The Early Days

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Recollections of the early days by H W Downs.

This is one of a series of articles that first appeared in the Ditchcrawler March/April/May/June 1964.

An introduction by the Chairman

One of the outstanding characters of our Club’s history is our Honorary Member and doyen, Mr H W Downs. Commencing with this issue, we are publishing some of his memoirs on the Club’s formation. May I personally, on behalf of all the members who have enjoyed his company, wish him many years of happiness in his retirement.

L Cohoon, Chairman.

Pre-war Days

Before the war, conditions on the canal were not comparable with those of today. For instance, the cost of a permit to cruise on the twenty—seven miles of the top level from Whaley Bridge was £3 per year with no limit on the size of craft.

The number of craft in commission in those days was very limited. I never heard of a register of boats, but I once saw fourteen in the Styperson Winding Hole and this, to my mind would be the extent of the fleet.

Canal maintenance was carried out by lengthsmen, each of whom was responsible for a stretch of two miles and It seems to me that the competition between these men was the best way of ensuring that the canal was kept In a navigable condition.


H W Downs and his wife on the stern of ‘Otter’

A Clash with Authority

Although the railway company never let us forget that we were there by privilege, it was a very quite and peaceful time until, In 1937, we were dealt the blow which was eventually responsible for the formation of the Club. This was when the local Rating Overseer decided, for the first time, to levy a rate on the boathouses, and a number of the dissatisfied owners gathered under the aegis of Dr Shiel of Poynton.

A solicitor was employed, but after a great deal of correspondence with the local council it was decided that there was nothing for it but to pay up. A stand was made however, against a plan to backdate the rate, in some cases up to six years, and this claim was not pressed. At the conclusion of the affair the solicitor’s fee worked out at 6/5d per head, but two of the people concerned did not pay - not a happy omen for a future club.

The Club is formed

Club boats at the’ Anson’ Arm in 1947,  present site of Constellation Cruises and ‘The Trading Post’.  The boats are L-R, Royal Oak, Ailsa Craig, Unknown,  Venture,  Joy, Otter

When the war came, all boating ceased, but In May of 1943 I was working on a boat which I had bought the previous year, when I was approached by a group of people with a view to forming a club for boat owners. I was asked to act as chairman and Mr Higginbotham as secretary. At that time we were using the yard without interference and, as it was unoccupied at the time, we decided to make our position more regular by renting a portion of it. The company asked a rent of 1/- per yard which was, of course, beyond our means, but towards the end of June I had a visit from Mr Glenesk, the District Engineer, who said that he would like to see a club which was capable of taking over the whole of the yard. Up to this time my attitude had been somewhat lukewarm, but I now began to see the advantages of a strong club and I said that I would see what I could do to bring this about.

A meeting of all interested parties was called which was held in the open in front of the Scout’s Hut and using chairs and tables which they provided. About sixteen people were present and, although the minute book has since been lost, I can still remember many of their names.The election of the chairman and the secretary was confirmed. Mr Shaw elected treasurer, and a committee of five, which included Mr Kennerley was chosen. Only one sailing officer, the commodore Mr Martin, was elected, but he was not happy in his membership of the Club and finally resigned after four months. I was then elected commodore, a position I held for the next four years.

We now had to find a name and, having had much to do with the North Cheshire Water Board the Name North Cheshire Cruising Club came naturally to mind and this was adopted. Though at the time I was not aware that ’NC’ was the international flag signal for distress. A prize of 5/- was offered for the best design for a Club burgee and was subsequently won by Mr Bill Axon for the only design submitted.

Further recollections

After renting the wharf office we decided to install water there. We had an enthusiastic turn-up to do the job, which necessitated digging a trench 5 foot deep across the gateway. This was done first, so that no one could escape before the job was completed! We had cut through 18 inches of stonework to get the pipe into the office, but we finished by 5pm and everyone went home happy. Another strenuous task was to remove the large weighing machine, which the L.N.E.R. broke up and took away for scrap.

The wooden floor was full of dry rot, and meters and switches were hanging by their wires, all the mounting boards falling away as dust.

The old weigh house the location of the first Club House, with the present clubhouse in the background photo dated to 1969.

Mr Axon worked manfully with barrow and shovel, dumping the lot in a corner of the yard. The roof was supported by a knee post truss, the tie beam of which was Inserted in the chimney breast. After years of large fires the end of this beam was completely burnt away, so the whole truss was suspended by one end only. I propped the truss, cut off the burnt end of the beam, pieced It out and supported the broken joint with a corbel from the chimney breast. When the debris had been removed Mr Kennerley and I concreted the floor. However, it never was a nice place for meetings, although once it held 40 people for one of Mr Gabbott’s lectures, and I was not sorry to move to the Conservative Club for meetings.

Repairing the Crane

Through carelessness the jib had snapped off at the root so the crane was unusable. At this time Manchester Corporation were doing away with the electric trams and the overhead gear was being stripped. I carefully measured one of the upright steel poles and found it just right for a jib, so I asked Mr Glenesk’s permission to repair It. His chief engineer came to talk it over with me, and sent us a jib complete with tie rods. Mr Glenesk even sent the testing barge and crew, tested the crane and issued a certificate which enabled us to get insurance on it.

A Clash with the Police

Mr Martin, the Chief Commissioner for Scouts, was allowed a little petrol for training purposes. He had taken some scouts by boat to Bosley for a week’s camping. On the way back the boat broke down at Macclesfield. He contacted Harry Hazeldine to arrange a tow back to High Lane. Harry left the arm at 10 pm and towed the boat back from Hurdsfield, using Mr Martin’s petrol. At Poynton Deeps he was hailed by a cyclist on the towpath, so he stopped at the low bridge. The cyclist stepped aboard and said he was a police officer. Harry truculently ordered him off his boat. The policeman told Harry he would be summoned, but at 2 am let him proceed, after much argument. Harry reported this to Mr Martin, who told him he would attend to it and nothing further was heard of the affair.

