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Literacy amongst early canal workers


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I noted recently, looking through old notes, that in 1790 the BCN made various staff changes moving some staff and disposing of others. That year marked an important extensions being made to Fazeley, the Smethwick Summit reduction and the extension to Broadwaters. New locks were made and new lock keepers were needed. To be a lock keeper required a certain literacy and the BCN promoted a few carpenters to lock keepers. To be a carpenter presumably needed a certain literacy to measure and fashion wood and the promotions seem to be in keeping with this trend. General labourers may not have been literate, but those that worked up to surveyors also needed literacy, but unless the person chose to become literate, they presumably spent their life in the classes such as the labourer.

 

In 1790 the BCN chose to dispose of their boat repairers and employ contractors, which again would suggest a need for literacy. The existing staff were given the option to contract for services. Boats were generally made of wood, but  later iron boats were made and boat building and repairing became a job undertaken by BCN workers particularly at Ocker Hill.

 

Then there are the boat people where literacy was not common at first but improved with time. Yet some boat people never learn to read or write. I met one lady at at BCN Stand in the 1990's who had been a former boat woman, but still could not read or write!

 

Thomas Dadford engineer started as a carpenter on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.

 

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And from my experience the working boaters, who I have met, might not be able to read and write but they know how to count when it comes to money.

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Limited  literacy was common in rural areas until at least the 80's.  When I was standing in for the sub-postmistress in a South Devon village in about 1976 or so there were three or four weekly pensioners and a monthly one who signed for their money with a witnessed " 'X'  and ,'name' his/her mark."

As Rob M notes, none had any difficulty with basic numeracy and getting the right change.

 

I think total illiteracy eventually and literally died out as access to education improved post war.

 

 

N

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2 hours ago, Heartland said:

I noted recently, looking through old notes, that in 1790 the BCN made various staff changes moving some staff and disposing of others. That year marked an important extensions being made to Fazeley, the Smethwick Summit reduction and the extension to Broadwaters. New locks were made and new lock keepers were needed. To be a lock keeper required a certain literacy and the BCN promoted a few carpenters to lock keepers. To be a carpenter presumably needed a certain literacy to measure and fashion wood and the promotions seem to be in keeping with this trend. General labourers may not have been literate, but those that worked up to surveyors also needed literacy, but unless the person chose to become literate, they presumably spent their life in the classes such as the labourer.

 

 

Historically, Carpenters and Joiners were one of the top trades, and most were both numerate and literate, which probably explains why a good number ended up running their own building companies or trade supply businesses.

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1 hour ago, Rob-M said:

And from my experience the working boaters, who I have met, might not be able to read and write but they know how to count when it comes to money.

Amongst other things I taught adults entry level maths for many years... you'd be amazed how quickly you can teach basic maths through the medium of cash. 

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1 hour ago, Tracy D'arth said:

Maureen Shaw of Middlewich fame never learnt to read or write, it never stopped her from working the boats nor working on the land in later life after Jack died.

Sadly missed. A lovely lady.

So true. She has been a help to us on more than one occasion.

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5 hours ago, Pluto said:

It does depend upon what you call literate. This is a report from 1816 done for the L&LC regarding coal on the Sankey Navigation. I have included one page of the original, which has a translation', plus a pdf of the full text.

DSCF4768.jpg

Wigan Sept 14th 1816.pdf 214.74 kB · 4 downloads

 

That Letter, and the way the text has been overwritten was far from unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries. and comparted with others is easily read.  Writing paper was extreemly expensive and various arrangements were adopted to capitalize on the space available. I have seen a letter written in the 1820's from a Quaker family to relatives in Canada where the original text has been overwritten diagonally in both directions and vertically, Reading it successfully was a real challenge. 

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Apart from the use of the long 's', that was the type of copperplate writing still being taught in my Junior school in the East End of London in the late 1950's, where we all had iron-framed desks with sloping lids, and inkwells for our steel pens.   Our letters did not slope as much though. I still have a collection of steel pens that, before I retired,  used to  get occasional use with drawing ink for making minor changes to engineering drawings when it was not worth filling and subsequently cleaning my Rotring stylograph pens. 

