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Building Britain’s Canals The Waterways that Powered the Industrial Revolution

Stretching out across Britain like life-giving arteries, these are the waterways that helped power the Industrial Revolution. Britain’s canal system now stretches to 6,400 km (4,000 miles) – which is just a little less than the distance from London to New York – and can be found across the nation, though predominantly in England between London and the major northern cities. 

Nowadays they are mainly used for recreational purposes and chugging slowly along in a brightly painted canal boat has become a well-loved British tradition. And with a speed limit of 6.4 km/h (4 mph) on most British canals, I do mean slowly. 

But these great ditches filled with water were constructed not with leisurely cruises in mind, but to provide an efficient form of transportation that could support the booming industrial revolution. Without these canals, it would have been impossible to move such large amounts of goods around the country so quickly. I know I just joked about the speed limit, but back in the 18th Century, there weren’t too many alternatives. 

These canals played a vital role in Britain’s economy and certainly helped to mould the nation into what it was by the end of the 18th Century. A global superpower with an empire stretching around the world bringing goods and materials back to Britain where they could then be distributed around the country via the canal system. 

The Oldest Canals 

It’s difficult to know where to start with canals. The idea of using waterways for irrigation stretches back over 6000 years to Mesopotamia. They were also used in Egypt and by the Indus Valley Civilization dating back to roughly 2600 BC. 

The Grand Canal in China is considered the longest canal in the world stretching to 1,776 km (1,104 miles) and connects Beijing and Hangzhou while also linking five of China’s major rivers. The oldest parts of this canal date back to the 5th Century, but it saw extensive renovations and additions over the centuries with the final form not appearing until the early 17th Century.  

Courses of Grand Canal of China.
Courses of Grand Canal of China. By Groverlynn, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The oldest known canal in Britain was built by our Latin overlords, the Romans, who constructed the Fossdyke Navigation which runs between Lincoln and the River Trent at Torksey around 120 AD. The navigation is still in use today and totals 18.1 km (11.3 miles) with just a single lock. It was used extensively by the Danes and the Normans in the 12th Century to transport rock to build Lincoln Cathedral but by the early 18th Century it had fallen into such a poor state it could no longer be used. 

The Exeter Ship Canal was built in the 1560s to connect the River Exe to Exeter Quay in the city and predates most British canals built during the heady days of the Industrial Revolution by some time. 

Industrial Revolution   

The dramatic change that the Industrial Revolution brought completely transformed certain parts of the world and the invention of machines that could do the work of 50 men in a fraction of the time forever changed industries. Suddenly huge looms could pump out cotton and thread at speeds that were unheard of. Mighty steam engines appeared, initially used to pull water from tin mines, but rapidly found their way into many different industries, from railway locomotives and ships to powering enormous machines in the many factories across the country. 

It’s difficult to give specific dates because this was a lengthy process, but it’s generally considered that the Industrial Revolution began around the mid-18th Century. These were dramatic days when new inventions appeared regularly along with vastly different ways of thinking. Suddenly everything was about coal instead of wood and British cities saw huge increases in population as people flooded into the major urban centres looking for work. 

Economic conditions improved for most people but that certainly didn’t mean it was all smiles and rainbows. British cities, especially London, began to sag under the weight of numbers, the filthy conditions and the toxic pollution that often poured from the many factories. A few made an exorbitant amount of money, and while the lives of the vast majority certainly improved, it was here that we see the first shoots of the barbaric working conditions that many endured, really until the idea of workers rights began to emerge in the early to mid 19th Century. 

The Sankey Canal

Opened in 1757 and eventually linking St Helens to the River Mersey at Spike Island in Widnes, the Sankey Canal was the first canal of the Industrial Age and was built initially to ferry vast amounts of coal into Liverpool from the Haydock Collieries, but its use quickly expanded and became vital for the growth of the chemical industry in Widnes. 

Construction of such a project required an Act of Parliament, which passed in 1755, and work began shortly after. Considering the technological boom in other industries, construction of the canals was done the all fashioned way – lots of men with shovels and scoops who toiled in groups to cut away miles of trenches to create the canals. Sometimes horses were brought in and large earth scoops attached, but this was very much a human endeavour.

Once the trench had been dug, the sides would be supported by wooden beams while the work of actually making the canal watertight began. There was never one single way of doing this, especially in the early days, and often workers used whatever could be found in the local area. This sometimes included limestone but it often came down to everyday clay that would line the inside of the canal. To ensure that there were no air pockets or gaps in the clay, workers would bring in cows that could then be walked up and down the trench to flatten the earth.    

