had a cabin that resembled those of the earlier canal passenger boats. For this reason they were always known as `packets'. A fairly large locomotive boiler was mounted just forward of centre, and behind this was a single-cylinder horizontal engine, laid lengthways, which drove the propeller through bevel gearing. The `packets' remained steam powered until the 1920s, when they were converted to diesel power. Somewhat similar in concept, though less elegant, were the tunnel tugs of the Trent & Mersey Canal, used through Barnton and Preston Brook tunnels. These had spring-loaded wheels mounted over the sides so that they did not have to be steered while passing through the tunnel. They were the last steam tugs in service on a narrow canal when they were withdrawn in 1943.
The Grand Junction Canal built a number of steam tugs to supplement their cargo-carrying `tugs', but these were not sold when the company gave up commercial carrying. Instead they were used to operate a regular towing service through Braunston and Blisworth tunnels. These services began in 1871 and continued for something over sixty years. The early tugs had engines and boilers similar to those in the carrying fleet, but the boilers proved unable to sustain the effort needed to tow a long train of boats through a restricted channel for forty-five minutes or so and were soon replaced by locomotive type boilers. The old 'Elliott' engines proved quite satisfactory, however, and frequent rebuilding or replacement in kind kept this type alive into the 1920s. Only then did the company purchase a number of modern tugs with steel hulls and compound engines. By the early 1930s the small number of unpowered craft using the canal no longer justified regular tug services.
A number of full-length steam tugs worked long-distance services on the southern end of the Grand Junction Canal. Similar in design to contemporary carrying craft, they were generally family boats and because they had living accommodation were of necessity registered with the local public health authority. Only a handful of tugs were so registered in the whole country, those on the Grand Junction making up most of the number.