Sharron Underwood, Maureen’s daughter, flew in from Thailand to do the actual unveiling and Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton, who is the current holder of IWA’s ‘Parliamentarian of the Year’ award for her work in supporting the waterways, delivered the following tribute:
“It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here at this unveiling today on what I understand is the shortest canal in the UK at only 100 feet long! I have been asked to speak today about the importance of keeping alive the stories of people like Maureen who had such a rich heritage on these canals. It is so important that the ‘past life’ of the canals, when they were places to both work and live, is both remembered and honoured. The canals played such a valuable part in the industrial revolution and the heritage and success of England can be documented in their channels.
The Wardle Canal was built by the Trent and Mersey canal company when the link to the Shropshire Union Canal was installed in 1833 but boats passing through had to pay an extortionate toll to navigate this short stretch – and I can imagine that was not very popular at the time! I am told the boats stopping at a number of Middlewich wharfs would carry the principal cargoes of salt, agricultural produce, Cheshire cheese and silk, but of course it is salt that Middlewich is known for, even in the Domesday Book, and in fact, the Romans referred to Middlewich as Salinae because of the salt deposits to be found in the area.
Although I did not know Maureen well/ did not have the pleasure of meeting Maureen I have been told about her life by her friends here and been passed a hugely interesting article, narrated by Maureen, about her early life ‘on the cut’. Maureen was not part of the traffic along the Wardle Canal but started out in her boating life on a horse drawn gas and oil boat owned by Thomas Clayton and operated by the Jinks family. It would collect cargo from ‘Stanlow’ now known as Shell Refinery and deliver down the ‘Shroppie’ into the Midlands. One of her jobs as a young girl was to drive the horse and we must not forget that this took place during the bombing raids of the 2nd World War. I would like to take this opportunity today to pay a tribute to the working boaters moving vital goods around the country – their services played an important part in keeping the country going in these difficult times. Land based people could take to the air raid shelters but the boat people like Maureen and others had nowhere to hide.
At that time, working boats were in severe competition with the railways who in turn were worried about losing trade to the road network. The working nature of the canals would decline to the point that many canals, including much of the Shropshire Union Canal, would be closed and the life on the canals would change dramatically. Maureen lived through the height of the working canal, to the decline, and then returned to the canals as they came into use once more, no longer used for business, but for pleasure as the canals became a destination for holidaymakers and houseboats.
After marrying her husband, who was then a skipper for a traditional ‘clothed’ boat owned by Fellows, Morton & Clayton the largest and best known canal transportation company of the 20th Century, still remembered today despite ceasing trading more than 60 years ago in 1949. Maureen and her husband Jack carried a variety of cargoes such as sugar, flour, cocoa beans and minerals including metal tubes and spelter. However, Jack and Maureen were to move away from working on the canals when Jack returned from his National Service after WW2 and the use of the canals to carry goods was diminishing.
Maureen had little education, I read in the Waterways World article that despite wanting to attend school regularly as a child she never learned to read and write, but her experience on canal boats gave her social and leadership skills which were to pay dividends in later life and give her the stories that are so valuable to building our knowledge of the working canal, as shown in the exhibition that is so well put together and informative. Jack and Maureen now had a new home in the Lock Cottage here at Wardle and she went to work at Cerebos Salt in Middlewich where she became a line manager and later on a canteen supervisor.
Maureen is remembered by you all today as the lady who helped you through her lock with an engaging and interesting conversations about her carrying days and catching up on the latest ‘cut’ tales. Although, I am told, woe-betide anyone who mis-used her lock as she would put them in their place in no uncertain manner! In more recent years and as shown by her article in Waterways World of 2002, she became a popular speaker about her life as a boat woman and was interviewed by famous BBC broadcaster, Cliff Mitchelmore at the London Boat Show.
Maureen’s wish was that we should keep telling the stories of the working boaters and this is so important. The canals have shaped life today in a way that many young people probably wouldn’t realise. They were much more than simply nice places to walk the dog or take a weekend break, and still are. The lives of people on the canal are a rich tapestry of friends and work colleagues and methods of living that seem from a bygone age. It would be immeasurably sad to lose the memories and knowledge of these wonderful communities and their way of life. The canals are an amazing feat of engineering in themselves and helped to transport any number of goods and materials that may have, in turn, helped create other great engineering marvels. I think we all wish to pay Maureen a tribute and the interpretation panel we are unveiling today will go some way towards that in telling future generations about the life of the ‘Boat Woman of Wardle Lock’.”