In 1944 the towpath between the railway and the canal bridge began to subside, so a retaining wall had to be built and the canal emptied for one length. It was decided to use the draw off at the bridge north of High Lane bridge, and that entailed drawing off the arm. At a meeting we decided to take as many boats as possible to the deep water beyond the first bridge. The problem was how to get them all down. My boat was not completed but as the engine was in order I took three in tow. We proposed returning to our boathouses In the same way. Most of us had a small amount of petrol for charging and could make the short distance on what we had saved.

The news went round High Lane that the canal length would be refilled at 4 pm on Sunday. The inevitable crowd assembled on the bridge to watch the fleet return, and among them I noticed the High Lane policeman in civvies. After Harry’s encounter with the police the week before, we decided to disarm suspicion and made a quick change of plan, so we hired the diesel barge which was in attendance to tow us back, six boats in a string. I well remember the chaotic mess when they threw off their tow lines. At the horse bridge Mr Masterson came up at this moment with his boat, a 40 footer, towed in the opposite direction by a pony on the towpath. Imagine the confusion - one diesel barge, six unpowered craft and one pony-drawn 40 footer, inextricably mixed up, stuck In the mud inside the wide hole opposite the horse bridge, with a fierce west wind blowing! I couldn’t pole my boat through the bridge hole for the wind but, knowing that the High Lane policeman had gone through Sammy’s Wood, I started the engine and was soon moored. Mr Plant also started the Miss Betty engine and with two boats out of the way the confusion subsided.

Our First Social Occasion

The Club’s first really social event was a Christmas party organised by Mr Axon and held at Hartley House, High Lane. It was wartime and catering was difficult, but a lady in High Lane said she would make meat pies if we would obtain the meat. Mrs Higginbotham got her ample supplies from a source that it is not polite to enquire into, and we had a very nice spread. Mrs Kennerley set the tables and generally organised the catering with her usual efficiency. A band, a solo violinist and a singer was engaged for the evening. Apart from the cold it was all very enjoyable. The house is the 18th-century mansion of the Hartleys who were large landowners in the district.

For the party we had the three rooms downstairs; the dining room and drawing room for dancing, and the library was fixed up with card tables for people wishing to play. The drawing-room had a very Dickensian character with its oak beams, wainscoting and the magnificently carved mantelpiece with the Hartley arms boldly carved on the lintel. This setting was ideal for a Christmas party. Alas! The bulldozers have been at work and the house is no more.

Final Recollections

The original Club Run was held in June 1945. We had a modicum of petrol issued on ration, about one gallon per week. I well remember that first run. Three boats assembled at my boathouse, Mr Plant in 'Miss Betty', Mr Hazeldine in 'Raven Oak' and myself in 'Otter'. The day started with a violent thunderstorm and it was about 2 pm before we could start. The venue was Styperson, which we reached without incident. Styperson Wood in the wet June sunshine looked lovely. All the well-known paths were overgrown, as it had had about five years rest. The sycamores which lined the road through the wood met in a perfect arch. It was a picture well worth waiting for. Very soon afterwards Mrs Legh of Prestbury Hall (the wood’s owner) sold all the trees to a firm of timber merchants.

Club Cruise 30th. Sept 1945 , Foreground is ‘Accra’ with Roy Braddock & Peggy Axon, behind on left is ‘Ailsa Craig’ and right is ‘Otter’

Leaving the lunch moorings near Styperson Wharf

When I came again to spend a weekend there I was appalled to see that every tree had been cut down and all their branches left there in utter confusion. I have not seen it for some time, but I understand it has pretty well re-grown, and I hope and trust that the Club will make every endeavour to maintain it as one of the few remaining beauty spots, and insist that it is never allowed to become a permanent mooring for any craft.

Crippled Children’s Outing No.1

Club boats waiting outside the arm C 1946 for the ‘Crippled Children Cruise’

In August 1945 Mr Newton of the Crippled Children’s Association applied to the L.N.E.R. to take the children for a trip along the canal. I was contacted and put this to a meeting. The members present received this suggestion most enthusiastically. Mr Newton’s committee came down to High Lane to arrange full details. At this time the coach trade had not got into its stride, so we had to arrange transport. 20 children came from the Marple hospital and the remainder were after-care children in and around Stockport, whom we collected. As we checked our numbers at our rendezvous one child was missing. Mr Axon said he would fetch him in his pyjamas if necessary, and duly brought him along.

(I think that he failed to turn up because he hadn’t any boots). We embarked them at the wharf, and my, didn’t it rain! The children enjoyed themselves very much despite such bad weather. 11 boats turned up for this occasion.

Final Remarks

I cannot let this opportunity pass without a few words of appreciation for the original band of enthusiasts who really formed the Club. They were willing and worked without acrimony or dissension, and the Club has much to thank them for. I should like to pay tribute to Mr Albert Ridgeway, who was my mentor in canal lore. He died suddenly In 1943, before the Club was formed, but I have no doubt that had he survived he would have been one of our most shining lights. He was a genial man with a certain dry humour. He had about ten years experience of the canal when I first came in 1925. He was a first rate craftsman and had a great knowledge of the canal and its habitués.

I am sorry that I am unable to take any further part in the activities on the canal, but I have had my share, with more than four years as Commodore, and two two—year periods as secretary. In conclusion I should like to point out to you that many things which are now taken for granted were only obtained by much scheming and hard work. Good luck!

H W Downs - 1964.

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