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- D.W. Horsfall[Published 1981]

book front cover (22K)

(from the dust jacket)


Foreword by Hugh McKnight
Introduction — On writing the biography of a boat.
Chapter 1 —Adelina, from Thy Dark Exile
The finding, raising, and naming of Adelina; her history, from being opened as a Boys' Club by the Duke of Gloucester; moving her to Shardlow.
Chapter 2 — In Friendship's Name
Making the boat more or less inhabitable; fed-upness of colleagues with canal obsessivenesss and method of getting own back; moving Adelina to Burton upon Trent.
Chapter 3 —Hitting the Trail
Journey of Adelina to London, mainly towed by Willow Wren working boats; problems of finding residential moorings in London.
Chapter 4 — All Mod Cons
The next phase of making Adelina into a home; odd plumbing system and sanitation.
Chapter 5 —Duckett's Cut
Life on a canal in the East End of London; peculiar method of access; amiable encounters with the police, and the dog that couldn't climb ladders; decision to move home.
Chapter 6 — The Basingstoke
Brief account of the tribulations of the Basingstoke Canal, and what life on it was like; Floating Homes in a floating suburb.
Chapter 7 — Water Music
Further civilising of Adelina, with description of curious systems of pumping and electric lights.
Chapter 8 —The Canal Press
Account of setting up a miniature printing and book binding activity on board, which culminated in the production of two small books.
Chapter 9 — Memorabilia
The collecting mania and canal enthusiasm combined; filling Adelina with teapots and books; painting her in a traditional fashion.
Chapter 10 — Deep Waters
Narrative of a journey on the remarkable underground canal system (now closed) used in the coal mines established by the Duke of Bridgewater at Worsley.
Chapter 11 — Rallying Round
Recalls some personally memorable highlights of Rallies at Aylesbury, Woking, London; Dinners at House of Commons, attended whilst resident on Adelina.
Chapter 12 — Goodbye
Final account of Adelina as she was just before her owners departed for new country; toddlers on board and their life.
Description of a visit by the family in 1977, the first time Adelina had been visited by the Horsfalls in 12 years, seen through the eyes of 15 year old Amelia.


The mooring at Old Ford Road, Bow, was home for about a year: a significant time for the period saw Adelina much improved, a great deal of waterways activity and, most important personally, marriage. On reading Adelina's first draft, my fifteen year old son James commented there was no sex in it. He expressed concern and surprise that modern trends hadn't penetrated my consciousness.

The remark reveals much about the unchanging nature of extra-mural literature passed furtively round from lad to lad. James couldn't convince me that unalloyed devotion to Adelina smacks too much of fetichism: an unqualified "she" in this narrative unashamedly and invariably refers to a mature girl with 72 foot by 7 foot vital statistics. After all, this is the biography of Adelina, and mere human relationships are irrelevant beside the affair a fellow has with his boat; but cementing the non-Adelina relationship did all Happen in Bow.

Though Adelina was located in the heart of the East End, normally thought of as crowded with humanity, the area constituting the mooring was singularly remote. Our only neighbours, after the factory and timber yard closed, were deer, a herd of them being corralled in an enclosure opposite the boat. The clatter of rattling antlers in the rutting season was initially eerie, but eventually became a familiar part of the night's sound.

Other nocturnal noises were the conversations of late night fishermen, and occasional "plops" made by fish diving to avoid them. Fights would often break out among the deer, leading to a noise like continuously breaking dry branches. The fracas could be loud enough to keep one awake at night; but attributing the morning's bleary eyes to "the damned oversexed deer" simply provoked the leery response "which dear?". With noisy neighbours one usually retaliates in kind, but we had neither hooves nor antlers, not that either would have done any good. Even if noise had been an effective rejoinder, short of throwing Adelina open to every trollop and sailor in Limehouse, we had no chance of matching the decibels of those carousing buck.

<I>Adelina</i> at Old Ford (13K)
13. Adelina at Old Ford: Victoria Park on the right,
the charger, under cover, on the left.

<I>Adelina</i> at Old Ford (10K)
14. Adelina at Old Ford: Part of sky route left background...

There was one similarity between us and the deer in that we, like they, were in an enclosure: in the human's case defined by canal and factory. Without a rowing boat, ingress and egress methods were restricted to getting from the wharf, which was on one side of the factory, to Old Ford Road, which was on the other side. Three ways of doing this existed: one normal; one peculiar; and one illegal. We used all three, but mainly the middle one.

