Nowadays, people are used to seeing diesel-powered canal barges sailing up and down the British waterways. However, barges were historically pulled along the water by horses which walked along the canal towpath. Even after the first motorised boats were introduced, it was still possible to see horse-drawn vessels being towed along the waterways. The practice only became obsolete in the middle of the twentieth century.
Horses and mules have been used by humans for a long time to assist with physically demanding tasks. Before the widespread development of the canal network, most goods and raw materials were hauled by horses and mules that were pulling road carts. This became more problematic when the volume and weight of the cargo began to increase at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. A strong horse was only able to pull around 1 tonne of coal or iron ore along a road using a horse-drawn cart. Demand from factories soon began to surpass the amount that traders were able to supply using land-based methods alone.
Suppliers realised that a horse was able to pull between 30 and 50 times more coal or iron ore on a barge that was floating on the water. Pulling a barge along a navigable waterway did not normally require the horse to go up and down steep hills, so the work was also considered to be slightly safer for the animal.
Because canals were not tidal and did not have a strong current, the horses were able to pull the barges in either direction with the same amount of effort. Unlike sail boats, horse-drawn vessels did not have to wait for favourable wind conditions to enable passage. This meant that barges were able to run on a far more reliable schedule.
Although some companies chose to use gangs of human pullers instead of horses, most boat haulage companies preferred to use horses instead. Horses were less expensive than a team of men and most haulers agreed that they were easier to control too! These horses needed to be stabled and fed, but costs were generally low once a suitable animal had been purchased. It was also possible for haulers to rent strong animals to cut costs down even further.
What is a towpath?
A towpath is the track which runs down the side of the canal bank or the bank of any other inland waterway. They were originally designed with the intention that they would be used by the horses or human pullers who were towing barges along the waterway. The earliest towpaths were forged by use alone, however more resources were put into building and improving towpaths in Britain during the Industrial Revolution.
Canal owners realised that building solid towpaths would help to make their canals more appealing to users, who knew that it would be much easier to pass along without injuring their horses. The construction of fixed towpaths also helped to protect the river banks or canal banks from erosion. Objections from landowners sometimes meant that towpaths had to criss-cross the river. Innovative solutions had to be sought to prevent the lines on the towing horses from becoming tangled up as they moved from bank to bank. Canal owners and land owners also knew that they could use the towpath to further increase their revenue by charging people an additional toll for their use.
Towpaths started to see less and less use following the introduction of motorised barges. These towpaths are now very popular with walkers and cyclists in the UK. The Canal and River Trust are currently working to maintain and improve towpaths along the canal network, so that British canals can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Were there problems with horse-drawn boats?
Journeys using horse-drawn boats could be long and slow. A skilled worker was required to walk alongside the horse to guide them along the towpath. These journeys could be monotonous. In some cases, the horses could be spooked by loud noises or sudden surprises. This could be dangerous if the handler was unable to control the horse.
One of the main problems with horse-drawn boats was their inability to navigate through tunnels. The earliest canal tunnels were built without interior towpaths. It was easier and cheaper for canal builders to bore smaller holes, and therefore these tunnels often omitted the towpath. The horse was forced to disconnect from the barge and somehow navigate to the other side. In some places, this required the horse to take a long detour. However, it could also take the barge a long time to navigate through the tunnels when they were not being pulled.
Boaters were forced to “leg” though the tunnel. Legging involved the boatmen lying on their backs and “walking” the boat along the tunnel by pushing their feet on the tunnel walls and roof. Legging a boat could be very dangerous for the boatmen and many fell into the water whilst they were doing it. Although boatmen were expected to leg their own boats through short tunnels, there were professional leggers for longer tunnels.
Crossing the river could also be difficult. Horses needed to do this when the towpath swapped sides. Some canals had proper canal bridges to allow the horses to cross, whereas others relied on special floating platforms that the horses could walk across. The boatmen needed to be mindful of the ropes on the boat, because twisted ropes could destabilise the boats.