The author gives a picture, taken on census night on 2nd April 1871, of how many people worked on the waterways, whether ashore or afloat, their professional roles and where occupied boats were located. Where boats were within customs ports such as Gloucester or Ellesmere Port, the enumerators issued special schedules which recorded vessels' ports of origin, cargoes, the name of the master and the number of crewmen ashore, enabling an understanding of traffic flows.
By 1871 the railways had been making inroads into canal trade for some 20 years or more, while some canals were owned by railway companies. The author is able to demonstrate which waterways remained busy despite the competition and which were not. By examining comparative data from earlier and later censuses, he is able to show traffic trends. By analysis of the census data for those afloat he demonstrates that the characterisation of boat people by social reformers such as George Smith as incestuous, cohabiting and habitually drunken is almost certainly well wide of the mark, as was Tom Rolt's more romantic 20th century perception.
The book includes clear and helpful maps and many modern colour photographs.