Narrow boat on canal.

Narrowboats: The History of These Floating Homes

If you live in or have visited England, it’s very possible that you’ve heard people talk about the many beautiful canals that flow across the country.

One of the most common boats on these English waterways is the narrowboat, which today is frequently used as a floating home—but it hasn’t always been this way.

History of the Narrowboat

Historically, narrowboats were referred to as narrow boats, with a space. This terminological difference marks the split between the modern leisure narrowboat and the traditional working narrow boat.

Narrow boats were first designed in the 1700s as a way to transport goods across Britain’s extensive canal system, making use of the rivers just as we make use of highways today. Their name comes from their distinctive size and shape—never any wider than 7 feet, and generally about 70 feet long. They were most likely designed by an engineer named James Brindley specifically so that they could more easily navigate the narrow canals.

Boats With No Engine

Before they had even invented an engine for them, narrowboats were being used by hundreds of companies across the country. In these early days, the boats would have been pulled by a horse walking along the edge of the canal.

Steam Engines

In the late 1800s, narrowboats began to make use of steam engines. This enabled them to make longer cross-country journeys. During this time, narrow boats began to struggle to keep up with the convenience of the railroads.

Modern Engines

Starting in the early 1900s, narrowboats used more modern gas and diesel engines. This meant less room on the boat was taken up by the large steam engines, and fewer crew members were needed to keep the boat running.

The Fall of Working Boats

By the 1960s, the use of narrowboats to transport goods was in sharp decline. The waterways had fallen into disrepair after World War II, and modern methods of transport meant that narrow boats were simply not needed the way they had been for almost 200 years.

The Modern Narrowboat: A Floating Home

Today, narrowboats are rising once again in popularity, but for a different reason: people like to use these boats for leisure, sailing along the peaceful canals and often living on board.

Even back in their working days, there was a precedent set for living aboard these vessels. The families of boatmen frequently lived on board and traveled alongside the boatmen, as this was cheaper than keeping a separate house on land.

Today, living on board a narrowboat offers a number of pros and cons. It can be quiet, since you will be moored in dedicated marinas and will be away from the noise of the city. It can also be much cheaper than more traditional living arrangements such as houses and apartments, and allows you to easily travel without ever leaving home. If you’re curious as to what this living situation might look like, take a look at this couple’s video tour of their own narrowboat.

However, life on a narrowboat can be difficult. You need to deal with severe cold, constantly ensuring that your stove is lit so that your boat remains heated. Plumbing can be an issue, and the boat frequently has to be moved unless you’re paying a residential marina. You also have to be a handy person, able to identify and fix problems and maintain the boat in case of any damage.

But if you’re the sort of person who loves to travel, doesn’t want to stay anchored in one place, and is willing to take on an adventure, life on a narrowboat might be the perfect choice for you.