Canals Of Great Britain – A Short History

We are fortunate in Great Britain to live on an island criss-crossed with a waterways system which, although its purpose and uses have changed throughout the years, is still nevertheless a great asset, whose charm and beauty has made a real contribution to the British scene.

What Is A Canal?

It is a man-made channel for water which is used either for transportation for boats, people or goods, or for the conveyance of a water supply. Canals can be built in three different ways or a combination of the three:-

  • They can be dug out in an area where no stream previously existed – the water being provided from an external source.
  • An existing stream can be canalised to make it navigable by modifying its course and controlling the flow of water.
  • If a stream is not suitable for canalisation a lateral canal can be dug alongside the original stream which acts as the water source.

Depending on the geology of the area, the canal often has to be lined with clay or concrete to make it watertight.

Obviously any water used for transport needs to be level. Small deviations can be dealt with by cuttings and embankments, but larger ones prompted the invention of the pound lock in which the water level could be raised and lowered in a series of chambers connecting sections of canal at different levels. Although hundreds of locks are used along our British canal system, they do use a lot of water and other approaches have been tried, such as boat lifts, wheels and incline planes, where the boat floats in a water filled trough while it is moved to a different level. Navigable aqueducts, (and even a swing aqueduct at Barton), are used to cross valleys, rivers and roads, and tunnels allow canals to pass through hills without having to go round them. Our early canals followed the contours of the land in order to avoid changes in level and it was not until the technological advances in construction, referred to above, that more direct routes could be taken.

Early Canals

The oldest known canals are thought to have been built in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC for irrigation purposes. In ancient China large canals for river transport were built in about 550 – 200 BC and in the 7th century many existing waterways were joined into the famous Grand Canal. It was the Chinese engineer Chiao Wei-yo who developed the lock system for coping with changes in levels while working on the Chinese canal system in the late 10th century.

Canals In Britain

The earliest canal in Britain is thought to have been the Exeter canal which opened in 1563, but the modern canal system came into being in the mid-18th century when the Industrial Revolution required a reliable and cost-effective means to transport goods in large quantities. One of the pioneers was the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater who commissioned the engineer James Brindley to build a canal to transport his coal from the mines, in northern England, to Manchester. This was the first major British canal, opened in 1761. The boats were pulled by horses which walked along a towpath alongside the canal and this system was used until as late as the 1950s. One horse could tow a boat carrying up to thirty tons, so it is easy to understand the financial success of these early canals. Brindley tried to keep his canals as level as possible by contouring round hills and valleys.

Soon many other industrialists saw the advantage of canal transport and within a few years a huge canal system came into being. Many of these canals, however, were unconnected and disputes often broke out between owners regarding their rights to the use of the water. The popularity of these waterways was one of the main causes for the rapid industrialisation of the Midlands and the North. Investing in canals became a popular profit-making business and this too helped the canal system to expand to nearly 4,000 miles in length. The canal mania of the time, however, saw many canals built with no profit making potential.

Another famous canal designer of the time was Thomas Telford whose reputation as a bridge builder lead to his appointment in 1793 to manage the design and construction of the Ellesmere Canal, linking the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham with Chester. He was responsible for many of the canals built at that time and his love of cast iron resulted in new methods of construction of bridges and aqueducts using cast iron troughs. The most famous of these is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct carrying the Llangollen Canal 126 ft over the River Dee. Telford’s canals are examples of a system which uses straight stretches as much as possible, with the boats being transported up and down.

Barges And Narrowboats

These were the boats designed to work on the British canal system. They were flat-bottomed, pulled by horse power and latterly pushed or pulled by tow boats or tugs. The barges were used on canals with wider locks whereas the narrowboats were those on canals where locks and bridge holes were only 7 feet in width.

The 20th Century And Beyond

As the much faster and better integrated railways developed, many of the smaller canals fell into decay and later still, the building of new road networks, in the 20th century, sounded the death knell for most canal transport. The network shrunk to half its size. Freight and cargo were still carried by canal up to the 1950s, but by then the majority of canals were owned by the railways. When they were nationalised the British Transport Commission became responsible for the canals as well, but with the opening of the motorways in 1959 and the Clean Air Act of 1956, affecting the coal carriers, commercial traffic could no longer be sustained.

British Waterways Board (BWB)

This was the government corporation set up in 1962 and responsible for the management and maintenance of the 2,200 miles of canals, rivers and docks in England, Scotland and Wales, including the buildings, structures and landscape alongside them. In the Transport Act of 1968 the canals were classified into three groups:

  • Commercial – those which could still support some commercial traffic (mainly in the NE.
  • Cruising – those with potential leisure use.
  • Remainder – those for which no use could be seen.

While the BWB were responsible for keeping the commercial and cruising waterways fit for purpose, there was no requirement to keep the remainder in a navigable state and many of these faced dereliction or transference to local authorities. Some of these were also crossed by new roads and motorways with no provision for boats.

A New Role

With the demise of the canal system many canals fell derelict and were even filled in, until it was recognised that they could fulfil a new role in the tourist industry. The emergence of pleasure boating saw a marked increase in use, with abandoned sections being cleaned up and dredged and even closed canals being re-opened. By the 1990s the waterways network was flourishing once again. Boat hires, private owners and live-aboards now frequented the places once used by industry and canal-side housing was proving popular. There was a risk, however, that a large shortfall in budget might result in a return to the decline and dereliction of the previous century and by 2009 British Waterways was looking for a means of securing more funding. At length, in 2012, a new charity was established to manage the canals in England and Wales, named the Canal & River Trust, with the waterways in Scotland remaining in a state-owned charity named Scottish Canals.

Canal & River Trust

The aim of this organisation is to ensure that our national waterway network is protected forever as an environment where people can escape and relax. Its work involves large scale projects such as restoring derelict canals, maintaining bridges, locks, embankments, aqueducts, reservoirs and docks, as well as keeping towpaths clear and installing bat and nesting boxes. By involving as many people as possible, by recruiting volunteers, fund raising and publicity, they believe that the long-term future of the canals can be guaranteed, so that this great national treasure will be there for future generations to enjoy. It remains to be seen whether they will improve the lot of the waterways. Let us hope that they will be successful.

Author – Dee White

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