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Messing About on the River

By Jayne Shrimpton

A maritime nation, Britain has a powerful historical connection to the water, both the sea and inland waterways: rivers, canals, reservoirs and lakes. Here we take a brief look at the history of water transport and, especially, boating as a leisure pursuit.

An elite pastime

For centuries the social elite enjoyed boating as a pastime, many private boat owners becoming skilled oarsmen and sailors. Wealthy families might paddle leisurely around the private lake on their country estate, or enjoyed the pageantry of gliding down the River Thames in a luxurious barge equipped with canopy, musicians and liveried servants. During the eighteenth century the use of small boats at the seaside or on the river for pleasure advanced, elegant fishing-parties or picnic-themed water parties becoming fashionable in the later 1700s.

River transport

At around the same time, Britain’s canals, built primarily for industry, began to transport paying passengers. Passenger services launched in 1769 on the Bridgewater Canal, using the Duke of Bridgewater’s own horse-drawn canal boats, and later this expanded to provide scheduled passenger services in efficient, medium-sized ‘packet boats.’ Indeed, before boating became a popular leisure activity, ordinary people mainly used boats as transport, either travelling in packet boats carrying cargo and passengers between locations, or in local craft that ferried pedestrians across rivers and lakes, or between headlands and islands along the coast.

Aquatic sports and regattas

Human interaction with the water began to shift in the early-1800s when the ‘aquatic sports’ of rowing and sailing evolved. Rowing clubs proliferated and rowing rapidly became a competitive sport, with public races and regattas attracting many spectators. For local communities on rivers, estuaries and the sea these provided mass entertainment and spectacle: for example, in Shoreham-on-Sea, West Sussex, an annual regatta has been held most years since 1854. For serious rowing, oarsmen usually wore warm knitted jerseys – comfortable, functional garments already used by sailors and fishermen. At this period genteel ladies did not usually row publicly, for such strenuous physical exertion was considered unseemly, but evidently the wives and daughters of fishermen raced their boats from an early date. One such event, rowed on the Thames, drew a vast crowd and was reported in The Times, 4th September 1833: ‘…the lady who wore a blue bow in her cap as large as a sunflower, and who had her garments tied round her legs with a rope, had the distinguished honour of being declared the victor.’

The Great Age of Boating

During the Victorian era a growing divergence between working hours and leisure time and progressive interest in outdoor pursuits led to boating becoming a more popular widespread activity. Boat-builders started to produce more pleasure craft: for example, during the 1860s flat-bottomed punts manoeuvred using a long wooden pole began to be built specifically for recreation. Pleasure punting was first practised mainly on the non-tidal River Thames in hired or privately-owned punts, later expanding and becoming especially popular on the rivers of key tourist destinations The Bank Holiday Acts of 1871 and 1875 giving many people more paid leave from work fuelled a rapid expansion in leisure facilities and entertainments. With efficient railway networks now serving much of Britain, day-trippers and holiday-makers could travel further afield, exploring more of the country and trying new outdoor activities. As riverside beauty spots and seaside resorts experienced a surge in weekend and holiday visitors, the 1880s became known as the great age of boating. This was vividly expressed in popular imagery and in literature like Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889) - the humorous account of a two-week boating holiday in a Thames camping skiff, a traditional rowing boat.
Exploring the river networks by sturdy rowing boat or skiff, or taking a punt out on a tranquil Sunday afternoon became much-loved forms of open-air relaxation, appealing to different kinds of people. Ladies now became more involved in boating as a popular activity, often taking the oars or pole, dressed in jaunty, nautical-inspired serge or jersey costumes. Men, meanwhile, released from sober city suits and starched collars, donned loose summer shirts, striped blazers and straw ‘boater’ hats. Boating lakes But people did not even have to find a river to try their hand at rowing, for many of the municipal parks established in Victorian towns and cities were equipped with ornamental lakes or larger lagoons among their recreational facilities. For instance, Shoreham’s lake had already been enlarged by 1843 (later there were two) and Queen’s Park in Brighton gained its lake in 1891-92 in time for the re-developed park’s public opening. In municipal boating lagoons up and down the country courting couples, small groups and adolescents enjoyed taking out hired rowing boats, with miniature paddle-wheeled pedal boats or ‘pedaloes’ becoming a modern alternative from the early twentieth century.

Canal holidays

The expanding Victorian railway network that carried passengers also transported raw materials and manufactured goods. Narrow waterways and slow-paced narrowboats with limited capacity could not compete with fast freight trains and in time the railways took over much industrial canal traffic. However, as traditional canal commerce declined, a new generation of affluent city workers seeking escape from hectic urban life found themselves drawn to the peaceful, meandering waterways where rural customs prevailed and time seemed to stand still. As early as the 1850s some traditional barge-building companies diversified by producing pleasure craft for hire (called ‘noddy boats’ by established canal workers) and by the turn of the century larger companies ran large fleets of rental boats.

Initially canal boat excursions were a luxurious experience, vessels often fitted out with comfortable soft furnishings and staff, but some river tourists, influenced by a growing nostalgia for a vanishing way of life, sought a simpler, more authentic experience. The Norfolk Broads began to emerge as an ideal destination with unspoilt, pastoral landscapes, picturesque villages and thatched cottages. As more commercial canal boats fell into disuse in the early-mid twentieth century, pleasure boats continued to take over. Boat companies actively promoted the charms of the inland waterways and railway lines advertised their train services to such bucolic destinations. British rivers and canals were especially popular for summer holidays when British beaches were closed during the Second World War.

Our interest in and use of the water continues to evolve. Meanwhile, anyone enjoying the rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs this summer, whether here in Sussex or further afield, will be following a long historical tradition.

Posted in History on Jul 01, 2022