The British canal system of water transport played a vital role in the United Kingdom's Industrial Revolution at a time when roads were only just emerging from the medieval mud and long trains of packhorses were the only means of "mass" transit by road of raw materials and finished products. (It was no accident that amongst the first canal promoters were the pottery manufacturers of Staffordshire.) The UK was the first country to acquire a nationwide canal network.
The canal system dates to Roman Britain, but was largely used for irrigation or to link rivers. The navigable water network in the British Isles grew as the demand for industrial transport increased. It grew rapidly at first, and became an almost completely connected network covering the South, Midlands, and parts of the North of England and Wales. There were canals in Scotland, but they were not connected to the English canals or, generally, to each other (the main exception being the Monkland Canal, the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal which connected the River Clyde and Glasgow to the River Forth and Edinburgh). As building techniques improved, older canals were improved by straightening, embankments, cuttings, tunnels, aqueducts, inclined planes, and boat lifts, which together snipped many miles and locks, and therefore hours and cost, from journeys. However, there was often fierce opposition to the building.
The modern canal network 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. Some 29 river navigation improvements took place in the 16th and 17th centuries starting with the Thames locks and the River Wey Navigation. The biggest growth was in the so-called "narrow" canals which extended water transport to the emerging industrial areas of the Staffordshire potteries and Birmingham as well as a network of canals joining Yorkshire and Lancashire and extending to London.
The 19th century saw some major new canals such as the Caledonian Canal and the Manchester Ship Canal. By the second half of the 19th century, many canals were increasingly becoming owned by railway companies or competing with them, and many were in decline, with decreases in mile-ton charges to try to remain competitive. After this, the less successful canals (particularly narrow-locked canals, whose boats could only carry about thirty tons) failed quickly.
The 20th century brought competition from road haulage, and only the strongest canals survived until the Second World War. After the war, there was a rapid decline in trade on all the remaining canals, and by the mid 1960s only a token traffic was left, even on the widest and most industrial waterways.
In the 1960s the infant canal leisure industry was only just sufficient to prevent the closure of the remaining canals, but then the pressure to maintain canals for leisure purposes increased. From the 1970s, increasing numbers of closed canals were restored by enthusiast volunteers. The success of these projects has led to the funding and use of contractors to complete large restoration projects and complex civil engineering projects such as the restoration of the Victorian Anderton Boat Lift and the new Falkirk Wheel rotating lift.
Restoration projects by volunteer-led groups continue. There is now a substantial network of interconnecting, fully navigable canals across the country. In places, serious plans are in progress by the Environment Agency and British Waterways Board, later the Canal & River Trust, for building new canals to expand the network, link isolated sections, and create new leisure opportunities for navigating "canal rings", for example the Fens Waterways Link and the Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway.
The first British canals were built in Roman times as irrigation or land drainage canals or short connecting spurs between navigable rivers, such as the Foss Dyke, Car Dyke and Bourne-Morton Canal; all in Lincolnshire. See Roman Britain and list of Roman canals.
A spate of building projects, such as castles, monasteries and churches, led to the improvement of rivers for the transportation of building materials. Various Acts of Parliament were passed regulating transportation of goods, tolls and horse towpaths for various rivers. These included the rivers Severn, Witham, Trent and Yorkshire Ouse. The first Act for navigational improvement in England was in 1425, for improvement of the river Lea, a major tributary of the River Thames.
In the post-medieval period, some natural waterways were "canalised" or improved for boat traffic in the 16th century. The first Act of Parliament was obtained by the City of Canterbury in 1515, to extend navigation on the River Stour in Kent, followed by the River Exe in 1539, which led to the construction in 1566 of a new channel, the Exeter Canal. Simple flash locks were provided to regulate the flow of water and allow loaded boats to pass through shallow waters by admitting a rush of water, but these were not purpose-built canals as we understand them today.
The transport system that existed before the canals were built consisted of coastal shipping and horses and carts struggling along mostly unsurfaced mud roads (although there were some surfaced turnpike roads). There was also a small amount of traffic carried along navigable rivers. In the 17th century, as early industry started to expand, this transport situation was highly unsatisfactory. The restrictions of coastal shipping and river transport were obvious, and horses and carts could only carry one or two tons of cargo at a time. The poor state of most of the roads meant that they could often become unusable after heavy rain. Because of the small loads that could be carried, supplies of essential commodities such as coal and iron ore were limited, and this kept prices high and restricted economic growth. One horse-drawn canal barge could carry about thirty tonnes at a time, faster than road transport and at half the cost.
