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Coronation on the Cut

Coronation on the Cut

How working boaters celebrated the three coronations of the 20th century

We don’t know whether the majority of today’s boaters were inclined to partake in the coronation celebrations of King Charles III at the beginning of May. But, if photographic evidence is anything to go by, the working boat people of the 20th century were a right royalist bunch who threw themselves wholeheartedly into marking the occasion.

There were three coronations during this period - King George V in 1911; King George VI in 1937 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 - and for each event each, boats were decorated with union flags and bunting, while their crews turned out in their Sunday best, perhaps even donning a buttonhole flower or smart hat to honour the crowing of a new sovereign.

Most workers were given time off too, with some employers even providing food and drink. No doubt, boaters welcomed a day’s holiday as a respite from the relentless routine of carrying cargoes around the country.

Stoke Bruerne 1911
A Union flag at the stern of this narrowboat seems likely to be flying for the coronation of King George V in June 1911. The picture was taken at Stoke Bruerne, before the mill chimney was demolished in 1914. The boat belongs to local carrier A. Woodward and appears to be loaded with barrels, which probably contain beer. (Photo: Walter Alexander)
Wide-boat <i>Phoenix</i> is bedecked with an impressive collection of flags and bunting for the coronation of King George VI in May 1937.
Wide-boat Phoenix is bedecked with an impressive collection of flags and bunting for the coronation of King George VI in May 1937. The recently painted boat belongs to H. Sabey & Co, a carrier based on the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. Aboard is boater Louisa Owen (née Ray), always known as Lou, who is wearing an outfit comprising a beret, shirt, bright tie and long coat with a buttonhole flower. The boat is at the entrance to Liddall’s Dock (often referred to as Sabey’s Dock) at Yiewsley, Middlesex, with the Mono Concrete Works behind, and is loaded with gravel or ballast, presumably awaiting a tow back towards London. (Photo: Frank Ray)
Autherley Stop Lock, 1953
The line of bunting and fluttering flags strongly suggests that this 1953 image was taken around the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June of that year. The location is Autherley Stop Lock, viewed from the towpath bridge at Autherley Junction, where the Shroppie and Staffs & Worcs canals meet. The empty and waiting collection of boats belongs to carrier Thomas Clayton (Oldbury).


Canal king 

It should be noted that King Charles III’s connections with modern canals goes back quite some time.

It started with the Montgomery Canal. In the early 1970s the young Charles headed a new Welsh charity, the Prince of Wales Committee. The Montgomery restorers say his support was key to restoring 7 miles of the canal around Welshpool, including fighting attempts to build the new A483 . This helped the restoration take off, and those involved showed their appreciation by asking him to officially reopen Welshpool Lock in May 1974. 

In 2012 Charles accepted an offer to become patron of the new Canal & River Trust. In a video address at the launch he recalled his 1970s efforts to help the Montgomery restoration. In the same year Camilla, the future Queen Consort, in her first waterways engagement, joined him on a visit to the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal. She later became a patron of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust.

More recently, in 2021, he travelled aboard historic working narrowboat Scorpio for Coventry’s City of Culture celebrations, while his message to CRT on its tenth anniversary the following year is particularly salient, “When I reflect on all that has been achieved [on the waterways] none of it could have been done without the tireless help of the extraordinary volunteers.”  


Charles visiting the Cotswold Canal restoration in 2018
 Charles during his visit in 2018 to open the completed Phase 1A of the restored Cotswold Canals in Stroud. (Photo: CCT)

This article is an abridged version of a feature in Waterways World July 2023