Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

Carlisle and the Solway Firth

Next Selection Previous Selection


THE Carlisle and Annan Navigation Company preserve a communication with Liverpool, by means of the canal cut about a dozen years since from Carlisle, through a flat country, to the Solway Frith; two powerful steamers, the "Newcastle" and the "City of Carlisle," alternately performing the sea voyage. The canal is wide and handsome; the basin sufficiently capacious for more vessels than at present resort to it; the dimensions of the lighters which attend the port, bringing about a hundred tons up the canal, appear almost ad libitum; they are generally so large as to be unable to float with their full freight on board. Any vessel, provided she carries a single mast, is here called a lighter; sometimes even those with two, rigged galliot fashion, with a small mizen: on different parts of the coast these small craft are dignified with different titles; as regards these Carlisle boats, be they lighters, smacks, sloops, billyboys, or what not, they are in size equal to small brigs.

Within the last few years persons interested in the locomotive facilities of our canals, and urged in a great degree by the vain hope of competing successfully with steam, have laboured hard to substitute a new description of boat towed by horses; and this object is now certainly performed nearly twice as fast as was wont to be accomplished: not only are boats built with a view of gliding through the water with the utmost possible rapidity, but instead of the heavy breed of lumbering brutes formerly on the towing paths, old high-blooded hunters are employed, and, moreover, kept for the purpose in high condition.

The sheet-iron boat, the Arrow, by which the company convey their passengers to the steamers lying in the frith, is one of these fast vessels; besides which, in other parts, the chief ones are those from Glasgow to Paisley in Scotland, from Preston to Kendal in Lancashire, and from Goole, to Knottingley in Yorkshire; the two latter boats are elsewhere described.

The Arrow departs every morning from Carlisle Canal Basin, and returns again in the afternoon, for the purpose of waiting upon the Liverpool steamers, the City of Carlisle and the Newcastle, taking passengers backward and forward to both those vessels. The point of her destination, "Port Carlisle," on the shore of the Solway Frith, is about a mile and a quarter from the village of Bowness, and just at the commencement of the ford by which people cross over to the Scotch coast at low water. On the opposite coast, farther to the westward, is the Annan Water Foot, or mouth of the small river leading to the town of Annan, and here the steamers touch, both up and down, to land and receive passengers.

I performed a voyage by the Arrow down the canal to Port Carlisle, leaving Carlisle at ten o'clock in the morning, towed by a couple of horses; the fare, one shilling and sixpence. The Arrow, as has been observed, is a sheet-iron boat, and, according to my notion, the best calculated for moving quickly through the water of any I have seen. Her dimensions are—length, sixty-six feet; breadth, five feet and a half; drawing, with forty people on board, and a great deal of luggage, only twelve inches water; when light, as I was informed, she floats at nine inches: she was built at Glasgow, and from thence sent all the way to Carlisle on wheels. On the present voyage we were driven by a postillion, who had previously served with the proprietors of the Glasgow and Paisley establishment; the description of animal used was a stout, quick post horse, the pace ten miles an hour; though we were delayed by the locks, of which there are six, and expended exactly two hours on the way, be the distance twelve or be it thirteen miles. The Arrow, the latter end of July, had only been on the line a few weeks.

A great degree of excitement was at first created by the novelty of the conveyance, as well as by the speed, which exceeded that of the old wooden boat previously on this canal, by just double. Nevertheless, though people were anxious to go on board her, she was, to all appearance, so cranky—toppling and rolling from side to side so awfully when empty—that folks took a panic, and many declined on any account to venture. Certainly, were she to capsize, there would be little chance of escape, the passengers being all stowed away under an awning, and closed in on all sides, like sheep in a pen; very little, however, is to be apprehended on that score, for she is as buoyant as an Indian canoe, which latter vessel, as is well known, gets rid of a passenger now and then, like a kicking horse, pitching him out into the water, without herself approaching near the point of upsetting. A tolerable load on board brings the Arrow sufficiently low in the water, when all danger vanishes, and she is perfectly steady. The awning effectually resists the weather; though, as the framework is as light as can hold together, no passenger is allowed to place even the smallest article on the top.

