Many years ago, if you had been up and about early on a Monday morning you would have observed numerous numbers of men carrying large wicker baskets. No they were not off on a day's relaxing fishing; those baskets contained home cooked food which was to sustain the carrier through the following week.
Those men were the bargees (or Flatmen) making their way to commence their weekly toil working the barges which travelled along the canals, locks and rivers on the North West.
Some would be on their way to Runcorn station to board trains to Liverpool, Ellesmere Port or Birkenhead, to join their various barges in the docks. Others would be crossing the river Mersey via the old Transporter Bridge to travel to Warrington, Earlestown, Salford, Manchester or Rochdale for the same purpose.
The remainder could be seen making their way on foot through the villages of Halton and Norton to Preston Brook, which in those days was as important to the industrial life of the area as the present network of motorways and industrial estates which now surround them.
Preston Brook was the Clapham Junction of the North West canal system. It was here that most of the raw materials and manufactured goods for the Midlands, the Potteries and the South of England were transferred into barges and narrow boats to be transported by canal, locks, and rivers to the towns and seaports of the North West.
This hardy breed of men worked long hours for six days a week. On occasions they worked the barges from the ports on the Mersey up river through numerous locks and stretches of canal to Rochdale and other cotton towns, without respite and braving the hazards of the river and the elements. With a purpose of a job to be done, without complaint but always with a laugh and a witty joke to pass away the long hours.
This important part of the industrial life of the North West could not have been carried on without the small steam packets which towed the barges along the canals. The men and boys who formed the crews of these small craft worked the same long hours as the bargemen.
Another aspect of this bygone age was the numerous numbers of long narrow boats and the people who worked them. These boats were worked by families whose children were born and brought up aboard these craft and spent their whole life in them. These narrow boats were a joy to behold with their wonderful painted cabins, which were truly a work of art. What a tragedy that such splendid colour and way of life has disappeared from the canals of the North West..
This hardy breed of a bygone age contributed more to the success of the industrial growth of the area, operating a slow, silent, but very efficient means of transport, without the noise and smell of diesel fumes so common in the present age.
Motorways now cover the flagstones which once echoed to the clatter of clogs as these people hauled their craft through the canals and locks of the North West canal system, all playing a part in the industrial life of the past. It is with pleasure and pride that we pay tribute to a bygone age.