Life on the canal - The Story of Joe Hollingshead

    Joe Hollingshead at the Black Country
    Living Museum.

Joe is the last in a long line of canal boatmen, his family lived and worked on the canals for several generations. He was born at Fradley Junction, just outside Lichfield, on the Trent and Mersey Canal, in a boat called the Victory.

When he was about to be born, they moored the boat at the side of the canal near a pub, so that the local midwife could easily get there. After the birth, Joe and his mother stayed in a cottage with friends, while his father and grandfather took a load of flour to Nottingham.

In those days you had to keep working to earn enough money to survive. Joe and his mother soon rejoined the boat, which picked them up during the return journey from Nottingham to Birmingham.

Joe grew up on the boat with his parents, Joe and Harriet; two brothers, Albert and Henry; and three sisters, Joan, Phoebe and Elizabeth. It would have been a tight squeeze in the small cabin at the back of their boat. There was little space and so you had to sleep where you could. The family had few possessions because there was nowhere to put them.

Some of the lock keepers would help the boating families with food. They caught rabbits and sold them to the people on the boats, and also gave them potatoes.

Drinking water was carried in a couple of cans on the cabin roof, which could be filled from the taps that were to be found every few miles or so along the canal. Joe’s main job was helping his mother with the canal locks.

He greatly enjoyed his childhood, playing games with the other children who lived on the canal, such as hide and seek, kiss chase, and kick the can. They would sometimes tie a piece of rope to a tree and swing on it.

Although the children were supposed to go to school, this was impossible because the family was always on the move, carrying loads from one place to another. Joe only went to school for an hour at a time at schools in Manchester, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. If he was late leaving school he would worry, and run down to the canal in case his parents had left without him.

        Joe's grandparents. Courtesy of Joe

Joe's grandfather on his boat.

Courtesy of Joe Hollingshead.

Joe's father and his boat.

Courtesy of Joe Hollingshead.


Joe on 'Victory', the boat on which he was born. Courtesy of Joe Hollingshead.

Joe’s dad eventually got a ‘butty’ boat, which was towed behind his powered boat. This gave the family more room.

Money must have been in short supply considering that they only earned 10 shillings for carrying a full load of 20 tons from Manchester to Wolverhampton. They also did small jobs for other people to earn extra money, such as helping them through locks, or steering a butty. They also made and sold rugs and fenders.

At the age of 15 his father decided that Joe had to start work because he had been kept for long enough. He began working for British Waterways as a mate, for his father who was a captain. When he reached 18, he persuaded British Waterways to let him captain his own boat.

After a month’s trial he took over a steel hulled boat called ‘Acacia’. His first job was taking a load of flour from Ellesmere Port to Wolverhampton.

Watching the boats go by. On the BCN main line. Courtesy of Joe Hollingshead.

Three years later, Joe met his wife-to-be, Hilda. She also grew-up on the canal, but sadly her mother and father died while she was young, and so she had gone to live in Wales with her brother.

The life in Wales didn’t suit her and so she returned to Wolverhampton and lived on a boat with her uncle George, and Aunt Hilda.

Unfortunately her uncle George’s working life ended after he had a heart attack at Broad Street. As a result the family left the canal and moved into a house in St. Anne’s Road, Fordhouses, and Hilda got a job working for IMI Marston.

One of Joe’s regular jobs was to carry chocolate from Cadbury’s in Bourneville. He was always given free chocolate bars for himself, and he met Hilda when she asked him for a bar of chocolate. At the time Hilda was still living on the canal, and they used to arrange to meet under the old Broad Street canal bridge when their boats were in the area.

Joe, repairing a Bollinder engine. Courtesy of Joe Hollingshead.

Joe at the repair yard at Bradley in the 1990s.

Fender making. Courtesy of Joe Hollingshead.

The winter of 1963 was particularly bad. One day Joe went to collect a load of fittings from Stewarts and Lloyds at Halesowen. He had to stay overnight and slept in the factory where it was warm.

The next day he went through the Netherton Tunnel on his way back to Wolverhampton and met an ice boat, which eased his journey. He later met another at Tipton and got a tow back to Wolverhampton. On his return he moored at Broad Street and was stuck there for 13 weeks on the frozen canal.

Joe and Hilda decided to get married in 1963. She used to worry about him, particularly when he was late returning from a journey. They would need a reliable income after their marriage, and so she arranged for him to see about a job at IMI Marston, where she worked.

They were married on 1st June, 1963, and Joe started work at Marstons, where he stayed for 26 years, before going to work for British Waterways. At Marstons he learned to write, thanks to a caring foreman who spent time teaching him in the evenings.

Sadly Hilda died in November 2006. Joe has two children and three grandchildren, and now gives demonstrations of fender making at various canal events in the area.

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