At the end of the 16th century, the poor state of the roads made land transport slow, unreliable and expensive and, in the case of bulky goods such as coal, near impossible. The building of the canals solved the problem bringing great benefit to commerce.
It was the diversion of the Grand Junction Canal at Apsley in 1818 from its original route to follow the course of the Gade by Apsley and Nash Mills which gave John Dickinson direct access to the canal network. All the Dickinson mills were connected by canal to the Dickinson depot at Paddington (later Kings Cross). From there deliveries were made to the London area.
The boats took finished goods to London and brought back raw materials such as waste paper and rags. Other raw materials such as esparto grass, woodpulp, chemicals and china clay were also used in vast quantities. Once steam engines were in use in the mills, coal came in by canal. During the period 1904-1928, the average annual amount of coal delivered was 38,540 tons. The last deliveries of coal were made between 1960 and 1970 as the mills switched to oil.
It is not clear who manned the boats in the early days but Dickinsons did own some boats such as Lord Nelson and Hero of the Nile (registered 1870 and 1891). However, in 1890 Fellows, Morton and Clayton Ltd. contracted to operate the Dickinson intermill service. In 1897 they had replaced horse-drawn boats with “steamers” – Countess and Princess together with two “butties” – Maud and May, followed in 1910 with replacement “butties” – Alice and Kate. In 1927 motor boats – Jackal and Jaguar replaced the steamers and new butties – Helen and Hettie came into service in 1930.