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'The Story of Swallow'

'The Story of Swallow - Diary of a Boat'

(First published in the Historic Narrow Boat Club Newsletter 2013/2)


W.H. Cowburn & Cowpar Ltd was a well established company, based in Trafford Park, Manchester, operating a small fleet of wide and narrow boats which initially carried the company’s products.  Formed in 1916 the company was an amalgamation of W.H Cowburn Ltd (founded in 1877 but incorporated in 1910) and the Cowpar Chemical Co, founded in 1887 – a partnership between WH Cowburn and a chemist named Parkinson (there never was a ‘Mr Cowpar’!).

The company’s main customer was the growing business of Samuel Courtauld which had begun production of artificial fibre in 1905 at its Foleshill Road, Coventry factory. In essence the Cowpar Chemical Co supplied manufactured raw material, the chemicals, from the Manchester Castlefield plant (est. 1887) and also, from 1913, new premises adjacent to the Bridgewater Canal at Trafford Park – the world’s first industrial estate – while WH Cowburn Ltd were chemical merchants, looking after deliveries as well as supply.   However in 1916 Courtaulds acquired the Trafford Park factory with Arthur Cowburn remaining as manager and after about 1919 the Castlefield site was then used only for storage.  This then was the catalyst for the merging of the companies into W.H. Cowburn & Cowpar Ltd which remained in business until taken over by the Hays group in January 1986.

The company had utilised water transport from its earliest days.  Courtaulds established waterside factories – not only the Foleshill Road plant on the Coventry Canal, but others at Wolverhampton (Dunstall Hall) on the S&W Canal (1926), Coventry (Little Heath) in 1927, plus Castle Works at Aber, in Flint in 1922 and Holywell on the Dee in 1927.  They also had plants at Preston (1935) and Bridgwater (1936) served by rail and road respectively.

By the early 1930s Courtaulds was increasing its demand for materials such that the company was looking to modernise its fleet of narrow boats.  Some of these had been obtained second hand in the 1900s, while new craft were obtained between 1925 and 1928, named after members of the Cowburn family.  These were all horse drawn boats but in 1932 C&C ordered two motor boats from WJ Yarwood & Sons of Northwich.  The boats, named ‘Swan’ and ‘Swift’ and of composite construction were successful and a further six were ordered, albeit of all steel construction with rounded chines.  All eight boats had Gardner 4VT engines, not normally fitted to boats of any kind. The reason for this is not known, (and they must have seemed quite old fashioned compared to (say) a Russell-Newbery, National or Lister JP2) except that Gardners were a local company and the directors of both companies may have known each other socially, as was probably also the case with Yarwoods.

All the motor boats were delivered between 1933 and 1936 and were named after birds beginning with the letter ‘S’ (though there never was a ‘Sparrow’) and, apart from the first two, had, on delivery, a bird silhouette cut out as appropriate to the name in chrome attached to the engine room side panel below the name.  It’s believed that ‘Swan’ and ‘Swift’ later had birds painted on – why they didn’t have the cut outs (even at a later date)  is, like many questions regarding these boats, unresolved! Another oddity of these craft is that they were built in twos but each ‘pair’ was different in design to the others with detail differences even between two of the same pair – why not build them all the same?  Also the first six boats had a rather pointed shaped counter (rather like some of the earlier Yarwood steamers) which aided closing of lock gates slightly, and possibly the deflecting of a butty fore end if it came into contact, but didn’t seem to have any other obvious advantages.  The last two craft had conventional counters, which seems to contradict the theory that the pointed shape of the others was because of criticism from FMC who might have laid claim to the conventional rounded design. Some of the boats were equipped with cylindrical  tanks of 4ft 6 in diameter,  amongst them the motors ‘Seagull’, ‘Swift’ and‘ Snipe’(the latter from new), and the butties ‘Ivy’ and ‘Judie’  and this was for the carriage of carbon disulphide.  These were discharged by pumping in water thus forcing the CS2 up the discharge pipe. The water was then blown out of the tanks into a tank on the wharf.

