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canal system

canal system. Though the Roman Fossdyke at Lincoln was restored in the 1120s, Britain was late to develop its canal network, being well endowed with improvable rivers and ready access to coastal shipping. Four main phases of river navigation preceded the first canals—1634–8, 1662–5, 1697–1700, and 1719–21—and provided the experience essential to their creation, demonstrating the benefits of enhanced inland water carriage. Exeter had been linked to Topsham by a new cut in 1564–6, certainly the first recorded use of the pound lock, the critical technology for inland navigation. By the 1630s, it had been applied on the Lea, the Thames, and Warwickshire Avon.

The first modern development was the Newry canal (opened 1745), which linked Lough Neagh and the Tyrone coalfield with seaborne access to the Dublin market. The first English canal, the Sankey Brook navigation, linked St Helens coal to the river Mersey and Liverpool (1757). Its engineer, Henry Berry, had assisted on the Newry canal. While the Sankey was an extensive parallel cut, the duke of Bridgwater's canal (1761) was the first to take a route independent of any river and holds traditional place as the beginning of the ‘Canal Age’. When completed in 1767, it linked the duke's pits north-west of Manchester to Runcorn, a 30-mile contour route without locks but with one lengthy aqueduct and a major embankment.

Trunk route development followed from the promotion boom of 1766–72, when most schemes involved James Brindley, drawing upon the expertise proven on the Bridgwater. The key links were those of the Grand Trunk canal (1777), which connected the Trent and Mersey, and through the Birmingham canal (1772) connected the midland manufacturing regions with the ports of Hull and Liverpool; the Staffordshire and Worcestershire (1772), tying both to the river Severn; the Thames and Severn (1789), the Coventry (1790), and Oxford (1790) canals which completed links from the north-west to London. Birmingham, in 1700 the most important manufacturing centre more than 15 miles from water transport, had become the hub of the English canal system. The route from Liverpool to London, around 600 miles by sea, had been cut by 1790 to around 360 by canal, and fell to 290 in 1805 when the Grand Junction canal bypassed the Thames navigation. Lateral trunk routes linked Bristol and London through the Kennet and Avon Canal (1810), and Leeds and Liverpool (1815); the first trans-Pennine crossing was the Rochdale canal (1804); in Scotland, the Forth and Clyde canal (1790) linked Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the Caledonian canal through the Great Glen (1822) cut out the hazardous journey by way of the Pentland Firth. Wales developed a limited canal system for the transport of iron and coal in the valleys from the 1790s. No significant trunk routes were initiated after the Grand Union in 1810, and building was effectively over by 1830, with approximately 4,000 miles completed.

Medium-length hauls of coal and minerals proved the staple traffic of the canal system, and canals cut the cost of carriage by up to two-thirds, releasing the growing urban and industrial economy from critical fuel shortages. For such traffic, the half of the Leeds and Liverpool open by 1777 was rather more significant than the completion of the trunk route as a whole in 1815. From the 1790s the directness of the Grand Junction route was combined with the intensive use of horsepower to provide for the carriage of shop goods and parcels by ‘flyboats’, thus breaking down regional barriers and allowing for the reduction of inventory costs. Canal carriage was conducted by large specialist firms such as Pickfords, the canal companies themselves sometimes before 1845 in legal disguise, and by smaller companies: unlike railways, no practical monopoly of transport was gained by the canal proprietors.

The canals had creative effects: new towns were established, notably Stourport, Runcorn, Ellesmere Port, and Goole. Birmingham exemplified the impact of canals in making pathways through established towns, and the Leeds and Liverpool coast-to-coast development. They created employment: around 37,000 men and 2,500 women were recorded as canal employees in 1851, less than 1 per cent of the work-force, but a distinct and culturally separate community, containing specialist occupations, such as the ‘leggers’ who conveyed boats through some tunnels. Canal building engaged many of the greatest engineers of the era—Brindley, Smeaton, Rennie, and Telford for example—and created in the 1790s the financial precursors of the railway in attracting purely investment capital. Many were very profitable, returning dividends in 1825 in excess of 40 per cent, but profit performance was highly polarized, because costs were commonly underestimated, and the average of about 6 per cent left half the 80 companies making no real return.

The system was completed only in the 1820s, and immediately proved inflexible in the face of growing traffic. Mixed gauge development reduced real integration, the bulk of the system being Brindley model narrow (7-foot) canals; inflexible locks, tunnels, pumping capacity, and inclined planes all represented bottle-necks to further expansion. Water shortages limited carriage, and stemmed from the problems of maintaining summit reservoirs in the face of traffic growth, especially where wasteful staircases of locks had been employed, or where routes were insolubly porous. By the mid-1840s, carriers such as Pickfords were rapidly abandoning canals in favour of the railway. Many canals did remain important bulk carriers and the Leeds and Liverpool's trunk carriage peaked after 1870.

Canal usage continued to fall in the First World War, and declined further in the inter-war years, reviving little between 1939 and 1945, and carrying only 5 per cent of all goods conveyed at the peak of the war effort in 1944. Nationalization in 1948 left trends unchanged: although the volume of goods carried on all inland waterways grew until 1953, 36 per cent of the remaining 2,100 miles were seen as redundant in 1955, with a mere 16 per cent, largely rivers, identified for development. By the 1968 Transport Act, around 1,000 miles were identified as ‘cruising waterways’ and leisure usage has predominated subsequently, with some restoration by preservation groups, notably of the Kennet and Avon and Rochdale canals.

J. A. Chartres


Bagwell, P. S. , The Transport Revolution from 1770 (1974);
Dyos, H. J., and and Aldcroft, D. H. , British Transport: An Economic Survey from the Seventeenth Century to the Twentieth (Leicester, 1969);
Rolt, L. T. C. , Navigable Waterways (1969).

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