Kildare was one of 24 iron composite butties built by Braithwaite & Kirk at Hilltop, West Bromwich between 1912 and 1914 to drawings and specifications supplied by Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd. (FMC), At the time Kildare cost £190 to build and became No.274. She was registered, number 1287, at Birmingham on 18th April, 1913. The registration certificate details a “Horse drawn Narrow Boat” which was to “carry goods between Birmingham and London”. She was gauged at Smethwick on 10th April, 1913, and given the BCN registration number 21743. On 31st August, 1917, the Grand Junction Canal Co gauged her and issued the number 12009. These three numbers are displayed on her cabin side together with her FMC fleet number 274. She traded first as a horse boat but would also have been towed by steamers such as President and by the newly introduced semi-diesel powered motor boats.
Little is known about Kildare’s life with FMC, except for sporadic appearances in the Canal Inspector’s Journal and the FMC Dock Book. The company traded extensively over the canal network, with regular services between London and Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham, and other services from the Midlands to the North West. Kildare was inspected once at Ilkeston, Nottingham, with the motor Romford on 7th October 1920. Then the records are curiously blank until 1934 when there were regular inspections at Birmingham.
On the 1st November 1940, New Warwick Wharf, Fazeley Street, Birmingham was bombed and Kildare was one of four boats damaged and sunk. With the motor Robin, she was en route carrying tubes from Coombeswood to London. She was refloated and repaired. It was probably at this point that she acquired her first riveted steel bottom. There is still a plate on the port side forward which was a repair of the damage she sustained when a tube pierced the hull. Kildare returned to service to carry cargoes until August 1948, when she was sold to Ernie Thomas of Walsall, after 35 years service to F.M.C.
The Willow Wren Canal Carrying Company Ltd. was formed in 1953 by three individuals, Robert Aickman (Founder of the Inland Waterways Association), Leslie Morton, who at one time was with the Grand Union Canal Carrying Co. and Captain Vivian Bulkeley-Johnson who was a member of Rothschild’s merchant bank. Their aim was to preserve and be able to carry out commercial carrying throughout the canal system.
Ernie Thomas sold Kildare to Willow Wren in 1955. After being refurbished at Charity Dock at Bedworth and painted in Willow Wren’s green and gold, Kildare joined their fleet under her new name of Snipe. She was re-registered at Daventry on 26th November 1957, under the number 556. It was noted on her registration document that she had a new cabin and engine fitted to her shell.
There are records showing her with the motor Grebe and Bill Wilson and his family. Her first load, on 9th December 1957, was 47 tons of coal cobbles from Newdigate colliery to Slough.
Following Morton’s efforts to canvass for traffic, the company was offered several significant contracts on the Kennet & Avon Canal, which it was unable to accept as the canal was effectively closed due to lack of maintenance. In an effort to publicise the situation, and also to support the establishment of a trip boat service at Reading, on the 23rd March 1958 Grebe and Snipe entered from the Thames and navigated the four miles and four locks up to Burghfield Lock, which was the limit of navigation at the time.
She continued to trade, usually with Grebe, until July 1962, from when the records are missing.
Early in 1963, after the extreme weather conditions and financial problems, the decision was made by Willow Wren Carrying Co. to discontinue carrying operations. Leslie Morton was loathe to give up his dream of waterway transport and this resulted in the formation of Willow Wren Canal Transport Services Limited operating as a co-operative. The boatmen hired their boats and in effect became self-employed. This arrangement lasted until the eventual end of carrying in 1970.
Snipe reappeared being towed by Widgeon (ex-GUCC Thaxted), with Roger Hatchard for this new company in July 1963. In October of that year, a barge was lying at Brentford which Leslie Morton was anxious to clear to avoid paying demurrage. He asked Roger Hatchard if he could manage the remaining load of spelter, which resulted in him loading 28 tons on Snipe and 27 tons on Widgeon. They travelled well until Itchington when Widgeon went aground. They brought the two boats together and shifted a further two tons on to Snipe and successfully completed the journey to Birmingham, with Snipe running with the water lapping on to the sidecloths, ring-‘ole deep!
Widgeon and Snipe made a brief appearance in the 1964 film “The Bargee”, tied up at Black Jack’s Lock on the Grand Union. Roger worked with Snipe until March 1964, when Alfie Hambridge took her over. Ken Nixon then paired her regularly with Lindsay until September 1967.
