... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Friday 12 February 2010

Monkey business

I took the opportunity on Wednesday to take a couple of (pretty dreadful, as they turned out) pictures of my monkey box.

Now, last summer, when we met Hawkesbury, newly bought, at Fradley Junction, and I got chatting with the steerer, when I told him I had just acquired Chertsey the first thing he said was 'You've got my monkey box!'. Indeed, when I first went and saw the boat, it was described as 'Hawkesbury's monkey box.' But it ain't. As far as I can gather, something like this, like water cans, would be the property of the boatman, not part of the boat, and this one certainly is, having heard its history and how it came to be in Chertsey. It was made by Roger Hatchard, when he did indeed have Hawkesbury, but when he swapped his G.U. for a josher it didn't fit, so he gave it to Richard Barnett for Chertsey, and it's come to me along with all the other odds and ends on board. It's nice for me to have something with a connection to Hawkesbury, as my surname is the same as the name of its original (official) butty.

To be honest it doesn't fit perfectly on Chertsey, it's crudely made [but see comments for clarification] and painted, but as a bit of history and a nifty hidey-hole, I love it. To be honest some more, until I saw this one I hadn't even heard of a monkey box, so I asked on CWF about their origins and uses, and a long and learned thread ensued. The general consensus seems to be that they were used for storing cleaning materials and rags, possibly because there was a particular brass polish called 'Monkey Brand'.
Looking at it through female eyes though I find this rather unconvincing. The monkey box (open at the bottom and at the back, though this might not be typical) sits on the side bed, tucked into the corner adjacent to the door.

It's a safe and relatively clean place; why waste that on storing cleaning materials which could just as easily be kept in the boot cupboard, under the side bad or even in the engine room? Furthermore, brass polish tends to come in bottles - and I think always has had - which would be too tall to store upright in the monkey box. One person suggested that an alternative name was 'pillow box', which severs the Monkey Brand brass polish connection, and - although I'm very prepared to be proven wrong if there's any evidence to be produced either way - I'd be far more inclined to think of it as a relatively safe, covered, clean place for storing treasured possessions. I admit that that is purely intuition, and I would love it if someone could come up with something conclusive to demonstrate their use - and indeed, how widespread they were.

In the meantime, I'm afraid I shall be keeping my little treasures in mine.


  1. Hi Sarah
    Just a couple of observations:
    Your 'box' is definitely painted by Roger as I recognise his 'style'. If you say it is crudely made I doubt very much if it was made by Roger as, before he went onto the canal, he was originally a carpenter at a ship builders and as far as woodwork was concerned, was a perfectionist. (We all used to take the pee out of him over how long jobs would take him saying he used to study knot holes in wood for hours before deciding how to use that piece of wood.) Over the past four decades I have heard your item described as both 'monkey' and 'pillow' box. The later being obvious from it's use when someone sleeps on the side bed. Don't know about 'monkey polish' though as the advert used on CWF and a dredge on the net failed to find anything about brass polish only soaps for washing clothes and crocks. Finally it is where cleaning materials are kept including such as brasso.

  2. Yes, I suppose I wrote without thinking there. It's not 'crudely made' in the sense of being badly put together; but it does seem to be made out of bits of different sorts of wood, and of course the design itself is quite basic. I can see why it wouldn't need a bottom, as it is intended to be permanently positioned on a flat surface, but is it normal not to have a back either? Should it ideally be rammed up against a vertical surface (which Chertsey doesn't have there)? My apologies; I didn't mean to malign Roger's craftsmanship.

  3. No Sarah I know it was not a dig at Rodgers work, it was probably the way I had put it, I just meant that Roger probably did not make it as it was probably already in Hawkesbury when him and Jean took over he just painted it, like every thing else on Hawkesbury. That boat had so much decoration on it that the other Willer Wren boaters used to call it the 'fairground organ', but that was Roger. I remember when he was working for the Anderton and had Mountbatton, he painted the diamonds in the checker plate flooring in the engine 'ole all different colours! As far as bottoms and backs are concerned they usually did not have them for as you say they were usually made to fit each boat and fitted tightly against the cabin end and the side bed.

  4. Think you were right though Blossom, and it's not badly made... Just I failed to see it. Still, you will get a chance to look at it yourself soon hopefully and see what you think. I'm just not a good enough judge of woodwork and I didn't really examine it closely with that in mind.

    Those tales about Roger, all these little snippets of information, are wonderful.