A Brief History of the British Cana


A Brief History of the British Canal System

The very first British canals were probably built in Roman times, as irrigation canals or short connecting stretches between navigable rivers.

The Foss Dyke is believed to be the first artificial navigation canal in the UK and was probably dug around 120AD to link the nearby Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) to the navigable River Witham.

The modern canal system was mainly a product of the 18th century and early 19th century.

It came into being because the Industrial Revolution (which began in Britain during the mid-18th century) demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities.

By the early 18th century, river navigations like the Aire and Calder Navigation were becoming quite sophisticated, with "modern" locks and longer and longer "cuts" to avoid circuitous or difficult stretches of river.

Eventually, the experience of building long cuts with their own locks gave rise to the idea of building a "pure' canal, a waterway designed to take goods where they needed to go, not where a river happened to be.


Above: The Potteries made extensive use of the canal system

The first real canal

As Industrial Revolution "canal mania' swept the country, Sankey Brook Navigation, authorised by Acts of Parliament in 1755, 1762 and 1830, opened in 1757 and was probably the first true English canal.

But it was the Bridgewater Canal (with no obvious associations with an existing river) that captured popular imagination and inspired further canals to be built.

This brand new canal was highly successful. Boats on the canal were horse-drawn with a towpath provided alongside the canal for the horse to walk along.

Horses proved extremely economical and became standard across the British canal network although teams of men could be found plying for hire on "short distance' runs.

Commercial horse-drawn canal boats could be seen on Britain's canals until as late as the 1950s (although by then steam and diesel powered boats had become more common).

Canal boats could carry 30 tons at a time with only one horse pulling – more than ten times the amount of cargo per horse that was possible with a cart.

Because of this huge increase in supply, the Bridgewater canal reduced the price of coal in Manchester by nearly two-thirds within just a year of its opening.

The Bridgewater was also a huge financial success, with it earning what had been spent on its construction within just a few years.

The Golden Age of Canals

Having proved the viability of canal transport, industrialists in other parts of the country soon wanted canals. All of Britain's canals were built in the same way as the Bridgewater canal – by a group of private individuals with an interest in improving communications.

In Staffordshire, for instance, the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood saw an opportunity to bring bulky cargoes of clay to his factory doors, and to transport his fragile finished goods to market in Manchester, Birmingham or further afield by water, minimising breakages..

The new canal system was both cause and effect of the rapid industrialisation of the British Midlands and north.

The period between the 1770s and the 1830s is often referred to as the "Golden Age" of British canals. During this period of "canal mania", huge sums were invested in canal building, and the canal system rapidly expanded to nearly 4000 miles (7000 kilometres) in length, and essentially had no external competition.

However, for each canal, an Act of Parliament was necessary to authorise construction, and many rival canal companies were formed, often competing bitterly.

Perhaps the best example of the inefficiencies caused by these rivalries is Worcester Bar in Birmingham, a point where the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and the Birmingham Canal Navigations were only one foot apart (with no technical reasons why the canals could not be connected). For many years, a dispute about tolls meant that goods travelling through Birmingham had to be unloaded from boats in one canal, and loaded onto boats in the other.

How canals were used

On the majority of British canals the canal-owning companies did not own or run a fleet of boats. Instead they charged private operators tolls to use the canal. From these tolls they would try, with varying degrees of success, to maintain the canal and pay back initial loans. In winter special icebreaker boats with reinforced hulls would be used to break the ice.

The boats used on canals were a mixed bunch, including flyers that carried light cargo and passengers at relatively high speed day or night, and a variety of river craft.

The workhorse of the canal system, however, was the traditional narrowboat. These were owned and operated by individual carriers, or by carrying companies who would pay the helmsman a wage depending on the distance travelled, and the amount of cargo.

Right: Brightly painted canal boats today


Above: Inside a working canal boat

The Canal Threat

From the 1830s, railways began to present a threat to canals, as they could not only carry more than the canals but could transport people and goods far more quickly than the walking pace of the canal boats. Most of the investment that had previously gone into canal building was diverted into railway building.

Canal companies were unable to compete against the speed of the new railways, and in order to survive they had to slash their prices. This put an end to the huge profits that canal companies had enjoyed before the coming of the railways, and also had an effect on the boatmen who faced a big drop in wages.

With this drop in wages, the only way the boatmen could afford to keep their families was by taking their families with them on the boats. This became standard practice across the canal system, with in many cases families with several children living in tiny boat cabins, creating a huge community of boat people. Though this community ostensibly had much in common with Gypsies both communities strongly resisted any such comparison, and surviving boat people feel deeply insulted if described as 'water gypsies'.

By the 1850s the railway system had become well established and the amount of cargo carried on the canals had fallen by nearly two-thirds, lost mostly to railway competition. In many cases struggling canal companies were bought out by railway companies.

Limited modernisation

For reasons of economy and the constraints of 18th century engineering technology, early canals were built to a narrow width. The standard dimension of canal locks introduced by Brindley in 1766 were 72 feet 7 inches (22.1 metres) long by 7 feet 6 inches (2.3 metres) wide. This limited the size of the boats (which came to be called narrowboats), and thus limited the quantity of the cargo they could carry to around 30 tonnes.

Unlike much of continental Europe, where canal systems were drastically improved and widened, canal modernisation never occurred on a large scale in Britain. This was partly because of the power of those railway companies who feared competition and successfully blocked any attempt to improve canals, partly because limited water supplies prevented use of larger locks and hence larger craft.

Therefore many of Britain's canals remained unchanged since the 18th and 19th century. There were limited developments to try to compete with rail, and later road; for instance in the 1830s some flights of locks were doubled to remove bottlenecks and meandering 'contour canals' were straightened to reduce journey times, a century later the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham was widened to take larger craft.

But it was really all too little too late, by the mid 20th century, lack of maintenance and dredging had finally destroyed economic carrying on all but a few waterways.

Final decline

The canal network gradually declined. During the early 20th century, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, many minor canals were abandoned due to falling traffic. However the main network saw brief surges in use during the First and Second World Wars and still carried a substantial amount of freight until the early 1950s.

The canal system and most inland waterways were nationalised in 1948, along with the railways, under the British Transport Commission, whose subsidiary Docks and Inland Waterways Executive managed them into the 1950s. During the 1950s and 1960s freight transport on the canals declined rapidly in the face of mass road transport, and several more canals were abandoned during this period.

Under the Transport Act of 1962, the canals were transferred in 1963 to the British Waterways Board (BWB), now British Waterways, and the railways to the British Railways Board (BRB). In the same year a remarkably harsh winter saw many boats frozen into their moorings, and unable to move for weeks at a time. This was one of the reasons given for the decision to formally cease commercial carrying on the canals. By this time the canal network had shrunk to just 2000 miles (3000 kilometres), half the size it was at its peak in the early 19th century.


Though commercial use of Britain's canals declined after World War II, recreational use increased as people had more leisure time and disposable income. This led to the establishment of a group called the Inland Waterways Association. Formed by L. T. C. Rolt and Robert Aickman, this organization has revived interest in Britain's canals. In the past few decades, many hundreds of miles of abandoned canal have been restored, as British Waterways, helped by literally thousands of enthusiastic volunteers, set out to rediscover the economic and social potential of the waterways.

We would like to thank leading British canal website www.canaljunction.com out.

for their kind permission to use the pictures in this feature.

Canal Junction has a wealth of information about the history, heritage and culture of UK canals and inland waterways. There are detailed sections on canal folk art ('Roses & Castles'), traditional working narrowboats and barges, canal engineering and the canal people, plus news of recent canal restoration projects.

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