Sometimes it’s hard to know what stimulates an interest in something for us, but for me in my childhood I am also certain that what introduced me to canals was not just living near to the Grand Union Canal and watching the locks fill and empty, but also the Ladybird book: The Story of Our Canals. I loved particularly the painted pots, the struggle of men digging out these new waterways by hand and of course the idea of lying down and walking sideways through tunnels as the horse took another route. All very romantic of course, but there you have it. I still have that Ladybird book on canals, it was published in 1975 and cost 30p. I see it’s now ‘vintage’ and costs a whopping £8.95.

I’m not alone in having fond memories about the lovely little hardback Ladybird books, so fascinated when I saw it advertised, I attended an unexpected and packed event last year in Conway Hall, entitled Ladybird Books and Constructing the Future Past. It was certainly a blast from the past, with memories all around. Other Ladybird books I still have are about how to make things, and of course I have one about Homes and another called The Story of Houses and Homes – it’s interesting that there is currently a major focus on the meaning of housing as home; perhaps more on this another time.

Anyway, back to canals and people who live on them, and indeed who live on other inland waters. Such lived in boats are referred to variously as canal boats, narrow boats, live aboards, houseboats and other such names. Each implies something slightly different and some are embedded (or have been) in different laws over the years.

It was purely by chance that I happened to watch something on TV a year or so back: a George Smith cropped up as a pioneer protecting those living on canals. I’d never heard of him, but what a fascinating character. George Smith of Coalville was not just the Children’s Friend, but campaigned tirelessly for factory and canal boat legislation, notably pushing forth the Canal Boats Act 1877 which was the first such legislation to regulate living conditions on canal boats. Needless to say, he was someone we had to include in our (then) forthcoming book, Pioneers in Public Health. In a May 2017 review (Spear, 2017:11), Lammin’s chapter on George Smith is described as having a Dicken’s like quality in terms of his struggle for education and betterment of working and living conditions and emphasises who some individuals – like Smith – were agents of change, whatever adversities they faced.

If you’re interested in canals and living on them, there are some great places to visit and find out more about their past and present. First there are local places such as the Rickmansworth Waterways Trust amongst many others. In King’s Cross, look out for the London Canal Museum on the Regent’s canal – it boasts a canal boat that once housed a family of 9; it’s hard to imagine how they all fitted on board, let alone slept there. Alternatively take a trip to Stoke Bruerne, again with a lovely museum about canals and plenty else to see and do (see photograph in my gallery).

Whilst some occupy live aboards in desireable and much visited areas like Little Venice in London  (pictured left), others have struggled to maintain their mooring and community as they are asked to move on as areas are redeveloped and gentrified. Life isn’t all rosy for modern day live aboards. Personally, I’ve seen some appalling living conditions. It can be an enforced mobile lifestyle, with many finding themselves having to move on as areas change. There’s been a lot in the press recently about people choosing this way of life as an affordable means of living aboard in places such as London as these articles describe with people trying to find both affordability and security in where and how they live. Click here and here .

There is certainly a feeling that this community is increasing in number, but exact figures are hard to come by. Life on live aboards doesn’t seem particularly well documented today; if it’s an area you’re interested in and from any perspective – as a regulator, resident, artist or anything else at all and have something you’d like to share, please do get in touch. I know there are a range of people with different interests in this area.


Lammin, S. (2017) George Smith of Coalville (‘the Children’s Friend’): Campaigner for factory and canal boat legislation (pp. 46-55), in J. Stewart (ed) Pioneers in Public Health: lessons from History, Routledge

Spear, S. (2017) Review: Health Pioneers, Environmental Health Journal, 32 (4): 11

Stewart, J. and Thompson, N. (1999) Living aboard: as safe as houses? Environmental Health Journal, 107 (5): 145-149

Stewart, J. (2001) Environmental Health and Housing, E&FN Spon (2nd edition currently in preparation)