The History of British Canals
Evidence suggests that the first British canals were built in Roman times, often as irrigation canals or short connecting spurs between navigable rivers, such as Foss Dyke.
A few canals were constructed over the following centuries, such as the Exeter Canal which opened in the 16th century.
However, the modern canal system was largely a product of the 18th century and early 19th century.
The modern British canal network came into being because the Industrial Revolution (which began in Britain during the mid-18th century) demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities.
The transport system which existed before the canals were built consisted of either coastal shipping, or horses and carts struggling along mostly un-surfaced mud roads, (although there were some surfaced Turnpike roads); there was also a small amount of traffic carried along navigable rivers.
This situation was highly unsatisfactory. The restrictions of coastal shipping and river transport were obvious and the horses and carts could only carry one or two tons of cargo at a time. The poor state of most of the roads of the period meant that the roads could often become unusable after heavy rain. Because of the small loads that could be carried, supply of essential commodities such as coal, iron ore and cotton was limited, and this kept prices high, and restricted economic growth.
In the 1760s the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, who owned a number of coal mines in northern England, wanted a reliable way to transport his coal to the nearby city of Manchester which was rapidly industrialising. He commissioned the engineer James Brindley to build a canal to do just that. Brindley's design included an aqueduct carrying the canal over the River Irwell - an engineering wonder which immediately attracted tourists. The construction of this canal was funded entirely by the Duke of Bridgewater and was called the Bridgewater Canal. It opened in 1761 and is often considered to be the first canal of the modern era to be built in Britain: however, the Sankey Brook Navigation also has a good claim to that title since, though nominally a scheme to make the Sankey Brook navigable, it included an entirely new, artificial channel which was effectively a canal along the Sankey Brook valley. In either case, it was the Bridgewater Canal that captured the imagination and inspired further canals.
The new canal proved highly successful. The boats on the canal were horse drawn with a specially constructed towpath alongside the canal for the horse to walk along. This horse-drawn system proved to be highly economical and became standard across the British canal network. Commercial horse-drawn canal boats could be seen on Britain's canals until as late as the 1950s (although by then steam and diesel powered boats had become more common).
The canal boats could carry 30 tons at a time with only one horse pulling - more than ten times the amount of cargo per horse that was possible with a cart. Because of this huge increase in supply, the Bridgewater canal reduced the price of coal in Manchester by nearly two-thirds within just a year of its opening. The Bridgewater was also a huge financial success with the canal earning back what had been spent on its construction within just a few years.
This success proved the viability of canal transport, and soon industrialists in many other parts of the country wanted canals. Within just a few years of the Bridgewater's opening, an embryonic national canal network came into being, with the construction of canals such as the Oxford Canal and the Trent & Mersey Canal.
Due to reasons of economy and constraints upon 18th century engineering technology, the early canals were built to a narrow width. The standard dimension of canal locks introduced by Brindley in 1766 were 72 feet 7 inches (22.1 metres) long by 7 feet 6 inches (2.3 metres) wide. This limited the size of the boats (which came to be called narrowboats), and thus limited the quantity of the cargo they could carry to around 30 tonnes.
This decision would in later years make the canal network economically uncompetitive for freight transport, because by the mid 20th century it was no longer possible to work a 30 tonne load economically.
The period between the 1770s and the 1830s is often referred to as the "Golden Age" of British canals. During this period of "canal mania", huge sums were invested in canal building, and the canal system rapidly expanded to nearly 4000 miles (7000 kilometres) in length, and essentially had no competition. Many different rival canal companies were formed, often competing bitterly. The new canal system dramatically sped up industrialisation across Britain.
Geography of the canal network
Brindley had believed it would be possible to use canals to link the four great rivers of England: the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames. The Trent and Mersey Canal was the first part of this ambitious network, but although he and his assistants surveyed the whole potential system, he would not live to see it completed (coal was finally transported from the Midlands to the Thames at Oxford in January 1790 - 18 years after Brindley's death). Development of the network, therefore, had to be left to other engineers, such as Thomas Telford, whose Ellesmere Canal eventually helped link the Severn and the Mersey.
The bulk of the canal system was built in the Midlands and the north of England, with relatively few canals being built in southern England or London (the Grand Union Canal being an exception). Geographically, the high Midlands Plateau of Birmingham and the adjoining Black Country, for example, did not have a navigable river system so canals were initially built to link these areas to the surrounding navigable rivers, such as the Severn and the Trent, etc. In addition, the economies of cities like Birmingham and Manchester were based upon manufacturing, and needed a dense transport system, to connect various factories and mines etc; and to bring coal, a source of heat, to the general population. Birmingham for example has a greater length of canals than Venice (though in a larger area). Manchester became dissatisfied with the service it received from the Liverpool merchants, so it converted the Irwell into a ship canal.
By contrast, London was a port, and it was served by navigable rivers like the Thames and the River Lee, although the Lee was canalised. It only needed canals to take goods in and out from sea going ships, were such rivers were unavailable.
