A Checklist for Researchers
Researching canal family history is a growing pastime. Although we
cant assist with individual searches, we have put together the following
information to help you with your search
If you know the name of the person or boat:
- John Roberts Waterway Index contains the names of more than
9500 men connected to the waterways (such as boatman, waterman, flatman,
boatbuilder, lock-keeper, toll-collector, canal or river company clerk, canal
agent, boat owner, navigator (navvies), wharf inger, etc.), and indicates who
filed the information. It has been compiled by Mr John Roberts, 52 St. Andrews
Road, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, B75 6UH. This is a self-financed
hobby. Mr Roberts says the index should be regarded very much
as an aid i.e. as a pointer to the original records. If you wish for
information from the records, a 9" x 4" SAE is necessary, and although no fee
is required, donations are very welcome. Also, Mr Roberts always appreciates
any further information for the index.
- Books written by boat people include names of other people and
boats, such as "No. 1" or Anderton for Orders by Tom Foxon, and
Maidens Trip by Emma Smith.
- The name of the boat can give you a link to the public health
registers see below under location. Note: the same name was
often used by different boats, but the registration number was unique to each
- A source of genealogical information, including existing family
trees, is the Society of Genealogists, which has a library containing
family histories, civil registration and census material, and the widest
collection of Parish Register copies in the country
(www.sog.org.uk) or the various County Family History Societies.
is a free genealogy website. It includes a mailing list which allows you to
contact other people who are interested in canal genealogy.
If you know the location/name of the canal
- Public Health Registers: the Canal Boats Acts of 1877-84
(introduced to improve living standards on canal boats) required all working
narrow boats to register with a local authority, where they were issued with a
numbered certificate. The number together with the town where they were
registered was usually painted on the side of the cabin. Most of these
registers are in local record offices or county archives.
- If working in the Midlands, many boatmens weddings and
funerals took place at Braunston, Northamptonshire you can look in the
Register of Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals of the Parish Church there.
- Most canals have canal societies which may be able to tell you
where local archives are kept.
- Here at the London Canal Museum we have a copy of a small database
of boaters from Wolverhampton it is in PDF format which can be searched
although not ideal. See our Holt's Index page to
If you know the company/type of boat:
- There are many societies for different types of boat, which may
have further information, e.g. the Thames Barge Sailing Club.
- Register of boats and barges: from 1795, inland waterway craft had
to be registered with their owners name by the Clerk of the Peace of a
county. These registers are usually deposited at local record offices.
This will show what boat a person was on. It is quite sketchy for
C19th, and much more complete for C20th. The language used to describe the
jobs, etc. of canal workers can be misleading as those taking the censuses were
not always sure of the right terminology. (Note: this is true of any data which
does not come from a canal source.)
Sources containing a variety of information
The Waterways Archive
The Waterways Archive (administered by The Waterways Trust) has
records of boat owners and registered boatmen, some toll records (which allows
you to associate a person with a boat), archives of large carrying companies,
gauging tables (kept by each Navigation Company - showed details of a
boats carrying capacity, and usually contains the owners name and
address). The majority of the material is located at Gloucester. The archive is
- The Waterways Archive Ellesmere Port contains a collection
of documents, books and periodicals relating to inland waterways worldwide,
including extensive collections relating to the Weaver Navigation Trust,
Middlewich Wharf and the Charles Hadfield World Canals Research; the I.W.A.
John Heap Library; Shropshire Union Railways Canal Co. minutes; oral history
recordings; and photographic collections. (located within the
The National Waterways Museum, South Pier
Road, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire CH65 4FW; Telephone + 44 151 373 4378 email
firstname.lastname@example.org). The British Waterways Archive a
library strong in plans, drawings and technical records, with a photographic
collection is now housed at the National Waterways Museum. Note: NO national
archives are now located at the Gloucester Waterways Nuseum.
- Some local record offices: Cheshire Record Office; Gloucestershire
Record Office; Highland Council Archive; Lancashire Record Office; The Record
Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland; Liverpool Record Office and
Local History Service; National Archives of Scotland; Public Record Office (see
below); Sheffield Archives; Shropshire Records and Research Centre;
Warwickshire County Record Office; West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield
Virtual Waterways Archive Catalogue
A combined on-line index to a range of archive collections around the
country including some of the most major archives. It holds information on over
70,000 records all over the country. Look at the
Virtual Waterways Archive
Catalogue for more information.
The National Archives, Kew
The National Archives (Formerly
The Public Record Office) repository includes maps, administrative records,
plans, photographs and canal company minutes (some of it part of the Waterways
Trust archive). For example it has:
- principal records of pre-nationalisation canal companies (pre-1948)
- principal records of the British Transport Commission and Docks
Inland Waterways Executive (class AN).
It has an online catalogue (PROCAT), which allows you to find out what
documents the PRO holds - it can be browsed by class and searched by
keyword or phrase, and documents can be ordered in advance.
(Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey. TW9 4DU; Telephone +44 20 8876
National Register of Archives
Register of Archives (NRA), part of the Historical Manuscripts Commission
(HMC), has online indexes which can be searched by corporate name, personal
name, family name and place name. You can find out where the collections are
held and whether the NRA holds paper catalogues for them.
Jim Shead's website offers a
compilation of information from various sources
Spellweaver Offers a range of useful information and newspaper cuttings for those researching their canal ancestors.
If youre not sure where to start
- The Virtual Waterways Archive Catalogue is a good place to begin
- The Railway & Canal Historical
Society advises that the first place to look is often your local record
office or local studies collection: "Local record offices are the main
repositories for deposited plans and other legislative material relating to the
construction of canals and railways; archives of navigations which did not
become part of British Waterways; records of highway authorities, turnpike
trusts, port authorities and municipal transport services; and private deposits
which will include those of traders and transport contractors, manufacturers of
transport equipment, and personal, family, estate, legal or commercial records
which might bear on transport operations."
We cannot help you reasearch individuals but if you have general
questions about canals which might help you, we will try to answer them. Our
field is London canals, and although we know something about waterways in the
rest of the UK we don't cover the river Thames. If you have a question for us
which is not answered on this website please use our feedback form.