Horse Drawn Barge History

Horse Drawn Barge History

Picture Above: Horses Pulling Tub-Boats through Sampford Peverell Bridge, Devon.

From about the 1740s all inland barges and boats were pulled by horse, donkey/mule or pit-pony.  There is a widely believed myth that the large heavy horses i.e. Shires or Clydesdales with big fluffy feet did the job of pulling our barges on inland waterways, but this was very much the exception and not the rule, you were more likely to see a donkey, mule or smaller horse breeds (like the picture above) than you were a heavy horse. Although it's true heavy horses were used for pulling the very large barges on the Thames and river ways, they were mainly used for farming and agriculture. Another interesting myth is that a Canal tow path is referred to as a (toe or foot path) however when the canals were built hey were strictly referred to as towing paths, today shortened to towpath.     

At a steady walking pace a horse can move approximately 40 times as much weight in a barge as it could with a cart. Up to 3 tub-boats (full of limestone) were pulled by horse on the Grand Western Canal with the load approaching 30 t. On water the load moves with little friction, and it was this efficiency that inspired the development of the canal system throughout Great Britain.  Even after the introduction of motorboats Horse-Drawn Barges continued to operate until the early 20th century on some canals.

Meet the Barge Horses we use today.

At the beginning of the 19th century the Horse-Drawn Barge was one of the most economical and fastest means of commercial transport and the Grand Western Canal worked commercially this way for 130 years. Unlike rivers, canals are artificial channels of water and often without much current, and had a purpose built "towing" path for the horses that pulled the barges. Horse drawn barges on the Grand Western Canal operated until the early 1920s hauling limestone with horses from the quarries at Westleigh to the kilns at Tiverton. History on Roses and Castles coming soon...

Read about the history of the Grand Western Canal here...