“Nothing to do with bovine barbecues, but a corruption of ‘cow rest’, a throwback to cattle droving days. Cowroast is a popular boating centre, a large lagoon providing moorings for private craft off the main line. The lock here is picturesque and well cared for. Look out for the pump house, the cast-iron span of bridge 137 and the former ‘control’ office which correlated boat movements up and down the Grand Union in carrying days.” (Pearson’s Canal Companion: Oxford & Grand Union, 1993).
Theft by boatmen in 1803:
Today’s canal looks so peaceful, it’s hard to imagine it was once a hub of commercial activity. In 1803, Thompson (19) and Gibbert (20) were transported for seven years for feloniously stealing 140 yards of printed calico, value £17 10s from Messrs Pickford’s boat as it passed through Berkhampstead.
Thompson and Gibbert were boatmen on board. William Bailey, saddler and harness-maker in the town, made an offer for a sick horse that Thompson was leading to the Cow Roast. Thompson spotted his chance to make some money from Pickford’s cargo. Given the clandestine arrangements for meeting Thompson and Gibbert and the nature of a sample of the goods, Bailey perceived that the calico had been come by dishonestly and alerted the constable. The boatmen were staying at the Goat to seed their horses, so Bailey and the constable pursued them there, apprehended them; they were taken before a Magistrate, and committed.
Water gipsies doomed:
“A picturesque feature of old-time Britain is doomed to disappear. An important £1,000,000 scheme [fast motor boats on the Grand Union Canal] has just been launched which will compel the disappearance of ‘water gipsies’ as the canal folk are often called, and with them will go the leisurely horse-drawn barge.
A Forgotten Race: For over a century the barge has been the floating home of a strange people, cut off from civilisation – so much so, that until recent years few of them could write. The canal people… have evolved a language of their own. Many words like chalico, jambing pole, gongoozler, josher, and londel, are unfamiliar to those living ashore.
At present with the horse-drawn barges the boats work in pairs, the captain or ‘man,’ working one, and the mate, usually his wife, working the other. The problem of the children has troubled many philanthropists, for work is their usual lot, often before they are strong enough to undertake it.
To the people of the canals, their craft, usually known as the ‘monkey boat,’ is more indispensable than the caravan of the land gipsy. One of the most remarkable features of the race is the physique of the women. They take a man’s share in pushing the gates, winding sluices, and hauling on the tow-lines.
Many of the people are swarthy featured, akin to the land gipsy, and, like that mysterious race, fond of gay colours, shown in the bright scarves and gaudy dresses. Rough and ready as the men are, they are at the same time resourceful, loyal, and unfailing with their philosophic quips.” (Nottingham Evening Post, Jul 1931).
Drought cripples Grand Junction Canal system in Oct 1902.
Berkhampstead, desperate, blames the Canal Company for the whole mischief…
Between Marsworth and Boxmoor, there are fifty pairs of barges waiting for water to float them through the locks. An extraordinary meeting of boatmen stretches three miles along the bank [on the Chiltern Hills above Tring] and never adjourns. Their horses lie down and go to sleep, their wives sit knitting and gossiping, their children play in the fields. It is good fun for the youngsters, this being a fine season for nuts and the blackberries ripe. Their elders are not so well content, because boatmen are paid by the journey; but… they make the best of it. You see them sitting picturesquely grouped sometimes for a ‘sing-song.’ They are supposed to get an occasional rabbit for the pot.
“Strike me lucky, it’s a picnic, sir!” said one of them. “Never ‘ad such a time in the country. All we want is free baccy an’ a band, wiv fair pay for listenin’ to it.”
(Bucks Herald, re-printed from Daily Mail).
Rail guide denigration of the canal:
“As a railway enthusiast, [the London and Birmingham Railway guide 1840] had nothing pleasant to say about canal boats, ‘drawn by the wretched animal, whose convulsive stumbling and struggling forward, to get away from the excruciating lash of its fierce and brutal tormentor, gives the vessel its onward motion ; brutal torture is the circumstance, and agony the motive. How different it is up the iron road where, while we dash along with an eagle’s flight, we are possessed of the delightful consciousness that pain is not the impulse by which that wondrous speed is attained – that no living being is a whit the worse for our enjoyment.” (Beorcham, Berkhamsted Review, Oct 1955).