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A narrowboat or narrow boat is a boat of a distinctive design, made to fit the narrow canals of England and Wales.


Traditional and modern boats

narrowboats near Tardebigge, Worcestershire, England]]

In the context of British Inland Waterways, "narrow boat" refers to the original working boats built in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries for carrying goods on the narrow canals (where locks and bridge holes would have a minimum width of 7 feet) . The term is extended to modern "narrowboats" used for recreation and occasionally as homes, whose design is an interpretation of the old boats for modern purposes and modern materials.


Purists tend to use the term with a space (narrow boat) when referring to an original boat or a replica, and to omit the space when referring to a modern boat used for leisure or as a residence - but this is not a hard and fast rule.[citation needed] The single word 'narrowboat' has been adopted by authorities such as British Waterways and the magazine Waterways World to refer to all boats built in the style and tradition of the narrow canal locks.

Although some narrow boats were built to a design based on river barges, it is incorrect to refer to a narrowboat (or narrow boat) as a barge. In the context of the British inland waterways, a barge is usually a much wider, cargo-carrying boat or a modern boat modeled on one, certainly more than 7 feet (2.1 m) wide.

It is also incorrect (or at least incongruous) to refer to a narrowboat as a longboat, although this name was sometimes used in the midlands in working-boat days.

Usage has not quite settled down as regards (a) boats based on narrowboat design, but too wide for narrow canals; or (b) boats the same width as narrowboats but based on other types of boat.


The key distinguishing feature of a narrowboat is its width: it must be no more than 7 feet (2.13 m) wide to navigate the British narrow canals. Some old boats are very close to this limit (often built 7ft 1/2 in or slightly wider), and can have trouble using locks that are not quite as wide as they should be because of subsidence. Modern boats are usually 6 ft 10 in (2.08 m) wide to guarantee easy passage everywhere.

Because of their slenderness, some narrowboats seem very long. The maximum length is about 72 feet (about 22m), the length of the locks on the narrow canals. However, modern narrowboats tend to be shorter than this, so that they can cruise anywhere on the connected network of British canals - including on the "wide" canals (built for wider, but shorter, boats). The shortest lock on the main network is Salterhebble Middle Lock on the Calder and Hebble Navigation, at about 56ft (about 17m) long. However, the C&H is a wide canal, so the lock is about 14 ft 2 in (4.20m) wide. This makes the largest "go-anywhere-on-the-network" narrowboat slightly longer (about 60ft) than the straight length of the lock, because it can (with a certain amount of "shoehorning") lie diagonally. Some locks on isolated waterways are as short as 40ft (12m).

Hire fleets on British canals can contain narrowboats of many lengths from about 30 feet (9.1 m) upwards, to allow parties of different sizes or different budgets to hire a boat.

Development - traditional working boats

The first working narrow boats played a key part in the economic changes accompanying the British Industrial Revolution. They were wooden boats drawn by a horse walking on the canal towpath led by a crew member, often a child. Narrowboats were chiefly designed for carrying cargo, though there were some packet boats, carrying passengers, letters, and parcels.

Boatmen's families originally lived ashore, but in the 1830s as canals started to feel competition from the new railways, the families took up home afloat - partly because they could no longer afford rents, partly to provide extra hands to work the boats harder, faster and further, and partly to keep families together.

in Cheshire, England.  The motor boat at the front "Forget Me Not" is pulling along an unpowered butty "Lilith". This was the traditional working style used on working boats after motor boats became common.]]

The rear portion of the boat became the cosy "boatman's cabin", familiar from picture postcards and museums, famous for its space-saving ingenuity and for its interior made attractive by a warm stove, a steaming kettle, gleaming brass, fancy lace, painted housewares, and decorated plates. Although such descriptions rarely consider the actual comfort of a large family working an extremely hard and long day, and sleeping in the one tiny cabin, it is no doubt true that at the time there were many workers in harder, indoor, trades with less healthy conditions and worse accommodation where the family were separated for long hours rather than being together all day. Nonetheless it was impossible for such mobile families to send their children to school, and most boat people remained illiterate and ostracised by those living 'on the bank'.

