Industrial Archaeology Recordings

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Topcloth and Tippet

Weatherproofing the hold on a working narrow boat

Topcloth and Tippet
Weatherproofing the hold on a working narrow boat

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Recording essential waterways skills and techniques

The boat crew 'clothing up'Background

As soon as canal boats started carrying perishable and expensive cargoes, some form of protection from the weather became necessary. Early pictures show tarpaulins tied down over the goods or over hoops across the hold like a road cart, but by the middle of the nineteenth century most boats seem to have been fitted with a gangplank rigged from end to end of the hull with the canvas tied over it like a long tent.

By the twentieth century this had formalised further into an elaborate system of overlapping planks, cloths and ropes, efficient but very time consuming to put on, but it was a system that some of the proudest boatmen developed almost to an art form. The smartness of the clothing-up became as important as polished brasses or the painted roses and castles. All were part of the proud and intricate lifestyle of the narrow boat population.

This film documents the technique used on one pair of boats belonging to British Waterways in the 1950s, a system inherited in turn from the Grand Union Canal Company that had commissioned the boats in the 1930s. Using the beautifully restored boats of the Working Boats Project and the knowledge and advice of retired boat captain Phil Garrett the crew of captain and mate demonstrate the complete procedure of clothing-up, from positioning and fixing the planks; to the knots, hitches and fancy ropework. This is a detailed and informative documentary, capturing the atmosphere of canal life in its final flowering, when regular long distance carrying was still common, with a continuity of tradition stretching back for two hundred years.

Particular thanks are due to the volunteers of the Working Boats Project and to the management and staff of British Waterways, Midlands Region. Sight Seen Partnerships gratefully acknowledge the financial assistance given by the Heritage Lottery Fund who made this project possible. Thank you.


Heritage Lottery Fund   British Waterways

Topcloth and Tippet DVD cover


  • Written by Tony Lewery
  • Narrated by Phil Garrett
  • Music composed, played and recorded by: Kathryn Wheeler
  • £ 12.95 - DVD
  • Running Time: 30 mins.
  • Produced by I.A. Recordings for Sight Seen Partnerships
  • All prices include worldwide delivery.
  • 'PAL' and 'NTSC' versions available.


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