The National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port is an extraordinary place, and I was lucky enough to spend my work placement there. The museum occupies part of the canal docks designed by Thomas Telford, which were working docks right up until the 1950s. Having been unable to compete against the increased use of railways for transporting goods and the devastation created by the First and Second World Wars, British canals rapidly fell into decline during the twentieth-century. The site at Ellesmere Port was no exception and became derelict after it was no longer used. Fortunately, The Boat Museum Society, a group of volunteer enthusiasts saved the site in the 1970s, working to restore it and build up a collection of historic boats and objects.
The museum opened in 1976 as the North West Museum of Inland Navigation and later became known as the Boat Museum. Now known as the National Waterways Museum, it was taken over by the Canal and River Trust in 2012. Amazingly, many of the volunteers who were involved in saving the site continue to volunteer at the museum today, bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to the site. Some of the highlights at the museum include a working blacksmith’s forge, stables and my favourite part – a row of four old worker’s cottages built in 1833, known as Porter’s Row. Each cottage has been recreated to show the interior and furniture from the 1830s, 1900s, 1930s and 1950s respectively. The objects in the museum’s collection include 57 boats, painted ware, textiles, costumes, ceramics and a nineteenth-century urinal!
My placement involved working on many different tasks and activities but the highlight was working with their small objects collection to refresh the canal craft case, situated in the Island Warehouse. The items in this case were looking a bit tired and there were better examples of these types of objects within the museum stores. Undertaking this task involved researching the history of the British waterways, canal crafts and the lives of boatpeople over the centuries, choosing the objects to display, researching object histories, creating panel texts, mounting labels, and dressing the cases.
One of my favourite objects in the case was a wooden box, painted in a traditional Roses and Castles design, which is thought to have been used to store clothes. The box was inscribed with the name Isabella Salt on the front and 1891 on the back. From research conducted about a different member of the Salt family, by Carole Must, a volunteer working in the museum’s archives, we traced an Isabella Salt who was living on the canals at that time, with her husband George and her five children, George, Frederick, Alice, James and Richard. The family worked for Salt Union Ltd. carrying cargoes of salt around the waterways, working across four boats Arran, Bute, Sandra and Stroma which were all owned by Salt Union Ltd. These boats were painted black with yellow lettering with Roses and Castles confined to the inside of the cabin. The chest is very likely to have belonged to her and I’m glad that I could represent this research within the display.
This placement was an invaluable experience for me and I will be sad to leave, despite a continuing fear of falling into the canal! The role was both challenging and rewarding, and I have learnt an extensive amount about museum practice and collections management as well as finding out about the many weird and wonderful things that have ended up in canals across Britain…including a 16ft python!