For those who don’t like living in houses, canal boats have long provided homes, and sometimes livelihoods. ADAM WEYMOUTH investigates the latest threats to these slowest of nomads.
The Canal and River Trust (CRT), the authority that manages 2,200 miles of the waterways in England and Wales, has recently announced new plans to crack down on those boats without home moorings that it deems to be violating their licence by not moving “far enough or often enough.”
CRT acts as both navigation authority and charitable trust. The network for which they are responsible took shape in the eighteenth century, rapidly expanding at the turn of the nineteenth as investors and industrialists realised the canals’ potential. At their peak, there were more than 5,000 miles of waterways in use, primarily for the transport of heavy, low cost goods: coal, pig iron, sand, grain, whilst some boats, in what was known as the fly-trade, took light loads longer distances.
Many of the boats were operated by families. With long hours, low pay, sporadic contracts and the itinerant nature of the work, it made more sense for captains to take their family with them than it did to maintain a house on land: it kept them together, and ensured a crew that didn’t require wages. Families with up to ten children lived in cabins no bigger than a couple of double beds.
It is difficult to find numbers for those who historically worked and lived on the canals: they often passed beneath the radar of the census and distinctions were not commonly made between canal boatmen and the lightermen and flatmen working the estuaries and docks. Canal historian Wendy Freer has estimated that by the middle of the nineteenth century, when trade was already in decline, that some 14,000 men were sleeping on canals boats, and a little more than 2,000 women, suggesting somewhere between seven and ten thousand boats with liveaboards (1995: 14). Children were even more difficult to count, with laws preventing overcrowding often meaning that they were offloaded onto the towpath when inspectors were rumoured, but a survey conducted by the Canal Association in 1884 found 5,700 of them (1995: 13). Despite many attempts to get children off the boats and into schools, and much hand-wringing about their moral, religious and educational degradation, it was feared that if they left then the mothers would follow, and the network that was fuelling Britain’s industrialisation would grind to a halt. Nothing was ever seriously enacted.
Yet by the 1840s the railways were drawing trade away from the waterways, and the industry began to decline. The trains first took the fly-trade, thereafter the bulkier cargos. Some trade routes remained commercially viable: a census for 1951 found 4,000 people still living and working on the network, and it was not until the end of the 1960s that carrying on the canals became almost entirely redundant. Many fell into disrepair. But come the 1980s and the number of leisure boats on the water had hit 20,000, and a combination of renewed funding and enthusiastic volunteers was bringing the system back to life. In the early 2000s the network was expanding at a faster rate than at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the number of boats climbed above 30,000, more than in its Victorian heyday.
Today there are 36,000 boats on the waterways of England and Wales. Whilst the vast majority of those are on home moorings or in marinas, some 5,000 of them have chosen to continue with the more itinerant lifestyle that the canals have always provided. Before the British Waterways Act of 1995 was passed, British Waterways, the quango responsible for managing the canals, pushed for criminalising anyone living on a boat without a home mooring, but Parliament refused. “That was argued over, I gather, quite intensely back in the day,” says Richard Parry, CEO of the Canal and River Trust (CRT), the body that took over the management of the canals when British Waterways was dissolved in 2012. The Act, when passed, enshrined the rights of the so-called continuous cruisers. “It was a recognition that the canals have always had this kind of migrant people whose working lives have been on the canals,” says Parry, “and that was part of the life of the canals that should be preserved, and indeed promoted. Which we welcomed. That’s great. The legislation provides that framework.”
Bona Fide Navigators
It is one of the few nomadic lifestyles still permitted in the UK. The licence requires boats to not remain in one place for more than 14 days, and to be used “bona fide for navigation.” There is nothing in the Act that defines how far a boat must move within the fortnightly period, how long it must remain away from one place before returning, or how ‘place’ is defined. As such, many continuous cruisers who liveaboard move so as to keep their place of work, their children’s’ school and their community within reach. Journeys are dictated by the water-points and other amenities where boaters fill their tanks and empty their toilets, and the fortnightly navigation can take several hours, with queues for locks and other facilities. It can be a tough existence, especially in winter, but the freedom of the lifestyle, the autonomy and the strong community at its heart, has made it an attractive option, particularly in cities where high rents and the anonymity of neighbours feel increasingly oppressive. Last year Greater London saw a 34% increase in continuous cruisers – in the East of London it was 85% - but numbers are still far lower number than the number of liveaboards of a couple of centuries ago.
As boat numbers have increased, there have been complaints about congestion on certain parts of the system, in particular in London and Oxford, and along the Kennet and Avon. Parry tells me that it is these complaints that have stoked the Trust’s intention to take a more active stance on enforcement. Yet not everyone agrees that the extra boats are problematic. “There’s enough space for everybody,” says Pamela Smith of the National Bargee Travellers’ Association (NBTA), a body that represents the interests of live aboard boat dwellers. “Just because there are more boats in a place than there used to be, people react as if there’s enormous congestion, and there isn’t.” Congestion, she says, if and where it is a problem, would be better solved by shoring up collapsed banks and putting mooring rings into towpaths that were concreted over several years ago when fibre-optic cables were laid, allowing boats to spread out. Many feel that the increase in boats has brought the waterways back to life. Katie, an architect I meet on the Regent’s Canal, tells me that when she first moved to London that the towpaths felt an unsafe place to walk at night: now she feels comfortable living alone on her boat, with neighbours all around her. They are full of cyclists commuting home and couples on evening strolls.