Yarwood drawings show a rather odd colour scheme proposed for the boats – with a black border to the maroon cabin side panel – which, it has been said, was to ‘project a modern appearance’.  However this doesn’t really make sense, as the motor boats were also, unusually, provided with a cabin side castle panel and full scrollwork, roses and castles on cabin doors etc.  Colours chosen for the top bend diamonds were red, orange, blue, pink, green and chrome!  Photos of some of the boats just after launch seem to show a dark oak scumbled cabin side border (as carried currently by ‘Swallow’ and ‘Skylark’) and this ties in with remarks from former C&C boatmen that they didn’t approve of the black colour scheme idea – though I haven’t yet established whether any boat ever carried it initially.  The boats were delivered with a full set of brass rims (rings) to the stove chimney and tall pipe, a brass sheet behind the stove, plus fenders etc.  (The provision of the brasswork is interesting as it has been said that this was more associated with boats south of Birmingham, only reaching the North West in the 1950s.  In fact, while arguably true, the earliest photograph I have seen of a boat with brass chimney rims was taken at Ellesmere Port in the late 1800s!).  As a matter of interest, in 1944 ‘Swallow’ was valued for insurance purposes at £750 for the hull, £225 for the engine and machinery and £37 for ‘furnishing’s making a total value of £1012.

‘Swallow’ was inspected on 9th January 1934 launched the next day 10th January and registered in Manchester on 10th April, given the number 1121 under the Canal Boat Act of 1877.  Although WHC&C crews mostly lived ashore, this enabled them to stay aboard during a journey.  The cabin of a narrow boat was usually deemed large enough to accommodate three men or one man, his wife, and two children under the age of twelve and this was the case with ‘Swallow’ although in fact the captain, George Estcourt, and his wife and son Charles had two cabins between them as ‘Swallow’ generally towed a ‘butty’ boat.

The motor boats generally operated (at least initially) between Trafford Park and the two sites in Coventry and the plant at Wolverhampton.  However they did occasionally foray elsewhere and it’s known that ‘Swan’ made several trips to Chester where the cargo was transhipped to a WCIC (Wolverhampton Currogated Iron Co) flat at Tower wharf for onward movement to Flint – why the flat didn’t come direct to Trafford (or at least to Runcorn to meet Swan)  via the MSC isn’t known (maybe the tolls were too expensive).  Other boats operated to Runcorn to collect acid carboys from Castners.

C&C Sales and Admin Director Tom Frost kept a diary of all trips made by ‘Swallow’ and presumably the other boats as well.  The ‘Swallow’ log books were handed over to Roger Lorenz by William Cowburn and these provide a treasure trove of information, possibly unique in our field.  These logs have been scanned and can be viewed on the 'mbswallow' website. It’s worth taking a close look at what is revealed.

Between Jan 1934 and April 1939 Swallow carried acids and chemicals, salt and lime, in drums, carboys and bags between Trafford Park and the Courtauld works in Coventry (130 trips) and Wolverhampton (35 trips), with return loads of empty containers and carboys plus occasionally  other cargoes. She doesn’t seem to have worked to anywhere else.   The captain, throughout this time was, I believe, George Estcourt, who had previously captained horse boats ‘Dart’ and ‘Lottie’.   He would take Swallow with his wife, and son Charles, but would go single handed if the butty, usually ‘Tom’ (built 1927) was not taken for some reason such as docking or repairs.  Of course when ‘Swallow’ was on dock he would take a different motor and in April 1937 he had ‘Swift’ with ‘Tom’.   Like many of the C&C crews the Estcourts lived ashore in Middlewich.   The logs tell us that the fastest return trip times were a very creditable five days to Wolverhampton and eight days to Coventry, though actual starting and finishing times are not logged.  Most Wolverhampton trips took about seven to eight days return – any longer trips were generally noted as ‘including holidays’ (for example).  Coventry trips varied very much more in journey time with eight to ten days being common but other trips taking up to eighteen or even twenty three days – not always explained by holidays or stoppages (perhaps a stoppage on the T&M would necessitate a diversion via the Shropshire Union and northern Staffs & Worcs canals) On the subject of stoppages the longest trip to Coventry and back took no less than 94 days (three months) – and the log tells us:  ‘Left T Pk. on 2/7/34 and did not return until 13/10/34 owing to stoppage on T&M Canal’.  Even by today’s standards this is an excessively long stoppage – assuming this was a major emergency such as a breach why didn’t Swallow turn round and go the other way?  Was Swallow caught in the middle – even stranded high and dry?  Was this the breach which resulted in the re-building of Croxton aqueduct?  During WW2 the boats had to travel by the ‘top road’, presumably via the Shropshire Union Canal to avoid the danger of being bombed in Stoke-on-Trent.

