In December 1949, IWA Council appointed a sub-committee to investigate and to endeavour to bring about improvements in the conditions on working boats on the Grand Union and other canals. The Committee consisted of Lord Lucan, Mrs Sonia Smith, John Knill, and Tom Rolt. The sub-committee submitted its first report to the Council in June 1950, which concentrated on improving the communication between the boatmen and their reprsentatives (Transport & General Workers Union) and on the education of boat children.
In 1952, IWA's Midlands Branch publicised an Inland Waterways Executive scheme under which they invited members of the public to acquire experience of canal trading by operating the working boat Kimberley between the Midlands and the north west, along the Shropshire Union Canal and adjoining waterways. Unfortunately, the scheme was dropped for several reasons. The first was that one of the crew on the first trip broke his ankle and a paid crew had to bring the boat back. Secondly, the treatment of the boat was not as good as it might have been. Thirdly, slow handling meant that some crews vacated the boat before reaching Wolverhampton. Fourthly, there was the boatmen's objection that the Kimberley claimed first turn in the loading sequence no matter how long the other boatmen had been waiting. In the face of these problems the scheme was abandoned.
In 1953 IWA Bulletin 37 contained an article by Leslie Morton, former general manager of the Grand Union Canal Company, which explained the history of the company's bold pre-war expansion plans, the obstacles, sucesses and how they could be applied to the post war development of trade. The same year, Robert Aickman suggested the formation of a co-operative of newcomers to the industry.
We have more information about the sinking of narrow boats in Harefield Flash. Members will recall that this occurrence was referred to on page eight in Bulletin when we challenged British Waterways to offer a denial. As recorded in Bulletin 59, no denial was received.
Further investigation has disclosed that not six boats have been sunk, but twenty-four. None of these appear to have been offered for sale; though a firm of carriers inform us that they might have purchased several, and the demand for converted narrow boats is now so great that, for better or for worse, almost any craft that will float at all, can be sold. British Waterways themselves keep a list of applicants for boats suited to conversion. Instead of offering the boats for sale, British Waterways apparently paid the owners of the water where the sinkings took place, a substantial sum, in the same way that payment is made for the privilege of using land as a rubbish dump; and that they paid also for a breach to be made, and later repaired, in a dyke, 20' wide and 3' high, which separates the subsidiary flash (normally an isolated lake), from the main flash, which is accessible from the canal. The boats were towed through this temporary channel, and then sunk right across the subsidiary flash, like the fleet at Scapa Flow. Finally, all these operations appear to have been carried out at a week-end, on overtime. One can perhaps surmise why.
Not the least alarming feature of the case is that Sir Brian Robertson apparently stated in writing to Wing Commander Grant-Ferris, MP, that the boats were required for bank repairs. Any member who wishes to check the veracity of this, should visit the place in question. The boats are sunk in rows, gunwale to gunwale, though they are rapidly being covered with spoil.
When a public corporation behaves like this, and as British Waterways are behaving in the case of Water Buck on the Regent's Canal, it is extremely difficult to know what to do. It is the same problem as was presented in dealing with Hitler. Our social organisation is simply not constituted to deal with flat untruths in high places.