The history of canal boat families

7th September 2023

The Industrial Revolution brought about the use of canal boats to transport goods across the country, and as this network of canals developed, people began to live on the canals as it allowed them to stay close to their work. In this blog, we’ll explore canal boat family history, what life was like for families living on the canal in the 18th and 19th centuries and the legacy they’ve left behind.

18th and 19th Century Canal Boat Families

In the 18th Century canal mania meant that canal networks were developed across the UK. Initially, families began to live on boats at this time due to its practical advantages. Boat families could navigate the waterways and reach various destinations without being tied to a fixed location which was especially important for families involved in the transport of heavy goods like coal and timber, as their income depended on how well they could move along the canals. Additionally, canal boat living provided a sense of self-sufficiency, as families had their living space and transportation combined, making them less reliant on the amenities of towns and villages.

Many canal boat families came from poor farming backgrounds initially, turning to canal boat life to build better prospects for their families. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, they were well regarded due to their hard work which was needed to drive industry forward. However, in Victorian times, generations of isolation from mainstream society gave canal boat families an air of mystery and suspicion among those living in the towns and villages and canal boat families were often assumed to be associated with crimes like theft and smuggling.

The dual use of the boat for both haulage and accommodation meant that the boat's cabin served as a multifunctional space for cooking, eating, sleeping, and living. Innovative storage solutions were needed to maximise every inch of available room. While canal boats still have innovative storage today, the interior is much more comfortable. Read more in our guide to a narrowboat interior.

What jobs did people have when living on the canal?

Most people who lived in canal boats were involved in jobs that revolved around the industrial revolution and the transport of goods. Some of the ways people made a living while living on canal boats included:


A boatman’s job included navigating the narrowboats and barges along the canal. Their responsibilities included operating the locks, managing the cargo and delivering it to its end location along the waterways. Often families worked together with women playing a crucial role in working alongside their partners.


A lockkeepers role was to help boats pass through the locks and ensure the smooth flow of traffic along the canal. Some locks still have lockkeepers today to help boaters navigate the changes in water level in the lock. Read more about how locks work in our guide.

Cargo Handlers and Dock Workers

Men were often employed to load and unload goods onto boats with the responsibility of ensuring that all the cargo was properly stowed for safe transport.

Maintenance Crews

Heavy use of the canals meant that maintenance was an ongoing task. Crews repaired locks, maintained the canal banks, and ensured that the waterways were navigable.

Child Labour

In canal boat families, everyone was expected to help with the work as soon as they were able, and child labour was prevalent on canal boats. Often children started working at a young age and families were not able to provide consistent schooling due to the constant movement of the boats. As a result, most children received very little education, if any at all, as their learning came from hands-on experiences on the boat.

What was life like living in a canal boat family?

Despite living a nomadic lifestyle, canal boat families formed tight-knit communities. Canal boat families often formed connections with fellow travellers as well as other people working on the canal.

These tight-knit communities developed their own traditions, dialects, and cultural practices unique to canal boat families including:

Waterway Celebrations

Life on the canal featured its own calendar of celebrations such as Boatmen’s gatherings. Some of these festivals, fairs and floating markets still take place today. Originating as an opportunity for canal families to connect and celebrate their way of life.

Boat Blessings

Before embarking on a new journey, boat families often held rituals or blessings for the vessel. Their lifestyle away from mainstream society often meant that these ceremonies were a blend of traditional religion and superstition asking for protection for safe travels.

Canal boat painting

Canal boats to this day are often painted in the traditional “Rose and Castle” style. With vivid colours and embellished scrolls. This artistic decoration is a tradition that has been passed down from the 18th Century.  

Boatman’s Cant

Canal boat families developed their own dialect known as boatman’s cant or waterways slang. This was a mixture of codes, abbreviations and unique phrases that outsiders struggled to understand. Examples include referring to locks names by the name of the lockkeeper, or a gongoozler – someone who enjoys watching what’s happening on the canal.   

Canal boat family legacy

The development of the railway network in the mid-19th century resulted in a gradual decline of canal boat families as transporting goods via canal fell out of favour. However, the canal boat families left behind a rich legacy. Where there are still communities living on canal boats, attracted to the nostalgia of a bygone era, keeping traditions alive.

If you’d like to experience what it would be like living on the canal, with the comforts of modern life, we have a range of boats available suitable for between two and twelve people, perfect for exploring our featured routes. Or for more information get in touch with our helpful team today.

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