Watermen families

Yorkshire's Watermen - family history research

Detailed research has been undertaken into twenty watermen, identifying their ancestors and descendants, enabling examination of their lives through time, including the contribution made by canal boat registrations. While not a purely random selection, individuals were picked to give a broad representation of the population of individuals who had been discovered in the 1881 census. Some were owners, some masters and some both. They were found in several different locations across Yorkshire. Some had families with them, others just a mate. They had in common that they could also be found in the canal boat registers.

This research into each family was a limited one name study as it predominantly concentrated on the male lines sharing a common surname but confined to just that family. A general cut off date of 1911 was applied. In that respect, while accurate, this research is incomplete and will benefit from further work to explore female lines and move the family history forward in time. 

If you recognise any of the families described below the Society would love to hear from you. Please drop us an email using the form at the bottom of this page.

Synopsis of each waterman's genealogy

William AIR, born about 1786, was the son of Richard AIR, a coal porter. William and Mary BACKHOUSE had eight children. Two sons, William and Thomas, would become keelmen. Throughout his life William’s occupation was labourer, coal porter, porter and weaver yet three years after his death, son William described his father  as a waterman when he married Elizabeth ALDERSON in 1842.

The 1881 census recorded 22 year old Henry AIR master of the keel “Providence” (56 York). Henry was at least the fourth generation of his family involved in the coal trade in York. The bulk movement of coal was done by water, so it appears that the family built up expertise as keelmen which would also lead them into boat building.

The death of her husband William led Elizabeth AIR, nee ALDERSON, to run the family boat building business in York.

The “Providence” was the only vessel found in the census, yet the Canal Boat Registers identify five more vessels where AIRs were owners and /or masters. If relying solely on the census, those vessels would have remained invisible to genealogists.

Albion BANKS Senior first featured as a waterman when he married Harriet KINNERSLEY in 1844. At the baptism of his son William in 1847 he declared his abode as “on board a vessel.” A miller journeyman in the 1851 census for Lincoln, the very next year he was again a waterman at the baptism of his son, also Albion, in 1852. He was the master of “Richard” when son Albion was baptised in 1860. In 1879 he was registered master of “Queen Harriet” owned by his wife. He would become registered master of “John”, “William”, “Only Son”, “Mary” and “Union” all owned by William Lewis LITTLEWOOD of Sheffield, a coal merchant. Albion passed away onboard the “Union” in 1884.

This family presented significant tracing challenges possibly because of the illiteracy of Harriet KINNERSLEY which probably should have read KINGSLEY. That may have led to the surname “Popplewell” appearing on registrations with no yet found reason.

Albion Senior’s three sons, William, Henry and Albion Junior would earn their living on the waterways for at least part of their working lives. William was registered joint master of “Mary” owned by William Lewis LITTLEWOOD, master of “Royal” and “Ellen” owned by Mary LITTLEWOOD and then “Princess May” owned by her husband.

Henry worked as a waterman and lighterman until he becomes a gas stoker at a steel works in 1901. He died in 1925.

Albion Junior was still working as a waterman in 1901 and by 1911 had become a lighterman in Hull.

Grandsons Samuel Albion and Frederick carried on the tradition. Samuel was a boatman in 1901 and Frederick was mate on “John and Maria” in 1911.

Spanning three generations, the Bell Case Study starts with grandfather Amos BELL, first identified as a waterman in the 1817 baptism entry for his daughter, Mary Ann.

Son Thomas BELL, born 1824, was first recorded as a waterman on his marriage to Elizabeth Charlesworth in 1847. His earlier experience, perhaps accompanying his father on trips, is hidden from us by the absence of an 1841 census entry. We find him identified as a boat owner and captain in 1851, but only begin to see his vessel history in the following census when accompanied by wife Elizabeth he was on board “Susan” in Gunthorpe, Lincolnshire. Records show three more vessels over the next thirty years.

Amos, born 1861, was mate for his father aboard “Lucks All” (8 York) in 1881 moored on the River Trent at Gainsborough. While his occupation was “keelman” when he married Mary Jane JOHNSON in 1887, subsequent evidence shows his occupation as “lighterman”, a shore based role perhaps working in Hull docks. He died in 1923 leaving no children.

