A very good friend, Dennis Ashby, visits many postcard fairs, particularly those held in central London. The dealers there are very aware of the cards they sell and the potential value of certain images. An ordinary canal card posted in the early twentieth century (say between about 1905 and 1925) will fetch around £7-£10. One showing a narrowboat will cost about £15 and if you are lucky enough to find one with a steamer, it will set you back over £25.

So it was with a certain amount of glee that he found this card of Batchworth Lock on sale at £8. It is unusual to find a card illustrating so well the layout of the locks here and particularly the detail of the River Chess going off to the left. Normally views of this area concentrate on the canal lock.

When we scanned and enlarged the card, it became clear that the butty was identifiable as ALEXANDRA, with some good action poses among the four crew setting the lock. There are two women on the left, one walking up the steps with a rope and the other waiting to close the gate. Of the two men on the right, one is closing the gate and the other lifting a paddle at the top end. But it was when we turned our attention to the boat already in the chamber that we realised what a bargain he had found.

The drift of smoke we originally took to be a smoky cabin fire wasn’t that at all – it was a cloud of steam which almost obscured the funnel of a steamer. If further proof were needed, a bit more enlargement revealed the driver leaning out of the engine ‘ole doors with a mug of tea in his hand. Nothing changes!

It’s more difficult to pin down the identity of the boat. The postmark tells us that it was sent from Rickmansworth by the 4 pm post on August 19 th 1909. The card was published by Valentine with their serial number of 43188. An analysis of serial numbers and posting dates on other cards from Valentine in Dennis’s collection indicated that it was probably produced between 1905 and no later than 1907.

Is it FMC? The butty perhaps doesn’t look quite right but then FMC bought their butties from other companies and boatyards as well as building their own. The layout of the lettering on the cabin side also doesn’t look quite right for FMC. And, did FMC have mixed crews as early as 1907? But the biggest barrier to an FMC identity is the water barrel visible just in front of the cabin chimney. There is no photograph of an FMC steamer with one of those.

So could it be one of the other steamer operators? Although FMC had a horse boat ALEXANDRA, so did Charles Nelson. There are surviving records of the three Nelson steamers, JANUS, JUPITER and JASON. Two images have come down to us; JANUS just prior to her launching at Polesworth and one of JASON in the traditional steamer “pose”, tied back to the top gate of a lock.

Comparing this photo with the Batchworth image above, you can see how well the company name panel agrees, that there is a family crew on board – and, if you look just forward of the cabin chimney you will see the water barrel! But the Batchworth boat could still be one of the other Nelson steamers.

….Until we look at the inspection records and find that Jason was inspected at Braunston on 12 th February 1907 and her butty is recorded as ALEXANDRA! We even know that the captain’s name was Kendall – perhaps he is one of the men on the lockside.

This sort of detective work is impossible without the help of others; my thanks to Alan Brown for his instinctive doubt that it was an FMC pair and to Pete Harrison for information from his vast database of working boats which provided the ownership details for the butty.


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