The Sankey Canal was first used in 1757 and immediately began transporting goods up and down the waterway for a flat rate of 10d per ton (which is ten old pence, worth around £5 today.) This canal not only laid the blueprint for how canals around Britain would be built but also how they would be run. Parliament had specifically blocked those who owned the canals from also owning the boats to prevent monopolization. The Sankey Canal was therefore built and run by the Sankey Brook Navigation Company, with a toll needed for anybody wanting to use it. Later additions to the Sankey Canal included several extensions to other collieries or manufacturing sectors eager to get in on the lucrative act.

This canal also holds the distinction of having the first canal locks in Britain, a device used when the land isn’t flat that can either raise or lower barges. There are now 1,569 different locks around Britain, with the Kennet & Avon Canal perhaps the most impressive with 29 locks (16 in a straight line) that sees the canal rise 72.2 metres (237ft) in just 3.2 km (2 miles.)

At this point, and actually, for some time to come, canal boats were pulled by horses that would walk on the towpath beside the canal. I know this doesn’t exactly paint the image of a transportation superhighway, but with canal boats capable of carrying 30 tons, it was more than ten times what a single horse and cart could carry beforehand.

The Bridgewater Canal

The Sankey Canal proved to be an instant success and it didn’t take long for others to follow suit. The next major canal project came courtesy of Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater who owned several coal mines which supplied much of the north’s rampant appetite. 

But the Duke had a few problems. At this point, his mines were still transporting coal either by packhorse, a tediously slow venture or by river, which was much better, as long as the river went exactly where you wanted it to – and if you know anything about rivers, that’s just not how they work. His second issue related to the constant flooding of his mines thanks to the awkward geological makeup in the region, but the Duke had a plan that might solve both of his problems. 

His idea was to build an underground canal at Worsely which would then lead into an above-ground canal that linked Worsley and Salford. Not only would this create the much-needed waterway towards the busy urban centre of Manchester, but the underground canal could also provide the water for the above-ground canal, which in theory would leave his mines nice and dry.

Construction began in 1760 and was completed with remarkable speed when it opened in 1761. This was a costly project, with the initial stretch from Worsley to Manchester coming in at a hefty £168,000 (around £26 million today) but within a year of its opening, so much coal was making its way to Manchester, that its price had fallen by half. 

The 66 km (41 miles) worth of canal was hugely impressive, especially for the time, but it came with another groundbreaking piece of engineering that helped to define British canals. Aqueducts had first been introduced to Britain by the Romans, though their roots go all the way back to the Assyrian Empire in the 9th Century BC. However, none had ever been fully navigable by boat, until now that is. 

The Barton Aqueduct became the world’s first navigable aqueduct when it opened on 17th July 1761 and was described as one of the seven wonders of the canal age. Measuring 180 metres (200 yards) long, 11 metres (12 yards) wide and 12 metres (39 feet) above the river at its highest point, the Barton Aqueduct was a colossus of the Industrial Age and crowds would often gather to marvel as canal boats slowly made their way across it. 

It was built using coursed ashlar with brickwork used for the three arches, but very nearly became an extremely high profile disaster. Once it had been finished, water was slowly pumped across to fill it and you can imagine the horror on the faces as one of the arches began to buckle. Work ceased and the aqueduct was drained immediately. Repairs began, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether the Barton Aqueduct could ever be used. However, the second time around, water flowed across and the three arches stood firm. This engineering marvel would go on to be used for more than 100 years before being demolished in 1893.     

Canal Mania Begins

The two earliest projects had proven to be monstrously successful and it wasn’t long until Canal Mania began. In 1790, only one Act of Parliament was granted for a new canal costing around £90,000 (£11 million today), but three years later, that figure had shot up to 20 with spending up to £2,824,700 (£305 million today.)

This also coincided with a speculation frenzy when greater financial freedom and disposable income for some, led to more and more people investing in the companies set to build these new canals. Dividends were paid out on the canal profits and with business seemingly only going one way, it seemed crazy not to invest in this new lucrative business.

The Golden Age of British canals had begun when most of the system that you see today was put in place. Most of the earliest examples appeared in Britain’s industrial north and London wasn’t technically linked until 1801 when the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal opened. Gradually vast arteries began stretching up and down the country, effectively linking large swaths of the country.  

Construction was usually carried out by large armies of ‘navvies’ – short for navigators – unskilled labourers who would often travel with projects. Huts were usually built to provide temporary accommodation for the navvies before everything was torn down and moved further along the canal. 

This was an era of countless breathtaking construction projects that completely changed the country. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in northeast Wales opened in 1805 and remains the longest aqueduct in Britain at an impressive 307 metres (336 yards). It’s also the highest aqueduct in the world and reaches a total height of 38 metres (126ft).  

