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Introducing Canal History

Early Navigations

Canals in the UK have a long history dating back to the Romans, who built several canals here including the Fossdyke, still navigable today. A long period elapsed after the Romans left Britain when no canals were built. Improvements to rivers were made although the aim of these was often to harness the waterpower, or for fishing, rather than for navigation purposes. It was in the reign of Elizabeth I that the next canal was built, at Exeter, this was also the first use in Britain of pound locks - the type of lock in common use today - all the navigable rivers at that time used flash locks. After this many schemes were introduced for the improvement of river navigations, often provoking strong opposition from water mill and fish weir owners. In 1660 there were 685 miles of river navigation, by 1724 another 475 miles had been added by improvements to many rivers including the Aire & Calder, Douglas, Idle, Irwell, Kennet and Weaver.

Full Lock
Boats enter a full lock then close the gates and the paddles that let water into the lock. Then they use the paddles at the bottom end of the lock to empty the lock. When the water is level on both sides the gate can be oppened.
Lock empty
Boats going up through locks close the bottom gates and paddles before opening the top paddles to fill the lock. The designs of individual locks vary but the princlple ot their operation remain the same.

The Birth of the Canal Age

River improvements nearly always included cutting canals, or channels, if only for lock cuts. As experience of river engineering increased it was found that it was often better to build quite long artificial cuts rather than try to make the original course of the river into a navigation channel. In 1757 the Sankey Brook Navigation, later called the St Helen’s Canal, was opened. The change of name reflects the change of intention of the proprietors, who started by wanting to make the Sankey Brook navigable and ended by constructing a wholly artificial channel running alongside, and giving it claim to be the first canal of the industrial era. It is a claim now largely overshadowed by the Duke of Bridgewater's canal opened in 1761.

In 1759 the Duke obtained an Act of Parliament authorising him to build a canal from his collieries in Worsley to supply coal to Manchester. The next year, following a dispute with the Mersey & Irwell Company over toll charges, he obtained a further act that allowed his canal to cross the river Irwell on an aqueduct. The Duke of Bridgewater’s agent at Worsley was John Gilbert, a man of great ability who had a scheme for underground canals into the workings of the Dukes coal mines with inclined planes to transport boats on rails, a system that was successfully used for over 100 years. John Gilbert was not only the Duke’s man of business in this scheme but also obtained the services of the engineering genius of the age when he introduced James Brindley to the Duke.

James Brindley was originally a millwright but in 1758 had done a survey for Earl Gower for a canal from Wilden Ferry on the River Trent to Stoke-on-Trent. This job had a double family connection to the Bridgewater Canal for not only was Earl Gower guardian to the Duke of Bridgewater but his agent Thomas Gilbert was the brother of the Duke’s agent, John Gilbert. Perhaps the one thing above all that brought the Bridgewater Canal and the name of James Brindley to the attention of the public was the aqueduct across the River Irwell at Barton. This stone structure with a 63 foot wide arch carried the canal 38 feet above the river, opened in 1761, it captured the popular imagination and prompted the publication of admiring verses on this wonder of the age. The success of the canal was measured not only by the profits it brought to the Duke but also by the dramatic reduction in coal prices in Manchester. In latter years, as hundreds of canal schemes were proposed, it was often the reduction in local prices that proved as big an attraction to shareholders as the profits they hoped to receive.

Brindley's Grand Cross

Earl Gower’s canal to the Trent, also promoted by the potter Josiah Wedgwood, became the Trent & Mersey Canal (completed in 1777) with Brindley as its engineer until his death in 1772. This was to be part of the Grand Cross, a scheme to link the four rivers Trent, Mersey, Severn and Thames. Another arm of the Grand Cross was Brindley’s Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal (opened in 1772) which linked the Trent & Mersey Canal to the River Severn. In the last few years of his life Brindley was involved in an amazing number of canal projects including; the Birmingham, Oxford, Droitwich, Coventry, Rochdale, Salisbury & Southampton and Calder & Hebble. While he was surveying the Caldon Canal he caught a chill and died.