Joseph BOULTON was born in 1784, the son of farmer and lime burner Thomas and wife Mary. His occupation, waterman, was first recorded at the baptism of his son Joseph in 1810. He fathered two sons, Joseph and Thomas, both believed to be watermen, although most frequently described as “mariners”.

Grandson Joseph BOULTON, born 1855, was the only other family waterman found in the 1881 census, employed by Aire and Calder Navigation Company. He was with them until at least 1911, then retired becoming a fish and chip shop owner before his untimely death in 1917.

Anthony CAMPLEJOHN, the son of cordwainer William, was born in Riccall in 1784. Described as a cordwainer in 1811, thereafter farmer and labourer until in 1842 a waterman upon the marriage of his son Richard, also a waterman.

Richard and wife Charlotte, daughter of a waterman, produced two sons, George and Amos who would become watermen. George died from scarlet fever in 1863 leaving just Amos. In the 1881 census Amos CAMPLEJOHN was alone on board an unnamed keel moored at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Derwent. At that same time his father Richard was also master of an unnamed keel moored at Wombwell Junction. The Canal Boat Registers help identify those vessels and surprise us with Richard buying his vessel “Enterprise” in 1885.

Amos continued to work on the waterways becoming master of the steam tug “Ebor Express”. Tragedy struck in 1899, when his son George aged just 16 years, was lost overboard from his tug. His older brother Robert had also followed his father, becoming engineer on a river tug before opting for work ashore.

Greenwood CARTER was born in 1783, the son of cordwainer Greenwood CARTER from Doncaster. The baptisms of two sons in 1815 and 1818 record his occupation as mariner and sailor. Those boys, Charles Greenwood and William, would in turn spend their working lives on the waterways.

William’s son Thomas is an 18 year old on his father’s keel “Victoria” in 1861, but disappears thereafter.

Charles Greenwood’s son of the same name, had 20 years experience as a keel master working for others, before the registers tell us he became master and owner of “Sharp” in 1891. His younger brothers Israel Harrison and George William also followed water occupations, the former as a lighterman and the latter as a tug boat captain.

Seven of Greenwood’s great grandsons pursued occupations associated with the waterways. William had been master of keels for others before becoming a partner in “Sceptre” in 1896, and sole owner and master in 1900 facts only known through the canal boat registers.

Lewis Greenwood was recorded as mate of “Alice” in 1891 and thereafter was recorded as a waterman. It would be 1911 before he was linked to a vessel as master of “Sharp”.

Walter, started as mate of “Louisa”, became master of “Sharp” and by 1911 was a lightermen.

George William CARTER had become a marine fireman before he drowned in Alexandra Dock, Hull, aged 22 years. His brother Charles Frederick had also become a fireman on a steam tug and was still on tugs in 1920.

Finally, great great grandson John Thomas was recorded as a watermen at Thorne in the 1939 register.

Born in Knottingley in 1779, to parents James, a lime burner and merchant, and Esther SPEIGHT, William CAWTHORN was first identified as a waterman on the baptism of son Joseph in 1802. Six sons – James, Nicholas, David, William, Robert and John – would follow occupations as seamen and/or watermen.

They in turn were followed by grandsons Charles, David, Thomas, Edward Lapish, William Lapish, John and Nicholas and then great grandsons Tom, Arthur, John Thomas, Robert, Nicholas, Edward, Tom, William, Albert, Richard Petch, John Thomas, Nicholas and George

This was a family who pursued occupations afloat as watermen in Yorkshire or travelled further afield as seamen.

John CROSSLAND, born 1796 in Knottingley was a farmer. His son Thomas was first identified as a sailor when he married Mary Ann, the daughter of waterman Nicholas AUSTWICK in 1848. Seven of their sons, Charles William, Joseph Thomas, John, Nicholas Austwick, George, Thomas and Benjamin would become watermen in their own right, either as keelmen or lightermen. The canal boat registers show that the youngest son Benjamin became owner of his father’s keel “William and John” six years after his father’s death.

John married keelman’s daughter Emily TAYLOR in 1878, and their three sons, William Thomas, John Robert and Herbert earned their living on the waterways. The eldest went to sea, while the other two worked as lightermen in Hull Docks.

Born in 1815, Benjamin Fairbank was the son of clothier William. By his marriage in 1836 he had become a waterman and would follow that occupation through to retirement. With Eliza, he fathered two sons, Isaac born 1844 and Benjamin, born 1855. Both sons would also become boatmen. It is believed that Benjamin had registered his keel “Two Brothers” in 1879.

