By Dave Moore
Born 2nd May 1925
Died 21 st March 1999
Alf was born in Tipton, near Dudley, in the west Midlands.
Tipton is crossed by two major canals and had scores of minor arms serving local factories at this time. Alf attended Tipton Grammar School, leaving at 14 to begin an apprenticeship as a plater and patternmaker. By then he was already developing his ropework skills, having befriended a boating family named Roberts who were based at Bloomfield Basin, close to Alf’s home.
Alf was one of 7 Langford children and frequently had to help care for the younger ones. An industrial accident at the age of 16 resulted in the loss of one eye. He joined the Army in 1944 and re enlisted in 1947. Alf contracted TB while on active service in Germany and was discharged in 1952.
On returning to England he took up an apprenticeship as a surgical boot maker, later becoming a transport manager. Alf bought his first boat “Mayfly” in 1966 and soon acquired “Imp”, a narrowboat he shared with his brother Jeff. A few years later he had “Hexa” built for him by Midlands boatbuilder Dennis Cooper and it was this that his many friends associate with Alf. Some time on, Alf was looking to work full time as a fender nlaker and decorative ropeworker, and had a small workboat built as a tender to “Hexa” – it served as a floating workshop. He plied his trade successfully for several years and also spent time as a demonstrator at the Black Country Museum. Here he met and married Cynthia and later his son Sam was born.
More difficult times followed and Alf was forced to sell the boats. His marriage
failed and David Baugh, another boatbuilder in the Black Country, provided
accommodation and a workspace at his yard, where Alf again resumed his trade with rope. Declining health eventually curtailed Alf’s productivity and he moved to sheltered housing in nearby Kinver, where he spent the last few years of his life.
Alf’s skills were, I recall always in demand. A set of fenders here, decorative work there and plaited leather belts were ever popular- the kind of plait done without any free ends. One night in a pub he had a stream of boaters all with broad belts that required plaiting. The boaters waited eagerly to witness this work, but Alf was loath to reveal his secrets. To their immense discomfiture he removed his one glass eye, dropped it into his nearly full pint and departed for the gents’ clutching the belts, pausing to say “Now yo’ kip an eye on me pint till I gets back!”.
People and times change. Once again Alf and I moved in separate ways. I heard of marriage, then a child, and later that he was alone again. We met once more when I went to letter a boat in a local boatyard. There was Alf now living ashore and making fenders in his workshop, a converted pigeon loft. Their quality was such that he was always in great demand. The roof of his room was festooned with decorative pieces in various stages of completion. We swapped pints and reminisced of times long gone, promising to keep in
regular contact. Irregular meetings were the norm. Failing health put Alf into
sheltered accommodation in nearby Kinver, a stone’s throw from his beloved “Cut”. Working there often, we sometimes met. All too often, other pressures kept me from calling in. It would always be “next time”.
A phone call from amutual friend closed that opportunity forever. As I turn the mast dropper (or “donkey prick” as it’s known colloquially to boatmen) I recall a unique individual who was both obstreperous, opinionated and 0utspoken but with a kind and generous heart. The salt of the Black Country earth who leaves us poorer for his passing.
Words reproduced from Knotting Matters (Issue 64) with kind permission of the International Guild of Knot Tyers.