Dawn Rose: Building a wooden horse drawn narrow boat for the Chesterfield Canal. John Lower 11th November 2019



John who is a long stand­ing volun­teer in the Chesterfield Canal Trust was making a second visit

to Probus having pre­vi­ously given a very inform­at­ive talk on the work of the Trust in renov­at­ing

the canal which runs for some 46 miles from West Stockwith on the River Trent to Chesterfield

work which he explained is ongo­ing but today some­what hampered by inde­cision regard­ing the

pro­posed route of HS2 which was pre­vent­ing the Trust from making fund­ing applic­a­tions

par­tic­u­larly for the re-opening of closed sec­tions between Kiveton Park and Staveley.


Following a brief over­view of the canal’s his­tory was star­ted in1771 and com­pleted in

1777 util­ising horse drawn narrow boats the canal being  some­what nar­rower than wider

nav­ig­a­tion canals. These boats often referred to as Cuckoo boats remained unchanged through­out

the life of the canal which stayed open until 1940’s when it was even­tu­ally aban­doned.


John then gave an inter­est­ing insight into the nature of the boats them­selves, and the work

under­taken to build using only tra­di­tional meth­ods a new narrow boat. Traditional boats could

carry some 24 tons of freight pulled by a single horse , the equi­val­ent 24 wagons or 240 pack

horses. The boats had no soph­ist­ic­ated facil­it­ies only a basic cabin which offered little or no

pro­tec­tion to the crew. The last known example of these boats was unfor­tu­nately broken up  in



In about 2000 a group of volun­teers decided it would be a good idea to build the first new

Cuckoo boat, unique to the Chesterfield Canal, since the 1930’s this becom­ing The New Dawn

Project. A retired boat builder David Bownes was per­suaded to join the group and it is his

spe­cial­ist skills and enthu­si­asms that kept the pro­ject run­ning over the years of effort by the team

until launch in 2015. A model of the boat was built to raise aware­ness of the pro­ject and assist

with fund rais­ing and detailed plans were pre­pared though John told us the these were not    con­sul­ted on many occa­sions the build being com­pleted “by eye” in the main.


Wood for the boat was pur­chased at a cost of £7,000 in 2007 and seasoned in John’s garden

for 3 years, much to his wife’s dis­pleas­ure. A build site was loc­ated in Shireoaks in 2010

when the 4+ year build pro­gramme com­menced. Ninety planks for the bottom of the boat

were painstak­ingly laid on a raised frame then fixed side pieces were cut these being 28ft

long 10” deep and 2” thick. Prior to fixing the planks had to be steamed for 4 hours and then

with much elbow grease fixed in place and the hand caulked and water­proofed work which

involved the use of foul smelling mater­ial includ­ing horse poo, horse hair and tar, the interior

of the boat also having an addi­tional layer of pro­tec­tion using treated flannelette sheets.

The boat was now ready for fit­ting out fixing the rudder, side boards, mast and tiller all of which

were cut by hand from seasoned timber.


On com­ple­tion a cel­eb­rat­ory launch took place and the boat is now in use for dis­plays, sponsored

boat pulls and the Trust now had access to a trained horse to com­plete the pic­ture of what a

Cuckoo boat looked like on the water in the 18th and 19th cen­tur­ies.


The trust are now hoping to raise £200,000 to com­plete their works which I am sure they will

having head of the huge efforts on the New Dawn Project by the volun­teers.


A well presen­ted talk enjoyed by all.  Graeme Beck 13th November 2019