Keels on the canal.

The story of Stainforth's waterways.

(See also: Stainforth Canal & Keel Families )


Navigating the waterways.
From Stonyford, to Stainford, to Stainforth; the history of this little village has always been inextricably linked with the passage of vessels along the river Don. For hundreds of years merchants sailed their goods along the river, up to the shallow ford from which the name of the village is derived, and then traveled on foot or by cart to Doncaster Market.

Passage beyond Stainforth was difficult, not only because of the shallow ford, but because of the actions of other communities further along the river. In 1592, the people of Stainforth complained about their neighbours at Barnby Dun, where the inhabitants had raised the level of the ford there by adding boulders to make a dry footpath so they could reach the pastures on the other side.

Between Doncaster and Sheffield, navigation along the river was equally difficult due to sand and gravel banks, and at least nine weirs, which were used for powering millwheels.

Throughout the seventeenth century, appeals were made to Parliament for the river to be cleared in order to provide an accessible route to Sheffield. These appeals fell on deaf ears, and it was not until 1726, when the Cutlers of Sheffield took it upon themselves to make necessary improvements to the waterway near Tinsley, that the first stretch of the river was made navigable by larger craft. In 1727, Doncaster Corporation authorised work to be continued from the newly improved section of river to the outskirts of Doncaster.

Thirteen years later, in 1740, the length of the river between Doncaster and Fishlake was cleared and deepened, which of course opened the river for waterborne traffic from Stainforth. During this work a straight cut was made from the area we know as The Basin, on East Bank, Stainforth, and Bramwith.
The new Bramwith Lock, where the water level is raised
to that of the New Junction Canal.

A lock was constructed at each end, so the level of water could be maintained. Since Stainforth was a village which had grown around the banks of the river Don, the construction of this new navigation must have had a terrific impact upon the features of the village. Prior to this Stainforth had been a small hamlet, consisting of six or more farms and a handful of dwellings.

Over the next hundred years, as industry around the canal developed, the number of dwellings would swell to over two hundred.

It was during this initial phase of waterway construction that the first bridge for crossing the river at Stainforth was built. It was a small wooden affair, which stood for less than thirty years, being replaced in 1768 by the stone bridge, with which we are familiar today. A wooden bridge, which could be raised or lowered, was also built to span the new canal.
In 1793 work began on the Stainforth and Keadby canal, with the aim of providing a navigable waterway from the lock in the river Don at Stainforth, to the River Trent near Keadby. It is estimated that cost of the new canal was around £60,000, and entailed the building of a lock at Thorne, and a further lock to gain access to the river Trent.

Early last century, the canal at Bramwith was extended to join up with the New Junction Canal, which provided a route to Doncaster in one direction, and a Link to the Aire and Calder Navigation in the other.


The Keelmen.
The completion of the Stainforth & Keadby canal signaled a time of growth and relative prosperity in Stainforth. The village of the 1800’s was a desirable place in which to live, offering many kinds of work connected with the waterside. Dwellings, shops and pubs were constructed to accommodate and serve the influx of people, eager to live and work on the canal and river.

The word "keel" comes from the Old English word "ceol", which means "ship", and is an indication of the antiquity of these craft.

The "Comrade"
Humber Keel & Sloop
Preservation Society.
This an iron hulled keel which was restored by the Humber Keel & Sloop
Preservation Society. Unfortunately, there are no longer any wooden keels in existence.
For more information, please see the link at the bottom of this page.
Most people would automatically associate the word "keel" with the North East of England, and rightly so. These boats were in use between Newcastle and the Borders of Scotland, ferrying coal and such, for hundreds of years before their appearance on the waterways at Stainforth. Immortalised in song and verse, the life of the Border Keelmen has long been seen as a romantic existence. In truth, they were hard working, poor families. They struggled to eke a meager existence, often risking their own lives and the lives of their families, as they plied their trade, ferrying goods and coal along the estuaries and coastal waters of the North Sea. Many will have heard the popular folk song, "Weel may the keel row", which tells of a young woman, worriedly awaiting the return of the keel, upon which her man has been hard at work. The location from which the song is said to have originated from is a matter of a mild dispute between those who believe it owes it’s true origins to the keelmen of the River Tyne and Newcastle, from where it earns it’s true title of, "As I came thro’ Sandgate", and the keelmen of the River Tyne at Bellhaven Bay, east of Edinburgh. I suspect both could be true, and that it is probably from the area between the Tyne of Newcastle and the Tyne of the Borders that some of Stainforth’s first keel families owed their origins. However, at the time of the completion of the Stainforth and Keadby canal, the use of keels and sloops was well established on the river Humber, and it is with the Humber keels that Stainforth is most commonly associated.

