Steering a new course: bringing co-operation to the waterways

The Jemima D is floating an idea. This year, the boat is being repainted with its proper title, the Jemima D Narrowboat Co-operative, and its original CND (Campaign...

The Jemima D is floating an idea. This year, the boat is being repainted with its proper title, the Jemima D Narrowboat Co-operative, and its original CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) sign. Jemima, along with its younger and slightly more glamorous sister Quince, are bringing co-operative principles to the waterways.

There are numerous shared ownership boats on Britain’s canals, but Jemima and Quince are different. Their members take an active part in both decision-making and maintenance, and the ultimate responsibility for their boat rests on them, as a team.

Founder member of the Jemima D co-op and former head of communications at Co-operatives UK, John Goodman, explains: “With us, it’s as much about the people as the boat. We’re guided by co-operative principles, so we make a big deal about collective decision-making and share jobs like treasurer, bookings and maintenance rather than farming them out to another business as some shared ownership boats do.

“As a member, you get lots of wonderful canal holidays at a very reasonable price, and great camaraderie.”

But you also have to be willing to work together, he adds, sometimes getting your hands very dirty. “We have practical working parties which can be pretty grubby experiences. Scraping the bottom of a boat is character building!

“We meet to discuss business twice a year, and we have a good time. It’s quite relaxed, we’re not rigidly structured. Different people do different things. Some people make soft furnishings. Some people are good at web administration. All the jobs rotate.”

Members take roles such as secretary, webmaster, treasurer and maintenance co-ordinator and then pass them on to other members. There is also an e-mailing list for discussions and messages.

Quince at Audlem  /  image: Kirk Martin
Quince at Audlem / image: Kirk Martin

Jemima, a simple 37-foot narrowboat with no frills, was set up as a co-op by colleagues at Suma Wholefoods, a workers co-op in West Yorkshire, in 1983. The founders used their knowledge of co-operative principles to ensure democratic control of the boat, creating a society for the benefit of the community.

More than 40 years later, the co-op is still going strong. Today Jemima is owned, operated and used by 10 co-operators, and has room for two or more new members.

The Quince Boat Co-op was formed by a splinter group of five Jemima D members in 1999. They wished to remain part of a co-op, but hankered for more mod cons and fewer maintenance issues. With friends, they commissioned the building of a 45-foot boat featuring comparative luxuries including a shower, a wood burner and berths for seven people. It cost them around £33,000.

Since then, Quince has gone from strength to strength, and it now has a waiting list for prospective members. Jemima, meanwhile, has attracted a fresh set of co-operators who brought with them new energy and helped renovate the boat.

Liz Wilson bought into a “rather ropey” Jemima in 2007. “The boat leaked,” she says. “We were baling her out. I fell in. My friend who bought shares with me left the co-op but I stayed.

“We then went into a phase of doing Jemima up. The less money you have, the more time it takes. For me, I’ve had as much enjoyment in doing work on the boat as having holidays on it. It used to be like a box, but it’s fully fitted now. It’s quite small, it’s basic, but it’s comfortable.”

Like her fellow co-op members, Liz considers Jemima part of her life. “I worked at Suma in the early 80s,” she says. “I’ve been in women’s collectives and housing co-ops. I like the idea of a co-op rather than a commercial timeshare. It’s not just something to do two weeks a year but a community. It’s a way of keeping in touch, a little bit of human contact and fun.”

It’s also a great experience for children. “When my daughter was little,” adds Liz, “she just loved narrowboats. It’s really, really relaxing travelling slower than the average walking speed. A lot of the time we don’t get a mobile signal. You’re away from it all.”

Anna Leonard-Wilson, a founder member of Quince, says the younger co-op has a similar ethos to its big sister, with its focus on democratic decision making and shared responsibility. It has 15 shares, currently valued at £2,200 each, with one vote per share. Members pay £25 per month to cover running costs and £50 per week when they use the boat, with each shareholder entitled to two weeks use during the season.

The co-op meets at the beginning and the end of the season, which runs from April to October.

“We expect shareholders to come to two meetings a year,” Anna says. “Sometimes people can’t make it and that’s fine, but if someone didn’t come for years we’d ask why.

“As well as winter maintenance, we say members need to do bits of maintenance during the season as they’re going round, for example changing the oil filter and checking the water system and shower. People do muck in as everybody feels they own the boat.”

Quince’s winter maintenance programme is carried out by the members, with tasks shared as equally possible, apart from the annual engine overhaul. “You always get some people who are more active than others,” adds Anna. “It depends where people are at in their lives.”

Richard Bickle, secretary of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies and member of the Jemima D co-op, says conventional shared ownership boats operate more like a timeshare, with shareholders demanding their individual rights and expecting someone else to ensure the boat is maintained and run.

“What’s special about the boat being co-operatively run is that we all have an equal say in what happens and take joint responsibility for how the boat is used and maintained,” he says. “One example of how this operates in practice is in our handling of conflicting demands for time slots on board.

“There are times when more than one member wants to use the boat the same week, but we find it’s easy to negotiate a solution whereby one member agrees to give way one time, and the other on another, such as families who want half-term bookings.

“Self-help and self-responsibility are at the core of what we do,” he adds. “Democracy and equality characterise our decision-making, and the way we divide up and rotate roles makes the value of equity, i.e. fairness, real. Many Jemima members are themselves involved in the co-operative movement and other movements for social change.”

The CND sign which adorned Jemima during the 80s is now being repainted, and is likely to be a talking point as she travels around the country. John Goodman says one mechanic gave the co-op a 10% discount after spotting it, but Liz Wilson adds that many onlookers will wonder what it is.

The ‘co-operative’ name will also be reinstated on Jemima’s side. “We talk to a lot of people about being a co-op,” says Mr Goodman. “When you stop at pub or a lock, it’s like being trapped in a lift with somebody. You get talking. We do spread the word. We do proselytise.”

Co-operative principles state that co-ops should contribute to their community and support other co-ops. Richard Bickle believes Jemima represents the intersection of two communities – waterways and co-ops. “Participation gives our members practical experience of running a co-op, and we try to exercise our rights within the Canal & River Trust, which has recently moved to a form of mutual governance,” he says.

“We also make use of and support other member-run organisations like the fantastic Stafford Boat Club, who hire us their wet and dry docks for maintenance and always make us welcome in the clubhouse.

“If we didn’t practise openness and honesty in our dealings with one another, the co-op would rapidly fall apart. So when at all possible, we make decisions by consensus and try to thrash out conflicting views when they arise, which is rarely.

“We hope that we’re demonstrating a socially and environmentally sustainable form of leisure, and helping to support the maintenance of the waterways as a viable resource and an important natural habitat.”

Anna Leonard-Wilson adds: “It’s a great way of having a canal holiday and a great way of meeting people. I’m really pleased I got involved in Jemima all those years ago and I’m pleased that we expanded it to create another narrowboat co-operative. It would be great if there were more of them.”

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