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Boatbuilding

By 1780, the Wharf at Braunston was becoming increasingly busy.  It’s key position was first established in 1788 when Pickfords, then a canal -based carrying company chose this canal side hamlet as one of its major national distribution depots.  A dry dock had been constructed on the east bank of the canal and there was a turning basin to deal with transhipment traffic.  The Coventry Canal was developing and the Oxford Canal was extending towards Oxford itself, which was reached on the 1st January 1790.  Little information has come to light concerning boatyards and boat building in early times but it is reasonable to suppose that these activities took place in the vicinity of the dry dock.  From the beginning, the village must have been involved in the related trades of harness, ropes and clothing.  

In 1840 Pickfords moved thirty families from Manchester to establish a boat repair dock next to its freight depot.  By 1847 Pickfords had closed this dock and withdrawn from nearly all of its canal business.  Despite this, the 1851 census still lists sixty of the the two hundred and sixty four inhabited dwellings at Braunston as occupied by canal workers.

In 1851 there were 5 boatbuilders in the village, all working for James Hughes at the Wharf.  In 1861, there were 17, many lodging with villagers in High Street.  In 1880 Thomas James Bradshaw of Stowe Hill, Braunston had 9 boats registered.  Henry Evitts of Braunston had a boat 'Alpha' registered in September 1884.

The first named boatbuilder at Braunston is 'Hughes' in 1801.  He is also proprietor of 'The Ship Inn' at the Wharf in 1815.  James Hughes (probably his son) is described as a boatbuilder in 1841, in 1849 as a beer retailer and in 1851 as a 'boatbuilder, master of 4 men’.  He rented the site from The Oxford Canal Company.  In October 1866, aged about 70, he intended to give up The Wharf.  William Stephenson and Thomas Bradshaw jnr. applied to take it over with Stephenson having first refusal.

William Stephenson was an agent for the Grand Junction Canal Company in the early 1860’s and resided in a house at the Grand Junction dock just below Braunston bottom lock, on land now occupied by Braunston Boats Limited.  Stephenson started working as a boat builder there in February 1865, eventually employing several men and boys.  His trade may well have been building and maintaining craft in the Grand Junction Canal Company’s own carrying department; a large fleet of horse drawn boats and a small fleet of steamers.

A third boatyard at Braunston was Boswell’s Bridge Dock.  Thomas Bradshaw jnr. was established there by 1865, and called it Mrs Boswell’s yard, a reference to Mrs Hannah Boswell who had a brick and tile works in the village during the 1850’s and 1860’s.  It was situated on the offside of the Oxford canal just north of Bridge 90, known as Boswell’s Bridge, where the turnpike road (A45) crosses the canal;.  The dock had an arm off the main cut, although OS maps show little in the way of buildings on the site.

James Hughes gave up possession of a cottage he built on Braunston Wharf, its garden buildings, dockyard and premises on the 20th April 1866, including a partly built boat on the dock to discharge rent and arrears.  He was superseded at the Wharf by William Stephenson, now trading in business at both Braunston Wharf and the Grand Junction dock as a boat builder and coal merchant, and also renting a grain warehouse at Braunston Wharf.  He obviously had enough work from the Grand Junction company to keep the two docks employed.

Stephenson owned a number of boats such as Rugby, Lighterman, Pilot, Herald and Waterman.  One of his boats was said to be a steamer.

By 1875 Thomas Bradshaw jar. had joined in business with his brother James Edward Bradshaw, trading as T. & J. Bradshaw and continued as boatbuilders at Boswell’s Bridge dock.  Both men had business interests around the area as publicans, general traders, farmers, wheelwrights, coal merchants, general builders and contractors; and also as canal carriers.  During 1880-81 they had ten boats registered under the Canal Boats Act. Between 1875 and 1881 they drew some of their coal from Wyken colliery on the northern end of the Oxford Canal, both by canal and rail, but  not all of it was paid in cash.  Some coal was paid for by barter, which in their case was timber.  They were not alone in this as a number of traders did the same with various commodities.

William Nurser probably worked for James Hughes at the Wharf and also for William Stephenson who succeeded him.  However after his request for a pay rise was refused, he temporarily left Braunston to work at High House Dock at Nether Heyford for boat builder William Thompson.  Nurser was said to have worked for Bradshaw for a time too. 

The Grand Junction Canal Company carrying department had been reducing their carrying operations for some time and eventually ceased carrying on 1st July 1876 and their boats were sold off.  It seems that without this carrying subsidiary providing work to Stephenson, he could not remain in business at both Braunston Wharf and the Grand Junction Dock, so he established his own boat building business that year and worked on his own account solely at the Grand Junction Dock.  With Braunston Wharf no longer required by Stephenson, he vacated it along with the grain warehouse.  William Nurser applied for the tenancy.  The Bradshaw brothers also applied, claiming that they may have to leave Boswell’s Bridge soon but it was Nurser who was successful with his application.

