Thursday, 23 June 2016
You can't get far along a canal in this country without stumbling across examples of the traditional 'Brightwork' that is used to decorate the narrowboats and barges. Here, the window of the office from where boats are hired out in Skipton is decorated with roses - a very common emblem.
The art developed during the industrial revolution, at a time when other traditional crafts were fast dying out. The new canal network, started in the late eighteenth century, made transporting goods much easier as the industrial revolution got underway, taking over from the packhorse routes that had served until then. At their peak, however, they were threatened by the rise of the railways and investment was diverted. The canal system carried on but was less prosperous. The boatmen, who at one time could employ crew (you needed a person on the boat and a person with the pulling horse) often found they could no longer afford to house their families in canalside settlements. It became more common to have wife and family living on the boat, sharing the cramped living quarters. Being itinerant, they could not educate their children and they became a travelling community isolated from and feared by many on the land.
It is thought that the traditions of decorating the boats with colourful paintwork, brightly painted tinware, crisp lace curtains and gleaming brassware may have developed as a response - a statement of separateness and distinction, to confound the perception of 'dirty bargees'. (See here for more information).