The postillion rode the hindmost horse, driving the other before him with a gig whip and light rope reins; and certainly the ease and rapidity with which the Arrow cut through the water were greater, coeteris paribus, than those of either of the boats on the canals in Lancashire and Yorkshire. It does seem extraordinary that, of all materials to form a boat, sheet iron is selected, but a trifling calculation makes clear in theory what practice daily confirms; and besides others of many descriptions gradually creeping into use, iron boats are now beginning to occupy the line of communication on the Ouse and Humber, between Selby and Hull. Since the completion of the railroad from Leeds to Selby, and the consequent increase of river passengers from thence to Hull, the object has been, as is elsewhere observed, to remove, as far as practicable, the principal objection to travelling on that line, namely, the extremely uncertain navigation, owing to the moving sands and shallows of the river.

Port Carlisle affords not much choice of amusement: a circumstance to be deplored by those who have the misfortune to remain there waiting for the steamers: however, there is a good-looking hotel called the "Solway Inn," where the traveller may, at all events, calculate upon finding a sufficient supply of gin and tobacco —or, if inclined to be contemplative, he may indulge in an airy walk upon the jetty, which latter structure extends, though lightly framed, a very considerable way into the frith.

Having arrived in the Arrow with an intention of returning with the passengers of the City of Carlisle, it was some disappointment to find, not only that that vessel was later than usual, but to hear that some untoward event had taken place sufficient probably to prevent her arriving that day at all. From the extremity of the jetty, as I perceived the smoke of two steamers instead of one gently ascending on the other shore of the frith, it was evident that both vessels, the Newcastle and the City of Carlisle, were lying together at Annan Water Foot. By what accident, inasmuch as they plied in opposite directions, they could thus get together, I did not learn; not for want of taking pains to inquire, or receiving answers to interrogatories assigning abundance of reasons; of these, the people on the spot, who, by-the-way, were all interested, were prodigal enough, though the real cause, whatever it might be, they kept to themselves. In the mean time the two steamers showed no disposition to move either way, and as it was not the purpose of the commander of the Arrow to return to Carlisle without the Liverpool passengers, here we were under the necessity of remaining.

After waiting a full hour the City of Carlisle got under weigh, and came safely alongside, barring a trifling casualty that happened to a heavy lighter she had taken in tow. The skipper of the latter, miscalculating the rate at which he was dragged through the water by the steamer, contrived to enliven the spectators by running his vessel bump on the jetty head. The passengers all got out of the City of Carlisle, expecting immediately to proceed up the canal—but no such thing. The passengers from the Newcastle also were expected to arrive, and till they came, he of the Arrow refused to budge. Another hour we were doomed to wait; all which time the Newcastle continued to smoke at Annan Water Foot. Disinterested people were busily occupied in the solution of the same problem; namely, why, in the name of simplicity, the two vessels having remained so long together, the City of Carlisle had not brought over both sets of passengers, a heavy Dutch-built vessel, capable, according to appearances, of stowing away all the inhabitants of the town of Annan! In the present case it was the lot of the passengers of the Newcastle to suffer on account of a misunderstanding, whatever it might be, between the two captains, and thence doomed to an adventure by no means agreeable; namely, to cross the Solway Frith in an open boat against wind and tide.

Two small skiffs were at last seen bobbing up and down, and making head slowly towards the jetty. Both arrived quite full of people, passengers of the Newcastle, who landed in a highly discontented mood, and inarched on board the Arrow, with bags, boxes, and bundles, till there were as many as could obtain seats, and, over and above, more who were obliged to stand at the head and stern. With this ballast the Arrow glided up the canal as steady as a barge. Whenever it was necessary to detach the horses, recourse was had to a very neat expedient, which I have not seen adopted in other boats of the same class. By pressing on a bolt, the eye of the trace is instantaneously thrown off the hook, by a contrivance acting precisely like the trigger of a crossbow.


THE works at Maryport, which last year were progressing rapidly, are now stationary, whatever causes may have tended to discourage the energies of the speculators. With the exception of a neat, new, wooden drawbridge, lately thrown across the river, with machinery, such as is applied to those at the docks at Hull, very trifling progress on the spot is observable. At the former period, the excitement caused by the Carlisle and Annan navigation was in full operation, the chief object of those interested in the prosperity of the town being to connect it with Carlisle by a railroad; neither was any exertion spared in the mean time to enlarge and improve the harbour.

