Thursday, 19 May 2011

So what type of boat is Sickle ?

For those interested in SICKLE's origins and early history, I'll try to give some background here.

This is tricky, as the level of detail that an enthusiast might seek, will quickly bore someone who thinks they are all just big old black canal boats!  I'll try and steer a middle course, assuming that the real enthusiasts will already know most of it, but that will be other people who might wish to learn a bit more about the history of our boat, and how it fits in amongst other boats with a similar origin.

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.

These are all "Small Woolwich" boats - "Star" class boats built by Harland and Wolff
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 TOWCESTER is a "Large Northwich" "Town" class buit by W J Yarwood
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 smaller sided "Star" class boat built by Harland and Wolff) or "Large Northwich", (a deeper sided "Town" class boat built by Yarwoods).

TAYGETA (left) is still a full length Middle Northwich boat
However 8 pairs of the "Star" class boats differed slightly 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.

SICKLE is one of these relatively unusual "Star" class boats, and gets the nickname of a "Middle Northwich" type, because of her "mid-depth" hull sides, and being built at Northwich by W.J Yarwood and Sons.

She was delivered as Grand Union Canal Carrying Fleet Number 84 on 17th March 1936, along with the unpowered butty boat SARPEDON, (GUCCCo fleet number 350).  All the new GUCCCo boats had an originally intended pairing of a motor / butty boat combination, although not all were even delivered as the intended pairs, let alone continuing to work together as such.  The fact that SICKLE and SARPEDON were both inspected and health registered as fit for occupation by their crews at the same time suggests thay may indeed have been paired for a while.  They were registered at Rickmansworth on 21st September 1937, with the consecutive numbers 187 & 188.
This massive creation of a new narrow boat fleet by the GUCCCo was in many ways a success, but the one problem that was never properly resolved was being able to recruit enough suitable crews who would be prepared to do the work, and live in the confined conditions.  History shows there were never anything approaching enough crews throughout the time these boats operated, so from an early stage, it was not unusual for large numbers of the relatively new boats to be laid up idle.

It would probably be difficult to establish the degree to which SICKLE was actively used for carrying work after she was commissioned, but she could not have been a carrying boat for very long, because in 1942, four of the eight "Middle Northwich" motor boats built, including SICKLE, were taken by the Ministry of War Transport, (MOWT), to be converted for use as ice-breakers.

SICKLE has been this length for over 90% of her life.
SICKLE was cut through, and a large centre section of her hold removed, before rejoining front and back halves to produce a boat reduced in length from 71' 6" to just 40 feet.  The bows were heavily reinforced for the intended use of smashing through ice, and a massive and very solid 5 foot long ram added to the front of the boat, to assist in breaking the ice.

A little over 6 years into her life, SICKLEs carrying career was over, and a new, and much longer, phase of her life had commenced.

Tycho at Long Buckby.  Photo: Derek Reynolds
I am editing this post to add some pictures kindly supplied by Derek Reynolds.  Derek is owner of Tycho, one of the other boats converted to an ice-breaker at the same time as Sickle, and the only one that has retained its ice ram.

So far as is known Sickle's ram would have been near identical to that on Tycho, but the date of its removal remains a mystery, other than a claimed 1957 photo shows Sickle without it.  Curiously Sickle had a different layout for the raised bar and its supports - these were used to allow teams of men to rock the boat to aid the ice-breaking process.
Rear ends compared.  Photo: Derek Reynolds.

When Sickle's previous owners were restoring her, relevant dimensions for the cabin were taken from Tycho.  Both boats have appeared together at the Braunston Historic Boat Show, and some posed photos show the two compared.  These are the only two boats to retain their tug style layout, without extra cabin space added.

Front ends compared.  Photo Derek Reynolds.
Sickle's ice ram was fairly crudely torched off whenever it was removed, and the resulting stem post is very uneven.  The extra horizontal plates that helped brace the ram are still in situ.

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