Typically, a keel is a flat bottomed boat, between fifty four and sixty one feet in length. They were usually between fourteen feet four inches and fifteen feet six inches wide, and between six feet six inches to seven feet six inches deep. Originally, they would have been "clinker" built vessels. This means they were constructed from wooden boards which overlapped each other around a wooden hull. The gaps between the boards would have been filled with a waterproof material, or "caulking". Later, they would be constructed from other materials, including iron and steel.
Generally speaking, a keel would be rigged with a square sail on a single mast, whereas the sloop, a similar type of craft, would be rigged with two masts.
The cargoes carried by the keels as they navigated between Sheffield, Doncaster, Grimsby and Hull, were mostly grain and coal, but many would dredge sand and gravel from the riverbed of the Trent, which they then sold in Grimsby as aggregate for the building trade.

Most keelmen started out as hired boatmen, working for companies or consortiums, and it was the dream of every keelman to eventually own his own vessel. Being a keelman was not just a job for the man of the family though. It was common for married men to have their wives as first mate when aboard their boats, (no doubt they also served as chief cook, bottle washer and child minder), which could mean the whole family spent more time afloat than in their houses on the bank side. Hired hands would be paid for performing other tasks around the boat, such as loading and unloading cargo.


Norman Barrass, a descendant of the Barrass family who came to Stainforth and worked as sailmakers alongside the new canal, tells us that the population of Stainforth in 1801 was around 472, and that ten years later this had risen by almost a hundred. He says, in his book "Stainforth - our Heritage", that there were approximately a hundred and twenty houses clustered along the East Bank, though at any one time as many as a quarter of these houses would be unoccupied, due the family being afloat somewhere on the waterway.

With the influx of keel sailing families, there arose the need for craftsmen who could perform other tasks pertaining to boat management and maintenance, such as sailmakers and chandlers.

The East Bank.
Only a handful of cottages now stand on what was once a hive of riverside commerce.

The Barrass family set up their sailmaking business, which was based on their newly acquired piece of land on the West Bank, after John Barrass had served an apprenticeship under Stainforth’s first sailmaker, John Dearnaley.
On the East Bank, the Shirtcliffe family set up their sailmaking business, which remained a family concern for many years.

In 1856, Stainforth’s first passenger carrying connection to the national railway network was made via a single line which ran from Doncaster to Thorne. The line was later extended (1859) to include Keadby. Following the navigation, the line passed through Stainforth along the East and West banks. A public house, named The Compass when it opened for business almost fifty years earlier, shortly after the initial development of the East Bank, was renamed to The Station Inn, and served the village as ticket office and station. The railway was only in operation for about ten years, but the Station Inn survived until around 1960.

The Basin
Today the Basin is a private mooring area.
In 1863, Joseph Worfolk constructed a dry dock, where the repair of keels and sloops was carried out, and later where new craft were built. Shortly after, a second boat builder began operating from a yard in the area we know today as The Basin. These boat yards would produce a variety of craft, including keels, sloops, and cogs. Cogs were small craft, typically around twelve feet in length, and were used for many tasks; from the simple ferrying of people and goods, to warping larger craft along the canal and river. They were usually maneuvered by use of a single oar, which was placed in a rowlock at the stern of the boat, and which was moved through the water in a figure of eight fashion.

It was at this time that Doncaster Navigation Company financed the building of a crane at the Basin, which was to be used for handling leeboards, anchors and other equipment, which would otherwise hamper the keels progress through the narrow locks on their journey inland. Leeboards were large paddle shaped structures that were attached to the boats when navigating tidal waters. Their purpose was to prevent sideways drifting of the vessel, and so were not required when traveling on inland waterways. It was therefore easier to leave them in a place of safety at the start of an inland journey, and to pick them up on the return journey.


Another descendant of one of Stainforth’s newly arrived keel sailing families, Fred Schofield, devotes a significant part of his book, "Humber Keels and Keelmen", to the lives of the keelmen at Stainforth. In his book he recounts his childhood, spent aboard his father’s keel, carrying goods between Sheffield and the East coast. His narrative provides a wonderful record of the families who occupied the waterside at Stainforth over a hundred years ago. He tells us that the crane on the East Bank was operated by the bridgekeeper, who in his day was a retired keelman named John Hastings. Those leaving tackle at the basin would pay the crane operator one shilling (5p) for a leeboard and sixpence (2.5p) for the anchor.

