The collection

11th June 1999 at 01:00
Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display. Week 22: Horse-drawn narrowboat, 'Friendship'. The Boat Museum, Ellesmore Port

The Boat Museum is housed in the buildings of the historic Ellesmere Port transhipment dock, the Heathrow of its day, bustling with cargoes passing between the Midlands, the River Mersey, the Manchester ship canal and beyond.

It holds the world's largest floating collection - more than 60 traditional inland waterways craft ranging from colourful narrow boats to a Second World War concrete barge.

Friendship is a wooden horse-drawn narrowboat, built in 1924 on the Coventry Canal. She has a fascinating history to tell.

She was built for a boatman and his wife, Joe and Rose Skinner. Most boatmen and women worked for a company, but some, such as Joe and Rose, owned their own boats and carried cargoes directly for fact-ories or collieries, or acted as subcontractors for others.

Joe and Rose used Friendship to carry coal to factories around Oxford, including the Morris radiator factory. In later years, they took deliveries to Banbury dairy and the New World gas cooker factory in Birmingham.

From the late 1920s, most narrowboats were fitted with engines but Joe and Rose loved animals so much they couldn't bear to convert Friendship to motor. They preferred using mules to horses, and bought their last mule, Dolly, from the US Army as First World War surplus. Dolly's death (she lived to the remarkable age of 40 or thereabouts) prompted their decision to retire in 1959.

In their retirement, the Skinners and Friendship became well known faces on the canals. They were regular attenders at canal rallies, which were gaining in popularity as more and more people became interested in canal restoration and pleasure boating.

After their deaths, Friendship became part of the Boat Museum's collection with the help of the Coventry Canal Society in 1977. Her traditional roses and castles cabin, Joe and Rose's home for 50 years, had not been altered since the 1950s and was already the oldest traditional cabin in existence.

If Friendship had been kept afloat her cabin would have been lost in the restoration work, so she has been preserved as a striking indoor exhibit. Now, visitors are able to walk inside her hold, look into her cabin and, through the addition of a soundtrack, hear Joe and Rose themselves talking about their remarkable lives on the canals.

Emma Chaplin is keeper of collections at the Boat Museum, South Pier Road, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire CH65 4FW.Tel: 0151 355 5017

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