The Brits are famous for flocking to the coast to enjoy their well-earned leisure time but with more than 2,000 miles of navigable inland waterways, the canals and rivers of the UK are becoming increasingly popular.
The UK canals and rivers offer a unique place to relax. A canal boat cruise or walk along a towpath or riverside footpath is a great way to see the beautiful UK countryside, go nature spotting and of course the pubs and restaurants that line the waterways are the perfect reward for a bit of exercise!
However, jump back a couple of hundred years or so and these waterways were busy in a completely different way. Canals played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution, becoming the motorways of their era.
Most canals in England and Wales are now maintained by the Canal & River Trust (previously British Waterways) and despite a long period of abandonment, the canal system in the UK is once more in increasing use, with abandoned and derelict canals continually being developed and reopened.
The Potteries at Stoke on Trent
History of the canals
The history of the canal dates back to the UK’s industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century. Canals were built to provide an affordable and relatively easy way to transport heavy goods such as coal and iron plus raw products for industries such as the potteries. The routes were crammed with industrial boats carrying cargo between production sites and major towns and cities.
This lasted until the development of the railway, which took over as the most efficient and cost-effective way to transport goods.
Although we in the UK like to think ourselves as the ‘Grand Masters’ of canal building, Britain was not the first country to invent them.
The Chinese claim that the Grand Canal of China was one of the first canals in the tenth century and the ‘pound lock’ which is in use today in Britain is said to have been invented by Chhiao Wei-Yo, in the year 983, in China. The ‘mitre gate’ (a double leaf gate which when closed forms an angle pointing upstream, held together by water pressure), is an important part of the canal lock today and is credited to Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519).
Some waterways in Britain date back to Roman times but one of the first proper canals was the Exeter Canal, completed in 1566. This had the first pound locks in Britain, equipped with lifting, vertical gates.
The Bridgewater Canal
The Bridgewater Canal
The great age of canal building started with the construction of the Bridgewater Canal in the mid eighteenth century, completed in 1861.
This pioneering waterway was the initiative of the third Duke of Bridgewater who had visited the Canal du Midi in France and came to recognise its usefulness for transporting goods. The Duke owned coal mines at Worsley, north west of Manchester and needed a way to get the coal to Manchester and other major towns as cheaply as possible.
The Duke developed plans together with two famous names – John Gilbert, one of his estate managers, and the engineer James Brindley who had previously built a reputation working on mills, water wheels etc. Together, these three men would create the Bridgewater Canal, which proved to be one of the key catalysts that started half a century of canal building. It was the first canal not to follow an existing watercourse.
However, one aspect which perhaps ultimately led to their downfall, was that when the first canals were built, people like Brindley and the Duke were unsure about the future return on their investment. The result was that just over one quarter of the UK’s waterways were built as narrow canals, with locks just seven feet wide, in the belief that it would make them less expensive.
These narrow canals were certainly marginally cheaper, but their small size made them less able to cope with the increasing traffic that developed, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Next there followed a number of long distance navigations, with Brindley as the leading canal engineer of his time. He largely built the “Grand Cross” of canals, which linked the four great river basins of Britain, the Severn, Mersey, Humber, and the Thames.
London and the southeast were slow to develop canals as there was not the need for them like north and midlands. London did not have coal mines, trade was imported and exported via the port and the surrounding south east of England was mainly agricultural.
However, in 1793 an Act was passed to authorise the Grand Junction Canal from Braunston on the Oxford Canal, to Brentford on the river Thames west of London. London was then joined directly to the national canal network in 1801 with the opening of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal.
History of the narrowboat
The concept of a narrow boat is attributed to James Brindley, the aforementioned engineer who specialised in canal building.
The first narrowboats were approximately 7-foot wide by about 70-foot long, thought to be inspired by the elongated boats working underground in coalmines. Brindley then reached an agreement with the owners of the Trent & Mersey Canal Company to build the locks on their canal to take boats of that size and this then became the standard size of lock on the rest of the Midlands canals built subsequently.
Since the reopening of many canals in the UK, the size of boats used on the waterways is dictated by the locks. Widebeam boats cannot cruise on certain canals due to the fact that the locks are too narrow for them to travel through.
Originally the canal boats would all have been build of wood and horse drawn, hence the name ‘towpath’ for the footpath that run alongside all the canals.
To save money on the tunnel building however, many tunnels did not have a towpath. Without motorised engines, the only way to propel horse-drawn vessels through the tunnels was for two people to lie on their backs on the boat and walk their feet along the walls. This action, called ‘legging’, was heavy work.
On short tunnels the boat owner and crew did the legging. At long tunnels, professional leggers were available to hire.
Normally, two people were required for legging. They would lie on a plank across the bows of the boat and would propel the boat with their feet against the tunnel wall, a dangerous job. While the boat was being legged through the tunnel, the horse would be led over the hill and meet up with the boat at the other end of the tunnel.
The Canal Boat Families
Initially, a career working on the boats was not bad, with the men working on the boats and earning enough money for their families to rent a house. Early carrying companies typically employed a man to steer the boat and a boy to lead the horse.
However, when the canals suffered with the introduction of the railways and revenues halved almost overnight, the wages of the boatmen also fell. For many, it became unfeasible to keep a house on the land and so boatmen’s families started to move on to the boats, almost all working as unpaid crew.
Hence a new generation of ‘canal boat families’ was created, living and working on the boats throughout the 19thand 20thcenturies.
Today on the Canals
So, with the arrival of the railways followed by a much-improved road and motorway network, the canals across the UK fell into neglect and decline. With no revenue incomes, canals were not maintained, some being left to empty themselves of water and fall into complete disuse.
However, following the Second World War, the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) was formed in 1946, to fight for the preservation of and investment in Britain’s waterway system.
The British Waterways Board was set up in 1963, but it was not until Barbara Castle’s Transport Act of 1968 that the leisure value of canals was officially recognised. The waterways then benefited from investment from both public money and grants from companies such as the National Lottery.
In 2012, the Canal & River Trust was formed, with government passing control of our waterways to the new charity. It has been estimated there are between 20,000 and 25,000 boats on the British Waterways network and a similar number on the River Thames.