Several years ago, in an attempt to encourage boats to travel greater distances, CRT considered bringing in the requirement that all continuous cruisers should move at least 30km over the course of their licence. But when their own internal analysis showed that half of continuous cruisers ranged between two points no more than 10km apart they scraped the target, deciding that putting half of all boats into the enforcement process was unrealistic. Then head of boating Sally Ash admitted that setting a minimum distance would be an overreaching of the Trust’s powers.
How Far is Far Enough?
Yet now the Trust have enacted that same target. Writing on their website in March, under the heading “How far is far enough?”, they spelt out that “it is very unlikely that someone would be able to satisfy us that they have been genuinely cruising if their range of movement is less than 15-20 miles [24km - 32km] over the period of their licence. In most cases we would expect it to be greater than this.” Smith calls such a specification of distance “unlawful.”
Commencing in May, boaters who fail to satisfy CRT that they have been genuinely cruising will be refused a renewal of their licence, unless they take up a residential mooring. Permanent moorings in London, which can cost ten times more than a continuous cruising licence, are hard to find, especially those that have the requisite planning permission allowing boaters to live on their craft year round.
“I know there are issues with that,” says Parry, “but that’s the landscape as it stands. You can’t uninvent that but asserting that you want it to be different, anymore than you can say: ‘I wish that it was cheaper to buy a house in London, or I wish I could get a better paid job.’” If boats are being used as a response to the housing crisis, he says, it is not CRT’s concern. “Issues around provision of housing are not our responsibility,” says Parry, “and it would be a mistake for us to step into that space.” He suggests that if people are finding it problematic in London then they might think about taking their boat elsewhere, but that is unlikely to be palatable to everyone.
Parry insists that the CRT is a benign organisation, and that boaters who enter into a dialogue with them find that they have nothing to fear. As the navigation authority there is a responsibility to clamp down on those who are abusing the rules, he says, and many boaters have told him that they welcome the clarifications. “We’re not doing anything...that’s actually new in terms of a new set of rules or a new set of laws,” he says. “We’re merely announcing our intention to be a bit more active in the way that we communicate and manage this.”
“This is all a completely manufactured problem,” says Smith. “CRT has sufficient enforcement powers to stop boats overstaying in one place. It could just enforce the 14 day rule fairly and consistently.” She points out that the lack of clarity on distance and on the patterns of navigation that CRT expect contravenes a fundamental aspect of British law “The law must be clear, accessible and predictable so that the citizen can tell when his actions would be unlawful,” she says, citing Lord Bingham. “They’re saying that they will refuse to renew the licences of boats that don’t travel far enough, without saying how far far enough is.”
Why 20 miles has been chosen as a figure is unclear. Discounting the fly-trade, Gerard Turnbull has calculated that historically the bulk of canal traffic travelled an average of less than twenty miles (1987: 543): the boats that ferried the refuse from the Paddington Basin to the dumps at West Drayton, for example, travelled a distance of 17 miles (Freer, 1995 :66). And yet that 20 miles is, according to Parry, only a “first step” in encouraging greater movement. “People have said, of course, what’s the distance?” he says. “I’m telling you that we believe, clearly, that it has to be more than 15 to 20 miles. How much more we’ll be debating forever.” If those distances continue to creep up, boaters who try and base their navigation within a certain area – around a place of work, family, a child’s school – will find holding a continuous cruising an ever growing challenge.
I heard from many boaters in London who had received letters advising them to acquire a lawyer and that their licence was in danger of being revoked, when they themselves were completely unaware that their navigation had failed to meet CRT’s interpretation of “bona fide.” Some reported their journeys not having been sighted by enforcement officers, and that perceived lack of movement triggering the enforcement process; others had had no idea that the two places that they had moved between were not far enough apart to qualify. Many of those I spoke to seemed perplexed by the treatment, and felt as though they were being seen as criminals. An open letter published by the National Association of Boat Owners has claimed that many of its members are being alienated by CRT’s communication strategy. “A typical comment we have received,” they write, “is: ‘I’m not against the rules for [Continuous Cruising] or CRT trying to enforce them, but they really do not have the information to make fair and reasonable decisions, and there is a lot of assumption where there are gaps in the data. I suspect many people who are following the rules will end up with enforcement notices due to the enforcement attitude which appears to be guilty unless proven innocent.’” A petition against CRT’s proposals to refuse the reissue of licences has gathered more than 16,000 signatures.
“I feel worried about my future living situation,” says Ulli, a musician who has lived on the canals for five years. “I want to protect and support the life on the rivers and the tradition of continuous cruising, but I find that CRT does not prioritise this huge part of UK history. They only see it as a problem.” Another boater, who asked to remain anonymous, describes CRT’s stance as “threatening and vague.”
“I don’t understand what the problem is,” he says to me. “In Amsterdam it’s seen as a tourist attraction and a way of life. Here they are just trying to get rid of us.”
First published in The Land, Summer 2015
Freer, W. (1995) Women and Children of the Cut. Railway & Canal Historical Society: Derby.
Turnbull, G. (1987) ‘Canals, Coal and Regional Growth’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser. XL, 4, pp. 537-60.