The Normal route, available when the premises were open, was through the factory building, across a small yard on the street side, through the main gate, and so into Old Ford Road. Stringent insurance regulations prevented us from having a key to the factory (though this was later relaxed as our status became a little better understood), but we could be given a key to the wicket gate in the main factory gate. This led to the adoption of Route Two ("Peculiar") which was used when the factory was closed. Route Two required going right over the top of the factory to get from boat to road and vice versa, the actual path being:

1. ascending a vertical iron fire escape ladder next to the boat.
2. walking across a section of factory roof.
3. climbing a second but shorter ladder.
4. walking along a narrow brick parapet alongside the roof top (this       part of the roof couldn't be walked on).
5. climbing down a third ladder.
6. descending gently by a plank ramp to another area of the roof.
7. threading one's way between dust extraction equipment and
    water tanks to the —
8. fourth iron ladder which then went down into the yard.

Before you knew what had happened you were there; in the yard and ready to go out, unless the key had been left in the boat in which case you had to scamper up, over, and back to get the vital sliver of metal.

Getting in and out therefore was simple but peculiar. However, imagine undertaking the expedition laden with shopping, carrying a dog under one arm, and also hanging onto the rope on which you were subsequently going to pull, to bring the filled water can into view. Yes! the only tap was on the road side of the factory, not on the wharf. The number 8 'bus stopped by the factory, and upper deck passengers would occasionally be astonished by the sight of one or other of us shinning up the first ladder (no 8 in the above list), shopping bag in hand, dog under arm, and apparently holding onto rungs and rope by the teeth. Probably a parrot would have been a better pet, being able to fend for itself and perhaps even taking messages from visitors who called in our absence.

Our little dog Nellie (named after Melba) coped with as much of the route as she could, vertical ladders always defeated her but she quite enjoyed the part along the factory roof. Racing off on her own as soon as she was put down, she would wait at places where she needed assistance. Fortunately, whenever we bought furniture or plumbing supplies, the factory was open and Route One was available.

The third route, Illegal, was effective in deterring all but those it was supposed to keep out, viz, small boys on vandalism bent. The factory was at the end of a row — next door looked like a bomb site — and to prevent access via the canal bank, a steel fence had been constructed, jutting out over the canal and festooned with barbed wire. Resembling a tattier bit of the Maginot Line, the fence was equally effective: old ladies getting on for seventy and gents in natty city suits found the barricade quite impassable; but small marauders who came to break windows and untie or break into the boat treated the ramshackle fortification as a convenient footbridge.

There was never a television set on board Adelina (paraffin models were not available); but her occupants tended to go out only when they heard there was something on the box that might appeal to bored youth. Far better for vandals to be thus distracted than to give vent to their wholly natural instincts for destruction in our bit of Bow.

Visitors quickly became accustomed to the Sky Route, and indeed considered this to be half the attraction of a social call. Via the Inland Waterways Association we made many friends who looked in quite frequently, a "Halloo" through the side fence being the signal for whoever was on board to set forth and bring the visitors in. The procession was rather reminiscent of the Lost Horizon type of scene: the guide setting off swinging a lantern, followed by a single file of people silhouetted against the dim sky; of course if the visit was during broad daylight the lantern was omitted.

On one occasion after, I think, the theatre, a few people came back to dine. Two of them had been on the original Erewash expedition when Adelina was first sighted, Robert Aickman, and John Smith, of the National Trust and Stratford Canal achievement. A third guest was Elsa Mayer Liesmann, a lecturer on opera at Glyndebourne, paying her first visit to a narrow boat. Sitting calmly in the candlelight, eating chicken au paraffin and creosote rice, we suddenly heard a pair of heavily applied boots clomping about on the deck. A voice, official, called out: not quite "Open in the name of the Law!" but something similar.

I went to the rear cabin door and there, framed by the night sky, was the unmistakable shape of a London Bob­by, flashing a torch in my face. Interrogation ensued: "Do you live here?" "Yes"
"Have you got people with you?" "Yes"
"How many?" "About six"
"What are you all doing?" "Eating"
"Did you cross over the roof?" "Yes" "Why?" "It's the only way after 5:00pm."

There was a pause after this scintillating exchange: then a shout in the direction of the roof (first level) "It's all right Sarge, they live here!" Sudden flashes as torches were switched on: all along the middle and top levels of the factory, over in the park, over the wall to the timber yard, round the wire fence — we'd been surrounded!

