President – Britain’s last steam-powered narrowboat

Words: Phillipa Greenwood. Images: Martine O'Callaghan
Words: Phillipa Greenwood. Images: Martine O’Callaghan

STEAM engines and riveted wrought iron might seem the stuff of beautifully solid Fred Dibnah-style men, but most historic canal boats have a canny way of defying class and gender when they suck anyone who visits them into their web of intrigue.

President is a unique steam-powered narrowboat, built in 1909 by the famous company Fellows, Morton and Clayton at Saltley in Birmingham. She’s a floating statement of power, beauty and nostalgia, and an experience that means something to everyone.

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Getting up steam at Crick Boat Show. Photo: Janet Richardson

When she was first built she cost £600, now she is the priceless treasure owned by the Black Country Living Museum. The museum and the voluntary help of the Friends of President care for and operate the boat which tours the canals and appears at many of the waterways festivals and events every year.

In her early years she carried foodstuffs, tea, sugar and flour on the canals between London and the Midlands. Her steam engine puffed tirelessly day and night as crews changed on a rota to keep the boat running to tight delivery schedules. Inside the boatman’s tiny cabin the bed was scarcely needed, and the kettle a mere distraction from the task of the crew. The burly business of haulage, past and present, doesn’t necessarily covet fashion or frills, but narrowboats can’t help but own grace and beauty.

President has always commanded respect and the changing times that meddled with her structure have only added to her colourful story. President’s specially developed compound steam engine and coke-fired boiler took up a huge area in the hull that was needed for cargo, but in its time it competed well with horse-drawn boats. Steamers could only carry around 18 tons and a horse could manage more than 25 tons. The advantage steamers had was that they were powerful enough to tow several butty boats (unpowered boats). So, although steamers were flawed by the cumbersome size of the engine and its boiler, they introduced a new concept of speed and insisted the man-made engine was here to stay.

President and Kildare at one of the waterways events they attended during the year.
President and Kildare at one of the waterways events they attended during the year.

Eventually a magnificent Bolinder engine replaced President’s steam engine. With its new 15hp engine tucked into a much smaller space, President could carry more cargo for the business she was built for. By 1925 she was cruising the canals with the new colours of red, yellow and green, in 1946 she was sold, and later changed hands again to carry coal. Her swansong was her time with British Waterways’ (now Canal & River Trust) northern maintenance fleet at Northwich, working on the Trent & Mersey, Macclesfield and Shropshire Union Canals. Then finally 
President retired.

Her time had been served and she aged without purpose, until she was finally sold in 1973, as no more than a derelict hull. A valiant effort led to her restoration and, with meticulous attention, dedication and passion, her boatman’s cabin was refitted and she was graced with a glorious steam engine that gave her power again.

President was back and the eyes of the world came to admire her. When she’s not out and about showing off, she can be found proudly resting together with her butty Kildare at their base at the Black Country Living Museum.

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