History of canals in the UK, Canal Mania, decline and regeneration

In the second half of the eighteenth century England was bursting with commerce. Everyone seemed to have their eye on the main chance. In a society more socially equal and less hindered by trade restrictions and boundaries than in the rest of Europe, landed gentry, merchants and common men all increasingly saw nothing wrong in grafting for more money.

Crossing the Irwell

The Eighteenth Century – Canal Mania

Manufacturing had already changed from local craftsmen meeting local needs to home-workers producing for regional merchants. Now it was moving from cottage industry to factories, where the workforce could be more easily supervised. Low quality goods could be mass produced in large quantities by untiring machines. The factory system imposed a working discipline on the workforce and overcame the labour shortages caused by better paid workers who decided that they wanted to work less! Good communications became vital to move raw materials to the factories and the products to consumers, including those in the expanding British Empire. More roads were being built and improved but they couldn’t easily handle heavy bulk materials like coal, or fragile materials like pottery. One horse could pull fifty tons in a boat, and there were over a thousand miles of navigable rivers, but their potential was becoming exhausted, they didn’t go to the right places anymore.

Along came the wealthy young Francis Egerton, the third Duke of Bridgewater, fresh from his Grand Tour of Europe where he had seen the Canal Du Midi in France. He decided in 1759 to build a short canal to link his coal mines at Worsley with the River Irwell, a navigation which led to Manchester, to help fuel the increasing appetite for coal to power the mills and warm the workers. Astutely he didn’t actually link his Bridgewater Canal to the river but by-passed it, taking his coal directly to Manchester and also to Liverpool, without paying tolls to the Irwell Navigation.

Coal prices were halved, he became an even richer man and the furnaces of the Industrial Revolution roared even louder. Other gentry, merchants and common men looked on in envy, and counted their savings.

The History of Canals - Francis Egerton
Francis Egerton

In the scramble to follow the Duke’s lead over the next fifty years, fortunes were made, the watersheds of the Rivers Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames were climbed and crossed by canals and the rivers linked, and two thousand miles of canals were built. Whole regions like the Staffordshire Potteries and the midlands Black Country were developed and became wealthy because of their canals. Building costs usually exceeded the optimistic estimates, but there was plenty of money and even more enthusiasm, so most were over subscribed. Promotion meetings were even held in secret, or bogus meetings advertised, to keep profits in the right pockets. And many canals did make profits, a few for a hundred years or more, but some never made a penny for shareholders, and others like the Dorset and Somerset Canal were abandoned during construction. By the end of the eighteenth century the boom was over, most British canals were completed by 1815, and within ten years the smart money, and the not-so-smart, would be chasing railway schemes.

The Nineteenth Century – Railway Mania, Canal Misery

At first the canals and railways coexisted, the railways concentrating on passengers and light goods and the canals on bulk goods. But by the middle of the nineteenth century railways formed a national network, forcing canal tolls down and sending them into a decline that lasted for over a hundred years. Lucky canals, like the Shropshire Union, were taken over and supported by railway companies.

The Twentieth & Twenty First Centuries – Canal Regeneration

The canals were nationalised in 1947 along with the railways, exhausted from years of neglect and the damage caused by the Second World War. In the fifties and sixties there was increased interest in leisure use of canals and the Inland Waterways Association was formed to promote their rescue. A number of derelict canals have been reopened, including the South Stratford Canal, Kennet and Avon canal, the Rochdale Canal and Huddersfield Narrow Canal that had been closed for over fifty years. Many more restoration projects are now underway, see our canal restoration reports.

Most commercial traffic is now on just a few navigations. The rest of the system is used by private pleasure boats, hire (rental) cruisers, hotel boats and day trip boats. There are more boats on British canals now than there ever were during its commercial heyday!

Waterways Management

Independent canal companies, and those owned by the private railway companies, were nationalised in the 1947 Transport Act, along with railways and road transport, all suffering from the neglect during the Second World War. The British Transport Commission was charged with managing and developing inland transport.

In 1962 the British Waterways Board (BWB) took over responsibility for inland waterways, shifting emphasis to the use of all but a few larger waterways for pleasure purposes. In 1988 BWB became known simply as British Waterways, or BW.

In July 2012 all BW assets and responsibilities, except those in Scotland, were transferred again, this time to a newly set up charity, the Canal and River Trust (CRT). The Trust has a mission ‘to inspire as many people as possible to connect with our canals and rivers’.

Volunteers, including those with the Waterways Recovery Group have been centrally involved in reconstruction work on a number of closed canals. The Inland Waterways Association (IWA) and Waterways Recovery Group have a site at www.waterways.org.uk .

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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