How canal boats were launched

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An extra bit of our local history on 23 May 2020

A small piece of the local history of Rickmansworth was made on 23 May 2020. In the middle of the COVID crisis, one of the last canal craft built by W.H. Walker and Brothers (Walkers of Ricky), was re-launched having been painstakingly reconstructed at the boatyard of one of the few remaining wooden boat builders, Jem Bates, at his yard at Puttenham, near Tring.

The full story of Walkers will be familiar to many people in the town – if not, Tony Walker’s outstanding book, Walkers of Ricky is on sale in Rickmansworth Waterways Trust’s Canal Centre at Batchworth Lock. In outline, Harry Walker, the son of Alfred Walker who was a Grand Junction Canal Company manager living at Lot Mead Lock House, had been trained as a boat builder at the Tring boatyard of Bushell Brothers. He had leased Frogmoor Wharf from Lord Ebury in June 1905, and was quickly in demand as a boat repair yard, as well as continuing to operate the wharf as a transhipment point of canal-carried goods and materials.

By September 1905 Harry Walker was selling coal and coke, and also dealing in timber and building materials: and he had also begun to repair boats. Right from the start his business, in which his brothers were to join him, had four departments: building materials, coal and coke, timber, and boat building and repair. In this account we’ll concentrate on the boat building, but the other parts of the business form an equally important part of the story of our town.

The yard was a repair yard only for the first two years, but Harry Walker was intent on a small fleet of his own, and built the horse boats Frogmore and Eileen for himself in November 1907 and February 1908. The first boat built for a customer was Perseverance for the small contractor James Peasland in April 1908, and a steady stream followed. Of particular significance was the first Walker’s motor boat, the splendidly named Arveleecom for the Canals Motor Navigation Syndicate Ltd, in 1911 (the date is always quoted as being in September of that year, but the photos of her launch are quite clearly with leafless trees in mid- or late-winter): this must have been pretty pioneering in any part of the canal system.

Motor boats, motor tugs, butty boats, horse boats and gravel ‘punts’ were to follow for customers across the country for the next twenty years, until in July 1931 Walker delivered two butty boats to Associated Canal Carriers Ltd, recently taken over by the newly formed Grand Union Canal Company and about to become the nucleus of their new fleet under the name ‘Grand Union Canal Carrying Company Ltd’ (GUCCCo) in 1934. The plan was to expand the fleet to 100 motor and butty pairs of boats, and Walkers were among several builders contracted to build them. Alan Faulkner, in his short book The George and the Mary, tells the story of this expansion and of the resulting carrying operations: Walkers delivered the first two pairs of the new ‘Star’ class (Arcturus and Sirius, and Neptune and Altair) in October 1934 and the sixth pair, Antares and Spica, in February 1935, with others coming from other builders: their success resulted in a total of eighty eight pairs of the ‘Star’ class being built, progressively, up to June 1936. Walkers built twenty one pairs of the ‘Star’ class, which became known as ‘little Rickies’ – so there are ‘little Ricky’ motors and ‘little Ricky’ butties.

During 1935, however, the design was developed and enlarged somewhat, and the ‘Town’ class resulted. Harry Walker, by now well established as a supplier to the GUCCCo, quoted to build thirty eight butty boats in February 1936 by the end of that year at £390 each. He expected to be able to deliver these earlier than the end of the year, and so was able to encourage the GUCCCo to increase its order: this it did, to sixty two boats, to be delivered at a rate of two per week from April 1st to Christmas eve 1936. Tony Walker describes in detail the arrangements made in the yard for this astounding rate of production, which was not, in the end, achieved: it was probably not actually wanted by the GUCCCo either. Already by the end of that year the new GUCCCo fleet was beginning to decline: the hoped-for trade did not materialise, nor could crews be found for all these boats. All the boats ordered were built, however, and the ‘large Ricky’ butty (there are no ‘large Ricky’ motors, of course) became an important feature of the fleet, even though some were being laid up or sold on very soon after their delivery. By the end of 1938 the boat building boom was over, in Rickmansworth as elsewhere, and there are now very few wooden boats (whether built by Walkers or anyone else) left.

And this is where our story returns to life. Walkers built no canal craft at all during WW2, and just two afterwards – Aberystwyth in January 1952 and Bangor in August the same year. They completed their deliveries to the GUCCCo with Hale in November 1938, with Hagley the last-but-one shortly before, in August 1938. The story of Hagley since is lengthy, and not particularly local: but it is she who has been under reconstruction by Jem Bates and his team at Puttenham for the last few years, and was relaunched on 23 May.

The short film clip, taken with a hand-help camera, shows the classic sideways launch exactly as would have been seen when Hagley was launched at Frogmore in October 1938. Some things in wooden boat building have changed a great deal in the eighty years since then, but much has not. Jem Bates still planks his own timber, just as Harry Walker’s men did: each new plank and timber is put in the place of the old, to make sure the form and detail of the boat isn’t lost. The caulking is still hand-driven oakum, planks are still bent by being steamed in a steaming box and forced then clamped into place, fastenings are still nails and bolts, and pitch is still used to keep the hull waterproof. Some of the tools are different, and the workforce is much smaller: but in the re-launch of Hagley a small part of the history of Rickmansworth has been returned to the present. It will not be lost for many years.


Anthony Walker, Walkers of Ricky (Rickmansworth, 1991).

Alan H. Faulkner, The George and the Mary – a history of the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company Ltd (Rothwell, date unknown)

Click this link to see the short video on the Three Rivers Museum Site.

Article submitted by Fabian Hiscock