The Standedge Tunnel, near Huddersfield, is still the longest and deepest canal tunnel in Britain at 5.1 km (3.1 miles) in length and diving down to 194 metres (636 feet) underground at its deepest point. 

In Scotland, the Union Canal was built between Falkirk and Edinburgh primarily to bring minerals and coal into the capital and was opened in 1822, while the Caledonian Canal linking east coast at Inverness with the west coast at Corpach near Fort William, a distance of 100 km (60 miles) was opened the same year.

A Rival Emerges

The canal system had been more successful than anybody would have dreamt. By the 1820s it was possible to move goods throughout the system and access most areas of England, though Wales and Scotland received only a fraction, perhaps sometimes due to environmental factors but no doubt also to underpin where the economical clout really lay in Britain. The canal industry was a thriving business and a lot of people were making money, but a rival was about to emerge that would eventually decimate the industry. 

When Britain’s first railway using steam locomotives opened in 1825 between Stockton and Darlington it wasn’t immediately clear what this would mean for the canals. Here were all of these nicely built waterways connecting major manufacturing areas, were they about to be abandoned for something that would need specially built rail installed around the country? 

It’s crazy to think now, but a lot of people weren’t entirely sold on the idea of railways when they first appeared, and certainly not for passenger use. However, when the Manchester to Liverpool line opened in 1830, carrying both freight and passengers, public sentiment began to change. A new king had arrived.  


By the 1840s, railways began to take off and money that would have gone towards new canals was instead invested in the railways. It did make financial sense, the walking pace of a canal boat and a horse was no match for a steam locomotive with ten or twenty carts. 

In a desperate bid to keep up, canal owners slashed their tolls, which of course badly affected the dividends. The golden period of enormous financial gain was well and truly over. But of course, it couldn’t halt the slide and by the 1850s, the canals had seen the amount of cargo hauled each year fall by nearly two-thirds. 

Canals managed to stagger through the 19th Century, sometimes providing a cheap alternative or by targeting niches in the markets that railways couldn’t supply. Coal became the principal commodity and probably only because the factories and mills in the north needed so much of it. 

The 20th Century saw things become even worse as the introduction of the automobile completely changed the face of transportation. During the 1950s and 1960s, freight transport on the canals collapsed even further as goods began to be transported on lorries more and more. 

It’s also worth noting at this point that while other European nations with canals, notably France, Holland and Germany, had already invested heavily to modernise their own canals. Often by widening and deepening them to allow for greater haulage. This was not the case in Britain where the overwhelming majority of the canals remained more or less exactly as they had been since their construction. They were small, difficult to manoeuvre at times and now proved to be a hugely unpopular mode of transportation. The time of the British canal’s appeared to be well and truly up. 

Re-birth in the Modern Era    

Worsley Packet House, overlooking the Bridgewater Canal in Worsley, Greater Manchester.
Worsley Packet House, overlooking the Bridgewater Canal in Worsley, Greater Manchester. By Parrot of Doom, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Yet as the haulage side of canals sagged lower than it had ever been, its saviour came in the form of leisure excursions. Sitting beside a canal in middle England these days, perhaps with a frosty ale at hand, you’d be surprised by how many canal boats are still inching their way along these waterways. 

The 1960s may have been the death sentence for haulage on the canals, but it coincided perfectly with the uptick in those who liked nothing more than cruising sedately in canal boats along canals that hadn’t been touched since the early 19th Century and thus still retained plenty of charm.

The collapse of the haulage industry nearly caused many canals to close, but a combination of volunteer action and sometimes the need to keep canals open to provide drainage meant that they hung on in the early years. Since then, canals have come roaring back into fashion with many organizations now set up to maintain them. They now provide that wonderful old-fashioned method of getting around. Need to travel the 136 miles along the longest canal in Britain, the Grand Union, from London to Birmingham? No problem, it’ll only take around 74 hours, but it is a charming cruise and much nicer than the grim slog up the M1 motorway.

Britain’s canals also provide better access to cities than almost any other country and you can still cruise through Central London and other major cities. 

As I mentioned at the start of the video, the system now includes 6,400 km (4,000 miles) worth of canals, 1,569 locks, 53 tunnels, 3112 bridges, 370 aqueducts and 74 reservoirs.

Today, the canal system in Britain is a much loved, slightly nostalgic icon of a bygone era. The idea of its use for manufacturing and goods transportation would be ludicrous in modern times, but it has transformed itself into something quite different. These waterways may have been vital in shaping Britain during the Industrial Revolution when barges loaded with coal would amble up and down the canals, but they’ve now experienced a glorious regeneration as they hit retirement age.     

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