Chocolate Charlie by Bill Malkin Chorus : Hey, hey, the children say Chocolate Charlie’s coming our way Bringing packets of chocolate chips, Bringing them down on the old Mendip Charlie lived in a narrow boat home, Cooked his food on a little coal stove Smoked a pipe, twisted his beard, Wore a cap on the back of his head Chorus Charlie laughed, danced and sang, Worked his life a Cadbury man Carried the load the best he can, From Ellesmere Port to Bourneville Town Chorus Children they all knew the sound, Charlie wound his windlass round A simple Shropshire Union Man, Doing the best he can Chorus The leaves all rustle, grass it grows, Blackbird singing in the hawthorn row The rooks and the ravens and the carrion crows, They all know his name Chorus x2 Charlie Atkins (known as Chocolate Charlie) was one of the most colourful characters of the ‘narrow boat era’. He was born in 1902 into a boating family at Moss Pool Lock on the Newport Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal. He learned his boating skills on the Shroppie Flys until, at the age of 17, he took over his own boat, the horse boat ‘Skate’. In 1951 he became master of the ’Mendip’. Built 1948 by W J Yarwood & Sons, Northwich, the Mendip had a composite hull of iron sides and wood bottom. Her current engine was a 18 bhp Lister FR2. Charlie’s association with this boat was to last for more than 30 years, as he worked the waterways between the North West (Ellesmere Port) and Birmingham, carrying loads of chocolate crumb to the Cadbury’s factory at Bourneville. The journey carrying a 25 ton load, involved 50 locks and took 14 hours. In a normal working week, Charlie would manage to do two round trips. Legend has it that he often gave out ‘chocolate chips’ to children along the way who would wait for him to pass by. When the chocolate crumb trade finished in 1962, Charlie and ‘Mendip’ joined the British Waterways’ Anderton-based fleet. Trade was in aluminium ingots from Manchester to Wolverhampton, and feldspar (a basic pottery material) from Weston Point to Stoke-on-Trent, with a return load of coal to Seddon Salt at Middlewich. Later, grinding sand was carried locally for I.C.I. In 1963 ‘Mendip’ was transferred to British Waterways Board and the following year was leased to Willow Wrens. In November 1967, when the manager of Willow Wrens formed his own company, the Anderton Canal Carrying Company, Charlie and ‘Mendip’ joined them until 1974. Her last load was transporting concrete piles used to reinforce canal banks at Calf Heath. Once ‘Mendip’ and Charlie had finished their working lives, they moored up at Preston Brook. It was during these years, with the rising interest in canals, that Charlie appeared in various television programmes which earned him modest national fame. In 1976, he was reverently described in a national boating magazine as follows: “At 74, he still has the same tanned, weather-beaten face, creased with almost as many lines as miles of canal he has travelled; the same deep-set twinkling eyes, always smiling and the same optimism.” As the area round Preston Brook began to be developed, it was suggested that both man and boat should move to Ellesmere Port as a sort of floating resident caretaker at the Boat Museum. Charlie was considering it when, because of ill health, his doctor ordered him to move off the boat. He went to live with his son in Birmingham. In the meantime, the boat was kept at Preston Brook as it was hoped he would return to it. Sadly he didn’t and he died in June 1981. Following his death, Harry Arnold said of him in Canal and Riverboat, “He was a gentleman in the proper sense of the word and his death is like the closing of a door on another era of canal history. Many of us will miss the twinkling smile and the shake of the head, but there will be many times with Charlie Atkins that will never be forgotten”. In 1993 the British Waterways presented the ownership of ‘Mendip’ to the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port where she is still to this day. The song was written and recorded by the Chester based singer-songwriter Bill Malkin on the CD 'Chocolate Charlie and other folk songs'. I am indebted to Bill for providing the song and the above information about Charlie Atkins which appeared originally in the magazine Folk North West. Recorded on :
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