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Strike by Canal Boatmen

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From today's Times (or rather from 100 years ago today) in the archive section:


From The Times: September 13, 1923

The canals are relatively so small a part of the transport system of the country that a strike of canal boatmen — they enjoy the dignified title of captains — has gone almost unnoticed, though it has continued nearly a month.

The canal boatmen are a class very much apart from others. The conditions of their life set up a barrier of separation. They have a restless occupation and a moving home. They live on the boat, in the little cabin with the iron chimney at the stern. They stand on its doorstep to steer. It is the home not only of a man but usually of a family — the only home. On land they have no dwelling at all.

It is a roughish sort of life, inclined to be monotonous and devoid of ambitions. The “captain” has a crew. It consists of his wife and of the children who are old enough to lend a hand. If the man follows the horse, the wife steers.

The cabin is a crowded and stuffy place at night, when the shelves that serve as tables by day are converted into beds. As likely as not the children sleep on the floor. An instance of a man, his wife, and seven or eight children, living in one boat and sleeping in its narrow cabin was recently brought to light. The children have little or no schooling. They, too, live apart from others.

During the summer the Transport and General Workers’ Union put forward what was called a national programme for canal boatmen. It included stabilisation of wages and the gradual abolition of the “living-in” system. Present wages range downwards from £2 a week. The union foresees that the discontinuance of living-in would require increases of wages to enable the men to maintain comfortable, fixed homes.

But this programme is not now under discussion. It had scarcely been launched when the largest firm of carriers gave notice of a demand to reduce wages by amounts ranging from a penny to fourpence a ton each trip. The men worked this out to mean a loss to them of from seven to as much as fifteen shillings a week. They refused the terms, and went on strike.

About five hundred boats are idle. The canal transport industry is not in a prosperous state, but the men contend that they are being called upon to make too great a sacrifice. Efforts are being made to arrange a conference.

  • Greenie 2
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