Monkey-boats and Bargemen’s Songs

Billie Charity-Prescott, Photographer
Billie Charity-Prescott, Photographer

May/June 2017

I’ve been spending some time in the archives of Charles Dickens’ Household Words, a newspaper Dickens wrote and published for two years and which nearly destroyed him financially and mentally. Baffling though it may be that he had much more to say outside his enormous novels, Household Words is an addictive read, full of Dickens’ usual opinionated wit, intuition for the absurd and gorgeous description. He writes about neglected news stories, matters of local interest, character sketches, notes towards fiction, verbatim conversations, feeling a bit out of place during said conversations, and a lot about canals. Hundreds of thousands of words. I recommend losing an afternoon to it. The canal stories often take a fairly grisly turn:

“On Friday the 11th, as Mr. Charles Godwin, mealman, of Somerton-mill, Oxon, was returning from Bicester market, he met with his Death by walking or slipping into one of the locks on the Oxford canal, a very short distance from his house. It seems the deceased borrowed a horse of his brother-in-law to go to Bicester, and called and left it on his return; and the nearest road to Mr. Godwin’s mill being along the towing-path, and the night extremely dark, it is supposed he walked into the lock. When found, the next morning, his hat was on his head and his walking-stick in his hand.”  (January 1st, 1850, p.13)

Household Words is the first place I’ve come across the moniker “monkey-boat” for barge,

“so called we presume from being very narrow in the loins”, Dickens says, although it’s not clear whether he asked anyone connected to canals or narrow boats for clarification. And why would he? The last thing a man out of context ever does is ask for an explanation. (I’ve had many unedifying conversations about loft insulation, cars and football, where I believe I’ve left my interlocutor with the impression that I understand simply by agreeing with them). And monkeys are notoriously narrow in the loins. It’s one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of a monkey. They’re narrow-loined. Like a barge. Monkey-boat.

Dickens writes beautifully, poetically, about a barge captain “leaning on his great arms and elbows over the deck, and completely filling up the small square hatchway, so that […] it seemed as if this brawny object were some live excrescence of the barge, or huge black mandrake whose roots were spread about beneath, and, perhaps, here and there, sending a speculative straggler through a chink into the water.” (April 13th 1850, p. 92) He also writes powerfully about the graft and tedium:

“And here they were, no doubt, and here they lived from day to day, and from night to night; and a pretty wretched, dirty, monotonous life it was. Having once got into a canal, with the horse at his long tug, the tediousness of the time was not easily to be surpassed. From canal to river, and from river to canal, there was scarcely any variety, except in the passage through the locks, the management of the rope in passing another barge-horse on the tow-path, and the means to be employed in taking the horse over a bridge. The duty of driving the horse along the tow-path, as may be conjectured, fell to the lot of our young tourist. Once or twice, ‘concealed by the murky shades of night,’ as a certain novelist would express it, he had ventured to mount the horse’s back; but the animal, not relishing this addition to his work, always took care, when they passed under a bridge, or near a wall, or hard embankment, to scrape his rider’s leg along the side, so that very little good was got in that way.” (April 13th 1850, p.93)

A passage on bargemen’s’ poetry particularly struck me. I have been told, at various times over the last year, that I ought to look into the ballads and verses written by bargemen over many decades, usually written and recited while working. Somewhere between an oral and written tradition with as much in common as the folk song as poetry. My response has generally been to politely note some names down on my phone silently muttering what am I an archivist? and then to dutifully Google them later. This excerpt from ‘The Jolly Bargeman’s Song’ by Cicely Fox Smith (first published 1919) draws on the tradition and is fairly indicative of the customary style:

The Navy is the Navy, an’ it sails upon the sea,
The Army is the Army, an’ on land it ‘as to be;
There’s the land an’ there’s the water, an’ the Cut comes in between,
An’ I don’t know what they’ll call me if it ain’t an ‘Orse Marine.

The Missis sits upon the barge, the same’s she used to sit,
But they’ll ‘ave ‘er in the papers now for Doin’ ‘er Bit:
An’ I walk upon the tow-path ‘ere as proud as anything,
If I ‘aven’t got no uniform, I’m serving of the King.

Ignoring the fact that you have to stretch “Doin’” for three syllables if it’s to scan, it’s still a tight end-stopping ballad with an appealing sense of defiance. Writing on the bargemen poets as a living tradition, Dickens is marvellously snarky, both about poetry written for money and/or publication and poetry written out of necessity/boredom.

“…much of the bye-way poetry with which we shall deal, has never been promoted to the honours and heartaches of paper and print—nor even taken the manuscript forms of  ‘longs and shorts’ […] We may—and shall—have to do with authorship in humble life, —but less, perchance, than those will expect, who have considered our subject merely from the outside of the bookseller’s window, or from the sum total of a rhymester’s subscription list drawing thence the charming inference that A. B. or C. is a poet, because he has found a publisher and extorted a public! […] How wide is the distance betwixt what may be called the unconscious Poetry of the People— and that meagre and second-hand manufacture, produced with a desire for fame, or under hopes of gain, which challenges competition with the efforts of men more favourably circumstanced, and which goes forth as virtually a solicitation for alms.” (May 11th, 1850, p. 152)

I think that’s pretty much all of us told.

householdwords Charles Dickens


As a notional project it would be great to re-tread some of Dickens’s journeys and recreate the folk history he achieves in the pages of Household Words but that would probably require more discipline and singularity of purpose, a pelican rather than a magpie; poets are magpies. All things being equal, I leave you with my own solicitation for alms.



The mirror side-step when you meet
a pedestrian as polite as you
is worse on bikes when one side’s water, so
affect a ruthlessness in your negotiations.
Murder bouquets, gravity-defying tags,
Nike prints of teenage dealers.
Go up a gear and never spare the bell.
But on the far side the arboretum makes
a sanctuary of deep museum light;
you think of Gatsby’s garden parties
or an al fresco study where you’d sit and read
in shade and period costume,
a strong drink in a long glass.
Devotional prayer that leaves out wretched,
some notional peace that leaves out lonely,
so give yourself the option in the
overhanging branches’ vast arrangements
of someone too perceptive for this world.
Their deckchair is a little to the left.
Right now they are, let’s say… sketching.
Because we spend more time with versions of each other
and our own minds’ avatars
than with our inconvenient, boring selves.
Sun concealed by clouds’ slow monkey-boats,
each breath a first/last quality.
How good it feels to long for you.