A quick history of the canals

In the middle of the 1700s, Britain was undergoing a revolution – the Industrial Revolution. Factories had begun to turn out goods en masse instead of them being made slowly and individually by hand; machines were invented that used steam and water power to drive their mechanics. Production of “stuff” in bulk was suddenly practical. It was the biggest upheaval in manufacturing processes the world had ever seen – but there was a problem.

At the time, railways hadn’t been invented and roads, such as they were, were atrocious. There was nothing like the smooth tarmac surfaces of today but instead horses pulled wagons over muddy tracks which soon turned to boggy mires when it rained. The amount the horses could pull was limited to a couple of tonnes which was simply too limited.

Getting raw materials to the factories in bulk, and taking finished goods away from the factories afterwards, was becoming impossible. A new way to transport all these vast quantities of iron, coal, wood, textiles and much more was needed.

Fortunately, some bright spark realised that if you load heavy goods onto a flat barge and the weight is supported by water, that same single horse can pull – with ease – up to thirty tonnes (and it doesn’t matter if it rains!). In a stroke, the concept of the industrial canal was born.

To be fair, there had been canals in Britain since the Roman times (for example, the Fossdyke navigation which is still usable today) though they tended to be used for water distribution rather than goods. Also, several rivers had been used for goods carrying and those rivers had even been modified, shaped or adapted to provide more convenient water courses (for example, the Wey Navigation, the Aire & Calder, and the Calder & Hebble)

The trouble with rivers is that they don’t necessarily flow where you want them to go which led to the development of entirely man-made waterways – the canals.

The “first” (this point is argued vehemently amongst historians and canal enthusiasts) such industrial canal is probably the Bridgewater, instigated by the Duke of Bridgewater to carry coal from his mines in northern England to the city and ports of Manchester.

Engineer James Brindley, who would go on to become synonymous with ingenious canal developments in England, was engaged for the design and the Bridgewater opened in 1761, having been paid for entirely out of the Duke’s own pockets.

Such was the success of the canal, it had repaid its cost of construction just a few years later and the price of coal came down dramatically for people in Manchester.

In the years following there was something of a “canal mania” which saw new canals being dug across the industrial north and midlands, connecting cities such as Manchester, Liverpool Birmingham, London as well as many towns in between.

Most required finance from investors and for a while canal stocks were hugely sought after, rather like the Internet “dot com” bubble of 2000. Acts of Parliament were also needed to authorise construction across vast swathes of the UK countryside.

Ultimately around 4,000 miles of canal were constructed, all dug out – rather incredibly – by hand using pickaxes, shovels, dynamite and the like, courtesy of thousands and thousands of manual labourers. These “navigators” came to be known as “navvies” and many came over from Ireland to do the work. It was not safe employment but it was well paid. Incidentally, cutting through the landscape like this is what gave the canals their nickname of “the Cut” hence my own YouTube channel’s name and the name of this website.

Because of the way they were financed, each canal was owned by a separate company and rivalry for traffic between the canals was fierce, with firms imposing steep tariffs on interconnecting boats. Famously, a dispute over tolls at Worcester Bar in Birmingham meant two canals ran mere feet apart for many years so goods had to be painstakingly carted over from one canal to the other, before the canals were eventually joined at a point which is still marked today.

For a few decades, the canals and canal industry boomed but then another genius invented the steam train and railway mania took over as the stock market to invest in. Goods ended up being carried by rail and the decline of the industrial canals was assured.

Although a trickle of commercial carrying persisted even as late as the 1950s, the canals had had their day – indeed, many had been bought by the railway companies which laid their tracks alongside the canal routes, something that is still very much in evidence today.

By the 1930s the UK canal network was in terrible decline; little-used, overgrown, derelict. It could so easily have disappeared entirely were it not for the valiant efforts of pioneers such as Tom Rolt who in 1939 famously bought a narrowboat, restored it and took a holiday with his wife then documented the whole story in a book published in 1944 (“Narrow Boat” by Rolt, L.T.C. ISBN 9780750908061).

Rolt became a founder of the Inland Waterways Association, created specifically to bring new life to the canals and through substantial Parliamentary lobbying and a great deal of hard work, the IWA turned the tide of closure and began to restore the canal network.

Today around 2,000 miles of canal is useable and there are restoration projects of much more all around the country. Dedicated volunteer groups spend years painstakingly buying up the land on which the old canal routes ran, dealing with legal and planning issues, working out ways to go around new roads and buildings that have been constructed over what was once a canal – and much more.

Over time, old canals are dug out, locks rebuilt and restored, towpaths recreated and gently, gently, the canal network is expanding. It’s not so much that brand new canal routes are being worked on (though in a few cases that is so), as the old ones being brought back to life.

See these videos I’ve made about such restorations:-

The Lichfield and Hatherton Canal (plus a follow-up video a few years later)

The Stroudwater Navigation (and another follow-up video)

With the Canal & River Trust needing to secure ongoing finance from the government and any other suitable source for its continuation, they have recently adopted a strategy of pitching the canals as a resource for “wellbeing” not just for boaters but for everyone in any community.

Walking, fresh air, community spirit and so on are all being posited as ways to make modern life a little better and the hope is that grant money will follow. It also follows from this that the more canal restorations there are, the more the CRT can pursue this avenue, so the Trust has a vested interest in helping the various heritage projects.

Money is one of the biggest barriers. When the canals were built originally, they were fantastically expensive and even allowing for modern machinery to be used instead of an army of manual labourers, cost is still a massive factor.

Fundraising for the restorations can be slow and includes private donations, corporate sponsorship and cash grants from sources such as the National Lottery “Good Causes” fund.

As just alluded to, other building projects also threaten canal restorations. Some routes were built over many years ago and ways around have to be planned, whether that be entirely new routes or “simply” building locks and aqueducts to route the canal past the obstacle.

There can be competition from housing developments where the builders are not necessarily amenable to having a canal run through their site, though in some cases the idea of a pleasant waterway has been seized upon as a benefit which can gain the housebuilder “green” kudos and help to gain planning approval.

Even the established canals are sadly not immune from this development threat. The new high speed rail line (“HS2”) between London and Birmingham has caused uproar and fury not simply from the landowners whose fields it will uproot but also the canal community for the new line’s intrusion onto the peace and quiet of the cut.

With the cancellation of the northern sections of the line, some of these intrusions will now presumably vanish. For others, the CRT, IWA and others have lodged objections and this may result in changes to the plans. At the time of writing, much of this is still in flux.