The Brentford Boatmen’s Institute

by Gillian Clegg, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 13 (2004)

The distinctive building on the west side of The Butts in Brentford was built in 1904 as an institute for the bargees and canal boat people, and functioned as such until 1978 when it was converted to a private house. Since this year marks the centenary of the opening of the Boatmen’s Institute it seems an opportune moment to relate its history and describe its activities.

The Boatmen's Institute, from the invitation to the opening in 1904 (

The Boatmen’s Institute, from the invitation to the opening in 1904 (

Setting the scene
Once the Grand Junction Canal linking Brentford to Braunston was opened in 1800, Brentford became one of the most important centres for the transhipment of goods to and from the London Docks into and out of the hinterland. In 1929 the Grand Junction Canal became part of the Grand Union Canal and a warehousing depot was built at Brentford.

The barges which carried goods from and to the docks were too wide to venture far up the canal so at Brentford coal, timber, foodstuffs, grain, cement and son on were offloaded onto narrow boats. These workhorses of the canals – 70ft long and 7ft wide – transported the goods to and from the Midlands. They usually travelled in pairs with the main boat, initially pulled by a horse but later motor-powered, towing the butty boat. It was at Brentford that the boats were ‘gauged’ to measure the weight of the cargo and the appropriate tolls paid. From 1877, when canal boats used as family dwellings were required to be registered, Brentford was one of only three registration centres on the canal.

For many years, therefore, the area around the canal at Brentford was buzzing with boats – barges, lighters, tugs and narrow boats with their ornate decorations. Bargee and boat families used the opportunity to shop and generally prepare for their next trip. They might call in at Penningtons by Brentford Bridge to order their distinctive clothes or go to the eel shop in Brentford High Street, where for a shilling (5p) they could treat themselves to a big jug of eel stew brimming with parsley sauce.

The boat people were a race apart, barely acknowledged by the outside world and then often with suspicion. They were proud, silent, discreet, sharp-witted and observant. Constantly on the move, they had little opportunity for social life and what there was they spent with their own kind. A boat family lived, ate and slept in cabins measuring 8ft long, 6ft 6in wide and 5ft high. Every inch of space was utilised resulting in a jigsaw puzzle of pull-down tables, cupboards and cross beds. The skipper and his ‘mate’ (usually his wife) worked unremittingly hard. Apart from the normal household routines and rearing a family, the wife took her turn steering the boats, operating the locks (there were 100 between Braunston and Brentford) and helping with the loading and unloading. When her children were small they spent much of the day tied to some secure object on the top of the boat for safety, but as soon as they were able they were put to work. Their peripatetic lifestyle meant that most boat people acquired little education, often none all. Children could only attend school while the boats were being loaded and unloaded and initially there were hardly any schools they could go to. The establishment of a day school at Brentford in 1896 was thus one of the most important facilities provided specifically for them.

The formation of the Institute
In 1896 the London City Mission opened a Canal Boatmen’s Mission Hall and Day School at 7 Brentford End, Isleworth. The London City Mission was set up in 1835 to reach out to people in need with the message of the Gospel and practical help, activities which the Mission still practices today. The Brentford missionary’s main work was going from boat to boat talking to the boat people and reading and explaining the scriptures. He visited the sick and the dying and accompanied boat people to inquests and police courts. In the summer months he held services by the canal side, in the winter in the premises of the Mission Hall where his daughter ran the day school for the boat children.

The premises in Brentford End, though, were very cramped and in 1900 the Grand Junction Canal Company offered a site for building something larger. This was the land then occupied by an old mill in the Butts which by this time was home to a firm of builders and decorators. A subscription fund was started to raise the estimated building cost of £700. By 1902-3 the cost had risen to £1,200 including furnishing. People were generous, however, with even some of the little boat children bringing in their few pence, and on 26 July 1904, ‘the afternoon being fine’ a ‘splendid’ company assembled to witness the laying of the foundation stones (there were 10 of them). After an open air meeting the company then adjourned for tea in the garden of Mrs Clayton at No 5 The Butts. The architect of the new building was Nowell Parr, the official surveyor for the Brentford Urban District Council and responsible for other buildings in Brentford such as the library and the fire station.

