Evidence of Illiteracy among the Bargees of Britain’s Venice

Family folklore from my paternal grandparents stated that we descend from Bargees, people who lived and worked on canal boats.  It has often been said that Birmingham has more canals than Venice.  To this day, Birmingham is a hub of Britain’s canal and navigable waterways network.  In the early industrial revolution, canals were the transport backbone.  As an early industrial centre, Birmingham developed an extensive canal network between the 1760s and 1830s, with connections to countrywide destinations.  The Grand Junction Railway the first rail line to serve Birmingham, linking with Liverpool and Manchester, opened in 1837.  By the time of this marriage in 1874, canals were still an important part of the goods transport network, but were challenged by the rise of rail.

Marriage Certificate - Samuel Barton & Caroline Spencer

Marriage Certificate – Samuel Barton & Caroline Spencer

Bride: Caroline Spencer, aged 18
Groom: Samuel Barton, aged 21, Carter
Date: 5 April 1874
Location: Bishop Ryder church, Birmingham
Father of Bride: Edward Barton, Boatman
Father of Groom: John Spencer, Wood turner
Witnesses: John Cartwright, Mary Ann Barton

The occupation of the groom’s father, Edward Barton as a boatman supports the family story.  Census, marriage and birth records show both Edward and Samuel worked as boatmen, but also did other jobs.

Year Edward’s occupation Samuel’s occupation
1841 Labourer
1851 Boatman
1861 Labourer
1871 Boatman Boatman
1874 Boatman Carter
1875 Carter
1881 Barge boatman
1891 Labourer
1901 Coal carter
1902 Carter
1911 Coal carter

Notice that signatures of Caroline Spencer, Samuel Barton and witnesses Mary Ann Barton (Samuel’s sister) and John Cartwright are all recorded as his or her mark X, indicating that these people could not write.  The 1911 census return for Samuel and Caroline contains indirect evidence of their illiteracy, as the schedule was signed by their 19 year old son, Henry, rather than head of the household Samuel.

Name Birth Year Year recorded as Scholar
Edward Barton’s children
Samuel 1854
Mary Ann 1856
Edward 1858
James 1860 1871
Hannah 1865 1871
Ellen 1870 1881
Samuel Barton’s children
Mary A 1875 1881
John 1877
James 1880 1891
Louisa 1882 1891
Jane 1885 1891
Samuel 1887
Caroline 1890
Henry 1894
Ellen 1895

Unlike the 1871 Scottish census, English censuses do not directly record attendance at school.  However, ‘Scholar’ commonly recorded in the occupation column for children of school age, might be an indicator of some education.  Some of the children of Edward and Samuel Barton appear to have attended school after 1870.  As the absence of ‘scholar’ could be due to accidental omission or error, it is not strong evidence of a lack of education.

The Elementary Education Act 1870 established local school boards which could enforce byelaws requiring children to attend school between the ages of 5 and 13, where there was a school within 3 miles of the child’s home.  The school boards could raise funds from the rate payers, but still required fees from the parents.  Poor parents who could not afford fees or loss of the children’s income may have tried to avoid the compulsion to attend school.  Although the Bartons lived in back-to-back houses they were part of the canal boat community that distrusted officialdom.  In response to public health concerns two acts requiring the registration of canal boats were enacted in 1877 and 1884.  The legislation proved unenforceable and ineffective as Benjamin Browning, a Medical Officer of Health noted in 1879 due to

the reluctance of the boatmen themselves to have registration effected, since their children are at once brought under the ken and domination of the School Board.

© Sue Adams 2013