Narrowboat Construction

Traditional working narrowboats are a part of history. They were the first type of boat to transport large loads of cargo via the canal system as other boats just couldn’t fit within the canal’s breadth. As the industrial revolution took hold, railways were seen as the better option for transportation, hence the narrowboat’s development into the houseboats still seen today.

There were several different types of narrowboat between the 18th and 19th century and their construction sometimes depended on the cargo they were transporting. The design of these floating homes has changed much over the years due to their changing usage and the needs of modern times.

Old Techniques

The first narrow boats were pulled along the canals by horse and were made primarily from wood. They were traditionally completely hand crafted from oak or elm. The carvel built and clinker built methods of construction were usually used to build the shell. This is when thick wooden planks lie edge to edge or overlap over a frame, respectively. The hulls were round chined (slightly pointed) and iron rivets were normally used to hold the timber together. They were all less than 7 feet in width and usually less than 10 feet in width in order to navigate the canals for transportation of goods.

Steel was first used in the design of narrow boats in 1887 but the hulls wore away with rust therefore new materials had to be considered. In 1896, elm wood was used for the underside of the boat with riveted iron sides forming a composite construction. These boats were known as ‘Joshers’ after Joshua Fellows the original designer of these composite boats. This construction faired better in the water and many of these narrowboats are still used today.

The Design

Narrow boats began their life as working boats and during the 1840’s and 1850’s boatmen took their families to live on them. Living quarters were still very small with barely enough room to sleep and eat, especially for the families who lived in them post-war. There was a stove just outside the boatman’s cabin and a sleeping area. The chimney stretched through a hole in the roof of the cabin. There was a hatch which led from the cabin to the stern of the boat where the boatmen could steer. The traditional stern left only room for one person to stand and steer the boat as it was primarily used for work and not socialising as they are today. Traditional narrowboats had port hole windows which minimised the amount of light getting into the boat but, as they weren’t originally designed for living in permanently, this wasn’t a priority.

Steam driven narrowboats were designed in the late 19th century but their design was slightly inconvenient. The space normally used to store whatever cargo the boat was transporting became cluttered by the engine and boiler as well as the fuel supply. There was also a necessity to hire extra men to look after the engines and keep the fires going which was less cost efficient than the traditional horse drawn boats. When the diesel engine was available in the 1920’s the motor driven boats began to take over. These motor powered narrowboats were able to pull along another, unpowered boat, doubling the cargo. There was surprisingly still some horse pulled boats in the 60’s, probably to save money.

As time passed and the boats began to be used for homes, people began painting the exteriors in bright designs. Traditionally, each part of the boat would be painted in a different colour with the name of the boat painted on the side panel. A flower, such as a rose, or a Styles and designs are reminiscent of folk art, although the origins of some of the artwork found on narrowboats is unknown.

New Designs

Modern narrowboats are a much more complex affair particularly as they need to be made into a home fit to live in. They are made from a welded steel shell and timber is still normally used to build the interior. Traditional oak and elm woods can now be replaced with cheaper hardwoods and attached with galvanised iron or steel fittings. Some people prefer to still handcraft narrowboats completely from wood, but this is rare and the ones used as homes need to be more durable. Electricity and gas are now used as with normal homes, to provide light and power. Usually a water tank is used for hot water and showers, and a full galley (kitchen) can be fitted with an oven, hob and fridge. This is all in the boatman’s cabin which is significantly more spacious now in a narrowboat than it used to be. Most boats are still run on a diesel motor as they used to be in the early 20th century.

There are now three different types of stern which can be constructed in the modern narrowboat. The old traditional stern (see ‘The Design), the semi-traditional sterns which have a cutaway roof to allow passengers to stand, and the cruiser stern which allows for a more sociable boat as it has a deck area where chairs can be put to enjoy the fresh air.

The old artwork seems to have lasted the test of time as the narrowboats of today are still decorated in bright colours and designs. Painting the boat is also important, not merely to personalise it, but it prevents the steel from rusting therefore paint needs to be touched up regularly and there has to be several coats of it to keep oxygen and water away from the steel shell.

As modern boats are primarily used for homes, they adopted a long, rectangular style for the windows as opposed to the traditional port holes, allowing light to get inside during the day. The hatch leading from the boatman’s cabin to the stern is still present in narrowboats today.

There are significant differences in the construction of floating homes today when compared to yesteryear. There is a focus on comfort and not deviating too much from a regular home.