Keels & Sloops

Most of the boats seen on the River Don nowadays are used for leisure. This is a very different scene to when the River Don was an important trading artery and part of the network linking the tidal Humber ports to the industrial cities far inland.

On the moorings today you will more than likely see narrow boats. But, narrow boats aren’t really native to this part of Britain, and while they were plying their trade in the West and South of the country on the narrow canals with their intricate ‘roses and castles’ decorations, the Yorkshire waterways were more suited for heavier, wider, deeper vessels.

There were two main types of Yorkshire barges – keels and sloops – although there were many variations within this tradition. They were built strong to withstand the tides of the River Humber and had a flat bottom in case they had to (intentionally or not!) spend low tide on a sand bank. They were big enough to carry a good cargo on the Humber, but at the same time were small enough to travel far inland – this meant they did not have to unload at ports and could carry on their journey unbroken, taking cargoes direct from suppliers to buyers.


A sailing Keel (Copyright Yorkshire Waterways Museum)

While the hulls of keels and sloops were very similar in design and construction, the sails were what marked them apart and suited them to particular jobs. For example, a keel has a single square sail, possibly with a top sail, and was more suited to work on the canals as the sail area was contained to the width of the boat. Whereas a sloop would have a triangular sail on a boom that was better suited to catching wind on the wider rivers such as the Humber, where there was space for the sail to swing out beyond the sides of the vessel.


A painting of  ‘Harry, the Humber Sloop’ by Reuben Chappell.
(Copyright Yorkshire Waterways Museum)

The dimensions of a keel and sloop depended on the particular water they were trading on and the size of locks they could get through. A ‘Sheffield’ sized keel, as the name suggests, would be able to get inland as far as Sheffield, and owing to the size of the locks on the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Canal could be no longer than 61’ 6” and no wider than 15’ 6”. A ‘West Country’ keel was not as the name would imply trading in Devon or Cornwall, but went as far as West Yorkshire from the Humber – it was therefore a few feet shorter to accommodate the smaller locks. A Humber Keel could be longer, typically up to 70’, but was constricted to how far inland they could trade.

During World War II, barge owners were encouraged to convert their vessels from sail to engines and received grants from the government to do so. So, in the 1950s the stunning sight of a keel or sloop in full sail had all but disappeared. New barges were built with engines only, and cargoes were motored around the region, until lorries became the preferred choice for transporting goods.


Motor Keels waiting to unload at Doncaster Power Station
(Copyright Yorkshire Waterways Museum)

There are still some descendants of the traditional Yorkshire barges to be seen in the area. Some have been converted back to sail, many have been converted into house boats or have found other uses, with some still doing their traditional job – such as the Waddingtons fleet based at Swinton.


Sobriety was built as a sailing keel in 1910, and is now a residential barge that takes visitors on trips around the Yorkshire waterways. Here she is motoring on the Humber.