Interview 17 - Catherine Robinson

Catherine Robinson, local historian, author and editor

Interviewer: Maria Parsons
Editor: Emma Coombs
Total recording time: 1 hr : 5 min : 24 sec


  • Catherine was interviewed in her home, from where she can see the Oxford Canal
Access available in Oxfordshire History Centre and Libraries only

Click on track number below to play

Track Content summary Length
17.1 Catherine came to Oxford in the 1960s to read English at the university and has never left. She became interested in local and social history and has spent 15-20 years exploring the ‘lives of ordinary people’ and in particular the working boaters who had strong oral traditions probably as they were not literate. 4 min : 56 sec
17.2 Describes researching the closed community of working boaters when she was gathering material for 'A Towpath Walk in Oxford' which she co-authored with Mark Davies (who is also interviewed as part of the Oxford Canal Heritage Oral History collection).

Most of what she knows about life on the canals was learned from interviews with the late Rose and Jack Skinner, veterans of the coal trade who could trace their boating ancestry back through many generations. Long dynasty of family members, most of whom were called ‘Jack’ or ‘Rose’.
6 min : 6 sec
17.3 Mentions Joe Skinner (Jack’s uncle) who famously was the last working boater to have a boat towed by a mule: Dolly the mule towed one of pair of boats called the Friendship. 52 sec
17.4 Recounts the memories of Rose Skinner about opening the locks ahead of her mother’s boat. This brought coal to Osney Power Station from Coventry. Rose’s father was paid £6 for making the 2 week round trip. 1 min : 56 sec
17.5 Working boats on Oxford Canal tended to be 'Number Ones’ - i.e. operated by their owners. Despite the hard work, this was a proud independent community with a strong sense of belong to a community. Proud and respectful – photos showed well turned out families with clean clothes – a real achievement given conditions aboard coal boats and washing done on tubs on the towpath. 4 min : 23 sec
17.6 Children missed out on formal education as family usually on the move. 3 min : 9 sec
17.7 Concisely describes the saving of the Trap Grounds, a wildlife reserve alongside the Oxford Canal towpath just before new Frenchay Road bridge.

From 1992 onwards a group of people local to Hayfield Road cleared the Trap Grounds of rubbish left by its former owners - St John’s College and willow that was choking a reed bed. It was then enjoyed for several years.

In 2000, the Oxford City Council who then - it emerged - were the owners, posted notices of its intent to allow developers to build a road and 45 houses on the land - part of a few kilometres of canal side housing development - despite the Trap Grounds being home to diverse wild life including the Water Rail. In Oxford the Trap Grounds are the only place where this bird is found. An action group discovered that making a legal case for the Trap Grounds to be recognised as a Town Green would prevent the sale of the land and housing development.

An epic struggle took place between the Trap Grounds action group and the Oxford City Council for several years that included the case being heard at the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. A judgement was made that granted Town Green status to the Trap Grounds forever. A local group of volunteers now work in partnership with the Oxford City Council to maintain the Trap Grounds.
9 min : 14 sec
17.8 A boardwalk enables visitors to walk around the Trap Grounds and an information board and website offers information about flora and fauna. Phil and Jim, a local primary school almost adjacent to the Trap Grounds are regular users. 2 min : 43 sec
17.9 Women and the canal – boaters of old and their contribution to trade on working boats – steering, housework and childcare. 1 min : 53 sec
17.10 The story of the Idle Women, middle class women who opted to help out on working boats during the war when the fleets were very busy. 4 min : 13 sec
17.11 Health and welfare arrangements. Boaters often had cottages that they used from time to time – especially when retired and for women to give birth. In some localities midwives delivered babies on board the boats. However boaters who worked in the open air were probably healthier than their peers living in urban slums. 2 min : 29 sec
17.12 In 1875 a Mission Room was established next to St Margaret’s Church that offered a night school to boaters before the building (1883) of St Margaret’s Working Men’s Institute. Indicative of Victorian concern for morals of working boaters. 1 min : 41 sec
17.13 How to square the circle between rights of boaters (who, on some stretches of the canal, use the land alongside their boat for storage, seating etc.) and those of visitors who often comment on how what is perceived to be messy and rubbish strewn. Landlords - British Waterways and now Canal and River Trust rarely intervene. 1 min : 56 sec
17.14 Favourite stretch of Oxford Canal is towpath by Hayfield Road where water voles can be heard plopping into the water to the Plough where glow-worms can be seen in Summer months. 2 min : 17 sec
17.15 Sees future of the canal as increasing leisure cruising but it was almost filled in. A national poet - Sir John Betjeman played his part in lobbying against the proposals but it was an ordinary boater - Jack Skinner - who saved the day by opening locks ahead of a fact finding visit by Barbara Castle, Minister for Transport, ensuring he was able to show her that the Oxford Canal was full and navigable. 7 min : 5 sec
17.16 The towpath, its condition and the tension between cyclists and walkers. 3 min : 37 sec
17.17 Theories about why and how the Trap Grounds acquired the name. Catherine discounts a number in favour of making a case for local people digging shallow culverts from the Isis (River Thames) across Port Meadow and trapping fish which swam into them. Important local economic practice as for centuries, freshwater fish and eels were an important part of people's diet. 6 min : 28 sec