As diesel and steam replaced the tow horse in the early twentieth century, it became possible to move more cargo with the same manpower by towing a second unpowered boat, commonly referred to as a "butty", "buttyboat" or "butty boat". There was now no horse to look after, but someone had to steer the butty, unless on a wide canal such as the Grand Union Canal where the two boats could be roped side-to-side or 'breasted up', and handled as one while working locks.

Cargo-carrying by narrow boat was almost extinguished as a way of life between 1945 and the last regular long distance traffic finishing in 1970. However some traffics continued into the 1980's and beyond including over 2 million tonnes of aggregate carried on the Grand Union (River Soar) from 1976 to 1996, latterly using wide beam barges however, and aggregate currently carried by narrow boats (and wide barges) between Denham and West Drayton on the Grand Union Canal. A few people are doing their best to keep the tradition alive, mostly by "one-off" deliveries rather than regular runs, or by selling goods such as coal to other boaters.

There are many enthusiasts dedicated to restoring the remaining old boats, often members of the Historic Narrow Boat owners Club [1] and there are also many replicas ornately painted with the same traditional designs, usually of roses and castles. If the boat is not horse-drawn it may have a refurbished, massive, slow-revving, vintage diesel engines, and there are even some steam-driven narrowboats such as 'President'.[1]

Painted decoration on narrowboats

By the latter part of the 19th century it was common practice to paint roses and castles on both narrow boats themselves and their fixtures and fittings. Common sites include the doors to the cabin, the water can or barrel and the side of the boat along with ornate lettering giving the boat's name and owner.

The origin of the roses and castles found on canal boats is unclear. The first written reference to them appears to be in an 1858 edition of the magazine Household Words in one of a series of articles titled “On the Canal” but while this shows that the art form must have existed by this date it doesn’t provide us with an origin. For some time a popular suggestion was that it had some form of Gypsy origins however there does not appear to be a significant link between the Gypsy and boater communities. Other suggestion include transfer of styles from the clock making (in particular the decoration on the face) industry, the japanning industry or the pottery industry. There is certainly a similarity in style and a geographical overlap but no solid proof of a link. There are similar styles of folk art in Scandinavia, Germany, Turkey and Bangladesh.

In the eighteenth century the similar Dutch "Hinderloopen" paintwork would only have been a sailing barge journey away from the Thames. There is also an article in the Midland Daily Telegraph of the 22nd of July 1914 that credits the practice painting of water cans at least to a Mr Arthur Atkins. The date of the events make the claim possible but would require the Household Words article to be reporting on the very start of a phenomenon rather than as its tone suggests something that had existed for some time. Until further evidence comes to light it is impossible to support or deny the claim that Arthur Atkins was responsible for the start of the practice and thus the origin of the paintings remains uncertain.

While the practice did decline with the canals it has seen something of a revival in recent times and paintings with roses and castle themes are a reasonably common sight on today’s canals.

Modern narrowboats

]] The number of licensed boats on canals and rivers managed by British Waterways, a government organisation, was estimated at about 27,000 in 2006. There are perhaps another 5,000 unlicensed boats kept in private moorings or on other waterways. [2] Most of the boats on BW waterways are steel cruisers popularly referred to as narrowboats.

Modern narrowboats are used for annual holidays, weekend breaks or as permanent residences. Usually, they have steel hulls and a steel superstructure, but when they were first being developed for leisure use in the 1970s glass re-inforced plastic (fibre-glass) or timber was often used for the superstructures. They are usually powered by modern diesel engines, and are fitted inside to a high standard. There will be at least 6 feet (1.8 m) internal headroom, and similar domestic facilities as a small landward home: central heating, flush toilets, shower or even bath, four-ring hobs, oven, grill, microwave oven, and refrigerator; quite a few also have satellite television, internet-connection using a mobile phone. Externally, their resemblance to traditional boats can vary from a faithful imitation (false "rivets", and copies of traditional paintwork) through "interpretation" (clean lines and simplified paintwork) through to a free-style approach which does not try to pretend in any way that this is a traditional boat.

