On the canals of Britain there were still in 1972 a few of those ‘Water Gypsies’ who operated the longboats along Britain’s network of waterways. In their involvement with horses, their wandering lifestyle, the arrangement and decoration of their boat cabins, their attitudes and their use of language, and the name they were popularly known by, they seemed to me to have many things in common with land Gypsies. The exact relationship is to me unclear. I now feel that the similarities may be more due to lifestyles in some ways similar, rather than a more direct presence of Romany, Tinker or Pavee blood.
‘Boat girls make good wives and all ...’
Helen paints the longboat. She paints the big red ace of hearts on top of the hatch, and the red clover leaf. Then she paints the cream base to the deck, lets that dry, then puts a wet coat of golden brown on its top, and runs a comb through it to give an appearance of stippling. She paints the roses on the water cans, the castles on the cabin doors. She polishes the three brass rims on the black enamel chimney, a beautiful cylindrical chimney whose height has been yet further increased with the help of a Nestlés milk tin. The decorations, even the dimensions and arrangement of the cabin, are very similar to those of the old horse-drawn vardas.
Their longboat, beautifully picked out with castles and roses, is moored alongside the Grand Union Canal.
Mrs Helen Humphries: ‘I could never live in a house. I’d rather be on the water. Things are more peaceful there. All of my family were born on the water. My daughter, Pansy, she’s on the land. The land is foreign ground to me. Not Pansy, she married a dealer. When we go to see him he comes to pick us up in his car. I couldn’t get there on my own. I’m a stranger on the land. There’s a big shop on the corner, there’s a pub with a lion on top of it, well I couldn’t say more near than that, but he’s a shop-owner, important.’
I ask, ‘How many of you boat people are there now?’
‘Oh, not too many. There’s a load of boat folk up at Daventry. They’re moored up. Waiting for houses. It’s like that now for most boat people.’
A group of boats pass by – vast barges pulled by tugs, not lived in, with names like Eureka, White, Vial, Blackwell, Ben Hope, Blue River.
‘The cargoes we take now are only lime-juice. We used to take lime-juice, fruit, coal, wheat, wood.’
Helen’s husband Tom tells me, ‘In the old days I had me own horse. Used to take coal to the old age pensioners at Oxford. That was sweet.
‘Used to be a lot of barges, but now it’s all going off. They worked and made the roads and that way they ended the canals. The boat people is dying.’
He gets out a collection of photographs.
‘Here I are coming into the old 98 Lock. Here I are with Pat, the brindled dog. Here I are moored for the water fair at Banbury.’
Downstairs is the cabin, the bed at the back, a shelf occupying the width of the boat, screened off with white lace curtains. In the nearer part, by the doors, white fancy-bordered plates hang thick like leaves.
Tom tells me that barges like these have their own oil-fired motors and reckon to do three miles an hour, including locks.
‘This cabin is registered for man, wife, and four children. But we smuggled in more than that, as they arrived.’
‘Boat people are industrious. My daughter, she hasn’t got an idle bone in her body.
‘Boat girls make good wives and all. There’s a load of boys from the towns married boat girls. My daughter married that feller on the shore. She’s good in a house, good in an office, good at the cooking, and what’s more, good on the water.
‘Did you teach your children to swim?’
‘Oh no. Nor the wife. Every so often they fall in. Then I are diving in to get them out from the reeds.
‘But I think children on a canal are good behaviour. You can take ‘em into the street, you never see ‘em gawpin’ through the windows like town folk do to us people. There’s always town children coming here, gawpin’. And they do spitting at you, beating up, punch up, throw stones at you as you go under the bridges.
‘In the summer it’s too hot. Winter is better. Then you can always work to keep yourself warm.
‘The winter is rough. But I don’t mind because we can’t always have it sweet. Must take the rough with the good. There are bits we have to go on the Thames. When the Thames is full it’s not very sweet.
‘I remember the old horse best from the old days. Yes, it’s funny, the best thing I remember is the horse. When we’d moored up for the night I used to saddle the old horse and ride about on her. You’d see so many people. And I remember Banbury one day, Banbury Fair. There was twenty-seven pair of boats laying there I remember, for the fair.
‘I had to make an early start, at six. There were thirty horses there, waiting to go through the lock. And I had to make an early start to go on four-days’ journey up to Liverpool.
‘So, for they hid my horse’s collar under a truss of hay, I couldn’t find it nowhere. I couldn’t find it, search though I may. They’d hidden it. That was a laugh.
‘Well, I’m glad I saw you coming. I don’t like most of you fellows. I don’t like house people. When I see house people coming I shut down the hatch. That’s not very sweet.’
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