Wm. English Canoe Co.

[Wm. English Canoe Co. Logo]

The Wm. English Canoe Co. will always hold a special place among the historic canoe builders of Canada, for it was the first to build canoes in a factory – what we would now call “commercially” - when it opened a shop on Charlotte Street in Peterborough, Ontario in 1861 (an old letterhead claims 1860 as the year of establishment). A reminder here to say that the first versions of the “plank canoe” or “board canoe” had been built by other innovators shortly before (1858—59). John S. Stephenson of Ashburnham (Peterborough) and Thomas Gordon of nearby Lakefield are usually given credit for building the prototypes of the all-wood canoe. In the Evening Examiner(Peterborough, May 9, 1908), Mr. Stephenson said that after he had built his first canoes (he built about a dozen in the first year), he loaned his model [his canoe-building mould] to William English who then started in the canoe business.

Following is a sketch of the company from Stratton’s The Town of Peterborough Directory(1888—89):

ENGLISH’S CANOE FACTORY – Number 182 Charlotte Street, established in 1861, the pioneer canoe factory of Canada, or of the world in its special line, basswood canoes of all kinds; pleasure, hunting, sailing, lumbermen’s etc. This factory holds medals won at the Paris (France) and Centennial (United States) exhibitions. The chief market for their goods is outside the town, largely in the Dominion [Canada] but they also have a good market in the United States and England. Although only six hands are employed, the factory turns out annually a very large number of first-class canoes.

William English proved to be an innovator in his own right. In an effort to eliminate the interior battens of the rib-and-batten canoe, English invented a technique to hold the abutting edges of canoe planks together with an inserted spline (triangular in section). It ran lengthwise and fitted into corresponding grooves in the edges of the abutting planks. In 1888 the Dominion of Canada granted English a patent (No. 29,269) for the idea, though it must not have flourished for we see no sign of it afterward. But why eliminate the interior battens in a canoe? For one thing, the battens were time-consuming to install. And time is money. As well, battens made the canoe hard to clean. They trapped water (and dirt and everything else) rather than let it flow away when you sluiced the canoe out. Eliminating the battens would make the canoe easier to clean and keep clean, and cheaper to build if an effective alternative could be found. Innovations like the metallic-joint construction designed by Thomas Gordon and advanced by builders like Walter Dean (Toronto) likewise aimed at eliminating the battens and giving a more open interior. For that matter, so did the elegant flush-batten so often associated with Mr. Gordon’s beautiful canoes.

Wm. English was born in 1840 and died in Peterborough, Ontario at the young age of fifty-one on March 1, 1891. At his death, operation of the canoe-building company devolved upon a partnership of three men: Sam English, the youngest of the three English brothers, one William J.N. Carveth of Peterborough and a man whose name became prominent in canoe building – J.B. O’Dette, better known as “Bat” O’Dette. O’Dette left the partnership in 1893, and Sam English retired from business in February of 1902 (he died fifteen years later on May 2, 1917 at the age of sixty-five). 

With the retirement of Sam English, his older brother James had assumed control of the Wm. English Canoe Co. James continued to operate it until well into his seventies. In early 1914, when James English was seventy-seven, he entered into an agreement to sell the company to C.H. Rogers and W.A. Richardson, the principals of an old rival, the Peterborough Canoe Co.

The Wm. English catalogue for 1918 reprinted last year (2008) by Plumsweep Press depicts the styles of open canoe (as opposed to decked canoes for sailing) which made the company its reputation among canoe-fanciers: basswood, cedar board and cedar strip. Basswood and cedar board were both built in the style called rib-and-batten. The cedar strip has become so well-known as to make explanation unnecessary. These traditional canoes were complimented by freight canoes (also an established line), war canoes for use by canoe clubs, and canvas-covered canoes which had gained a following of their own by 1918.

The reputation of the old Wm. English Canoe Co. cannot be depicted as readily as the catalogue offerings shown in our reprint. But whenever you ask people who remember the old days and who knew canoes, you hear the same thing. Fifteen years ago, an old hand from one of Peterborough’s other canoe companies said with great admiration to an interviewer: “Wm. English built the nicest canoe of anybody.”