A few self-contained canals, not connected to the national system, were built in the South West of England, such as the Bude Canal and the St. Columb Canal. The same was true for south Wales. These canals can be regarded as short cuts, they allowed boats to move between the west and the south (and south to west) by a shorter route than following the coast.
No canal was ever built connecting England and Scotland; since none were needed.
Within Scotland, the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal connected Scotland's major cities in the industrial central belt; they also provide a short cut for boats to cross between the west and the east (and east to west) without the need for a sea voyage. The Caledonian Canal provided a similar function in the Highland of Scotland. Other Scottish canals, such as the Crinan Canal avoided the need for a long diversion around the Kintyre peninsula; and the Glasgow, Paisley and Johnstone Canal was intended to link these three places directly to the west coast of Scotland, but never reached beyond Johnstone.
Operation of the British canal network
On the majority of British canals the canal owners did not own or run the boats on them. Instead they charged various outside companies and intervals tolls to use the canal. From these tolls they would try with varying degrees of success to maintain the canal and payback initial loans. Day-to-day operation of the canals was done by lock keepers and the men responsible for collecting tolls. In winter special icebreaker boats with reinforced hulls would be used to break the ice.
The boats used on canals were a mixed bunch including flyers which carried light cargo at high speed day or night and a variety of river craft. The workhorse of the canal system was however the narrowboat. These were owned and operated by both individuals and companies who would pay the helm a wage depending on the distance travelled and the amount of cargo.
Gradual decline of the British canal network
From the 1830s, railways began to present a threat to canals, as they could not only carry more than the canals but could transport people and goods far more quickly than the walking pace of the canal boats.
Most of the investment that had previously gone into canal building was diverted into railway building. Canal companies were unable to compete against the speed of the new railways, and in order to survive they had to slash their prices.
This put an end to the huge profits that canal companies had enjoyed before the coming of the railways, and also had an effect on the boatmen who faced a big drop in wages. With this drop in wages, the only way the boatmen could afford to keep their families was by taking their families with them on the boats. This became standard practice across the canal system, with in many cases, families with several children living in tiny boat cabins, this created a huge community of boat people who had much in common with Gypsies. In the mid 19th century there were around 100,000 such people, in common with gypsies, these 'boat people' would usually decorate their boats extravagantly.
By the 1850s the railway system had become well established and the amount of cargo carried on the canals had fallen by nearly two thirds, lost mostly to railway competition. In many cases struggling canal companies were bought out by railway companies. Sometimes this was a tactical move by railway companies to gain ground in their competitors' territory, but sometimes canal companies were bought out to close them down and remove competition. A notable example of this is the Ashby-de-la-Zouch Canal in Leicestershire which had its northern end closed down after being bought out by a local railway company.
Larger canal companies survived independently and were large enough to continue to make profits. The canals survived through the 19th century largely by occupying the niches in the transport market that the railways had missed.
During the 19th century in much of continental Europe the canal systems of many countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands were drastically modernised and widened to take much larger boats, often able to transport up to 2000 tonnes, compared to the 30 to 100 tonnes that was possible on the much narrower British canals. As it is only economic to transport freight by canal if this is done in bulk, the widening ensured that in many of these countries, canal freight transport is still economically viable.
This canal modernisation never occurred on a large scale in Britain, largely because of the power of the railway companies who feared competition, and successfully blocked any attempt to modernise the canals. This ensured that almost uniquely in Europe, Britain's canals remain as they have been since the 18th century: mostly operated with narrowboats usually only 7 feet (2.3 metres) wide and 70 feet(23 metres) long (although in some parts of the country slightly larger canals were constructed, called Broad canals, which could take boats which were 14 feet wide and 70 feet long).
A major exception to this was the Manchester Ship Canal which was built in the 1890s, using the existing River Irwell and River Mersey and could take ocean-going ships into the centre of Manchester; technically Salford, since Manchester's docks, now re-invented as Salford Quays, are in the City of Salford.
Because of its obsolete technology the canal network gradually declined. During the early 20th century, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, many minor canals were abandoned, due to falling traffic. The canal network saw brief surges in use during the First and Second World Wars and still carried a substantial amount of freight until the early 1950s.
Most of the canal companies were nationalised in 1948, along with most of Britain's inland waterways and the railways which tended to own many of them; being managed by the British Transport Commission (BTC). In 1962 the BTC was abolished, the canals were transferred to the British Waterways Board (BWB), now British Waterways; and the railways transfered to the British Railways Board (BRB).
During the 1950s and 1960s freight transport on the canals declined rapidly in the face of mass road transport, and several more canals were abandoned during this period. By the 1960s the canal network had shrunk to just 2000 miles (3000 kilometres), half the size it was at its peak in the early 19th century. At one point in the 1960s the Government was considering closing most canals to traffic.
The canals today
Fortunately during the 1960s the canals found a new use as a leisure facility (championed by the Inland Waterways Association and pioneers such as L. T. C. Rolt), with a new industry of holiday boating growing rapidly. This ensured the survival of the canal system to this day.
Since the 1960s many hundreds of miles of abandoned canal have been restored.
In recent years due to concerns about congestion and pollution, interest in the canals for freight carrying has been re-kindled, and small scale freight transport has begun on some canals.