At the height of salt production many local families were associated with the trade on the River Weaver. In Winsford, names such as Bracegirdle, Hough, Fitton, Bowden, Hulse, Atherton, Curzon and Robinson come to mind. Ben Robinson of Wharton Road had set his sights on following the family tradition and becoming the captain of a riverboat. Tales of the river told to Ben by his father, when he was only knee high, set his heart longing for the tang of salt. But, at the age of 14, he was told he was too young to become an apprentice on a barge. He spent the next two years as an office boy and salt packer. Eventually he was able to transfer to the Craft Section and join the “Elizabeth” in Manchester.
In August 1915 Ben lied about his age and joined the Royal Marines. He was shot in his right forearm and received other injuries that necessitated a long stay in hospital. Invalided out, he later served on the H.M.S. Vengeance and finally with land forces in Gallipolis. Afterwards he said “War starts with cheering and shouting – sadness comes later.
At the end of the war he resumed work on the river, first as mate on the “Waterfly”, a position he held for 15 years, then on the “Decempedes”. As mate on the “Waterfly” he served under his uncle, Captain William Robinson, but strangely never worked alongside his own father. The “Waterfly” was a powerful tug used to pull a succession of barges up and down the river. It was unique insomuch as the Captain had his own cabin, with washing facilities and living quarters. Toilet facilities were a bucket over the side. Ben’s daughter tells of one visit to the boat when she needed to use the toilet. She was sent to the Captain’s quarters where, instead of the bucket, she mistakenly used a shiny pot. She was never allowed to forget that she had ruined a precious store of tobacco!
Finally, in 1935, Ben was appointed as a craft captain. His first boat was the “National”, followed by half a dozen others, the last one being the “Chanticleer”. The first of Ben’s family to serve on the river had been his grandfather who was the captain of the “Gondolier”. On his own retirement, Ben, a bronzed 64 year old, remarked philosophically
in his broad Cheshire accent “No, there’ll be no more Captains to follow me, I’m the last in the line, I have only two daughters”. So ended a 120-year-old association of one family with the River Weaver.
So what is the mystery? It is the whereabouts of a lost portrait of Ben Robinson attributed to an unknown artist – Miss MacNulty of Northwich. Captain Robinson is painted against a background of the viaduct over the Weaver at Northwich. It was reproduced for an article in the local Chronicle in the 1960’s, but its current location is unknown although it was rumoured that it had been given to the Leverhulme Collection at Port Sunlight. In it Ben is depicted as a loveable white haired Father Christmas character resplendent in his Captain’s jacket. If anyone knows where the portrait is now, or has any information on the artist, please contact the Society.
Article by Glynn Walker