Problem is that Benjamin and his son Benjamin both lived at the same address, Fourth Court, Holbeck so it has so far proved impossible to determine if father or son owned the keel.

Isaac was first recorded as a waterman on his marriage in 1867. He and Hannah first set up home in Eccleshill where they produced five children. In 1871 he was mate onboard the keel “Hannah”. By the 1891 census the family had moved across the Pennines to Blackburn, Lancashire where Isaac continued in his vocation as a canal boatmen until his death in 1900.

Benjamin married Hannah MARSHALL in 1876 when he was described as “labourer” and would hold various labouring jobs throughout his life, although a “boatman” in the 1881 census when he was probably assisting his father.

Isaac and Elizabeth’s sons William H, Isaac and John had moved to Lancashire with their parents and all three were employed as canal boatmen.

John GAWTHORP was identified as a “mariner” when his son John, also a mariner, married Mary Ann COWARD, the daughter of a mariner, in 1849. Little more is known about him.

Son John would become a keel owner and master, registering both “John and Mary” and “Ocean Bride” in 1879. Three of his sons, George William, Joseph Coward and John would become keelmen and Fred a lighterman.

George William drowned in Victoria Dock, Hull in 1882. Joseph Coward worked as master for various owners. John acted as mate for brother Joseph before working as a lighterman in Hull.

Joseph Coward had two sons who became watermen. Albert captained the keel “Renown” before becoming a lighterman by 1911. That left John who was master of “Only Son” in 1911.

William GOSNEY, born about 1799 was first reported as a waterman on the baptism of his daughter Sarah in 1822. He and his wife Elizabeth WINTERBOTTOM had three sons, John, William and Richard.

John is described as a waterman in 1851 but by 1861 a master mariner in Northumberland. He would remain there until his death in 1897 having worked in shore based occupations.

William became a stone mason but younger brother Richard after a spell as a ferryman, worked as a waterman, latterly for Aire and Calder Navigation Company. He was master of their keel “No 11” when registered in 1879. He may have been on that very keel when he died in Barge Dock, Goole aged just 43 years.

Richard’s son John William, would have helped his father with “No 11”. Aged 14 he was living on her in 1881. Thirty years later like his father he was working for Aire and Calder Navigation Company and was probably still employed by them when he died aged 64.

There was a problem with this family when the name GOSNEY was recorded as GOSLING. This was found in the marriages between William GOSNEY and Elizabeth WINTERBOTTOM in 1822 and Richard GOSNEY and Martha STEAD in 1866. Richard was even recorded as GOSLING in the canal boat register.

John GUEST was born between 1793 and 1810 in either Goole or Masbrough, the son of Joseph, about whom little is known. First recorded as a waterman at the baptism of son George in 1828, John would father four sons, two of whom, William and Samuel, pursued occupations as watermen.

William GUEST was described as a mariner when he married Nancy Ann HARLINGTON, daughter of a waterman, in 1856. He was named master of “Star” owned by Alexander Meek, when first registered in 1878. He was still a waterman up to his death in 1892. Their son George William would also become a waterman based in Goole, up to his early death in 1913.

Samuel GUEST was an agricultural labourer when he married Eliza Jane GRAY, daughter of a sailor, in 1871. By 1878 he was sufficiently skilled to have been named master of “No 49″owned by Aire and Calder navigation Company. He remained with that company for many years becoming a canal lock keeper up to his death in 1926. Their two sons John Thomas and Cass also became watermen.

Eighteen year old John Thomas was helping his parents with “No 64” in 1891. After his marriage in 1899 he appeared as a canal boatmen living in Siddal, Halifax, up to his early death in 1912.

Cass was also helping his parents on “No 64” in 1891. He married Sarah Ann CALVERT, daughter of a watermen, in 1896. By 1901 he was master of an unnamed keel owned by Aire and Calder Navigation Company. By 1908 he had changed roles. Still working for the same company he was now a lock gateman at Goole Docks.

The MELLOR family connection with Yorkshire’s waterways spanned at least four generations throughout the 19th century.

Jonas MELLOR, born in 1801, was first described as a waterman when marrying Nancy SHEARD in Mirfield in 1824. Sons William and John also became watermen.

