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Waterway Dolly

As regular readers (I know that's a very small number of people 😊) will know, Ellison and I are Lock Keepers at Stoke Bruerne on the Grand Union Canal. We love it. Invariably there is a huge variety of boats going through the locks, from the new pristine boats that are clearly worth a lot of money through to those that look like they've seen better days. The boat below, Waterway Dolly seems to fall into that category, that is until Ellison started talking to the chap on the tiller.

Waterway Dolly is special and nearly unique. She is, I think, one of only two remaining boats of the British Waterways 'Water Class' hire fleet, dating from the early 1960's. British Waterways had hire boats - REALLY, WHO KNEW! Well, not me any way.

Waterway Dolly is now owned by Gareth Perry, who is renovating her and will make her his new home. The chap on the tiller is his Dad, sorry Dad, I didn't get your name. This in itself is a great story and just brilliant to see a boat like Waterway Dolly, with a history stretching back 70 + years, still around. Not only still around but still with a purpose and a future.

But what of the British Waterways 'Water Class' cruising fleet? I had no idea that British Waterways in the early 1960's, as a public company, had a canal leisure business, but this must have been right at the transition from canals being used for commercial purposes to leisure. It says to me that British Waterways wasn't content to see canals decline to nothing, but was looking for new purpose and a new way that canals could continue into the future.

I've not been able to find any other narrow boat leisure hire companies that go back that far so don't know how pioneering the Water Class fleet was. In terms of social history the early sixties must have been just at the point where some people had enough time and money to do something like going on a canal boat holiday. It pre-dates package holidays in far flung destinations like Spain 😊, so must have looked like a proper adventure.

The Water Class fleet was very small, I think only 12 boats, which compared to today's canal hire fleet which is about 1,000 boats is really tiny. The Water Class cruisers were a motley collection of converted working boats which they had to be as there weren't any boat builders knocking out boat hulls for leisure narrow boats. They were built by a company called Yarwoods, converted from working boats like 'Joshers' and the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company 'Star', 'Northwhich' and 'Town' Class boats. I imagine, given the decline in the need for commercial boats they were cheap to buy but very bespoke to convert. This was certainly true in the case of 'Water Wiper' which was actually reduced in width to make it a narrowboat by cutting along it's length, removing a bit and then re-welding it!

The Water Class boats were intended to be similar but because of the bespoke conversion were very different. However they did boast the same facilities, which even by today's standards weren't bad, they included electric lighting, running water, a galley with a stove and a 'yacht' toilet. On the negative side the mattresses were foam rubber and the engine an air cooled Enfield prone to over heating and catching fire. They were different times!

I only have the names of some of the Water Class fleet and don't know which is the other remaining boat other than Waterway Dolly. The British Waterways Water fleet included 'Iris', 'Viper', 'Lily', 'Vole', 'Reed', 'Valiant' and of course 'Waterway Dolly'. I am still researching so maybe there will be more in a future blog and I'd love to hear from anyone who knows more. However I have found a few old piccies, the first of which is 'Waterway Dolly' with a rather rakish looking chap at the tiller.

Here's some of Waterway Dolly's brothers and sisters.

The more observant of you will note that some Water Class boats had a centre cockpit. A Centre Cockpit!!!!

In researching this blog I came across a British Waterways promotional video, it's a just brilliant and worth a few minutes of your time.

I'll leave you with a couple of screen shots I took from the video of a chap at the helm of a Water Class boat in his suit. That's right, in his suit!

Ellison and I will in future, of course, expect you all to be suitably, similarly attired when you next come through Stoke Bruerne, even if you have just come out of the Blisworth tunnel!

I'll hopefully be catching up with Gareth again to see how he's doing with Waterway Dolly and her renovation but wish him all the luck and happiness in his new home.

More soon.

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Oct 23, 2023

fantastic to see this, thanks very much 😎


Alan Blunden
Alan Blunden
Oct 22, 2023

There is an old thread - - which has a list of a lot of the old converted boats.

I owned Water Ivy at one time, the stern half of Dart - a rivetted iron station boat with BCN plate, no 1998. The front half became Water Hyacinth.

Originally built in 1937 for LMS Railway Co (fleet no 14) Dart was cut in half by the British Waterways Board in 1960 to form two hire boats with GRP superstructures. They were ones with the centre cockpits, similar Water Lilac in your photos. After a short period the hire fleet was abandoned, probably because they kept sinking, I understand.

Water Ivy was then converted again, to a tunnel inspection boat…

Oct 22, 2023
Replying to

Thanks Alan, that's really interesting. Maybe catch you at Stoke Bruerne at some point.

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