Wednesday, 29 April 2015

What Type Of Boat Is "Flamingo"?

Some years back, when we first acquired "Sickle", I did a post entitled "What kind of boat is Sickle?" intended to explain her origins.  That post has remained popular, and still gets quite a few hits, so, although "Flamingo" is a rather more conventional boat, it seems to me that some may be similarly interested in the history of a boat from the same builder, but not of the same type.

As I explained when I did it for "Sickle", it is hard to know what level to pitch such an explanation at.  A serious enthusiast may want a lot of detail, and is highly likely to already know anything I might say to explain it to those with only a scant knowledge of working boats. As I did for "Sickle" I will try to steer a middle course for those who want to know a bit more than it is a boat about 70 feet long and 7 feet wide, built to carry cargoes.  In particular I'll attempt to explain how how it fits in amongst other boats with a similar origin, such as "Flamingo".  The next several paragraphs are really little more than a cut and paste, though, due to both boats having similar origins.

In the 1930s, a massive program was under way to try and improve the Grand Union Canal from London to Birmingham with a view to trying to revitalise trade on this canal.  Alongside that initiative, a new company called the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company was formed, and after taking over a number of already existing narrow boats, it started an ambitious plan to build large numbers of brand new boats in anticipation of all the new carrying contracts they hoped to secure.

The new boats were still built in line with the then traditional methods, and basic layouts, but also standardised on what were then modern 2-cylinder diesel engines, and provided new facilities like electric lighting.  The boats were built theoretically able to carry larger loads than on many existing boats, although ultimately the depth of water available on the routes actually meant that the bigger boats were never loaded near to their theoretical maximum.

"Sculptor" is a "Star" Class "Small Northwich" built by W J Yarwood & Sons
Ignoring some earlier types, a total of 174 pairs of boats were built, (so just short of 350 in total), being a roughly a 50/50 split between boats known as "Star class", (on account of being named after astronomical features like stars, moons, constellations, etc.), and "Town class", (as these took place names, although in practice what constituted a "Town" was actually often a bit spurious!).

Whereas "Chertsey" is a "Town" Class "Large Woowich" built by Harland & Wolff
What distinguished the "Stars" from the generally slightly later built "Towns", was that most of the former had a hull side depth of 4' 2", whereas the latter were built 4' 9" sides, which gives them a significantly different appearance.  Both classes featured a mix of boats built in wood, by firms like Walkers of Rickmansworth, or boats built largely in steel or iron, (although most of the "metal" built "Stars" were actually of composite construction with metal sides, but wooden planked bottoms).

Steel or iron boats were either built by Harland and Wolff at Woolwich, or W. J. Yarwood and Sons at Northwich on the River Weaver.  This has led to the boat types having nicknames like "Small Woolwich", (a shallower sided "Star" class boat built by Harland and Wolff) or "Large Northwich", (a deeper sided "Town" class boat built by Yarwoods).

Just to confuse an otherwise neat pattern though, "Sickle" was however a motor boat delivered amongst 8 pairs of the "Star" class boats differed somewhat from the other "Stars".  These were all built by Yarwoods of Northwich, in all steel, but with 4' 6" hull sides, being part way between a more typical "Star" and a "Town".  But additionally the boats were built with a slight 'V' shape to the bottom, as well as having very rounded "corners", (known as "chines"), at the point that the sides would normally join to the bottom in a more angular way on other boats.  Such evidence as is available suggests the "Middle Northwich" boats were probably less used, and the fact that four motors, including "Sickle", were converted to ice boats in 1942, means half the available motors were lost as carrying boats very early on.

"Flamingo" with steerer Ron Green, Oct 1963 (Photo: Mike Webb)
In fact, although this massive building of a new narrow boat fleet, including much effort to bring new traffics to the canals was a success in many ways, it is widely regarded that it consistently faltered because of one specific thing - the operating company's failure to ever attract, train and retain enough crews to keep anything like the whole fleet in traffic.  Obviously the fairly rapid coming of the Second World War hardly helped, and famously we have the women volunteer crews, (the so called "Idle Women"), who took over some of the crewing duties at that time - however their impact was not that great in sheer numbers.

