Noiseless Roads

“Canal boats and canals we suspect are going fast out of use, and will very shortly give place entirely to railways; but still it must be many years before this can be affected; and in the meantime, the produce of the most extensive manufactures in the world, and the supply of immense masses of people, will be transported over these beautifully smooth, level noiseless roads; and, even if their beds were dry, and become the course of railways ( an event which may perhaps befall some of them ), we must, out of respect for the extraordinary benefits we have derived from their assistance, and the almost incredible effect they have produced upon the commerce and riches of the country…,”

Noiseless Roads

Now – don’t cheat, don’t look down for the answer, but try to put a date to that paragraph. When do you think it was written?

Must be nineteenth century mustn’t it – perhaps 1870s or 80s? In fact it is an excerpt from a manual about the horse with ‘a Treatise on Draught’ which I recently discovered in a farmhouse in Northumberland and was amazed to note that it was actually printed in 1831- whilst the Liverpool and Birmingham Junction Canal was still being built and only six years after the Stockton and Darlington Railway had successfully opened using steam locomotion. It was only 54 years since the Grand Trunk had opened and 39 years after the ‘canal mania’. It is like somebody today saying the age of the motorway is over…It makes one wonder what was really going through Telford’s mind whilst he was working on what was to become the Shropshire Union’s link from Wolverhampton to Nantwich—was he building the most efficient canal to date to compete or was he really building a railway track in disguise? Ten years after it was opened there was indeed a plan to convert it into a railway, only prevented by complicated company take-overs and inter-railway rivalries before it settled down to an efficient and quite profitable career through to the First World War.

Happily for us our un-named author’s prediction was generally over pessimistic and many of the canals have out-lived the railways that he expected to supercede them. I think he would have been pleased to be proved wrong judging by his description of ‘beautifully smooth, level noiseless roads’ and ‘the extraordinary benefits we have derived from their assistance.’ One of the reasons he was wrong of course was the very subject of his book, the horse, the commonest motive power for canal boats. He goes on “The great advantage in the transport of goods by water conveyance, is the smallness of the power required. A body floating in water is left so very free in its movements, that motion may be gradually communicated to it by any power however small… but although a very slow movement may thus easily be obtained, the slightest increase of speed causes a very great increase of resistance.”

There follows some rather suspect mathematics to prove that point but he comes up with some other interesting figures: “The draught of an ordinary canal boat (i.e. the power needed to move it) at the velocity of 2 ½ miles (per hour) is about 1/900th part of its weight, that is to say, a canal boat, with its load weighing 33 tons, or 73,920 lbs., is moved at the rate mentioned, by a force equivalent to 80lbs., being 1/926th part of the load. This is found by Mr Bevan to be the result upon the Grand Junction Canal, and a force of traction of 80lbs., is here found to be equivalent to a horse power.” Isn’t that interesting, or am I just an equine anorak? No answer required, thank you.

Edward Paget-Tomlinson’s final book Colours of the Cut mentioned in this column back in June is at last complete, available and for sale in time for your Christmas present list. It is being distributed through all the usual bookshop channels so just ask for it in the normal way, preferably quoting the ISBN number 1-84306-145-7. I am very biased of course because I have been very intimately involved with its production, but I think it is a lovely piece of work, and the early indications are that the buying public are liking it too. Sad that Edward is not here to bask in some glory.


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

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