Boatman's Missions of the BCN
During a recent visit to Tipton I happened upon a note in my well thumbed Pearson guide about a Boatman's Mission near Factory Locks. I gave it little thought till I was crossing a footbridge and noticed a building with a distinctively ecclestical air about it, it even had the the remains of a little spire perched on top on its roof.
This chance encounter with boatmans missions led to a bit of research and I discovered that there were no less than five missions catering for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of the BCN's floating population. Nowadays there is a lot of stigma about this sort of missionary work and, with God being well and truly out of fashion, many will poo poo the this sort of effort as peddling faith with strings attached.
In fact, there is something very refreshing and uplifting about the work of the Seamans & Boatmans Friendly Society and the Lichfield Diocese, who commited a significant amout of resource and effort into helping the waterborne community, who were often seen as outcasts in wider society. The Church's mission has always been primarily to the poorer sections of society, and I can easily imagine Jesus tending to the needs of the boat families in preference to the rich and famous.
Interestingly, the role of these missions extended far beyond the souls they sought to save. The Birchills Museum, which occupies the old Boatmans Rest Mission at the top the Walsall flight, explians that the mission supplied; tea, coffee, papers, food, tobacco, washing facilities, games, education and even free letter writing (many of the boatmen couldn't read or write). In fact, they seemed to do everything they could to keep the boatmen out of the nearby Navigation Pub!.
To put this work in context, the following five missions were established in the area:
Farmers Bridge Mission.
An early independent mission, but little is known of the sponsoring organisation, it's exact location or the period it operated from and till.
Gas St Basin
1860 - Bethel Chapel in Worcester Wharf
1879 - Boatmans Mission Hall on the Gullet (now part of Holliday St)
1885 - New Mission on Bridge Street
The Worcester Wharf mission, owned and operated by the Seamans and Boatmans Friendly Society, spawned two further satellite missions:
1885 Boatmans Hall in Hednesford, built on leased land at a cost of £650
1890 Boatmans Rest in Walsall which still stands as the Birchills Museum, built at a cost of £350
Meanwhile, across to the west the Lichfield Dioscese operated two missions:
Pre 1882 - Floating Barge Mission at Can Lane Wharf Wolverhampton
1884 Barge Mission in Wolverhampton occupying a site near the Top Lock cottages
1892/3 Tipton Barge Mission which still stands alongside Factory Junction.
Even today it is possible to get onto the BCN network and feel completely removed from the hurly burly of the surrounding city. Whilst there were literally thousands of people living on the network in the late 1800's, they will also have found themselves cut off from the outside world and in need of a support network. It's good to see that the organised Church were involved in helping to meet the needs of this long gone community.