Matthews, Jodie (2012) "'Thousands of these floating hovels': Picturing Bargees in Image and Text". In: Interdisciplinary Nineteenth Century Studies, March 22-25 2012, University of Kentucky, USA. (Unpublished)

In thinking about canal boat people, or bargees, readers in nineteenth-century Britain were encouraged to: ‘picture them going silently along the waterways of our land, […] half a million souls, to whom a decent life is simply impossible’. Examining representations of these people offers an opportunity to explore not just an archive of representations about life on the ‘cut’, but also the local conditions under which the meanings of those images were produced. Study of this particular group reveals the functions of bitextual culture and effects of textual repetition; the relationships between campaigns for legislation, the daily and monthly media, religion, and children’s literature; and the cultural/semiotic systems through which taxonomies of British society were made legible. My paper begins by situating an example of a didactic book for children, Mark Pearse’s Rob Rat: A Story of Barge Life (1879) in the context of the realities of life for tens of thousands of canal boat people in Britain in the nineteenth century, drawing on registers of canal boats and other historical documents. It goes on to examine the ways in which illustrations to this tale work with, and at times against, the written text to produce a mixed picture of canal boat people, demanding both immediate reform and Christian charity. Particular attention is paid to the influence of campaigner George Smith on the text. This tale and other fictional works describing the lot of canal boat people come intriguingly late in relation to the canal age. The paper concludes by offering some suggestions for this belated interest in the ‘floating population’.

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