Friday, 14 June 2013

History of the Canals

Water Transport up to 1760
Water has always been used to carry goods in Britain. From earliest times, small sailing boats and barges traded on the major rivers when flood or drought would allow.
But until the major canal system was built, moving cargoes around the country was difficult: navigation on natural rivers was dangerous, and road transport was slow and bumpy.
Several small schemes were carried out before 1700. The first Exeter Canal in 1566 used pound locks (with gates at both ends) and helped Exeter to remain a sea port. In 1653 the River Wey was improved to link Guildford to the River Thames. Andrew Yarranton worked on the Dick Brook to connect a forge to the River Severn, and extended the navigation of the River Avon above Evesham.
From 1700 to 1760 the pace of work quickened, and several major schemes to make rivers safe and useful were carried out. Among them was a group of three in the North West; the Douglas, Weaver, and Mersey & Irwell all opened in the 1730s.
They were inter-dependent, and all based on the salt trade. The stability brought by reliable transport laid the foundation for the area´s strength today in the chemical industry, 250 years later. Elsewhere, the Kennet-linking Newbury to the Thames - and the River Don navigation, laid the foundation for later canals.
Throughout Britain in the mid-18th Century, new industries were growing, and with them the need for raw materials and safe carriage of finished products. Without good transport, the new industries could not prosper. Many sites were away from natural rivers, and the combination of need, prosperous business, and the expansion of engineering, opened the way for the development of new canals.

The Canal Age 1760-1835
Beginnings around Manchester

The canal age began in the North West around Liverpool and Manchester. In 1755 an Act was passed for improving navigation on the Sankey Brook, but it was unsuitable, so a canal was built alongside instead - opening in 1757.
In 1759 the first Act was passed for the Duke of Brigewater´s Canal. The Duke´s intention was to carry coal direct from his mines at Worsley into the heart of Manchester, and the canal was built by the Duke´s agent, John Gilbert, with the assistance of James Brindley. The canal was so successful that it was later extended to compete with the Mersey & Irwell Navigation, and brought encouragement for the great period of canal building.

The Cross
The great vision of the canal system was a cross linking the major ports: Liverpool, Hull, Bristol and London. It was to these projects, that James Brindley turned his growing experience.
The Act for the Trent & Mersey Canal was passed in 1766. The greatest pressure for building it came from the Potteries, and Josiah Wedgwood in particular. As local supplies were exhausted, he needed more and more raw materials, plus safe, smooth method of transport for his fragile wares.

The Trent & Mersey Canal was built with narrow locks 7ft wide, and 70ft long. This set the pattern for a majority of the canal system, but also sowed the seeds for the eventual decline of canals.

Contour Canals
The early canal engineers had very few technical resources. They were working with an untrained labour force and with little knowledge of geology or major engineering techniques. A lot of the first canals were built along a contour. This saved the expense of locks and heavy earthworks, but made them long and winding.
The heavy traffic on the canals soon began to produce big profits - fast fuelling the idea that canals made money, and resulting in the „Canal Mania“.

Canal Mania 1789-1796
People rushed to put money into canal schemes. Plans and projects were put forward for canals winding all over the country. Some of these were built, and the more sensible ones made money, but many were financial disasters.
Waterways like the Leominster Canal and the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal were typical casualties- the first was never finished, and the second never made a profit. The major schemes of the 1790s included the building of the Grand Junction Canal, which provided a wide, direct canal route from London to the Midlands canals at Braunston. It was one of many successful canals built under the direction of William Jessop.


After 1796
Several canals took a long time to build. This was usually because of difficulty raising money. The Leeds & Liverpool Canal´s first Act was in 1770 - yet it was not finally completed until 1816. By then there were two other competitors for the lucrative trade between Lancashire and Yorkshire over the Pennines: the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, and the wide Rochdale Canal.
With the completition of the Grand Junction Canal in 1805 the phase of successful major canal projects was finished. Before the coming of the railways a few small projects, branches and basins were built, and two major canals were completed. These were the Kennet & Avon in 1810, built by John Rennie, and the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction by Thomas Telford, finished in 1835. The latter, which became known as the Shropshire Union, typifies the state of the art at the end of the canal age. It was straight, with massive embankments and cuttings, and locks grouped in flights for ease of use and control. But it never really prospered, as it was completed at a time when public interest and investment money had already turned towards the new railways.

Canals in a Railway Age
Many canals continued to be successful well into the railway age. They carried bulk goods, as the early railways were more interested in profitable passenger and fast freight traffic. But railways drained the best-paying cargoes from the canals, and the resulting lack of money prevented many canals from modernising or competing - they remained basically as they were built; narrow and designed for horsedrawn traffic.
Some of the early river navigations came back into their own because they were wider than the canals, and could carry a greater tonnage per boat. Significant improvements were made to the Weaver, and the waterways of the Calder, Aire & Hebble group in the North East.
One other major project, the Manchester Ship Canal, was completed at the end of the 19th Century. This brought renewed prosperity to the North West where the canal age had begun.

Canals at War
At the beginning of the war boating was not a reserved occupation, so some boatmen volunteered for the Armed Forces. When the Government realised that this was causing difficulties to the delivery of essential war materials, it was stopped.
Other canal workers were not protected in the same way and many ex- service personnel and pensioners found themselves working as lock keepers and maintenance men to cover for men who had been drafted into active service.
In an attempt t o provide more crews for the boats, women volunteers were recruited and trained to operate pairs of boats, or the wide boats of the Leeds and Liverpool  Canal. The Governement also took control of all waterway, railway and road transport so they could co-ordinate the delivery of supplies to where they were most needed.
The Grand Union Canal Carrying Company had large numbers of boats standing idle,  even before war had been declared.
Very ambitious expansion plans had been hampered by a shortage of suitable crews.

The Great Freeze
In the winter of 1962-3, Canal boats were trapped in ice all over the country for six long weeks. Materials needed for industry - coal, steel, bricks and a thousand other things - goods which had been delivered week after week for generations - failed to arrive. Coal for the power stations, chemicals for export, and boats needed to carry away the daily household and factory rubbish - all were locked in remote canals.
By the 1960s, canal transport was already finding it difficult to compete with road and rail, but at the end of his six weeks hold-up, the canal trade was dead. Firms that had waited in vain for vital supplies, immediately transferred their custom elsewhere. Most industries peter out and dissappear over time. There had been canal freezes before and the canal had resumed trade when the ice melted, but this time there was a predatory road haulage industry ready to pounce. 

I have to thank the Canal Museum in Stoke Bourne and in Foxton for all this informations!

Here are some songs and poems of the canals.


  1. love the guy who's got his beer, trying hard not to be part of it, but still joining in.