History of Canals

The canal system in Britain plays a very important role in the history of the country. Britain was the first country in the world to develop a nationwide man-made canal network. Whilst the network is no longer relied upon much for transit or transport, the network is still considered to be an important recreational and heritage resource within the country.

Roman Canals

Canals were first developed in Britain as an irrigation and drainage resource. They often ran between natural water sources as a way of providing water to areas which were naturally drier. These canals also helped to increase the amount of clean water that was available in larger towns and cities. Examples of Roman canals in Britain include; Car Dyke, Foss Dyke and the Bourne-Morton Canal. Many other Roman canals fell into disrepair after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Medieval Canal Projects

During the Middle Ages, a number of Acts were passed to support navigational improvement in England. This helped to support the transportation of goods via waterways. Some of these acts supported improvements to the towpaths of natural waterways to improve their navigability with horse-drawn boats. Henry I also called for works to improve or renovate some of the earlier Roman canals.

Industrial Revolution

During the 16th and 17th century, the canalisation of natural waterways in Britain was continued. This helped to improve the transportation of many of the industrial goods which became vital in the earlier years of the Industrial Revolution. It was estimated that a horse-drawn barge was able to carry 30 times more coal or iron ore than it would be possible to transport using a horse-drawn cart. Improving the waterways system was therefore considered to be a vital part of developing trade and industry in Britain. The modern canal system was largely created by industrial demand during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The idea of “pure” canals was developed, whereby canals were planned based on where goods needed to be transported to, as opposed to where natural rivers already existed. The first pure canal in the was the Newry Canal in Northern Ireland, which was completed in 1741. This canal connected the coalfields of Tyrone with the Irish Sea, so that Irish coal could be exported more easily.

The first pure canal in England was the Bridgewater Canal, which initially connected Worsley to Manchester. It was named after the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, who owned many of the coal mines in the North East of the country. The first stretch was opened in 1761, but it was later extended so that it ran all of the way from Runcorn to Leigh.

The Golden Age of British Canals

The Golden Age of British Canals came between 1770 and 1830. The period between 1790 and 1810 is alternatively known as “Canal Mania”. This period saw a huge rise in canal building across the county. The building works were largely financed by industrialists and wealthy investors who were hoping to make a profit on the waterways. The quick burst of canal building helped to drive innovation in the area. New systems of water management, such as pound locks and navigable aqueducts were introduced to help to improve the design of these canals. These features enabled to canals to cover shorter distances which may have previously included unfavourable terrain. The canal network in the UK was expanded to roughly 4000 miles (6400km) in length.

The first navigable aqueduct in the UK was the Baton Aqueduct which crossed the River Irwell as part of the Bridgewater Canal. The structure was heralded as one of the seven wonders of the canal age, and it even attracted sightseers from across the country. This helped to inspire other aqueducts which were created during the “canal mania” phase. Although the original aqueduct was demolished in 1893, it was replaced by the first and only “swing aqueduct” in the world. This aqueduct features multiple gates which can be closed to create a long trough in the “swing” section of the aqueduct. Once the gates are securely closed, the swing bridge can be opened to allow ships to pass along the Ship Canal which sits underneath the aqueduct.

Canals for Families and Recreation

Canals were rarely used by families or for recreational purposes until after the First World War. Most people who worked on the canals were males; however younger boys and women were co-opted to work the waterways after the traditional workforce were called up to the army. By this point in time, canals were already being used less and less by large industries, due to the expansion of the rail network.

After the Second World War, canals largely fell out of favour for the transportation of goods. Most of the canal network was nationalised in 1948. Some smaller canals fell into disrepair and were closed down. Other canals began to see a change in usage. Cruiser boats and recreational barges began to become more popular amongst people who were looking for a relaxing holiday. In order to promote tourism, some canals were subsequently renovated and improved.
The Canal and River Trust now works to support and promote the canal network. This Trust provides grants and funding to smaller canals to help them to maintain their heritage, whilst also helping to make the canal network more appealing for those who are wishing to enjoy the network for leisure purposes.