The rumour that she was tied up at the Braunston yard and used as living accommodation by Jinty Golby, the resident watchman, is not accurate. The craft Jinty lived on were Cygnet and later Smew.
In the spring of 1968, Leslie Morton sold Snipe to Jay Price on the understanding that he would not convert her to a pleasure craft. Jay ran her with the FMC motor Plover until Tim Higton of the Warwickshire Fly Boat Company bought Plover in 1972. Clarke Walters bought Snipe in September 1973.
Both Plover and Snipe were then refitted by Warwickshire Fly as camper boats, with the holds still under canvas with accommodation for 12 on each boat. Snipe was restored to her original name of Kildare and the boatman’s cabin was reskinned in metal at this time.
In 1974 the FMC motor Plover and the butty, Kildare, became the first pair in the camping fleet of Warwickshire Fly Boat Co. at Stockton. They were popular with Guides, Scouts and other youth groups, and with the other boats in the fleet were a familiar sight on the Grand Union and other local waterways.
A New Life
In September 1991 Kildare was bought from Clarke Walters by the Black Country Museum, Dudley, with the help of Friends of President and a grant from the Science Museum. The intent was to restore her externally to her original appearance to work with President.
During the first few months of 1992 Kildare was extensively renovated by Warwickshire Fly Boat Company and Friends of President. A new fore cabin was built in traditional materials. Originally, Kildare had a fore cabin, to increase the accommodation for the family working the boat, but this had been removed at some stage in her career.
The hold was refitted with a new towing mast, stands, cross planks, top planks, side cloths and top cloths. She was repainted in the `early’ FMC colours. Inside the hold, she was fitted out to provide accommodation and support facilities for President.
On 11th April, 1992, she set out on her maiden voyage behind President, coincidentally 14 years to the day since President herself set out on her own maiden voyage as a restored steamer. From that day on, Kildare has attended nearly every event with President. There have been a couple of exceptions.
In 2001 President was on the bank at Dadford’s Shed in the middle of having a major rebuild and Kildare was towed to the IWA National at Milton Keynes by the Dudley Canal Trust’s tug Bittel.
In 2005, both boats attended the IWA National at Preston Brook and it was noticed that Kildare was getting more water in the bilge than normal. An extra stop was added to the route back and she was put on Dutton dry dock, just south of Preston Brook tunnel. Ten patches were welded on to the bow area before the journey south could continue. After the return to the museum, Kildare was taken to Caggy’s dry dock for a hull survey, which revealed that extensive repairs were needed.
These were carried out at Ian Kemp’s yard and involved replacing the bottom and footings from the bow to the back end. No work was done to the sides of, or underneath, the cabin. Other works carried out at this time were refitting the galley area with IKEA units, laying lino throughout the hold area, new cold water system and replacing the chains that stretched across the hold with steel bracing. This latter modification went down very well with the ageing crew members as it meant that you didn’t have to duck so low to get under the cross planks.
There has also been the chance to go horseboating with Kildare, the first of these was on a return trip from Nottingham in 1992 when she was pulled up the Wolverhampton 21. The intention was to go all the way to the museum. President led the way, but the horse, panicked by the steam that was still lingering in the bridge hole, fell into the canal. The full account of this can be read in the Dec 1992 newsletter No 25 in the member’s area of our website.
A horse was again used in 2008 when the IWA National was held at Wolverhampton, this time she was pulled down the 21 locks. The return trip was horsedrawn all the way back to the museum. There will be another opportunity later this year when Kildare is horsedrawn from Braunston to Stoke Bruerne and back.
Most recently, Kildare was was again towed by a horse boat in 2014 for her centenary before she was removed from the water in January 2015 for major cabin work and a refit.
2015, a New year and a New Cabin.
As Kildare was removed from the water in January, work soon started and the cabin was swiftly removed from the boat to unearth that the cheek plates needed replacing. The old cheek plates were removed, new plates were welded to the remaining old ones before being traditionally riveted where the new plates mated with the old ones by Ian Kemp. A new wooden cabin was then constructed using traditional materials and techniques to replicate what Kildare would have once had when she was fresh out on the canal, this cabin was then painted and sign written in traditional FMC colors before finally returning to the museum at the end of 2015.