They can be owned by individuals (or shared by a group of friends or by a more formally organised syndicate), rented out by holiday firms, or used as cruising hotels. A few boats are lived on permanently: either based in one place (though long-term moorings for residential narrowboats are currently very difficult to find) or continuously moving around the network (perhaps with a fixed location for the coldest months, when many stretches of canal are closed by repair works or "stoppages").

Modern Narrowboat types

On most narrowboats steering is by tiller, as it was on all Working narrowboats, and the steerer stands at the stern of the boat, aft of where a person emerges from the hatchway and rear doors at the top of the steps up from the cabin. The steering area comes in three basic types, each meeting different needs in terms of maximising internal space; having a more traditional appearance; having a big enough rear deck for everyone to enjoy summer weather or long evenings; or protection for the steerer in bad weather. Each type has its strong advocates. However, the boundaries are not fixed, and some boats blur the categories as designers try out slightly different arrangements and combinations. ]]

Narrowboats with traditional stern

Many modern canal boats retain the traditional layout of a small open, unguarded "counter" or deck behind the rear doors from which the crew can step onto land. It is possible to steer from the counter, but this is not very safe, with the propeller churning below only one misstep away. The length of the "tiller extension" allows the steerer to stand more safely on the top step, forward of the rear doors (on a working boat, this step would have been over the top of the coal box). On cold days, the steerer can even close the rear doors behind them, and be in relative comfort, their lower body in the warmth of the cabin, and only their upper body emerging from the hatchway and exposed to the elements. In good weather, many trad-stern steerers sit up on the hatchway edge, a high vantage point giving good all-round visibility. On trad boats, the bow "well-deck" forms the main outside viewing area, because the trad stern is not large enough for anyone other than the steerer to stand on safely.

Narrowboats with cruiser stern

Cruiser stern narrowboats were designed to allow more people to be on deck during the reasonably good weather of the British summer holiday season. The hatch and rear doors are farther forward than on a traditional boat, creating a large open deck between counter and rear doors, protected by a rail (perhaps with seats) around the back and sides. At the rear, a "cruiser" narrowboat looks very different from traditional boats. The large rear deck provides a good social space or al fresco dining area, but in the winter (or the occasionally less than perfect weather of the British Summer) the steerer is quite unprotected from wind and rain. The name for this style arises because the large open rear deck resembles that of the large rear cockpits common on glass-fibre (GRP) river cruisers.

Narrowboats with semi-traditional stern

This is a compromise to gain some of the "social" benefits of a cruiser stern, while retaining more traditional lines and some protection for the steerer in bad weather or in cooler seasons. As with the cruiser stern, the deck is extended back from the hatch and rear doors, but in this case most of the deck is protected at the sides by walls which extend back from the cabin sides - giving a more sheltered area for the steerer and companions, usually with lockers to sit on.

Narrowboats with a Butty stern

A butty boat is an un-powered boat traditionally with a larger wooden tiller as the steering does not have the force of water from the propeller. A few butty boats have been converted into powered Narrowboats like NB Sirius.

Centre cockpit narrowboats

A small number of steel narrowboats dispense with the need for a rear steering deck entirely, by imitating some river cruisers in providing wheel steering from a central cockpit.

National organisations


  1. ^ "Steam narrow boat President". 'Friends of President' website. Retrieved on 2007-10-28. 
  2. ^ Boating : British Waterways

See also

File:Semington-bridge.jpg UK Waterways portal

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

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Alternative spellings

  • narrow boat



  1. A barge used on the narrow canals of England.

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