Yorkshire’s Watermen

On 6th October our speaker was David Scrimgeour who gave us a talk on ‘Yorkshire’s
His talk centred around his work for the Yorkshire Waterways Heritage Society which came into
being after the closure of the Yorkshire Waterways Museum. David encouraged us to visit the
society’s online museum at www.ywhs.org.uk and explained that they use genealogy to illuminate
the lives of people and their families who navigated the waterways of 19th and 20th century
Yorkshire, creating a permanent memorial.
David showed us a map which illustrated the extraordinary scale of the canals and navigable
waterways in Yorkshire and told us how he set out to find answers to his questions about the
Humber keels, which had square sails and the sloops, whose sails were triangular, and the people
who operated them.
We learned that the 1877 Act of Parliament made it mandatory for canal vessels carrying
commercial cargoes and which had people sleeping on them overnight to be inspected and
registered and so the Canal Boat Registers were created. One of the key drivers was concern
about the quality of accommodation for families and children. The Registers included the
registration number and authority, name of the vessel, owner name and address, master name, the
usual route they took, what type of vessel it was and the dates of application, inspection and
registration. This provided a lot of information, as well as details about the interior – maximum
permitted people, observations and any changes; interestingly the School Board were also
involved as children were encouraged to spend more time in school.
David wanted to create a resource for family historians and set about creating a database which
meant comparing the Canal Boat Registers with the census records, particularly for 1881, to
enable more information to be found on the Yorkshire Watermen. He told us about the challenges
of using the census and reported his findings after comparing the results, discovering that in 1881
there were some 1700 vessels operating on the waterways.
He also gave us some interesting case studies and went into detail about some family dynasties –
the Air family of York, the Snowden family of Leeds and the Mellor family from Wakefield. David
also told us that newspapers were an important part of his waterways research and we learned of
some tragic accidents and about how dangerous the industry was with many drownings and

Lorraine Simpson
October 2023

About Dave Huddart