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