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The Canal Trap Door

Did you know that canals used to have trap doors to let the water out. Honestly, they really did, pull the chain to open the door to let the water out - who knew! But more of that in a bit.

I'm always on the lookout for new canal literature, some may consider this dull, but it's just become my thing. Ellison, my wife, is generally good at sourcing new material for me and recently found a BBC book called "Canals - The making of a nation". Personally I don't think the book lives up to the title, however it does have a 'further reading' section. This brings me onto Michael Portillo (sorry, this is a bit circuotous, but I'll get there in the end). We've taken to watching Michael from time to time on his train jounrney's in the UK and around the world. It's gentle and interesting telly that invariably involves Michael being made to do something daft. The basis for the TV series is that he uses a 'Bradshaw's' guide, a kind of Victorian Rough Guide as a basis for journey as a then and now comparison.

I'd never heard of a 'Bradshaw's' guide before watching Michael Portillo, but it turns out there's loads and lo and behold one was referenced in the BBC canal book - 'Bradshaw's Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales', written in 1904. Even better, reprinted copies of the original are widely available for not much money. Here it is.

I'm sure I'll be returning to it in later blogs, but this blog is about the 'Glossary of Canal Terms' in the back of the book. Language is of course very much a snap shot in time, new words appear and old words dissapear all the time which I personally don't have a problem with. Others seem to lament this and want to hang onto words which struggle to have relevance today. The 1904 Bradshaw's glossary of canal terms is probably about mid way in the life of canals in the UK. There will be words that aren't there but were used when canals were first built in the 18th century. Of course there are also many words we use on canals today which don't appear in the glossary. Here's a couple of obvious examples, there's no 'Port' or 'Starboard', no 'bow' or 'stern', and of course no terminlogogy that defines the style of a 'modern' narrowboat such as 'Traditional' or 'Cruiser'.

Surprisingly in Brashaw's 1904 glossary of terms there are less weird words than you'd think and we've retained a fair bit of the language in the glossary as commony used vernacular today. Nonetheless there are some standout words worth mentioning. The first of these brings me back to the title of the blog, the canal trap door, yep, you used to be able to open the trap door of a canal to let excess water out. The device was called the 'Let Off'.

The Cratch is another interesting word which isn't really quite the same today as it was in 1904. In 1904 things get very confused with 'Deck Cratches', 'False Cratches', 'Gang Planks' and 'Stands'. In 1904 these all seem to be primarily about providing a means of getting from one end of the boat to the other.

One word you still see used today which I just love is 'Gongoozler', described in 1904 as 'an idle and inquesetive person, who stands for prolonged periods staring at anything out of common'. And of course Gongoozler's still exist today, here is one 😁

The definition of 'Barges' is interesting in 1904, they're defined simply as 'a boat approximately twice as wide as a Narrow Boats'. Guess that means we should more accurately call Widebeams 'Barges', which means Widebeam tunnel duties at Blisworth Tunnel can now more properly be defined as 'Barge Duties'.

The description of Lock Paddles makes interesting reading, in 1904 Ground Paddles are a thing, but paddles on Lock Gates are not called Gate Paddles, they're called 'Fly Paddles', 'Ranters' or 'Flashers'. Think I'll definitely have a go at brining these terms back on my next lock keeping season, I can shout across to a colleague 'if you get the Flasher on your side I'll do the Ranter on mine'.

Puddle appears as a term, which as many of you will know is what you do with clay to stop a canal leaking. It's credited to James Brindley, dating back to the Bridgewater canal and 'puddling clay' is of course still used today in exactly the same way. I'm amazed it doesn't pre date canals but can find no earlier reference, it seems it really was all down to James Brindley, clever fellow.

Next we come to perhaps two more controversial topics, Winding Holes and Windlass (featured in a previous blog). Let's start with Winding Hole (as many of you know, pronounced Win-ding), which Brashaw's defines in 1904 but doesn't tell us where is comes from. I've seen suggestions that it's derived from the use of the wind to turn the boat. Im not saying it isn't possible to do this but it certainly isn't reliable. So I think this explaination is unlikely / nonsense. The second option is that it's derived from the Old English word Windan which means to Twist. The suggestion is that as a spoken term it was 'Windan Hole' which was then written as Winding Hole. Now this makes much more sense to me! Here it is described in the 1904 glossary.

The biggest revelation in the glossary for me is that Windlass, the tool we use on lock paddle gears, appears. I've suggested previously that this is an incorrect word for the tool we use (it's used in marine terminology for the device which pulls up the anchor). However it's in the 1904 glossary so I'm wrong. A bit more Internet research suggests that in fact Windlass derives from the old Norse word Vinda (to wind) and Ass (pole) which gives us Vindas which then morphed into Windlass. Low and behold even today the Iceland translation for Vindas is 'Winds Up'. Mystery solved, I think, Windlass it is!

That's it, I'll leave you with this, an advert in the back of Brashaw's which advertises Steam 'Bag and Spoon Barges'. I suspect this is duller than it reads, but I'd love to know what a Bag and Spoon Barge is. Any ideas? 😊

More soon.

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