Presumably the River Police couldn't get through the locks in time otherwise they might have been in on the adventure as well, with their illuminated boats at the ends of the pound adding a touch of Venetian gaiety to the uproar. The police told us that a local resident, perhaps one resident in the local over the road, seeing the Indian file of people walking across the roof in a stealthy, stooping manner, had suspected the worst and 'phoned the police. In fact the stooped stance was adopted in semi-darkness simply in order to see the way through the obstacle course, and ensure that one walked on, and not off, the parapet.

The police, delighted at the prospect of getting so many of their old acquaintances in one swoop, had completely surrounded the place. Whilst we were carousing on board, a goodly number of the local force were creeping about in the park, banging their shins in the timber yard, and risking plummeting off the factory roof: but all in vain. I suggested to the guests we should break a few windows and then head off into the timber yard, whilst the entire pack gave chase, but we reluctantly decided the diversion could lead to serious complications.

If the evening had been a little more placid, the canal might have led to all sorts of waterways operas being introduced into the Glyndbourne repertoire: for example, the Lily of Killarney, with a tenor/baritone duet sung whilst the pair are rowing across a lake (the baritone inevitably doing the hard work); Il Tabarro and a blood-and-guts tale of life aboard a Seine barge; even perhaps Rusalka, in which the water nymph heroine poses a hazard to navigation every time she rises to the surface of her lake to sing to the moon. However, such did not appear and under the circumstances, Genevieve de Brabant with its Gendarmes Duet ("We run them in") is the best that could have been expected.

That burglaries did take place Ann and I found out not much later, on returning late one Sunday night from a meal out in Chinatown. Chinatown, or the remains of it, was just about within walking distance, and the romantically named West India Dock Road abounded in Chinese restaurants serving generally delicious and cheap food. The walk home improved the digestion and perked up the spirit; but the sight which greeted us on opening the wicket gate called for bismuth and bromide. Two small figures were visible in the dim light, stealthily ascending the first iron ladder. Emitting a Bashan-like roar, I raced after them (my courage is small but so were the figures) whilst Ann asked a passer by to 'phone the police before following me over the roof.

We soon lost the lads in the maze of ironmongery on the factory roof, but then heard them scrambling round the wall at the end of the wharf as they entered the timber yard. The yard's night watchman was off duty, the management perhaps hoping thieves would amiably reciprocate by also treating Sunday as a day of rest. The expectations might well have been valid, as our pair were only using the yard as a way out. Even if they had considered picking up a couple of teak tree trunks en route, a moment's reflection would have revealed to them the impracticability of such a theft: the logs were quite safe that night.

The gloomy yard, moonlit and with a faint mist from the canal, would have provided cover for Ali Baba's thieves and their families, let alone two small boys, and we spent ten minutes or so fruitlessly playing cops and robbers amidst the piles of wood. After nearly batting each other with planks a couple of times, we were about to give up the search when the noise of police sirens rose into the night air from the street outside.

Most people asked to summon the police quickly put a measure of urgency into their call, and may indeed slightly exaggerate their cry for aid: our passer-by had probably been waiting for years for a chance to dial 999. He certainly hadn't spared the drama, and from the size of the contingent, the police must have thought they had the leaders of the East End Mafia, the remnants of the Tongs, and the Bow Branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Old Ford Road. Cars, Black Marias, foot police, and even a dog handler and his hound milled about outside the factory gate.

When the nature of the quarry was revealed most of the throng departed, but a few remained, including dog and handler. In the traditional fashion the handler asked "Which way did they go?" The reply was a vertical sign, the iron ladder rather than divine intervention being pointed out as the means of ascension. The handler groaned, and said he wasn't taking that up there; "that" being his large hound, waiting hopefully to have a chance to sniff at something.

The two of them started to climb into their mobile kennel prior to departure, refusing all offers of tea and a dog biscuit. Ann pointed out quite reasonably that we took our dog up on the roof and the creature loved the journey, leaping out of one's arms at the top of the ladder, scampering along all the negotiable sections and waiting, tail wagging, where the route was impassable. The description did not impress the handler in the slightest, and his comments on people who took dogs for walks on roofs could roughly be interpreted as implying we should be locked up or certified, whichever kept us out of circulation longest.

Even our dog came in for its share of criticism, his remarks inferring that a careful examination would reveal goat-like horns and hooves, the animal really belonging on the slopes of Mont Blanc and not in Bow. His words were "That's not a bloody dog it's a bloody goat". Thereupon he and his genuine dog went off, with not even a howl from the latter to indicate agreement or disagreement with the master.