William set up his own company, trading under the name of William Nurser and Sons in 1875.  He described his company as 'boat builders and tarpaulers, brick, tile and builders' merchants.  In addition he is noted in the Post Office Directory of 1877 as proprietor of 'The Champion', thus following an earlier tradition in the village. 

William Stephenson continued in business at the Grand Junction Dock until 1879, he then quit boat building altogether and moved to Oxford and set himself up as a coal merchant at Juxon Street Wharf owning two boats.

From the evidence of his business notepaper, William Nurser (1837 - 1899) founded his family business at Braunston in 1875.  However this was initially as a publican at the "Champion" nearby. When Braunston wharf was vacated in the following year he took it over on the 25th March 1876, at an initial rent of £8 per annum; much to the annoyance of the Bradshaws.  Later the OCC probably thought they made a wise decision choosing Nurser as their tenant, as the boat building and carrying business of Bradshaw’s was in trouble in 1881, and William Nurser subsequently also took over Boswell’s Bridge Dock too when they eventually left.

Nurser probably only kept Boswell’s dock a short time before it was taken over by another boat builder Matthew Evitts, who owned at least one craft named Our Daisy in 1877. He stayed at the dock until the mid-1890’s and later left to work in Burslem, Staffordshire.  The dock was then occupied by Simeon Clay working as a boat-builder around the turn of the 20th century with his two sons James and Harry. He was trading as Simeon Clay and Sons with a second hand boat named Mat, registered in 1901. The Clay family was still working there in 1911 although Simeon was then aged 71, so it is clear that later William Nurser and Sons at Braunston Wharf were to be the only boat building survivors in the district and outlasted all the competition. 

The position of the Wharf adjacent to the London Road must have been profitable in all respects.  William seems to have owned early boats and named them after his family.  Harry is registered in 1886, steerer Emmanuel Smith, also Frederick, steerer William Nurser, Alice in 1889 and Frank in 1891.  Steerers unknown.  In addition to boat work, this location allowed the company to advertise themselves, at least from 1908, as Brick, Tile and Builder’s Merchants. 

Thus despite others working at Braunston, William Nurser became the main boat builder there during the later years of the 19th century, and after his death in January 1899, his sons William Thomas (1863-1939) and Harry Sidney Nurser (1867 - 1909) continued on as surviving partners trading as William Nurser and Sons, with Harry Sidney as the junior partner. Younger brothers Charles (1874 - 1967) and Frank (1885 - 1952) were employed as boat builder and painter respectively, whilst Walter (1871 - 1958) was a local coal merchant.

In the census of 1901 Frank, aged 15, is already described as a 'boat painter' and Charles, aged 24, as a boat builder and shipwright.  In 1911, when Frank is still living at home with his widowed mother, he is described as both painter and boat builder.   Charles was a younger brother to William Thomas and Harry Sidney by William's second wife, Clara Deakin White.  In all they had eleven children.   Frank was a younger brother, one of two children born to William Thomas' third wife, Mary Anne Wykes.

Harry Sidney Nurser died in January 1909, and William Thomas bought out his late brother’s share of the business from his widow, Mrs. Mary Ann Nurser, who was the sole executrix of his property.  She was a daughter of Emmanuel Smith, the canal carrier who having been born at Braunston was now operating his business from Brentford.  Now as the principal, William Thomas continued to trade as William Nurser and Sons at Braunston, and continuing to employ his two brothers Charles and Frank in the business.

Over the years various alterations were undertaken at the wharf.  The Oxford canal engineer did various improvement works at Braunston dock in 1891, including some new buildings. The result of this pushed Nurser’s rent at the time up from £12 to £20 per annum, £10 collected on Lady- Day (25th March) and another £10 collected on Michaelmas (29th September).

Nursers owned a number of boats over the years but were used solely for hire and as change boats, they never operated as carriers like Bradshaw’s did. William Nurser’s first boat to be registered under the Canal Boats Act of 1877 was Hubert  (the name of another of his sons) at Birmingham in June 1879.  She was an old boat dating from about 1874 at least. He bought another boat shortly after named Douglas, which he renamed John (another son), and also registered her at Birmingham in October 1879. John’s history can be traced back to 1865 through several owners.

They built boats for many different customers from all over the canal system such as Emanuel Smith of Brentford, The Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Company of Chester, Brunner Mond and Company Limited of Cheshire, Thomas Clayton (Oldbury) Limited, Henry Seddon and Sons Limited of Middlewich and several others as well as regular docking work for owner- boatmen and more local carriers around the Midlands area.

Braunston was a busy place during the Great War with steamers, butties and horse drawn boats coming and going at all hours of the day and night. A lot of their cargoes were munitions and other vital Government war traffic. The Nursers were kept busy too as all boats were expected to be repaired and pressed into service to relieve congested railways. Canals came under Government control in 1917, and they issued an order that if anyone wished to sell a boat, which of course meant boat-builders, the sale could only take place on condition buyers sign a written guarantee that their boat was to be put into service on the canals.