For the first few trips details of the cargo carried are included.  Swallow’s first trip was to Coventry, leaving Trafford Park on 15th January 1934 and arriving back on 23rd of that month.  Cargo carried was 64 drums of Carbon disulphide on the motor boat and 100 containers of ROV (concentrated sulphuric acid), 18 of acetic acid, and 20 of G.N. oil (ground nut oil?) on butty Tom.  Cargo weight is not recorded for this trip but is for the second trip (also to Coventry) leaving on 23rd January and returning 6th February.  Disposition between the boats isn’t recorded this time but weights are:

64 drums of CS2: 19 tonnes 10 cwt gross (15tonnes 4 cwt net)

34 containers of acetone: 13 tonnes (10 tonnes 12 cwt net)

4   containers of acetic: 7 tonnes 2 cwt (5 tonnes 19 cwt net)

So this would be around 39 tonnes total for the pair (gross) which seems to have been about the norm – where shown the average seems to be between 37 and 41 tonnes gross.  This is slightly less than might have been expected for a pair on the northern waterways.  Correspondence with the Coventry Canal Co suggests this was because the canal between Fradley Junction and Whittington was in need of dredging and the tonnage on offer didn’t justify the expenditure.  Certainly the fastest trip times are impressive and the rounded chines may have helped as well.  (Boats with tanks fitted carried a slightly better net weight so would have been faster still).  After July 1934 cargo details are not shown – presumably they were recorded elsewhere.

Running costs for each trip are also itemised in detail and we find that fuel used to Coventry and return was 65 gallons for the first trip but thereafter varied between 50 and 60 gallons.  For Wolverhampton the usage was less, generally 40 or 45 gallons.  As expected, when Swallow went ‘solo’ (as recorded) fuel usage was slightly less – 45 gallons to Coventry and back.  Cost of fuel was 5d a gallon in 1934 rising to 5 3/4d by 1939.  The Gardner engine had an appetite for lubricating oil using two and a half gallons per Coventry trip and two gallons to Wolverhampton and back, at 3s10d per gallon.  Each trip used between three and four gallons of paraffin at 7.5d per gallon.  As the boats had electric lighting this was presumably for the blow lamp used to heat the hot bulb prior to starting the engine.  Other consumables shown from time to time include paraffin at 1s1d a gallon, paint and a brush (1s 2d), light bulbs at 2/6 each, ropes and lines (4s9d for 6lbs), ‘Shimo’ (1s7d) (what’s that?), metal polish (2s6d), lamp glasses (2s), a spanner (5s), a vice (11s), and a bucket (1s3d).

Other costs included telephone calls, and an entry for ‘tugs’ (sometimes shown as ‘locks and tugs’) which is presumably for the tunnel tugs – this was usually 12s4d in total  for the Coventry run but to Wolverhampton was only 2s4d.  The canal toll charges are not recorded here, and neither is cost of insurance of craft or cargoes (although these details have been made available on other documents, with ‘Swallow’ valued at £750 in 1943). 

