Life on the Canal

Next door to Cleveland Wharf the railway people used to stable the horses. I remember the gentleman there. He took a fancy to us three and he used to fetch us on a Sunday morning and we used to go out and help him feed the horses.

An advert from 1861.

Well the boats used to go out and fetch coal. They dealt with Brownhills Colliery, Cannock and Leacroft. There were three Collieries they dealt with. At that time Grandad and Uncle Tom had seven boats in operation and they used to have both sides of the basin to house the boats that came in. Mainly what they used to do was to go out at night, then be ready in the morning to load up - to be first in to get the people to load up the boats with coal, so that they could get away early.

(The mines in Cannock Chase were served by the Birmingham Canal Navigation’s Wyrley and Essington Canal. The last one closed in 1993.)

At one period Gil was playing around and he fell into the canal in the basin and one of the boatmen had to get him out with a boat hook. He very nearly drowned, because apparently, so my Mother has told me since, he went underneath the boat. They were lucky to get him out. (Gilbert Harley was a cousin.) Grandad Harley had a brother who did drown in the canal - his name was George.

If they went in at night, it would be anything up to one o’clock, when they came into the basin to bring the boats in. It was all horse hauled. Grannie Harley, when she had Can Lane Wharf, when Dad came back after the war, they went to the horse sales at Crewe. They bought a mare and this mare was a German one. She was a beautiful horse; my Father could do anything with this horse. At Hednesford there was a big prisoner-of-war camp during the First World War. There was a big cemetery and all German prisoners-of-war were buried there. Apparently there is a bridge near this cemetery and Dad used to say that he could never get that horse to go under that bridge.

When he reached that bridge, the horse stopped dead and Dad used to have to take his jacket off or put a blanket over her head and lead her under the bridge. He always said she’d got second sight.

Dad was absolutely marvellous with animals. He could make them do anything.

He never would believe that circus people were cruel to animals, because he said you could never get anything out of an animal if you were cruel to it.

You’d got to do it by being kind. I think that’s true.

Can Lane Wharf. Courtesy of David Clare.

At home we had two dogs, one was Brother’s and one was mine. Now, Topsy which belonged to Brother could do just about everything but talk. She’d eat anything. If Mother was at the sink, pealing carrots, potatoes, onions - it didn’t matter what - she’d sit there until Mother gave her something. It was fantastic. She was a Springer. But Susan, my dog - you couldn’t teach Susan. The moment you got angry with her - if you shouted at her - she used to go under the settee. The two animals were poles apart. Susan was a Spaniel as well, but she was a Cocker.

When during the war, Dorothy used to come down with Marlene, the baby, Mother used to take Topsy and put her out on the grass. She used to say: “Sit! On trust!” You daren’t go near that pram or that child. The dog would have torn you to pieces. She used to have a chair that she used to sit on in the back. If you went in that chair, she’d growl at you.

The canal alongside Horseley Fields, as it is today. In Violet's day it was surrounded by factories, and would have been extremely busy.

Large numbers of boats were at work on the canal, carrying all kinds of goods and raw materials. The photograph is taken above Horseley Fields Junction where boats arrived with coal from the Cannock coalfields.

Canal Boats

They were black mainly. Dark and the cabins had the name on E. HARLEY & SON. That was Grannie Harley’s and I think it was Henry Harley, when Grandad Harley had the boats. I remember the boats on the canal - FELLOWS MORTON & CLAYTON - you’ve seen them with those lovely coloured jugs. The ‘boaties’ lived in the boats. FELLOWS MORTON & CLAYTON, they’d got some lovely rolling stock. Those people, although they’d only got a cabin the width of this room, the things were absolutely spotless. The big copper jugs would shine and they wore special clothes. It was unimaginable that they could be so beautifully clean.

(FELLOWS MORTON & CLAYTON were founded in 1889 and ran a sizeable fleet of canal boats until the dissolution of the firm in 1947.)

I should think that Uncle Tom’s firm ran until the early 1950s, then of course everything went. I don’t know what became of the firm afterwards.

It was 1815 it was supposed to have started. On the side of the house at Cleveland Wharf there was lettering. The date was on there. It said HENRY HARLEY, COAL MERCHANTS, ESTABLISHED IN 1815. Dad used to say that his grandfather owned part of Sackville Street - it’s now O’Connell Street, Dublin. I suppose he sold it and then set up in the coal business.

The thing I feel so cross about. There were two portraits of Titus and Mary Ann Harley, done in pencil by a local artist. I think it was Phoenix. She’d got a little shawl tippet, as they used to call them. The pictures went with a lot of the stuff, when Mother moved with Pickfords. They went in store. That was one thing I was very cross with Brother about. He wouldn’t help me to see and select what we wanted. He didn’t seem very interested, but he said to me on many occasions that he was cross about those pictures, because I’m sure they’d be worth some money now.

(Henry William Harley was born in Wolverhampton on 3rd March 1856. He married Eleanor Williams - Grannie Harley in AV’s account - on 11th September 1881. Titus and Mary Ann were Henry’s parents. Titus moved to Wolverhampton some time in the 1850s. He is listed in the 1861 Staffordshire Directory as a general carrier at Bilston Road.)

There was another picture. Grandad and Grannie Harley had a farm out at Bushbury. It was a big farm and there was a pond on this farm. They had boats on this pond. There was an oil painting of Grannie Harley and they’d got a St Bernard dog. There was my Dad and Auntie Elsie in one boat rowing and Jesse in another on this pool in the grounds of this farm.

Mother knew where the picture was, but there again that picture went for storage. It was a beautiful painting. It was in a gold frame.

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