Paired with Beverley (Photo Jon Talbot) - 1965 stated, but believed later
It seems that despite up to 180 pairs initially being available, (there were smaller numbers of other craft I have not described here), nothing like that number was usually in service at any time, and there were times where the decision was taken not to try and crew more than around 100 pairs.  Hence there are recorded periods where large numbers of these boats remained moth-balled, and of course the fact there were more than crew could be found for led to progressive disposals over time.

Temporarily out of use at Braunston (Photo Hugh McKnight)
"Flamingo" is a "Large Northwich" "Town Class" boat built by W J Yarwood and Sons in 1936, but "Flamingo" is clearly not the name of a UK town or place.  "Flamingo" was in fact built is the GUCCCo's "Letchworth", and carried that name in GUCCCo service, and continued to do so after 1948 when the waterways were nationalised and the fleet passed to British Transport (Waterways) - ultimately "British Waterways".

There are good records that show "Letchworth" at work in the 1940s and 1950s, although we have yet to find any pictures.  However by the late 1950s narrow boat carrying was very much in decline, and Brtish Waterways were increasingly disposing of surplus craft.  In the meantime an independent entrepreneurial carrying company, "Willow Wren", had been formed  and was energetically trying to keep the traffics alive, and to seek out new opportunities, which it did with some success. "Letchworth" was one of a batch 8 of motor boats that Willow Wren purchased from British Waterways in 1961, (for just £1,900 for all 8 boats).

Paired with Beverley, probably about 1968 (Photographer unknown).
At that time it was Willow Wren policy to rename boats it bought into the fleet to those of birds, and "Letchworth" became "Flamingo" at that point.  "Flamingo" entered active service for Willow Wren almost straight away, and its history for the next 9 or so years is fairly well recorded, including surviving the collapse of the original Willow Wren company, and its rebirth as "Willow Wren Canal Transport Services", (often written  "Willow Wren CTS").  "Flamingo" operated with various buttys on some of the very last long distance canal carrying contracts, including delivering the very last ever load of grain from
 The doors were painted by Jess Owen (Photo by unknown).
Brentford to Whitworth's Mill at Wellingborough on the River Nene.  Eventually Willow Wren CTS had lost all its available work, and was forced to close.  Only months later the "Blue Line" boats delivered their very last loads of coal to the "Kearley and Tonge" "Jam 'Ole" in Southall, and regular long distance deliveries by narrow boat came to an end, (although arguably the much shorter haul traffic of lime juice pulp from Brentford to Boxmoor, which carried on several more years, could claim being the very last).


Willow Wren colours retained when in use as a trip boat (Photo by unknown)
In some ways to me "Flamingo's" greatest claim to fame is its Willow Wren years, so it is likely that on any repaint we will retain  that livery, and its "Willow Wren" name.  "Flamingo" has a very different history to "Sickle" despite their very similar origins, (built same year, at same place by same builder and for same company), and both have performed very different roles for the majority of their working lives.  We feel privileged to be able to own both.

Note: I am not in a position to be able to seek permission for all the photos used, even though some are now in my possession as original prints. If anybody objects to the use of any image, or wants a credit added, please send me a message to that effect - thanks.


  1. Where did that great picture of Chertsey come from, any chance of being allowed to have a copy?

    PB(now back to some form of sanity)

  2. Its from a previous blog post from 12th Feb 2012 called "An afternoon winding Chertsey"
    It relates to the trip Cath and I did with the pair of you when we went to the pub on a day with snow all around.
    Good to hear from you - how's Rocky getting on?

  3. Sorry - didn't really answer question.
    Feel free to take picture from either blog post, but let me know if you would like a higher resolution copy.


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