The rest of the group decided that once there they might as well look around, and the sight of a few broken windows and goods abandoned in haste by the site of the boat cheered them and us immensely. The slight worry was beginning to creep into the thoughts of Ann and myself that the incident might be treated like the boy who cried "wolf" too often. Adelina's mooring was sufficiently lonely at night for her occupants to value the comfort of a copper at the other end of a telephone line.

Members of the family came from time to time and handled the Sky Route with surprising equanimity, as though they were half prepared for something of the kind. Of all of them, my mother impressed me most: she swung up and down the ladders with the agility of a teenager, as unconcerned about heights as Tarzan's Jane. In fact being sixty five at the time she looked like Jane in later life, urbanised, and going for an occasional stroll over the rooftops to remind her of old times. What else could be expected from someone with a strong claim to be the first female motor cyclist in Yorkshire? A faded photograph, showing her clad in leather cycling gear, fiercely clutching the handlebars of her motor cycle, was a family treasure. If she'd been a bit younger when Adelina became part of the family circle, I'm sure she would have attempted to ride over the whole sky route on her motor bike.

At this stage Adelina consisted basically of four cabins: before I married, the small front cabin was my bedroom, Robin slept in the main cabin with stove, dining and cooking area, and sink (the description sounds slightly more squalid than the reality); then came a wilderness with billets of wood, coal, the side entrance and of course the shower; and quite a pleasant stern cabin, with small doors providing a second entrance.

Not long before I married, Robin and I had a discussion on what to do with the stern cabin, and eventually decided to let it as a furnished bed-sitting room. An advertisement was duly placed in an intellectual weekly, giving my office 'phone number for communication. Five adventurous creatures replied. This episode took place before Private Eye was established: had the magazine been available, I suspect that an advert in those eccentric-laden columns would have had the NCB switchboard jammed for days.

One person replaced the receiver on learning that the habitat was in the East End; a second could take the district but not the ladders; and three people came to have a look. Of these, one who had not been too deterred at the discription of the ladders, wouldn't even go up the first one when he saw the rungs vanishing skywards in the gathering gloom. Offered alternative access by the bit of Maginot Line at the side, the unstable fence and barbed wire conjured up visions of torn trousers or plunges in the canal, so he backed out.

Number four reached the boat (negotiations were rather like an elimination contest with Adelina being eliminated) but retreated on seeing the middle bit with the wood and the shower, on the grounds that the accommodation was not quite what he had in mind. I seriously doubt that Adelina, as she was, could have been in anybody's mind.

Number five, an American youth, was clearly of Pilgrim Father stock: he actually liked the boat, the setting, the access, everything. Even the lack of sanitation didn't worry him, as when he moved in he more or less spent the waking hours in the pub opposite, which constituted a neat little closed circle. What are nominally defined as the sleeping hours were occupied with such a variety of girl friends that, as a nuisance, he began seriously to rival the deer.

The American philanderer's occupancy ended quite suddenly when the latest playmate, with whom he showed every sign of entering into permanent co-habitation, confessed to being afraid of heights. This, in a resident of Adelina, was as anomalous as a claustrophobic lift attendant, so being sufficiently well-heeled to pay passion's price, the lover renounced his dirt-cheap watery residence and whisked his dizzy lady love off to a ground floor flat.

Shortly after this, the affairs of Robin and myself became a little more stabilized. When Ann moved in after we were married, the menage survived with surprising amicability for a few months. The ex-bed-sitting room became married quarters; the front cabin a workshop/guest room, and even the wasteland cabin underwent a transformation and became tidy if not habitable. The only flaws in the pleasant situation were the increasing depredations of vandals.

One party of nude East Enders, out for a day's swim, devised yet a fourth route to get onto the boat, making security still less certain. Periodically too, the boat would be untied, even during the working hours of the factory, and then drifted across the canal. At that time Ducketts still carried a little traffic in the form of tractor-pulled timber barges, and probably on three occasions I received calls from British Transport Waterways to inform me that Adelina, lying across the canal, was impeding trade. The barges were infrequent but always seemed to come along as Adelina, regardless of her own inclinations, was made into a menace to navigation.

