Late C19 Grand Canal Company trade boats

The passage [passenger-carrying] boats and the cargo and towing steamers of the Grand Canal Company have been listed and described, as have the later diesel-powered boats. However, the horse-drawn cargo-carrying trade boats of the late nineteenth century have received much less attention.

In April 1890 the Grand Canal Company [GCC] towage drivers, the men who led the horses towing the trade boats, went on strike. Newspaper coverage of the strike, and of GCC half-yearly meetings around that time, provides some snippets of information about the company’s fleet. They do not amount to anything like a definitive account of the GCC boats but they may suggest avenues for further research.


Frederick Barrington was amongst the principals in the Dublin Dockyard Company, which leased the Grand Canal basin (Ringsend docks) and graving-docks from the GCC for thirty years from 1 November 1851. He built many of the GCC’s iron trade boats.[1]

There was some discussion of materials at the GCC half-yearly meeting on 22 February 1890. The chairman, Mr William F de Vismes Kane, said that

[…] the subject of new steel boats had been anxiously considered.

Asked whether the company should have iron boats, he said that

Mr Lloyd [who had reported to the company on its affairs] stated that the question of the most suitable boats for canals was a most difficult one. A wooden boat cost about £280, and an iron one from £380 to £400. On the Leeds and Liverpool Canal they had abandoned iron boats, and were returning to the wooden ones.[2]

The company owned 54 trade boats; the press reports do not say how many were built of iron (or steel) and how many of wood. Each boat had a crew of three;[3] there were also about 65 towage drivers.[4]

The company wanted to hire boats from private traders to cope with seasonal gluts of coal and grain traffic[5], but found that fewer boats were available for hire.[6]


In 1891 the chairman said that many of their own boats were unseaworthy and that repairs cost almost as much as a new boat: one iron boat had cost £170 to repair. Thenceforth boats would be dry-docked regularly for examination and overhaul.[7]


In February 1890 the chairman said

Small boats cost almost as much to haul as large ones, and until they possessed boats of as large a capacity as their locks would admit, they were plying at an extraordinary disadvantage.[8]

It seems odd that a carrying company should have any boats that were smaller than the locks could take.

The company’s engineer, Christopher Mulvany, said that an iron boat drawing 4′ 2″ bow and stern, and carrying 43 tons, had grounded when a strong easterly wind had reduced the depth in the canal. Responding to a questioner, he said that a boat drawing 3′ 11″ could be carrying 50 tons: though most boats with that draft carried 48 tons, one carried 54.[9]


The company seems to have used three methods of propulsion (or traction):

  • steam: it had four steamers on the River Shannon and one on the River Liffey, each with a crew of six[10]
  • horses: it was experimenting with the use of two horses per boat instead of one, in an “attempt to secure greater speed in transport and regularity in delivery”[11]
  • sweeps: there is some evidence to show that some boats were equipped with sweeps (large oars), which would have made it possible for boats to move around in harbours or basins and perhaps on rivers.

The first piece of evidence for the use of sweeps is in a short newspaper report from 1876, although it provides no evidence that the boat in question was owned by the GCC:

SAVED FROM DROWNING. — On Saturday evening a man named Patrick Fitzsimons, while employed with others in getting a canal boat through the lock of the Portobello-bridge, fell into the basin and sank. He rose to the surface in about a minute, and was apparently exhausted, for, after a vain attempt to hold on by the projecting ledge of the boat, he went down again. There now seemed to be great danger of the man’s life being lost, but some of his companions held out one of their long “sweep” oars towards the place where he sank, and when he came up the third time he succeeded in grasping the oar and holding on till he was taken out of the water. He was then in a very weak state, and it appeared very plainly that when he fell into the basin he was not in the best condition to protect himself from accident.[12]

The second piece of evidence is from the View of Dublin with the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853, where zooming in towards the bottom right shows what looks like a canal boat using sweeps in the Grand Canal docks.


The GCC chairman, Mr Kane, was interviewed during the strike by towage drivers (the men who led the horses) in April 1890. He said

We had a strike here some time ago, and what was the result? Our boat builders struck, and we were obliged to give up boat building, and now we get our boats from the other side of the water, and we get them at a considerably cheaper rate than we were able to build them ourselves.

The result of the strike, therefore, was that the men, acting on the directions perhaps of their society in England, struck work, lost their employment, and now we have to get our boats from across the water, but we get them at a much cheaper rate than we were able to build them ourselves on the wages we paid.[13]

The men were later described as carpenters, so it seems that the GCC built its own wooden boats, buying iron boats from other boatbuilders.[14]

A letter to the Freeman’s Journal, signed by Shipwright, said that the cessation of boatbuilding had not resulted from a strike.

I will put it to Mr Kane — has there been a single boat built since he became chairman? Is it not a fact that the canal barge model made by the company’s draughtsman was sent to England long before the directors had the slightest knowledge of a coming strike with boatbuilders? […]

No matter where the boats come from, they will not be cheaper or better than those running on the canal at present, built by Dublin shipwrights.[15]

At the half-yearly meeting in August of that year, the chairman said that the company had ordered five new barges, of very satisfactory speed and capacity, from an English boatbuilder.[16] But Shipwright was right to be sceptical: at the following half-yearly meeting, on 28 February 1891, Mr Kane said that the five English boats had not been completed on time to relieve the autumnal pressure of demand. The company had cancelled the order and taken only two of the five; it had six boats being built by Irish builders and had been pleased by the punctuality and workmanship of Messrs Holway of Ringsend, whose vessel should offer better carrying capacity than any existing boat.[17]


Launch at Messrs Bewley and Webb’s yard

The first of two new steel canal boats which the above firm are building for the Grand Canal Company was successfully launched on Wednesday.  These boats are 60 ft long by 13 ft 2 in beam, and 5 ft 9 in depth of hold, and are designed to carry forty tons on a light draught of water. They are of improved design and construction, and expected to tow very easily. The Canal Company have expressed themselves well pleased with the time of delivery and workmanship, and it is to be hoped no more orders of this kind will go across the water in future. The firm appear to us to be well able to deal with the work of the port. The ss Magnet, of the Tedcastle Line, which had an extensive overhaul at this yard, we believe, gave every satisfaction, and had a most successful trial trip a few days ago. It is to be hoped that more of our local steamship companies will follow the lead of Messrs Tedcastle, and have their work done in Dublin.[18]



[1] Ruth Delany The Grand Canal of Ireland David & Charles, Newton Abbot 1973

[2] The Freeman’s Journal 24 February 1890. Mr E Lloyd, engineer, was the general manager of the Warwick and Birmingham Canal Company

[3] The Freeman’s Journal 14 April 1890

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] The Freeman’s Journal 2 March 1891

[7] ibid

[8] The Freeman’s Journal 24 February 1890

[9] The Freeman’s Journal 25 August 1890

[10] The Freeman’s Journal 14 April 1890

[11] The Freeman’s Journal 24 February 1890

[12] The Freeman’s Journal 17 July 1876

[13] The Freeman’s Journal 8 April 1890

[14] The Freeman’s Journal 14 April 1890

[15] The Freeman’s Journal 16 April 1890

[16] The Freeman’s Journal 25 August 1890

[17] The Freeman’s Journal 2 March 1891

[18] The Freeman’s Journal 1 September 1893

One response to “Late C19 Grand Canal Company trade boats

  1. Pingback: Launch at Messrs Bewley and Webb’s yard | Irish waterways history

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