William born in 1827, was first described as a waterman on his marriage to Susan Bancroft SUTCLIFFE in 1851. In 1861 he was master of “Elizabeth” in Queen’s Dock, Hull with Susan and three children. By 1871 he was a grocer in Thornes Lane, Wakefield but that did not signal an end to his involvement with keels. Thanks to the canal boat registers it is clear that William owned “The City” (Hull 67), “Florence” (Wakefield 37), “Majesty” (Wakefield 60) and “Victory” (Wakefield 62). He died in 1897.

John MELLOR, born 1834, was identified as a watermen when he married Christiana WHITAKER in 1855. He was master of “Nancy” in 1871 and the canal boat register in 1878 confirmed that he was also the owner. Also in 1879 he was registered as owner and master of “Arthur and Ann”. He was onboard “Nancy” in 1881 in Leeds. “Arthur and Ann” was sold in 1886 to William AIR of York and two years later he registered “Providence”. Both “Nancy” and “Providence” were sold in 1892. Christiana died in 1895 and William declared himself a retired boat owner. He passed away in 1907 leaving one son, Whitaker MELLOR born 1856, was also a waterman.

Whitaker was master of “Arthur and Ann” in 1881. As owner and master he registered “Christiana” in 1885 and was found onboard with wife Annie and their two children in 1891. In 1901 he was master of “Norman”, not yet found in any register, with son Fred as mate. Fred would take work ashore, but his other son John would describe himself as a self employed boatman in 1911.

William and Susan had three sons Jonas, Henry and John who also became watermen.

Jonas MELLOR, born 1853 was first identified as a waterman when he married Maria GOODER in 1876. With the help of the canal boat registers we find that he was owner and master of “William and Susan” which he sold in 1898, From 1893 onwards the Hull register confirms that he owned “Monarch”, “Queen”, “Empress”, “Venture”, “Victory”, “Ransom”, “Prince” and “Countess”. By 1901 Jonas was describing himself as a canal carrier and later “forwarding agent and keel owner”. He died in 1921. None of those vessels could have been linked to Jonas without the registers.

Henry MELLOR born 1867 was by 1889 master of “The City” owned by his father William. By 1896 he had bought “Emperor” which he sold in 1918.

John MELLOR born 1871 was first noted as a waterman in the 1891 census as master of “Florence”. He was the registered master of “Majesty”, owned by his father William, which he inherited in 1897. In 1905, as owner he also registered “Imperial”.

Four of Jonas MELLOR’s great grandsons became watermen. William and Charles, the sons of Jonas MELLOR and Maria GOODER, and John and Fred, sons of Whitaker MELLOR and Annie FAIRBAIRN.

This family presented a particular problem as there was more than one family of MELLORs engaged in the river trade. It is likely that an earlier family link existed but that has not yet been traced. With common first names it made it difficult to be sure that one was dealing with someone from this family.

Thomas POLLARD, born in Walton about 1805, was recorded as a waterman at the 1846 baptism of son Freeman. Finding early information about Thomas is hampered by the absence of 1841 and 1851 census entries.

His three sons, Thomas, Freeman and William would each follow their father onto the waterways. Only William would have a waterman successor, with son Thomas William being recorded as a boatman when he married in 1920.

Brothers Peter and Benjamin, sons of John RISHFORTH a millwright, about whom little is known, were baptised in Mirfield in the last decade of the 18th century. Both would become watermen.

Peter was first noted as a waterman at his marriage to Sarah FOZZARD in 1814. They left no children.

Four of Benjamin’s sons, John , Charles, Benjamin and Joseph followed their father onto the waterways. Only John’s sons George, Charles, John, Thomas H, Peter and Fred subsequently became watermen.

Three of these RUSHFORTHs are found in the 1881 census, but surprisingly only one canal boat registration has been found in the name of RUSHFORTH.

Samuel SHEARD was born before December 1780 in Mirfield to Joseph SHEARD, about whom nothing is known. His occupation was first recorded as waterman at his marriage to Sarah HOLROYD in 1800.

Son Abraham was born in 1807. He too became a watermen as evidenced at the baptism of his daughter Hannah in 1833, It was his death registration that confirmed he had been a “vessel owner”. Three sons, Samuel Wilkinson, John Wilkinson and Abraham all became watermen.

