Britain’s Oldest Horse-Drawn Barge Shuts Down, ‘snowflakes’ Accuse Owner of Animal Cruelty

Doug Williams
 
Credit: Mark Passmore.
Credit: Mark Passmore.

Since the 1700s the horse-drawn barge have made shipping on rivers economically sound and reasonably fast.  Before the horses, one had to wait for a strong enough breeze to sail down the waterway and deliver their goods.  If one had to go upriver the only way was to paddle against the current.

 

Thanks to armchair experts who know nothing of horses or the way the barges work, the oldest horse drawn barge in the United Kingdom has had to cease operations.

Owner and operator – Jenny Roberts. Credit: Mark Passmore.

Owner and operator – Jenny Roberts. Credit: Mark Passmore.

According to dailymail.co.uk, Jenny Roberts, the owner of the Godalming Packetboat Company, has closed the business after thirty five years because she is being harassed by people who think a horse pulling a barge is cruel to the animal.

Her canal boat, the Iona, was built in 1935 and was the oldest working canal boat in the country. The boat has many years left in her so rather than leave it to rot, Roberts has loaned it to Tiverton Canal Company on the Grand Western Canal in Devon which is still operating.

She has retired her horses, Alizee, Buddy and Espoir.  The irony of it all is that the people calling Roberts out for cruelty harass the horses, try to push them off the towpath and frighten them with bicycles.

According to Roberts, “All passenger boats can only operate under Maritime and Coastguard Agency rules and we have come to the conclusion the River Wey is no longer a safe environment to run a horse drawn boat…There are now an unprecedented number of unlicensed paddle boards and inflatables with inexperienced people on them. I can’t run safely and if I can’t run safely then I can’t run.”

Iona the horse-drawn barge comes out of the water. Credit: Mark Passmore.

Iona the horse-drawn barge comes out of the water. Credit: Mark Passmore.

What people don’t understand is how easy it is to pull a canal boat.  Roberts gets upset when people accuse her of cruelty to her horses because she loves them and would never do anything to hurt them.

Horses are like dogs in that they are much happier when they have a job to do.  While Roberts’ horses are large and heavy, donkeys could pull the boats.  According to canaljunction.com, “At a steady walking speed a horse can move approximately fifty times as much weight in a boat as it could with a cart on old fashioned roads, possibly a hundred times its own body weight.

The load moves with minimal friction whilst the strength of the animal is linked directly to the load with little wasted energy and it was this efficiency equation that inspired the development of the canal system in the eighteenth century.”

Horse-Drawn Barge working its magic.

Horse-Drawn Barge working its magic.

It takes two people to run a canal boat, one to steer the boat and one to walk with the horse and make sure the tow line doesn’t get snagged on undergrowth or rocks.

The Iona, a narrowboat, was built by Harland and Wolff, the same company that built the Titanic, in 1935 at Woolwich on the Thames.  She started life as a cargo ship for coal runs between London and the Midlands.

Mike Serigrapher. CC BY-SA 2.0

Mike Serigrapher. CC BY-SA 2.0

The Bellerophon, as she was called then, was seventy feet long and seven feet wide and could carry up to thirty five tons of cargo.  In 1960 she was renamed the Iona and made an appearance in the film The Bargee starring Ronnie Barker and Harry H Corbett.

In the 1960s she was also transformed into a passenger boat to carry people on the river for leisurely excursions.  In 1984 she was sold to Roberts who spruced her up and began two hour passenger trips from the wharf at Godalming to the weir at Unstead.

The railroad put canal boats out of business as well as unkempt canals and the needs of the horses to be stabled and eat high energy food every night.

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Horseshoes wore out quickly and new ones were needed often every month.  There are still places all over the world that use canal boats pulled by horses and hopefully this practice will not disappear as it does no harm to the animals.

 
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