The Boatman's Institute Schoolroom, 1912 (Canal & Rivers Trust)

The Boatman’s Institute Schoolroom, 1912, Canal & Rivers Trust

Now called the Boatmen’s Institute it opened on 13 December 1904. It was the boat people’s church, the mothers’ maternity hospital and the children’s school. There were maternity rooms for expectant bargee and boat mothers on the first floor, with a skilled midwife from the Cottage Hospital in attendance. It was to the Institute that the boat people came to have letters written, to collect cast-off clothes and to find food and succour when times were hard. This is what the missionary Mr Bamber had to say about the move in his 1905 Annual Report: ‘What a change we find in our new premises which are airy, well lighted and quiet. The old were close and stuffy, and we were subjected to constant interruptions by tapping on the window panes, knocking at the door or shouting through the keyhole which was to say the least very tantalising and annoying’.

Downstairs was the Mission Hall which doubled as a reading room and a school room. Here, a Sunday School was manned by volunteers and the Day School was now run by Mr Bamber’s wife. There were times when not a single child was present but sometimes there were as many as 50. Mr Bamber in his 1906 report writes: ‘No two days have we the same children in the school and rarely if ever have we the same children in morning and afternoon. While some will be back shortly, with others it may be months. Yet with these drawbacks it is remarkable how well many of them are getting on. Some of those who are beginning to read are lent books to help them while they are on their journeys’. In 1920 the Middlesex Education Committee took over the Day School, renting the small hall from the Institute and employing a qualified teacher (the school had moved permanently to The Ham by 1932).

It was during Mr Bamber’s tenure that adult education classes were introduced and social gatherings with magic lantern shows organised. Christmas was always a busy time. There was a Christmas tree and gifts in parcels for all the boat families registered at Brentford. Sometimes it was midsummer before the last family received their Christmas present.

Darker days
The General Strike of 1926 hit the boat people hard since, with factories not operating, there were no goods to transport so no way of earning money. In 1927 the Free School in the Ham agreed to take in boat children and beds were made available at various hospitals for the expectant mothers. The ground floor of the Institute then became just a Mission Hall where services and consultations were held and charity administered. The maternity home on the first floor became the missionary’s residence. This was Mr Knight who had succeeded Mr Bamber in 1915.

The Depression of the 1930s was also a bad time for the boat people and then came World War II when many of the boat men were called up for military service. The women and children managed the boats as best they could, although they were given some financial assistance and extra shops, canteens and iron rations helped to relieve some of the hardships of canal life. There was also a scheme to train young women, who might otherwise have gone into the Wrens or ATS, as cargo-carrying boat people. This, though, was a limited success since the arduous work and conditions meant that the turnover of trainees was rapid.

In 1945 when Mr Chapman was the missionary the Institute hosted children’s clubs, men’s meetings and women’s meetings as well as Gospel services and Sunday Schools. At Christmas there were parties for the children, the men and old people. Films were shown and food and gifts doled out. In 1967, due to the generosity of Mr Arnold Charity, the Institute acquired a mini bus to help the needy ex-boat people and others who couldn’t make it to the Institute itself. In 1972 Mr Chapman left and was replaced by Mr Gater, but only six years later, when commercial traffic on the canals had diminished to almost nothing, the Boatmen’s Institute was obliged to close its doors. Thus ended the life of this worthy organisation which had done so much for so many, ‘the happiest, blessedest little place in Brentford’ as one old bargee described it.

Gillian Clegg is the Editor of this journal and the author of Chiswick Past (1995), Brentford Past (2002) and The Archaeology of Hounslow (1991).

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