About Us – New Lives from Old Boats (Volunteers Welcome)

New Lives for Old Boats

The Wooden Canal Boat Society (WCBS) has the second largest collection of former working wooden canal boats in the UK.

Rather than simply restore and preserve them, The WCBS is finding new uses for these old boats by putting them to work on behalf of the local community, whilst also providing opportunities for people to learn new skills, meet people, make friends and do something useful and rewarding.

The WCBS has up to 100 volunteers per year, but is almost always looking for more.

As well as wanting people to help out with boat building, repairs and crewing, there is the administrative and fund-raising side of the Society. This includes administrative roles, such as trustees, and fund-raising staff, such as shop volunteers.

If you think you might be able to spare some time and can help out in some way, please get in touch.

Tameside is an area of considerable deprivation and disadvantage, low income and health problems. Poverty, mental illness and social exclusion all too frequently impact together, affecting an individual’s ability to work efficiently, often resulting in unemployment, or being confined to low status jobs.

This can consequently lead to loss of self esteem and confidence. Volunteering with The Wooden Canal Boat Society can be a way of giving daily lives meaning and structure.

One of our activities is to provide “wellbeing” boat trips.


The core activity is the preservation and maintenance of the six historic wooden canal boats owned by the Society. These activities are carried out at a boatyard in Stalybridge, and at Portland Basin, in Ashton-under-Lyne, at the rear of the museum.

The WCBS has several key projects:

  • Portland Basin Museum, where we maintain and display our working wooden boats, Lilith, Southam, Forget Me Not, Queen, Hazel and Elton, and inform the public about the history of these boats, our canal heritage and the work of the WCBS.
  • Three working boat trips a month for community recycling.
  • The Wooden Canal Boat Society Charity Shop, on Stamford Street Central, Ashton-under-Lyne
  • The restoration of Hazel as a residential “wellbeing boat” and enable people to use it as a way of relaxing, as well as being available for short, paid trips and overnight accommodation.

The boats are currently displayed at Portland Basin, adjacent to the Social History Museum. The Society makes them available for the general public to view and provides guides, leaflets and display boards to explain the history, construction and operation of wooden canal boats. The Society also travels further afield with the boats, taking them to boat festivals to spread information about them to the wider public.

The Society runs monthly boat trips along the Ashton canal to collect surplus clothing and household goods. Suitable items from these trips are resold from the shop, whilst others are recycled and reused to help protect the environment.

Volunteering activities revolve around boat handling, boat building, maintenance, repair, “boat sitting”, community recycling, van driving, charity shop sales, tourist information, industrial heritage, marketing, project development and fundraising.

For some, volunteering with the Wooden Canal Boat Society is about getting out of the house and meeting new people and doing something useful. For others it is an opportunity to learn new skills, or putting their existing skills to work and “giving something back”. It may also be a route back to work.

Through its activities the Society provides opportunities for meaningful work. Volunteering with WCBS helps people to be active, fit and remain healthy for longer.

For many, the society is about “wellbeing”, reducing the risk of social isolation or exclusion and creating an “away from it all” environment. It is therefore a source of help for people who are unemployed, socially isolated and/or in poor mental health.

The activities of the Society are dependent upon the many Volunteers who work with or on the boats, in the charity shop, on the recycling trips and in the management of the society.

All this work means that, as well as helping people with issues in their lives, these historical wooden canal boats are maintained as historical assets, working for the community, bringing our heritage back to life and filling our waterways with colour and the sound of enjoyment.

New lives, indeed, from old boats!

A Short History of the Wooden Canal Boat Society

In 1974, Chris Leah was a student at Chester College, living on boats to save money. He bought a full length wooden narrow boat called Lilith for £100. The boat needed repairs and Chris set about doing them.

Down the chute 4 11 pixie

Before long,  Chris had acquired a second boat,  Sarah, later renamed Forget Me Not.

In May, 1987, the Wooden Canal Craft Trust was formed. This was initially a small group of friends who wanted to build a future for Lilith and Sarah.

The 1989 British Waterways Bill threatened to introduce new regulations that would make the work of the Wooden Canal Craft Trust virtually impossible and force most owners of historic wooden craft to destroy them. The Trust petitioned against it.

The Trust’s case against the Bill was put at the Lords Committee stage and several witnesses called. This, and negotiations over the next two years, resulted in substantial changes in the legislation, together with the beginnings of a recognition of the importance of the floating heritage by British Waterways.

By the Spring of 1995, The Wooden Canal Craft Trust owned six boats, Elton, Forget Me Not, Hazel, Lilith, Southam and Queen.

The trustees of the Wooden Canal Craft Trust decided that the way forward was to become a company and a registered charity. To do this they needed to form a new organisation with a new constitution.

The Wooden Canal Boat Society was subsequently established, in 1996, and was registered as a non profit making co-operative company, limited by guarantee. It became a registered charity in 1998.

The Wooden Canal Craft Trust was wound up in March 1997 and its assets handed over to the WCBS.

In October 1996, our first boat moved to the Portland Basin Museum in Ashton.

The Society needed a proper boatyard and, in 1999, Tameside Council provided a site at Knowl Street, in Stalybridge.

As well as creating a fully functional Heritage Boatyard, the society is now involved in a range of activities, aimed at preserving and using these wooden narrow boats.