Samuel Wilkinson was a keel master for Aire and Calder Navigation Company, confirmed by the registers. He died in 1891 onboard a keel in Bradford Canal. He had three sons, but only Arthur William, after training as a blacksmith, became a keelman, He appears in the 1911 census as master of “Sprite” with his wife Margaret Alice and daughter Mary Elizabeth.

John Wilkinson and Abraham died without issue.

Born in Ripon in 1786, to Edward SNOWDEN Junior, Edward SNOWDEN was first recorded as a waterman at the baptism of daughter Mary in 1814. Of his five sons, three followed shore based trades as millwright, rope maker and carpenter, while Edward and William became watermen.

William’s sons Edward, William Henry and John would all follow their father as watermen, sadly all coming to an untimely end. Keel owner and master Edward would be drowned with two of his children when his keel “Edward and William” foundered in 1885. Fifteen year old John died from scarlet fever later that same year and surviving brother William Henry would drown under mysterious circumstances in the River Aire at Leeds in 1893.

A George SNOWDEN, born in Ripon in 1843, was also a waterman but how he is connected to these SNOWDENs is as yet unclear.

Richard SWASH, born 1795 in Crowle, Lincolnshire, was a farm labourer. Two of his four sons, Richard and Christopher, became watermen, first evidenced in the 1851 census.

Richard was master of “John and William” moored in Humber Dock, Hull in 1861 with his wife Ann and four children. Two sons, Thomas and Richard became watermen. They were both on “Prince of Wales” at Keadby in 1881. Richard would become master of “Alice Croft” while Thomas skippered “Forget Me Not”. They both retired to Thorne.

Five of Christopher’s six sons became watermen. Tom Swash STYRING arrived in 1858, with Christopher and Elizabeth marrying in 1862. He was master of “Julia” but faced an early death in 1902.

Arthur SWASH was master of “Newington” and “Ant”. He and wife Eliza had no children.

Charles SWASH was master of keels “Excelsior” and “Partridge” before his death in 1921.

George William SWASH was registered owner and master of “Edna May” in 1918. Two years later he was described as a lighterman. He died of cancer in 1948.

Ernest SWASH was mate on the keel “Venus” in 1911 but he would become a tug captain. He died in 1953.

James TAYLOR, born about 1796, married Sarah OLDFIELD in Halifax in 1820 when his occupation was recorded as waterman.

One of their sons, Richard, became owner and master of “Sarah” by 1861. In 1879 he registered “Brothers” (Wakefield 25) as owner and master just a few months before his death.

Little is known about their other son Joseph, born about 1823.

Sons Joseph and Richard both became watermen. By the 1871 census Joseph was master of “Scarboro” onboard with his wife and baby daughter. He became owner and master of “Two Brothers” (Wakefield 25) in 1891 which he sold two years later. By 1901 he had become a grocer in Wakefield. He died in 1926.

Richard TAYLOR Junior registered the family keel “Sarah” (Wakefield 26) as owner and master in 1879. She remained under his command until his death in 1910.

Booth TAYLOR started as master of “Venture”, formerly “Two Brothers”, in 1893. By 1901 he was a general labourer, and then a boatman for Aire and Calder Navigation Company. The 1939 register shows him as a canal foot bridge keeper in Selby. He retired to Reedness where he died in 1957.

Youngest son Nelson TAYLOR married Amy HODGSON in 1907 when his occupation was labourer, but at the baptism of baby Nelson two years later he was a lighterman.

No further generations of watermen have yet been found for this family.

John WINDLE, born 1779, was recorded as a bricklayer at the baptisms of three children, until the 1841 census when his occupation became waterman.

Sons Cornelius Thomas and George both drowned aged 10 and 17 respectively.

Son Cornelius, born 1821, was a waterman when he married Hannah HICK in 1850 before becoming a shoemaker after his marriage. The other son, Joseph, worked as a waterman for his entire working life. He was master of “Agnes and Ann” and was onboard with his wife Eliza and five children in 1861. In 1879 he registered “Three Friends” as owner and master. He died the following year.

Joseph’s son Thomas was recorded twice as a waterman in 1881, both as master onboard “Three Friends” in Leeds and living with his widowed mother in Goole. By 1886 he had sold the keel. He never married and died in 1897.

Joseph’s other son John moved to Hull where he worked in an iron foundry before becoming a grocer, slater’s labourer and general dealer. He died in 1920 leaving no children.

Accessing the detailed family history research on Ancestry®

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