A boatman chooses a wife from Nantwich Workhouse

William Mathias outside Nantwich Workhouse
Nantwich Workhouse

Whilst researching the history of the workhouses in Nantwich, a member of our Research Group found an extraordinary story about a boatman going to Nantwich Workhouse to ask for a wife!

This report, in the Crewe Chronicle, appeared on 01 June 1895:


A matter-of-fact captain of one of the canal boats plying between Chester and Ellesmere called at Nantwich workhouse on Friday last and asked whether the master could recommend as a wife one of the female inmates in the house. He explained that he lost his wife about six months ago, and he badly wanted a housekeeper.  He said he could give the “lady” a comfortable home in his cabin, with a prospect of her becoming his wife if she came up to his expectations. The officials evidently regarded the proposals as a serious matter for the prospective bride, and suggested that the man should give them 24 hours to consider his application. The following day the captain again appeared at the work house and he was introduced to about 50 likely candidates, one of whom, between 40 and 50, he finally selected. The couple left the house amid the congratulations of the inmates, and a perfect shower of shoes and slippers. The circumstances created a great deal of merriment, and it was somewhat remarkable that of the 50 eligible women not one of them exhibited any diffidence when the objects of the captain’s errand was explained. It will be interesting to see how the arrangement progresses. The captain has given instructions to Mr Pooley, the relieving officer, in the event of the five or six weeks probation being satisfactory, to put up the “askings” at Acton church. It is hoped, in vindication of this almost mechanical system of choosing a wife that the affair will turn out well. It is not every husband that is given such advantages.

His mission was obviously successful for him, as this story report appeared in numerous papers across the country a few weeks later:

South Wales Daily News 13 June 1895 

SOUGHT A WIFE IN THE WORK-HOUSE. The extraordinary negotiations for a wife in which the captain of a canal boat plying between Chester and Ellesmere Port, engaged with the authorities at the Nantwich Workhouse about three weeks ago, had a gratifying sequel on Tuesday morning.  The bridegroom’s name is Samuel Walker, a native of Wolverhampton. The couple were married at Acton Church that morning. The bridegroom attended in his boatman’s attire, but the bride, who is only 45 (15 years younger than the bridegroom), was rather smartly dressed in a print dress, and a bonnet in which there were arranged a number of roses of rather brilliant hue. The bride was given away by the clerk of the church (Mr Provost), whilst the relieving officer (Mr Pooley) officiated as best man. As the captain and his bride left the church they were the recipients of a number of gifts, and they left the village amid a shower of rice and old slippers.

We have managed to find records of the marriage, which took place on 10 June 1895:

1895 The wedding of Sarah Shone and Samuel Walker in Acton Church
Details of the marriage between the boatman (William Walker) and Sarah Shone.

It’s interesting to note that Samuel Walker, who was aged 60 when he got married, was illiterate. However his wife, a spinster called Sarah Shone, could sign her name (possibly as a result of being educated in Nantwich Workhouse). Sarah was 15 years younger than Samuel.  The witnesses were James Pooley (a relieving officer) and Caroline Clay, who was the wife of the canal agent.

Samuel’s boat was called “Berlin”. We think this horse-drawn boat conveyed fluxingstone.  Fluxingstone came from Wales, and was was stored at Nantwich before being transported by boat to the Black Country. It would have involved a lot of transshipment.  Nantwich basin would be drained periodically to remove spilt stone. It was a perk of the workmen to have first go at the eels that were trapped.

The living quarters on board would have been extremely confined as this picture of the interior of the Fly Boat “Saturn” when she moored at Nantwich Basin in 2009 shows:

Interior of the Fly Boat Saturn
The interior of the Fly Boat “Saturn”

A tiny area, about this size, would have been Samuel’s and Sarah’s kitchen, dining room, living room and bedroom! It may have been painted in the traditional style with castles and flowers, as this old photo (supplied by Tony Lewery, a traditional narrowboat painter) shows:

Inside the back cabin of the Friendship © Tony Lewery
The Friendship © Tony Lewery

We’re not sure how long the marriage lasted. A report in the Western Daily Mercury, on 14 September 1895, tells us that Mrs. Walker has “slipped it” with a blind fiddler! The article goes on to say “The husband does not appear to be overwhelmingly disconcerted, for he is pleasantly indulging the conviction that the object of his strange choice will return to him”.  The Western Daily Mercury, on 30 September 1895, reports that Mrs Walker is still tramping the country with the “blind fiddler”.

We found a Samuel Walker, in 1891, on a different boat called the “Pelican” at Whitchurch (Shropshire). In the census this boat is next door to the “Berlin”. If it is the same person, he’s actually four years older than he stated when he got married. That would make him nineteen years older than his new wife.

We would love to hear from you if you can tell us more about Samuel and Sarah, or the boat.

You can learn more about the canal at Nantwich from our digital download here,

You can learn more about Nantwich Workhouse here.

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