 

When my daughter was studying the Victorians at her junior school, I got them out and showed her how to write with them without getting blots, something I myself was never taught at her age:- or maybe I just didn't listen!

Edited by Ronaldo47
typos
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I think that we have to be careful about how we define ‘literacy’. Using today’s definition isn’t helpful and we can be too judgemental about those who lived many generations ago. People were mostly educated to the standard that their job required. As ‘literacy’ increased through greater educational attendance it is perhaps easy to see why many people working on Narrowboat’s we’re left behind. That is assuming that their children spent all of their time on the boats none living with others on the bank. Anyway, everyone before the 1950s was illiterate in a sense - none of them were ‘computer literate’.

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11 hours ago, David Schweizer said:

 

That Letter, and the way the text has been overwritten was far from unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries. and comparted with others is easily read.  Writing paper was extreemly expensive and various arrangements were adopted to capitalize on the space available. I have seen a letter written in the 1820's from a Quaker family to relatives in Canada where the original text has been overwritten diagonally in both directions and vertically, Reading it successfully was a real challenge. 

As you say, overwriting was not that unusual, but the example I gave was a translation from a poorly written report into something more intelligible. It is the only example I have come across in extensive research into canals, though I have found many poorly written letters which took some interpreting. The standard of writing also varied. Some of the L&LC company minutes look very clear at first glance, though were difficult to read in detail, whilst others were scrawl but easy to read. If you really want a challenge, try reading 18th and early 19th century hand-written German.

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My father was born 1901 and apparently joined the Indian Army as a drummer boy at the start of WW1. Soldiers were taught to read in order for them to read instructions, but were not taught to write, which was an entirely different discipline and not regarded as important. He never did write properly.

 

Tam

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Not canals,

 

But the railway documents obtained from the loft at Chester Road Station, Birmingham had letters from the clerk where the new writing was at right angles to original writing. So it seems the practice was continued late into the nineteenth century.

 

Those LNWR letters were deposited in Birmingham Library Archives a few years ago.

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Somewhat off topic, but my late Mother-in-Law would respond to her statements from her credit card account by writing all over the statement and sending it back. Not one for wasting paper.

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James Brindley and what was written in diaries have been a reason for that, I understand. Others beg to differs.

Writing down the spoken word led to varied spelling in his day, and subsequently.

I read his report on the water supply and tramways from Brereton Collieries to the Trent & Mersey Canal, which I included sections in the book. The writing seems quite literate, but then there is the possibility that another wrote it for him.

In his profession as a millwright, a certain literacy would have been needed to get the work and discuss his plans and ideas. He seems to have been quite capable in the House of Lords debate that rejected the Stockport Canal in favour of the Trent & Mersey project.

But he did have a number of assistants when he commenced his extensive engineering canal projects. These included Hugh Henshall, Robert Whitworth and Samuel Simcox

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I was involved in an Adult Numeracy/Literacy Program when I worked for a Chamber of Commerce.

We aligned a lot of it with scoring at darts and working out bookies' odds.  They tended to rattle through it.

 

Literacy however had other issues in so much as "I canna read... " could be useful when excusing minor infringements of rules.  Not unlike the foreign tourist who suddenly "No spikka da Englich"

I don't know about levels within historic boat people, but I do think today's boaters must have big issues as well.  Have you seen the state Sanitary Stations get left in?

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James Brindley's alleged illiteracy has always seemed to me to be something carried forward from one author to the next without questioning the background, in this case the non-standardisation of spelling by many people.     I feel that in order to impress all those he did, he must have possessed more than a silver tongue and an idea!

 

I also wonder whether there was a pronounced professional jealousy amongst the early civil engineers that spread rumours of his illiteracy; John Smeaton was certainly hostile to Brindley (and visa versa).

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6 hours ago, zenataomm said:

I was involved in an Adult Numeracy/Literacy Program when I worked for a Chamber of Commerce.