Thirty or forty years ago half a dozen small cottages at the mouth of the river Ellen formed a hamlet, then known by the name of Ellen Water Foot. Maryport now may fairly be called a thriving little seaport, notwithstanding the limited dimensions of the river, which diminishes so rapidly in its course to the sea, as to trickle entirely out of sight along the broad, flat sands at low water. In fact, its breadth at the bridge, in the middle of the town, is not more than thirty yards; its depth, though exhausted at its ebb, twenty feet at spring tides. A ridge of sand hills, long since thrown up by the sea, and which, as they receive continual accumulation, testify the disposition of the ocean to encroach no farther, form a barrier in front of a large flat space of land adjoining the town, and appropriated to the works in question; here the principal dock has been commenced, the excavation of which was nearly finished last year. The stone used in the side walls, the ordinary material on the spot, is very inferior—it is red freestone; exposed to the air, it appears to decay, not only rapidly, but in an unusual manner, rather dissolving and melting away like sugar; however, the stress of the sea upon the works is so little, that a coffer dam of wood, by no means of massive construction, has stood many years, and even grown ancient, on its original foundation. At the extremity of the pier is a tide light, for the purpose of showing when a sufficient depth of water renders the harbour accessible; the building, however, is so small, that a man can with difficulty ascend to the top by a ladder.

Besides the considerable number of vessels which arrive and depart, many of two and three hundred tons burden are built and launched at the port, although for the latter ceremony recourse is necessarily had to a rather singular expedient. The vessel being on her slips alongside the river, owing to the narrow breadth of which the usual mode of allowing her to glide in, head or stern foremost, is not practicable, the advantage of a high tide is taken to fling her over bodily, broadside on, into the water. The surge and concussion inflicted by the manoeuvre on the bed of the river, it is said, are tremendous—like the menace of an angry whale in the sea: in spite of which some folks are naturally so inclined to adventure, that although the reaction is sufficient to splash and force the water over the tops of the houses, a few individuals are always found ready to play the part of Jonah, and be launched within her. The blow is usually submitted to by all parties patiently, and the vessel rights herself immediately after her fall.

The two steamers, referred to in the last chapter, call at Maryport in their way to and from Liverpool for passengers. I accordingly, during the present summer, took occasion of being conveyed by the Newcastle to Annan Water Foot. There is no house of call or office in the town, by which the necessity is entailed on the passenger of arranging all his preliminary affairs with the boatmen, who exercise a sort of independent agency with regard to the vessel. The ceremony of embarkation at the port, even at high water, is not agreeable; at low water the steamers are unable to approach within half a mile of the shore. It happened to me to embark under the latter circumstance, and though with plenty of spare time on my hands, and all necessary preparations anticipated, I was unavoidably driven at last by the tardy measures of the boatmen into a hurry; finally, my luggage was wheeled a furlong from the inn through the mud, at low water, in a wheelbarrow, to the waterside; whence I was carried on a man's back to the boat that lay in the creek; and, notwithstanding all this overwrought exertion, the steamer subsequently lay to for a considerable time for want of water. The Newcastle, as well as the City of Carlisle, is built Dutch fashion, and of shallow draught, with a view to counteract, as much as possible, such contingencies as the latter, which are not unfrequent during this navigation. I think I was never on board a steamer whose engine was so powerful in proportion to her strength; while on her way, her very sides groaned and laboured under its force.

On arriving at Annan Water Foot, a safety double coach was waiting to convey passengers from Dumfries, according to the stipulated arrangement of the proprietors of the steamer; but as there happened to be more of the former than the carriage would contain, the coachman drove away, leaving a great many grumbling at the waterside. People in this case bore disappointment with different degrees of philosophy, those being loudest in their remonstrances, as usual, who had least reason to complain. Among these one Scotch gentleman who travelled en famille had anticipated the removal of a mountain of packages, on the top of which his children were now seated, while his wife and maid servant stood close by. As the carriage trundled merrily away, the last sounds of discontent that fell upon my ear were the lamentations of this person, accompanied by threats of vengeance on the authorities, on being left behind; the latter uttered in broad Caledonian accents, and with appropriate air and attitude.

George Head, A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2009.

Next Selection Previous Selection