New boats continued to be being built during the War despite the rising cost of living and materials, seventeen in all.  The cost of living continued to rise into the early 1920’s with just a handful of new boats being built, but when it did eventually fall, the higher costs of transport by canals meant traffic became slack.  Although things picked up in 1922 with six new boats being built, Nursers' rent was doubled from £25 to £50 per annum.  William Thomas' health had been poor for some two years and continued after an operation, and this in combination with the bad state of trade in the middle 20’s, and his brothers Charles and Frank threatening to leave him, he decided to try and sell the business as a going concern. But this was not possible and he had to wind the business up in order to pay off his creditors.  His lease on Braunston Wharf was due to expire in June 1929, but asked the OCC to release him from this in February 1927.

The dock closed down early in March 1927 due to lack of trade and his men were out of work. The OCC agreed to Nurser’s request and the business was wound up in June 1927 after 51 years at Braunston Wharf. After a bad closing down sale, he was forced to ask the OCC to waive his outstanding rent to help prevent him selling his house to pay off his debts.  In order to push his case he commented that over the years he had built a brick office and adjoining storeroom, and concreted the bottom of the dock, which was done at his expense, and to the OCC’s advantage. Nurser handed over the dock keys to the OCC’s Braunston representative at 10.00 am on the 24th June 1927. This left the dock unused for a short time.

Canal carrier L. B. Faulkner of Leighton Buzzard was interested in taking over the dock but it turned out that William Thomas’  brothers Charles and Frank together with E.T. Hitchman re-launched the business under their control as Nurser Brothers shortly after in July 1927. Charles dealt with the carpentry and repairs, Frank with the painting and accounts and Hitchman was the blacksmith.

Their first new boat was for the Hon. Rupert Craven of Faringdon named José finished in December 1928. Other customers buying new boats included Fellows, Morton & Clayton Limited of Birmingham, Thomas Clayton (Oldbury) Limited, John Green of Macclesfield, Henry Seddon and Sons Limited, and perhaps most famously Samuel Barlow Coal Company Limited.  Nurser Brothers also catered for many boatmen contractors working to Dickinson’s mills by selling them second hand craft, and converted several former horse boats to motors, as well as the usual repair and docking work.

Even before the arrival of the Nursers, Braunston was known for its decorative paintwork.  The earliest evidence of 'painted flower' decorations comes from no less a source than Charles Dickens, who passed through Braunston with his friend Leigh Hunt in 1857.  Dickens noticed the work of a 17 year old clerk called Arthur Atkins and commissioned a can from him.  However,  it is Frank Nurser who is rightly credited as being the master. His experience by the 1930’s must have been tremendous as he was already described as a boat painter in both the 1901 and 1911 census returns. Perhaps the earliest work that can be attributed to him is dated September 1920, and is in the T.W. King Collection, but we can only guess what decorative paintwork was like in the latter half of the 19th century in all three Braunston docks.  Apart from a few grainy photographs of Daventry registered boats in the Edwardian period, little survives to show the decorative paintwork at the turn of the 20th century.

Nurser Brothers business carried on into the Second World War, but in 1940 both Charles Nurser and E.T. Hitchman wanted to retire, which would leave Frank Nurser on his own to run the firm. Also because of the War, materials had become difficult to obtain, so they sold out to the Samuel Barlow Coal Company Limited on the 1st April 1941. The OCC transferred their tenancy agreement to Barlow’s during the summer of 1941, and in July 1947 Barlow’s company seal was fixed to a 21 year lease of Braunston Dock from the OCC.

Under the control of Barlow’s, work continued with Frank Nurser as manager and with Charles supervising. Apart from all the regular docking work a succession of new motor boats were built for the fleet, then in 1944 the first of a series of butties with just one final new motor Ian in 1947. In all nine new boats were built at Braunston Dock, four motors and five butties, with Raymond                                                        being the last in 1958.  Charles Nurser supervised the lay up of all new boats with the exception of Raymond when he was prevented by ill health.

One of the problems faced by Barlow’s at the time was finding enough skilled men to work at the Dock. Aubrey Berriman was recruited from Bideford in Devon.  He remembers the need so urgent that he was sent a railway ticket by Barlows.  His wife, children and possessions were to follow later. Some others travelled from Barlow’s other dock at Hopley’s Farm,Glascote, to provide adequate cover, but during the summer of 1961 difficulties finding enough skilled men, a shortage of boatmen and increased use of lorries, forced Barlow’s into disposing of Braunston Dock and the remaining carrying fleet. On the 17th November that year Braunston Dock was sold to Blue Line Cruisers Limited for £10,500; the sale was finally settled on the 12th March 1962.

I am indebted to David Blagrove and Christopher M. Jones for much of the detail in this article.

     © Graham Nurser 2012