When the canal basin at Union Wharf first opened in 1809, all boats were towed by horse, mule or donkeys. At that time, horses were crucial for transporting goods in all kinds of ways, including by road. But the development of canal transport created a huge upturn in efficiency; a horse could pull 50 times as much cargo on water as it could on land.
That being said, horses are living beings and therefore need nurturing in order to complete physical day’s work. A boat family’s horse was the most valuable thing it owned and was central to its ability to make a living. 200 years ago, the Market Harborough arm of the Grand Union Canal was all about the horses
Horse drawn boats from Union Wharf
There are still reminders of this equine heritage around the canal. To start with, the office block occupied by our boat hire business at Market Harborough is the former Stable Block. Every wharf or warehouse required stabling so that at each journey’s end, the weary horse could be fed, rubbed down and allowed to rest. This created a thriving equine industry in itself: blacksmiths, grooms and stablehands all had plenty of work at this time.
The towpaths (paths used for towing by horse) leading away from the canal basin would have looked different, too. All obstructions would have been kept to an absolute minimum, so there would have been no signage, waste bins or general undergrowth to get in the way of the horses. They would have been wider, to allow horses to pass when towing boats travelling in opposite directions. And they would have been originally surfaced in gravel, ash or stone to create a non-slip texture.
You’ll notice that the red brick bridges which pepper the Grand Union Canal sometimes have cobbled ramps leading up to the main arch. These are known as Turnover Bridges, and allowed a horse towing a boat to cross the canal when the towpath changed sides.
In addition to these major features, the canal landscape would have been dotted with various pulleys, pins and stumps – smaller pieces of fixed equipment to which the boat’s lines and ropes could be temporarily attached and which would help to pivot and manoeuvre the boat at tricky spots.
The canal basin at Union Wharf is teeming with 21st century life – as the Canal and River Trust say, Life is Better by Water. We welcome thousands of boaters, tourists and walkers here every year who agree. But isn’t it interesting to think that a couple of centuries ago, we would have witnessed a completely different kind of hub? One in which humans and horses mingled with a shared purpose to manage the arrival and dispatch of tons of cargo through Market Harborough.
You can read more on horse drawn boats past and present on http://www.horseboating.org.uk
More about Union Wharf’s history here.