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History of the British canal system

Early history

Evidence suggests that the first canals in Britain were built in Roman times, often as irrigation canals or short connecting spurs between navigable rivers, such as Fosse Dyke. See Roman Britain.

A few canals were constructed over the following centuries, such as the Exeter Canal which opened in the 16th century.

Industrial Revolution

However, the modern canal system was largely a product of the 18th century and early 19th century.

The modern British canal system (BCS) 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 Tollpike 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 Earl 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. The construction of this canal was funded entirely by the Earl of Bridgewater and was called the Bridgewater Canal. It opened in 1761 and was the first canal of the modern era to be built in Britain.

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 it 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 Leeds & Liverpool 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 qauntity of the cargo they could carry to around 30 tonnes.

This decision would in later years make the BCS 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 the BCS. 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 speeded up industrialisation across Britain.

Geography of the Canal System

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). This was because 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, Birmingham for example has a greater density of canals that Venice. Whereas London was primarily a port, and only needed canals to take goods in and out from sea going ships, and needed little internal transport.

A few self contained canals, which weren't connected to the national system were built in the South West of England, such as the Bude Canal. And the same was true for south Wales.

No canal was ever built connecting England and Scotland. But in Scotland the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal, connected Scotland's major cities in the industrial central belt.

Gradual decline of the BCS

In the 1830s a dark cloud appeared on the horizon with the invention of the railways. The railways for the first time presented a real threat to the canals, and 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' teritory, but sometimes canal companies were bought out to close them down and remove competition. A notable example of this is the Ashby 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 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).

The one major exception to this was the Manchester Ship Canal which was built in the 1890s and could take ocean-going ships into the centre of Manchester.

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 system 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 and, along with all of Britain's inland waterways, became run by British Waterways.

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 system 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, 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.

See also