Brindley left behind a new profession, the canal engineer, and a number of able men that had seen service as his assistants and were now to build canals of their own including Hugh Henshall who completed the Trent & Mersey, Samuel Simcock who worked on the Oxford canal, Thomas Dadford head of a family responsible for building many the canals of South Wales, and Robert Whitworth builder of the Thames & Severn Canal, Forth & Clyde Canal and many more.

Canal Mania

It was not until 1789 that Brindley's Grand Cross was completed with the linking of the Oxford Canal to the Thames. The next few years saw an increasing Canal Mania, when investors would chase from one part of the country to another on the rumour of a new canal being promoted, this peaked in the year 1793 when Acts of Parliament were passed to build 25 canals. Many fortunes were made and many lost with some of the companies failing before the canal was completed. Over the next thirty years most of the canal system was built and vastly improved transport in Britain, but railways were now starting to appear and by 1844 Railway Mania was attracting investors attention.

In 1845 our waterways system reached its peak with over 4,400 miles of navigation and 2,700 locks - 3,200 miles of these were part of the connected waterways system. Of this total about half were canals.

Years of Decline

As the rail network expanded traffic on the canals declined and some closed and others were taken over by railway companies. Some railway Companies, like the Shropshire Union, used canals as part of their network and developed railway and canal interchange points. Others like the Great Western Railway neglected their canals and placed restrictions on canal users. In 1910 the Royal Commission on Canals reported on the sorry state of our canals compared to european waterways.

Pleasure Boating

Although pleasure boating is as old as the canals, being specifically mentioned in many of the Acts of Parliament authorising new canals, it became particularly popular in Victorian and Edwardian times when leisure time was increasing and canal traffic declining. Articles and books describing these trips were published and provide a fascinating glimpse of the life and attitudes of those times. Even ordinary poeple got afloat at this time as canal boat trips were a popular outing for clubs and sunday schools.

The War Years

In both the First and Second World Wars the role of the canals was boosted as all the resources of the country were put to use. In the Second World War women were recruited to work narrowboats on the Grand Union Canal. This led to several accounts being published describing their experiences and the way of life and traditions of the canal boaters, most of whom had little education and whose story but otherwise have remained untold.

The Grand Union Canal Company issued the wartime trainees with badges bearing the letters "IW", which stood for Inland Waterways but some wag suggested it meant Idle Women and this became the title of Susan Woolfitt’s book,one of four written by these women. It has only been in recent years that their contribution has been recognised by an official medal.

The Campaign to Save the Canals

After the war canals were generally seen as an outdated mode of transport that should be eradicated as soon as possible. They were used as a dumping ground and people who had a canal at the bottom of the garden usually had a high fence to hide it. The British Transport Commission, who had acquired nearly all the canals as a by-product of railway nationalisation, looked upon them as an anacronism that should be removed as soon as possible

Canals had their supporters and the publication of L T C Rolt’s book Narrow Boat in 1944 attracted a revival of interest in the subject and led to the founding of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) in 1946. At this time many of our waterways were unnavigable or under threat of closure, including the Kennet & Avon, Rochdale, and the Warwickshire Avon

The IWA, led by their co-founder and first Chairman, Robert Aickman, campaigned on a wide front gathering support from politicians, celebrities and other “worthies” while also developing local support in branches and taking direct action to remove obstacles and to attract publicity. They also took legal action against towners who let their canals become unuseable without applying for the necessary Act of Abandonment.

The Canal Revival

Slowly the tide began to turn and in the 1950’s and 60’s a number of canals were restored usually with the help of volunteers, or entirely by volunteers, Canals had a changed image and now had the support of the general public. Barbara Castle’s 1968 Transport Act guaranteed the retention of canals in their existing state for three years and in retrospect can be seem as the final victory in the battle to save the canals.

Today we have a number of restored canals that were thought to be “impossible dreams” when their restoration was first proposed, such as the Huddersfield Narrow and Rochdale canals and there are still many waterways needing restoration. There are also proposals for completely new waterways such as the Bedford & Milton Keynes Waterway.