In 1929, several canal companies running between London and the Midlands amalgamated to form the Grand Union Canal. A carrying subsidiary, the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company (GUCCC) was set up to develop new traffic on the waterway.
During the 1930s, this company underwent a rapid fleet expansion programme until, at its peak, the company owned over 200 boats. At the same time the main line of the canal, from London to Birmingham, was widened and deepened to ease the flow of traffic.
The new boats fell into three main classes:
- Royalties; 5 feet deep and named after royal persons.
- Stars; 4’2″ deep and named after heavenly bodies.
- Towns; 4’9″ deep and named after various towns.
Royalties were built by a range of boatyards to a common design. Stars and Towns were built at Yarwoods of Northwich, Harland & Woolf of Woolwich and Walkers of Rickmansworth.
Walkers was the only yard building a wooden version. In the case of the Town class, constructed between 1936 and 1938, they only built Butties. These were known colloquially as “Big Rickies”. One major problem was finding enough good oak for the planking and it is noticeable that Big Rickies were built from relatively poor quality timber.
Southam was launched in 1936 and Elton in 1937. By then the GUCCC was running into trouble. The development of new traffic was slower than expected and they could not find enough skilled crews to operate all the new boats. Brand new craft were lying unused.
In 1938, GUCCC captured the Coventry to Hemel Hempstead coal traffic from number ones like Henry Grantham. This helped, but it was not until the wartime boost in traffic, with road hauliers hampered by blackout and fuel shortages, that the fleet came into its own. Crew shortages were still a problem, partly solved by the recruitment of women ‘trainees’.
In 1948, the canals were nationalised and the GUCCC boats came to be operated by the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive.
In 1960 Elton was sold to Willow Wren, a carrying company set up and subsidised by waterway enthusiast, Captain Vivian Bulkely-Johnson. It was managed by Leslie Morton, former managing director of the GUCCC.
Southam was sold in 1962, shortly before a re-organised British Waterways gave up narrow boat carrying. She went north to Runcorn where she was fitted with an engine. Later she gained a full length cabin and became a mobile residential boat, spending most of her time on the River Nene and the southern Grand Union.
By 1968, even Willow Wren were unable to compete with lorries using the expanding motorway network. Elton was sold to David Blagrove, a teacher and diehard canal carrying enthusiast, who used her to carry coal for retailing from the boat.
In 1992, Southam sank at Braunston and was impounded by British Waterways, who took her to Hillmorton where she sank again. The Wooden Canal Craft Trust (forerunner of the Wooden Canal Boat Society) bought her and, after an epic journey to Runcorn, carried out extensive refurbishment and hull repairs. The huge old BMC engine was also stripped down and re-assembled after spectacularly expiring on the journey from Hillmorton.
In the late 1980s, Elton had a rudimentary houseboat conversion fitted and was sold. By 1995, she was sunk and abandoned at Southall, London. British Waterways donated her to the society and volunteers raised her, then arranged tows north. Considerable work has been carried out to reduce her sieve like qualities and she now plays an important role in the recycling project, acting as a floating bric a brac store while she awaits her turn for full restoration.
Elton will eventually be restored to original condition and put back to work, probably as part of the existing recycling project.
Southam is in better condition but is less original. Her future is currently a matter for discussion as there is little justification for keeping two boats of the same class. It is possible that she may be sold to raise funds for other restorations.
We are always on the look out for more information on the history of these boats. If you know anything about them, or have any photographs, please get in touch.