One of the most interesting costs is for the boat crew.  The popular picture often portrayed of narrow boat operation is of families living on the edge of penury ground down by competition from the railways (often exaggerated), and later road haulage, and living ’10 to a cabin’ etc.  In fact W.H. Cowburn & Cowpar seemed to be excellent employers; everything for the boats was ‘found’ as stated earlier – this included brass work, paraffin, and all lines and straps – an expensive item if they had to be provided by the boatman as was often the case with the other companies such as The Anderton Co or Mersey Weaver.  In1934 the wages bill for skipper Estcourt and his crew was £11 for the round trip to Coventry (£5.15s if solo) and £8 for Wolverhampton.  By 1939 this had risen to £12 and £8.15s respectively.  This may not sound very much today but the average wage for a working man in the 1930s was probably about £1- 2 for a 52 hour week, though a skilled miner could earn a bit more.  Arguably the C&C crews were working longer hours than average but certainly making a good enough living which is why they could afford a house ashore.  We understand that other companies paid even better wages and C&C did struggle to recruit crews – possibly because of the hazardous nature of the cargoes carried. How the wage was made up is not shown – we know from reliable sources that narrow boat wages were very often quite complex in their makeup, with tonnage payment, and other payments for empty running, loading and unloading, bow hauling through single locks, laying up money etc and there doesn’t seem to be any bonus incentive for keeping the boats tidy or doing faster trips – although a fast trip would mean that more trips could be done of course.  It’s also interesting to note that C&C paid ‘holiday money’ and this is shown as a ‘holiday allowance’ of £3.

Finally, Tom Frost has also provided an allowance for repairs, maintenance and depreciation worked out at a rate of 9 shillings per day for the two boats. 

Tom also provides trip summaries thus for twelve months during 1934/5 Swallow has made 15 trips to Wolverhampton at an average cost of £14.0.08 (and an average 39 gallons of fuel) per trip, and 17 trips to Coventry at £19.12.03 and 55 gallons respectively. He explains that R&M allowed is £18 for the butty and £36 for the ‘power boat’ and depreciation is £36 and £72 respectively. (We don’t know the actual costs).  In today’s money this was an expensive means of transport – but the cargoes were dangerous, railway companies would be wary (despite a legal obligation as ‘common carrier’) and lorries were still quite small – there would be a good reason why C&C chose to use the inland waterways for transport – although they did use their own tanker lorries from as early as 1936.

Swallow’s last trip, according to the diary, left Trafford Park for Coventry on 13th April 1939, returning 2nd May – which at 19 days was a bit longer than usual.  The pages following are blank and there is no note as to what happened next.  We can only conjecture.  War was not declared until 3rd September but it is possible that Courtaulds were already gearing up for war work and demand for chemicals might have been reducing.  More likely is that George Estcourt retired and Swallow was laid up.

During the War the Ministry of War Transport took over direction of inland waterway fleets as well as road and rail. Some of the fleet were turned over to carrying coal on the Bridgewater and Leeds & Liverpool canals. However in a surprising move the Bridgewater dept of the Manchester Ship Canal Company leased Swallow from late 1942 to run as a ‘market boat’ carrying produce from Winsford to Castlefield, Manchester, doing one trip per week. First skipper was R. Holland (until Sept 1943), then J. Goddard until the traffic finished in August 1946, at which point Swallow returned to C&C. For some reason the engine was removed (possibly for spares or to replace the engine in Swift).  In 1948 tanks were installed and trials took place using Swallow as a butty, towed by ‘Snipe’ captained by Kenneth Wakefield (snr.).  Not surprisingly these were not a success and she was again leased to the Bridgewater dept (tanks removed) to be used as a ‘bank’ (maintenance) boat, and became the first C&C boat to be sold, for £304,  to the Bridgewater dept in 1951 who fitted a large foredeck and steel locker .  In late 1981 she became part of the fleet of Lorenz & Co, based at Barton. She was superbly restored with a new cabin and engine room to original dimensions in 1983, and a 1936 National 2DM engine fitted – ex GU ‘Kenilworth’  - not a Gardner but the right era, in 1988. In more recent times she has been restored back to full carrying condition with foredeck extension removed, and full running gear fitted for use as a display boat at events and gatherings, promoting both the value of historic boats and freight by water. One day she might carry again, who knows?

With grateful thanks to Euan Corrie for considerable assistance in the preparation for this article. Also to Jack Jackson (former chemist with C&C), Roger Lorenz, Kenneth Wakefield, William Cowburn and anyone else inadvertently omitted.

Swallow log book pages can be viewed by visiting

M.B. Swallow Logs



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