Each time I would ask permission to leave the office hastily, on the grounds that I was responsible for traffic being delayed on the Hertford Union Canal. "The house has drifted into the road" as an exit line takes some beating; though probably the earlier one of "the house is sinking" did so by a short head. Eventually we foiled the untiers by mooring with a stout, padlocked chain; but there was then the fear that frustrated of the delight of cutting one end free, the intruders might be inspired to do something really amusing, such as setting her on fire. These things happen, as many a boat-owner knows to his cost.

15. The turning point? Budding portrait photographer decides
boats may be more photogenic than their occupants
(Hugh McKnight on right)

16. Hertford Union dry dock...

The final straw was when one day, whilst reading, a bit of shattered glass landed on the newspaper. A local marksman, aware of but totally careless about the inhabitants of the craft, decided to have a spot of target practice, using Adelina's windows as targets. My rapid emergence from the cabin, shouting threats of calling the police, had no effect, and only invited sinister gestures with the gun. A sudden inspiration made me bring out a camera (which didn't contain a film) and quickly pretend to take a photograph of Jesse James' successor: it had the desired effect — he ran. However, Ann and I began to feel increasingly concerned about leaving the boat unattended, even during daylight hours.

Via the Committee of the London and Home Counties Branch, I heard of moorings on the Basingstoke Canal. Though, from the description, the spot was much further from the office than Bow, some 27 miles against 10, there was a fast train service and the moorings were near the station. The place sounded like the promised land, and a quick visit there confirmed its attractiveness and convenience. The Canal Manager agreed that we could have a mooring, so Ann and I decided to move. Robin stayed on in the area, finding himself a bed-sitter (and perhaps regretting that a floating one had not been advertised anywhere). The journey involved going out onto the partly tidal Thames, along the Wey Navigation, and finally up the Basingstoke Canal. One late Spring morning we untied from the wharf, said "Goodbye" to the Evans family, and departed.

We didn't see Duckett's Canal again for a couple of years, until a London Branch boat trip was organised. The route took Jason from Paddington along the Regent's Canal to the Hertford Union, down the Lea, into the Thames, through Regent's Canal Dock, and so back to Little Venice. Ann and I felt nostalgic seeing the old mooring, and pointed out the walls and ladders to disbelieving members. Looking at the journey into the timber yard rather more objectively and distantly than before, I could well understand why a disinclination to use the facilities resulted in Adelina being enriched by quite a valuable antique.

That particular excursion was memorable for one incident. Duckett's only locks occur at the junction with the Lea Navigation, and by the Top Lock was a large and convenient dry dock, the sort of facility that boatowners in the London area had long been wanting. Dry docks exist in London; but the pleasure-boatman can hardly afford to pop a little pleasure boat into a space designed for an oil tanker or an ocean liner. The Duckett Dock was ideal for small craft save for one drawback, revealed as a closer inspection became possible: the owners were busy filling in the chamber with great rapidity and the sort of efficiency usually reserved for such exploits. All those present grumbled for some time about vandalism as we stood about the half filled depression, thinking of those officials we would like to see used as filling material.

A young man of about 18, armed with a camera, came up to me and diffidently offered to take a photograph, perhaps in the hope that enlightened posterity might want to clear the dock out again but would have to know where to dig. The offer was of course accepted and the excellent photograph arrived with surprising speed [1]. I immediately offered the cameraman, subject to Committee approval, the post of Branch Photographer, which he accepted. This was a "first" for the Branch; also, I ould like to think, a first semi-formal (though wholly honorary) engagement for the gentleman concerned. Hugh McKnight can now claim to be the leading canal photographer in the United Kingdom (or anywhere else too, for that matter), with a string of publications to his name.

The latest, the Guinness Guide to Waterways of Western Europe, is surely one of the finest books yet produced on inland navigation. His photographs show a rare insight and, being a skilful blend of aspects old and new, give the lie to the suggestion that canal lovers are only trying to resurrect the past. Quite apart from present pleasures, historians now and in the future will be glad that the final (and colourful) years of commercial narrow boats were captured by the McKnight camera and pen: much of that which he portrayed has already vanished from the scene. I've decided to reprint the picture of Ducketts dry dock, the view might inspire a few of the new breed of navvies to get out their shovels and restore a still needed facility to London's waterways. Maybe, with the new and enlightened "official" attitude to canals, those throwing the muck out might include a few of those who originally threw it in.

Ch 6: The Basingstoke

1. Published in Bulletin 67, November 1962, Inland Waterways Association, caption British Waterways as Trustees for the National Heritage.


Last updated April 2006