Ladybird and Canals
As many of my regular readers will know my only knowledge of canals, before buying my boat was my childhood copy of the 1975 Ladybird book ‘The Story of Our Canals’. This book formed part of my -my sister didn’t get a look in- Ladybird collection, apparently it was number 66. (In my childhood geekiness I numbered all my Ladybird books.) It is also one of the few that survived de-cluttering a few years ago. Clearly this little book is of significance and therefore well worth a blog all of its own.
An influential read
I (and my sister) had quite a collection of Ladybird books. I have to admit that in the main it wasn’t the text that drew me in, but rather the colourful pictures that went alongside the text. Ladybird were a stalwart of 60s and 70s children’s books. They included a number of different series, including the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme reflecting gendered roles of the time. This series were often used in primary schools. (To teach children to read, rather than reinforce stereotypical gender roles!) These books were the place to find Peter and Jane at home with Mummy whilst Daddy was at work, Jane baking with Mummy, as Peter built a model aeroplane – you get the idea. Alongside these were the Learn With Mother series (yep it really was called that), I had one about cooking, but even at a young age I was disturbed by the rather grubby looking children who had been let loose in the kitchen. They just didn’t seem to be clean enough to engage in making a cheese-and-pineapple-on-sticks hedgehog. (I truly am a 70s child.)
Well Loved Tales
Perhaps the most well-known Ladybird books were the Well Loved Tales series. We didn’t have the whole collection but my favourites were Cinderella and The Elves and the Shoemaker. (Though the latter belonged to my sister.) I was particularly enamoured by Cinderella’s dress for the second night of the ball – a glorious shimmering blue. That gold frock at the last ball, was a step too far in my opinion, and the pink of the first night was just too pink. Whereas the slightly historic look to streets and shops in the pictures in the Elves and the Shoemaker drew me in. The other favourite was Sleeping Beauty, but I was disturbed by one of the would-be rescuing Princes. Those white tights just didn’t seem right, especially after fighting through a thorn filled forest. Personally, I would have gone back to sleep for another 100 years if woken by a bloke with lank looking hair and dodgy blood stained tights, luckily for her the bloke who did get through had a bouffant hair-do and jaunty hat.
Canals an Acheivement
‘The Story of Our Canals’ is part of Ladybird series 601, ‘Achievements’. Made up of an eclectic list of titles covering everything from clothes to time, with the story of flight in-between. Perhaps these were the books that didn’t obviously ‘fit’ any other series? How I came by ‘The Story of Our Canals’ is a mystery and amazingly it survived my cull of Ladybird books that occurred a few years ago.
I live alone in a 3 bedroom house, that is full of stuff. In 2014, when I thought I was going to work in South Africa for 2 years, I purged the house of unnecessary things with a view to putting the ‘essentials’ into storage. Although I did love the Ladybird books they had been sat in the roof for years and it just seemed ridiculous to keep them. So, I sorted them out and made three piles – absolutely keep, definitely sell, and I want to keep but I should sell. Needless to say, the first and final piles were the tallest. I felt able to justify keeping practical, factual books and ditched the fiction.
Which to keep?
I only kept 5 – I couldn’t warrant keeping the fairy tales but did keep ‘Garden Birds’ which originally belonged to my Grandma, in the hope it would help me identify more than a blackbird and a blue-tit. I also kept ‘London’ due to its wonderful 1950s and 60s pictures of London. With the books sorted I could happily move on, however in the end South Africa didn’t happen and I ended up in LA.
The remaining Ladybird books languished in the house until that fateful day in 2016, when I relied on its end papers to get me through a whole series of locks.The front end paper doesn’t actually show you how to work a lock, but does label how it works and this was pretty much all we had to go on when moving my boat in August 2016. If only my ex had spent the time looking at this, life would have been so much easier!