The lock between the canal and the river Don.
This part of the lock is still visible, but most of what remains is buried beneath tons of earth which form the car park at the Basin.
Nothing remains of the old lock at Bramwith.

He then gives a comprehensive list of the families who lived and worked in the area at the start of the twentieth century, including the nicknames of some of the most colourful characters, and the names of the keels with which each family earned a living.
For instance, the local fiddle playing preacher, Ernest Downing, was known as, "Fiddler Downing", and his keel was called, "Samaritan". Fiddler had a brother named Bob, who was well known for his whistling. Hence he was known as "Whistling Bob", or just "Whistler". Bob was the proud owner of the keel, "Welfare".

Other sources tell us the that the waterside families knew how to party. Right up until more recent times, the canal was the venue for an annual day of games and festivities. All kinds of water sports, from boat racing to swimming, and "It’s a knockout!" style games, such as the greasy pole, were played by the multitudes who gathered there to join in.

Into the 20th Century
After the sinking of the colliery, diesel powered barges became a common site on the canal, as they hauled long trains of tom puddings from the "tippler house" sited on Ashfield Banks. This mode of moving coal around Britain’s canals sealed the fate of the keels, which, apart from a few iron hulled vessels, had disappeared from these inland waterways.

In the middle of the 20th century, the canal and river area suffered badly. Both waterways were severely polluted, the river Don being particularly disgusting. At times the river resembled an open sewer, it’s filthy brown effluent contaminating any living thing which had the misfortune to come into contact with it. The canal was equally devoid of life. Even the weed which once flourished along the edges and bottom died, leaving a bare oily ooze, which discoloured the foul water when stirred up. Any thoughts of swimming in this coagulate were best left in the realm of daydreams, rather than run the risk of hair loss and skin disease, which would surely befall anyone foolish enough to attempt such a thing.

The Stainforth & Keadby Canal
Well stocked with fish, the canal is a popular venue for anglers from all over the UK.
Over the last twenty years the canal has improved beyond recognition. It is now well stocked with many varieties of fish and is a favourite venue for many angling contests. The river has also been vastly improved, with green vegetation once more growing right down to the water’s edge, and fish and other aquatic creatures appearing within it’s murky depths. Standing by the canal side today, the area is quiet and peaceful, a stark contrast to the hive of activity it must have presented during those years of waterborne activity. It’s easy to imagine the clamour of children’s voices, barking dogs, hammering and sawing from the boat yards, and other everyday noises, which would have been prevalent in those halcyon days of river travel.


Fred Schofield finished his Stainforth chapter with this comment; "This was the Stainforth I knew before the 1914-18 War, before the pit was sunk. Now it’s full of Irish, Welsh, Geordies and Durhamites, and where we used to be able to walk on Monday morning through green fields to catch the early train for Hull, it is one big sprawl of bricks right through to Hatfield".

I couldn’t help but wonder if over a hundred years earlier the occupants of that quiet little farming hamlet hadn’t borne the same sentiments with regards to the arrival of the immigrant waterfolk, and maybe, with the changes afoot at Hatfield Colliery, whether we ourselves will see a third wave of immigration which will add another shape to the changing face of Stainforth.


Facts and figures for this article were gleaned from many sources, the most significant being those available within the history archive, held in Stainforth Library, and several sites around the internet.

Special recognition must go to Norman Barrass, Stainforth’s greatest historian, who left us his work and texts, so that the heritage of our village will never be forgotten.

Fred Schofield’s book, "Humber Keels and Keelmen" is indeed a wonderful piece of work. Anyone who has even the slightest interest in this subject won’t find a better source than this. Filled from cover to cover with anecdotes and observations, and packed with diagrams, drawings and photographs, this book is a delight to read and the most comprehensive source of information anyone could wish for.
ISBN 0-86138-059-2

I must also thank Humber Keels & Sloops Preservation Society for their help and for allowing me to use their picture, "Comrade", in this article.
This link is to a page on the Driffield Navigation site, called "Humber Keels & Sloops", created in appreciation of a day out on Comrade.

"Weel may the keel row", words and midi music can be found at this site:
This is a German site which has the best collection of international folk songs I've come across. There is a link to the main folk song page where you'll find the lyrics to hundreds of songs. Clicking the "melody" link allows you to hear a midi version of that tune's melody.

This links to a page on a site which has photographs and information on the history of keelmen and canals. Well worth a visit.

Many visitors to this site have wrote to me about their family links with the people who lived on the waterside at Stainforth. Others have wrote to me requesting information.
This page is simply a list of the families who lived around the canal in the 19th century, and the details concerning them, which I have found while researching various areas of interest.
Stainforth Canal & Keel Families



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