We aligned a lot of it with scoring at darts and working out bookies' odds.  They tended to rattle through it.

 

When I was a student, I once had a summer job at a local factory, doing different things every couple of weeks as I was covering for people taking their holidays. On one of two weeks slots, one of the guys that I worked with was barely able to fill in his betting slips, and you would have thought he was as thick as the proverbial two short planks. However,  every morning he would spend the tea break poring over the racing form in that day's paper,  choose a horse, pop out to the betting shop at lunchtime and place a 5/- bet on the horse he had chosen (always 5/-), and collect his winnings at tea-time (we usually worked overtime): 10 days, 10 bets, 10 winners.  He offered to put a bet on for me, but 5/- was lot of money for me then! 

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6 hours ago, zenataomm said:

 

I don't know about levels within historic boat people, but I do think today's boaters must have big issues as well.  Have you seen the state Sanitary Stations get left in?

Do you have to be able to read to pour shit down a hole without half of it going on the floor

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There’s a picture of my great grandfather (1857-1951 and a GJC/OC owner boatman) in the CRT archive showing him in retirement reading a newspaper. However my mum, who lived in the same house as him until his death when she was 12, tells me he never could read properly.

 

I’m not too fond of the oft repeated numeracy comment as it sounds like something of a platitude. As at least one contributor recognises, literacy is a function of education and not intelligence. All workers learn the necessary skills of their trade to a greater or lesser degree.

 

The family also lived in a house and the children went to school on my great grandmother’s insistence, even though she was herself born and brought up on boats. Nonetheless all of the male offspring worked the boats and a couple became independent boatmen in adult life.

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17 hours ago, Greenpen said:

James Brindley's alleged illiteracy has always seemed to me to be something carried forward from one author to the next without questioning the background, in this case the non-standardisation of spelling by many people.     I feel that in order to impress all those he did, he must have possessed more than a silver tongue and an idea!

 

I also wonder whether there was a pronounced professional jealousy amongst the early civil engineers that spread rumours of his illiteracy; John Smeaton was certainly hostile to Brindley (and visa versa).

When Brindley took over from Smeaton on the C&HN, the latter is reported as saying that he 'shall never envy any Man the praise of doing better than myself while I am conscious of having done as well as those that have trod the same 9or perhaps less difficult) Steps before me.' They hardly seem the words of someone openly hostile, though Brindley's work on the navigation did prove to be of poor quality. Even then, Smeaton observed that the floods that did the damage were the worst on record. For hostility you need to look at John Rennie and John Sutcliffe, the latter's book on 'Canals and Reservoirs' can be seen as a thinly veiled attack on the competency of the former.

 

On literacy, you only have to look at what was published on the theory and practice canal engineering technology prior to 1820. There is virtually nothing in English, apart from Rees Cyclopedia, but there is an extensive library of European books on the subject. Engineers on the mainland of Europe were years in advance of those here when it came to a theoretical understanding of engineering, with British engineers, almost all of whom were millwrights, much better at the practical application. They were much less 'literate' than those abroad, so were less able to disseminate their ideas via the written word. I have discussed the implications of this in my recent book, a translation of an Austrian book on canal building, first published in 1817, whose author built, in effect, and English narrow canal in Vienna after visiting England in 1795.

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My thoughts about the professional conflict between Brindley and Smeaton are based on the alleged comments made by an engineer consulted by the Duke of Bridgewater about Brindley's plans for the Bridgewater Canal.   The consultant engineer was believed to be Smeaton and his report was dismissive, describing the Barton aqueduct along the lines of: "I have heard of castles in the air but never seen any built".    The duke stayed with Brindley.   Okay, too many alleges and believes but it's a good story!

 

Just bought your book.   It has seemed interesting to me that the French, and other, engineers had solved many problems that the likes of Brindley then had to do again in England as if from scratch.   Whilst the relationship between the two countries may not have been cordial there was certainly travel going on, witness the duke himself.    Look forward to reading more about the poor flow of information

 

 

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