Cheshire’s Anderton Boat Lift remembers waterway men who died unrecognised on WWI war memorials due to their itinerant status
To commemorate the ‘forgotten’ waterway men of WWI, Cheshire’s Anderton Boat Lift, part of the Canal & River Trust Charity is to release a cascade of 100,000 poppy petals from the 50ft high lift at 11am on Sunday 11 November. The Royal British Legion’s petals, will be released from the Lift near Northwich, known as the ‘Cathedral of the Canals’, into the River Weaver by member of waterways staff and Canal & River Trust volunteers. Members of the public are invited to watch the poppy cascade from the bottom of the lift. There is no cost to enter the site, which opens at 9.30am on Sunday 11 November.
Almost every village and town had its own WWI war memorial but this does not mean that everyone who gave their lives in WWI is commemorated on such monuments. Hundreds of waterway men who died in WWI are likely to have been ‘forgotten’ because their itinerant lives – moving cargo up and down Britain’s waterways – meant they were not official residents of the towns and cities where memorials were built.
John Benson, Archivist, National Waterways Museum* said: “Although at the beginning of the war boatmen were in an important reserve occupation moving vital goods like iron and coal, many of the estimated 10,000 waterway men in Britain, volunteered anyway. This is likely to be because of social pressure but may have been to also escape from low pay or simply to have an adventure. In any case, by 1916, all unmarried boatmen under the age of 25 were eligible for call up. Many went into the Royal Engineers where they were used as boatmen to ferry troops via the inland waterways leading to the British sector – the Pas de Calais to Ypres and the River Somme from the Channel coast to Peronne. Barges on the return journey were used to transport wounded away from the battlefront, as immortalised in Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Hospital Barge’. The sort of people in charge of these boats would have been waterway men like Michael Ward and his brother Charlie (photo attached) from Braunston Marina, Northamptonshire, who were deployed on the waterways of the Western Front.”
Though records are sparse, historical sources mention that waterway men were also in considerable demand in WWI in Mesopotamia**. Here their skills and expertise on the waterways were used to keep water-based supply lines on the move, as well as being a part of amphibious attacks from rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates during the Mesopotamia Campaign (now Iraq).
Although many waterway men were unrecorded, others were named on war memorials, such as those at Brauston Churchyard, Daventry, Northamptonshire (where up to eight of the 31 named dead were likely to have been waterway men). Other men are recorded but very difficult to identify as waterway men. For instance, nearly seventy years before the war, the Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Company was leased to the London & North Western Railway Company. When the war started men from both canal and railway were called up to fight together. The impressive war memorial at London’s Euston Railway Station has on its paper Roll of Honour (now located in Cumbria) the name of T.Wright ‘flatman’ from Ellesmere Port. A flatman was someone who worked on the so-called Mersey Flats, transhipping materials between Liverpool and the rest of the canal network. Sadly, this would be a point lost on anyone who is not familiar with the vocabulary of the waterways around Liverpool.
John Benson, Archivist, National Waterways Museum, said: “In other places such as Shropshire’s Ellesmere Boat Yard, a framed list records the men who served during the war. But the list only mentions permanent job holders in the yard such as joiners, painters, fitters and boat builders – not waterway men. Most boat yards had no formal register of employees who failed to return from WWI. This seems heartless, but it must be remembered that the immediate post-war period was traumatic with many people coming to terms with having lost close relatives. Employers may simply have been unsure whether waterway men had died or moved to take advantage of better paid post-war jobs.”
Timothy Turner, General Manager, Anderton Boat Lift near Northwich, Cheshire, said: “As we commemorate the poignant last year of the war, I am pleased that we are acknowledging the largely unrecognised contribution of Britain’s waterway men in WWI. It is humbling to think of the sacrifices they made in inhospitable and foreign waters, far from home.”
The Anderton Boat Lift is the world’s first successful boat lift and a pinnacle of high Victorian engineering. It is also a Scheduled Ancient Monument, with the same protection status as Stonehenge.The Lift is an interesting combination of working historic structure and fun, educational experience. Owned by the Canal & River Trust, it was restored in 2002 after a £7 million restoration made possible due to a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Lift still operates today, floating boats through the air between the Trent & Mersey Canal and the picturesque River Weaver. Visitors can take boat trips through the Lift and along the river.