The Story of Our Canals
As with other Ladybird books ‘The Story of Our Canals’ follows the format of a page of text alongside a full page painting. My favourite has to be ‘Clothing of the ‘Cut’’ with its jaunty array of bonnets. I aspire to acquiring one of the bonnets for my travels on nb Pea Green, though I am not sure the look will work alongside jeans. Now I have finally read the text beside the picture I am struck by how it devotes more time to talking about the horse and its needs than the clothes of the people. I am left wondering how on earth the families living in the confined space of a single small cabin, without a large water supply, could keep their multiple layers of clothing clean. (Especially with so many long skirts and white aprons – or perhaps that is my OCD cleaning issues coming through?)
An historical piece
As I have now delved deeper into the book I realise it reflects a different interpretation of history than we might give now. There is limited empathy for those who lived and worked on the canals. One classic line about the narrowboat cabin, reveals, ‘Every inch of space was used economically to provide a comfortable home for the boatman and his family’. Although the woman in the accompanying picture does look fairly fed-up despite her polished brasses, I am not sure how comfortable a family would be squeezed into a 10ft x 7ft space. When I visited an old working boat at the Crick Boat Show I was taken aback by the actual size of the cabin, it just didn’t seem to marry up with the ‘comfortable’ living described in the Ladybird book. Although the small area had been cleverly designed to make use of the space it must have been very cramped for an entire family. Though I also realise that in comparison to the living conditions of workers in an industrial city at the time perhaps the cabin and life on the cut did have its benefits.
A history of children’s histories
Carolyn Hutchings’ writing is no-doubt a product of its time, and the antithesis of the current Horrible History approach to engaging young people with history. There is neither sight nor sound of the smells, bodily waste, or general unpleasantness that is often portrayed in children’s history books today. It re-enforces certain ideas without question, the canal builders described as ‘rough men’ without giving much thought to who they were and where they came from, nor the fact that in some cases their families travelled with them. Similarly, the description of canal people as ‘as a race apart’ makes you realise how far history narration for children has come in 45 years.
Roger Hall’s Artwork
What is amazing about The Story of Our Canals is the amount of information that is crammed into its 52 pages. Everything from why the canals were built in the UK through to the building of the Panama Canal. Roger Hall’s pictures bring the book to life, even if the first plate looks more like the American west than pack horses moving coal in the UK. Hall worked as a book illustrator for Ladybird and other publishers. His picture of how the Foxton Inclined Plane would have worked is one of the best I have seen and finally helped me understand how the boats in the ‘tubs’ would re-join the canal at the top of the lift. However, it is perhaps unfortunate that when I look at the page about engineers I can only think of the opening credits for the Telly Tubbies. The picture shows a portrait of Thomas Telford above the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, reminding me of the baby laughing in the sky as the start of each episode of the Telly Tubbies. (I shall never think of Thomas Telford in the same way again.)
Sad map but a happy ending
The other great thing about this book is the back endpaper. Entitled ‘The inland waterways of England and Wales’ it shows the navigable and abandoned canals across England and Wales. For me the joy of this map is the knowledge that a number of those canals marked as abandoned are now open and used once more. This includes the Welford Arm where my boat is now moored, although it was re-opened in 1969, I am guessing Ladybird used an old map.
To the future…
For those of us who grew up with Ladybird books they continue to be surrounded by an aura of nostalgia. This can be further seen in the latest versions for adults, with such titles as ‘The Hipster’ and ‘The Sister’. These parodies follow the same format as the originals but reflect a dark perhaps very British humour. Perhaps Ladybird could add to its current run with a new ‘Story of Our Canals’? I can see this new version as providing a useful tool for those new to the waterways. With insight and reflection they could perhaps provide a guide to new forms of jaunty head-wear and ‘rough men’ – and perhaps a splash of satirical humour too.
For further details about vintage Ladybird books and the changes that occurred in their pages over time I highly recommend Helen Days’ website and her engaging Twitter feed. Also the ‘official’ vintage Ladybird website created by the current publishers.