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What are Tub Boats?

By Brenda Scott
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the mid-18th century, industrialists in England and Germany devised a faster system to move mining ore and minerals down steep inclines to factories and loading docks. This system consisted of narrow canals, lifts, and small container boats, called tub boats. These iron boats were open, flat-ended boxes approximately 20 feet long (6 meters) by 6.5 feet wide (2 meters), and could carry up to 5 tons (5080 kg) of oar.

At some mining locations, the tub boats were positioned in submerged cradles running on rails. Once the boat was filled, the cradle was lifted over a sill and into the incline plane, where it was moved down to the canal. There the boats were coupled together into chains of three to ten containers, to be transported to a factory or port. At first, the boats were moved down the canal with ropes attached to horse-powered gins placed along the shore, but these were soon replaced by steam-powered pulley systems. Some canals also used a series of locks and lifts to move the tub boats from one elevation to another.

Tub boats were first used in England on the Bridgewater Canal, though similar systems were soon build throughout the Midlands, Wales, and Southwest Cornwall. The Hay Inclined Plane at Coalport, which operated from 1972 to 1894, moved the boats down a 207 foot (63 meter) vertical drop from Blists Hill to the Severn River. The Hay Inclined Plane and two tub boats have been preserved as part of the Blists Hill Victorian Town Museum.

In 1863, larger tub boats, known as Tom Puddings, were developed to carry coal 30 miles (48.3 km), from the coal mines near Stanley Ferry to the port of Goole, where the coal was loaded unto ships. A much broader canal had been opened, which would accommodate boats with greater dimensions, and the Tom Pudding was large enough to carry 40 tons (40,641 kg). Larger hydraulic ship hoists were brought to the port to lift the Tom Pudding boats up and pour the coal directly into the waiting ships. This system was extremely successful, and operated on the Aire and Calder Navigation until 1985.

In Japan, tub boats, known as Tarai Bune, were used to collect seaweed and shellfish. Originally hand-built from wood, these round boats look like a tub guided with a flat paddle. The only place Japanese tub boats are still in use is around Sado Island, though many are now made of fiberglass instead of wood. In the city of Ogi, tourists can take rides in these unique crafts, while about 100 of the little vessels are still being used in the surrounding villages by fishermen.

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