Jodie Matthews - canals 2

Exploring the lives of the Victorian communities of Britain’s waterways  

Dr Jodie Matthews looks at the lives of the Victorian communities of Britain’s waterways in her role as the first honorary Research Fellow for the Canal and River Trust.

Today’s canal travellers are mostly leisure boaters, in pursuit of tranquillity. Their Victorian predecessors were families who lived and worked afloat, earning mistrust and criticism from respectable society. This means they are a natural subject for the University of Huddersfield’s Dr Jodie Matthews, who specialises in nineteenth-century attitudes towards people who travelled Britain, including Romanies and Gypsies. Dr Matthews focuses on the representation of canal boat people in literature and non-fiction sources.

She has already authored articles on bargee families and has now been appointed by the Canal and River Trust as its first honorary Research Fellow.

Canal research network

Dr Matthews has started to establish a new Canal Research Network, bringing academics, heritage professionals and enthusiasts together to talk about new approaches to exploring waterways history and research. She is also helping with new designs for the Gloucester Waterways Museum.

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Although inland waterways retained a commercial role for a considerable time, the coming of the railways meant they faced severe competition and one result was that – to cut living costs – bargees and their families lived permanently on their boats and subsequently gained a reputation for drunkenness, violence and lack of religious observance.

Dr Matthews has already explored the representation of canal people and the attitudes towards them and other travelling communities in two articles for the journal Nineteenth-Century Contexts. The first – from 2013 – is entitled “Thousands of these floating hovels”: Picturing Bargees in Image and Text. In 2015 this was followed by Mobilising the Imperial Uncanny: Nineteenth-Century Textual Attitudes to Travelling Romani People, Canal-Boat People, Showpeople and Hop-Pickers in Britain.

Representations of canal boat people

Victorian attitudes to bargee families were complex and varied, according to Dr Matthews.

“It was very similar to the way the Romani were represented,” she said. “On the one hand there was exoticism, because canal life seemed a counter to urbanisation. In a strange way, given their role in industrialisation, the canals seemed to offer a quiet life that was different to the frenetic pace of modernising Britain.”

Britain’s waterways

“But then a lot of the representations come from a religious perspective, because canal people were often seen as alcoholic, illiterate Sabbath breakers whose children were mistreated. All of these were exaggerations, although they did have to work on the Sabbath to make it pay.”

Canal people

The Canal and River Trust was keen to appoint Dr Matthews because as a literature scholar she provides a different perspective on canal history. In addition to promoting academic research, she also intends to engage with the public and to incorporate the discoveries that are being made by canal enthusiasts and family historians into her research.

For further information contact:

Dr Jodie Matthews

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