New lives from old boats – Towpath Talk, June 2015

Over the past 12 months in these pages we have illustrated the diversity of the National Community Boats Association. This month looks at one of the association’s unique members dedicated to the restoration of old boats.

THE Wooden Canal Boat Society has the second largest collection of former working wooden canal boats in UK.  Rather than simply restore and preserve them, it is finding new uses for these wonderful old boats, putting them to work on behalf of the local community and at the same time providing opportunities for people to learn new skills, meet people, make friends, do something useful and rewarding… working with wooden boats can change people’s lives.

Tameside is an area of considerable deprivation with high levels of disadvantage, low income and health problems. Poverty, mental illness and social exclusion all too frequently impact together, affecting an individual’s ability to work efficiently, often resulting in unemployment or being confined to low status jobs and consequent loss of self esteem and confidence. Volunteering with The Wooden Canal Boat Society can be a way of giving daily lives meaning and structure.

Key projects are:

Portland Basin Museum where it maintains and displays its working wooden boats [Lilith, Southam, Forget me Not, Queen and Elton) and informs the public about the history of working boats, our canal heritage and the work of the WCBS.

Three working boat trips a month for community recycling.

The Wooden Canal Boat Society Charity Shop on Stamford Street Central, Ashton under Lyne

The  restoration of Hazel as  a residential wellbeing boat at the Boatyard in Khowl Street.

The Wooden Canal Boat Society has up to 100 volunteers per year involved with these projects. Mainly living in Tameside, volunteering activities revolve around boat handling, boat building, maintenance and repair, ‘boat sitting; community recycling (collection, sorting and sales), van driving, charity shop sales, tourist information, industrial heritage, marketing, project development and fund raising.

For some, volunteering with the Wooden Canal Boat Society is about getting out of the house and meeting new people and doing something useful. For others it is an opportunity to learn new skills and a route back to work. For still more, it is putting their existing skills to work and giving something back’ and for many it is about ‘wellbeing’ and reducing the risk of social isolation.

Volunteering with WCBS helps people to be active, stay fit, live independently and remain healthy for longer and at the end of it, these historical wooden canal boats are retained as assets, working for the community, bringing our heritage back to life and filling our waterways with colour and the sound of enjoyment., ‘new lives’ indeed, from old boats!


Society activities are dependent on the many volunteers who work with the boats, help in the charity shop and assist on the boat recycling trips.

The core activity is the preservation and maintenance of the six historic wooden canal boats currently owned by the society. Three of the boats are currently put to community use, one is undergoing complete restoration and two are awaiting major refurbishment.

These activities are carried out at a boatyard in Stalybridge and at Portland Basin in Ashton-under-Lyne and afford numerous opportunities for volunteers to meet people, make new friends, apply their existing skills or learn new skills including traditional boat building methods.

When Hazel has been restored it will be used as a ‘wellbeing’ boat, providing trips and short breaks for people at risk from or suffering from poor mental health. Trips will operate around Tameside and the North West and are designed for people who may be socially isolated, suffering from depression, anxiety or stress or for carers.

The society is currently offering volunteer opportunities for skippers and crewmembers for Hazel which will be launching into service later in the year; to find out more or to apply, please contact Hazel Mayow on 07879 073071, or visit

The other five boats are currently displayed at Portland Basin, adjacent to the Social History Museum, and die society makes them available for the general public to view and provides guides and display boards to explain the history, construction and operation of wooden canal boats.

The society also travels further afield with the boats, taking them to boat festivals and so spreading the information about them to the wider public.

WCBS runs a charity shop in Ashton-under-Lyne to help fund the boat preservation and other activities and this provides paid employment and shop work experience for the many volunteers.

It also runs monthly boat trips along the Ashton canal to collect surplus clothing and household goods. Suitable items from these trips are resold in the shop while others are recycled and reused to help protect the environment. These trips offer further volunteering opportunities for people to ‘work’ the boats or simply benefit from the therapeutic experience of being on the canals.

Historic wooden boats moored at Portland Basin. 

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