Strangely, the story of Birdswood starts with a bit of railway history. With the coming of the railways in the 1840’s, many canals found it impossible to compete and some decided to cut their losses and sold out to the railway companies which were taking over their trade. The Cromford Canal was one of these and sold out to the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock & Midlands Junction Railway Company in 1847. This was later taken over by the Midland Railway Company which in turn became the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) in 1923. So the LMS found themselves to be both canal owners and boat operators.
In 1928, the LMS ordered some new riveted iron open narrow boats from W.J. Yarwood and Sons at Northwich in Cheshire to replace the ageing wooden boats which they had inherited from the various canal companies. Birdswood was one of the later boats in this batch and was built in 1938 and originally named Ross. It was used initially on short haul traffic around the Birmingham Canal Navigations.
Following the nationalisation of both railways and waterways in 1948, British Railways continued to operate boats until 1954, when the fleet was taken over by British Waterways. After this, 12 of these Yarwood’s boats were fitted with cabins and named after railway stations, including Ross which was renamed Birdswood in 1958, although this is actually the name of a railway junction rather than a station.
Birdswood then became part of the fleet of long distance ‘Station Boats’ operated by British Waterways in the North West, operating as a pair being towed by a motor boat. This traffic was quite intensive for some years, including the coal run from Stoke on Trent to Middlewich via Harecastle Tunnel and various goods, especially aluminium ingots, from Manchester to Wolverhampton and the Black Country. Birdswood was then leased for a while to Willow Wren, but then went back to British Waterways in 1972 to be used on maintenance duties after the carrying trade finished.
Then in 1974, Birdswood was bought by a private owner and started a new life as a horse drawn passenger boat. This was at Froghall Wharf on the Caldon Canal in Staffordshire. In 1995, extensive steelwork to the hull was carried out and a new cabin, an engine and hydraulic drive unit were installed, although the traditional horse boat stern end was retained. Trip boat operations then continued at Froghall until the end of 2010.
In early 2013, the boat was purchased by the Friends of the Cromford Canal. Volunteers moved the boat by canal to Langley Mill, where it was dry docked, converted to electric drive and repainted in FCC livery. It was then brought to Cromford by road and is now being operated as a trip boat, both electrically driven and horse drawn, at Cromford Wharf. This is the latest phase in the varied life of this fine historic vessel. It is quite sobering to wonder what the boat will be doing during the next 75 years.
By Mike Harrison