Some 29 river navigation improvements took place in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1605, the government of King James I established the Oxford-Burcot Commission, which began to improve the system of locks and weirs on the River Thames, which were opened between Oxford and Abingdon by 1635. In 1635 Sir Richard Weston was appointed to develop the River Wey Navigation, making Guildford accessible by 1653. In 1670 the Stamford Canal opened, indistinguishable from 18th century examples with a dedicated cut and double-door locks. In 1699 legislation was passed to permit the Aire & Calder Navigation which was opened 1703, and the Trent Navigation which was built by George Hayne and opened in 1712. Subsequently, the Kennet built by John Hore opened in 1723, the Mersey and Irwell opened in 1725, and the Bristol Avon in 1727. John Smeaton was the engineer of the Calder & Hebble which opened in 1758, and a series of eight pound locks was built to replace flash locks on the River Thames between Maidenhead and Reading, beginning in 1772. The net effect of these was to bring most of England, with the notable exceptions of Birmingham and Staffordshire, within 15 miles (24 km) of a waterway.
The modern canal system was mainly a product of the 18th and early 19th centuries. 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 such as the Aire and Calder Navigation were becoming quite sophisticated, with pound locks and longer and longer "cuts" (some with intermediate locks) to avoid circuitous or difficult stretches of rivers. Eventually, the experience of building long multi-level cuts with their own locks gave rise to the idea of building a "pure" canal, a waterway designed on the basis of where goods needed to go, not where a river happened to be.
The claim for the first pure canal in Great Britain is debated between "Sankey" and "Bridgewater" supporters. The first true canal in the United Kingdom was the Newry Canal in Northern Ireland constructed by Thomas Steers in 1741.
The Sankey Brook Navigation, which connected St Helens with the River Mersey, is often claimed as the first modern "purely artificial" canal, because although it was originally a scheme to make the Sankey Brook navigable, it included an entirely new artificial channel that was effectively a canal along the Sankey Brook valley. However, "Bridgewater" supporters point out that the last quarter-mile (400 m) of the navigation is indeed a canalised stretch of the Brook, and that it was the Bridgewater Canal (less obviously associated with an existing river) that captured the popular imagination and inspired further canals.
In the mid-18th century the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, who owned a number of coal mines in northern England, wanted a reliable way to transport his coal to the rapidly industrialising city of Manchester. He commissioned the engineer James Brindley to build a canal to do just that. Brindley's design included an aqueduct carrying the canal over the River Irwell. This was an engineering wonder which immediately attracted tourists. The construction of this canal was funded entirely by the Duke and it was called the Bridgewater Canal. It opened in 1761 and was the longest canal constructed in Britain to that date.
The new canals proved highly successful. The boats on the canals were horse-drawn with a towpath alongside the canal for the horse to walk along. This horse-drawn system proved to be highly economical and became standard across the British canal network. Commercial horse-drawn canal boats could be seen on the UK's canals until as late as the 1950s, although by then diesel powered boats, often towing a second unpowered boat, had become standard.
The canal boats could carry thirty 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 Canal was also a huge financial success: it repaid the cost of its construction within just a few years.
This success proved the viability of canal transport, and soon industrialists in many other parts of the country wanted canals. After the Bridgewater Canal, the early canals were built by groups of private individuals with an interest in improving communications. In Staffordshire 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. Within just a few years of the Bridgewater's opening, an embryonic national canal network came into being, with the construction of canals such as the Oxford Canal and the Trent & Mersey Canal.
The new canal system was both cause and effect of the rapid industrialisation of the Midlands and the north. The period between the 1770s and the 1830s is often referred to as the "Golden Age" of British canals.
For each canal, an Act of Parliament was necessary to authorise construction, and as people saw the high incomes achieved from canal tolls, canal proposals came to be put forward by investors interested in profiting from dividends, at least as much as by people whose businesses would profit from cheaper transport of raw materials and finished goods.
In a further development, there was often out-and-out speculation, in which people would try to buy shares in a newly floated company simply to sell them on for an immediate profit, regardless of whether the canal was ever profitable, or even built. During this period of "canal mania", huge sums were invested in canal building, and although many schemes came to nothing, the canal system rapidly expanded to nearly 4,000 miles (over 6,400 kilometres) in length.
Many rival canal companies were formed and competition was rampant. Perhaps the best example was Worcester Bar in Birmingham, a point where the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and the Birmingham Canal Navigations Main Line were only 7 feet (2.1 m) apart. For many years, a dispute about tolls meant that goods travelling through Birmingham had to be portaged from boats in one canal to boats in the other.
For the first era of canals until toll cuts to combat railway competition family boating did not exist.[clarification needed] Crews were all male and their families lived in cottages on the bank. The practice of all male crews for steamers continued until after the First World War. Wives and children came aboard as extra labour and to save rental costs during the latter part of the 19th century. About this time boat decoration of "Roses and Castles" began to appear. During this period, whole families lived aboard the boats. They were often marginalised from land-based society. The church of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, under the curacy of John Jones, acquired in 1839 an innovative "Boatman's Floating Chapel", a houseboat to serve the families working on the river and the canals. This boat was St Thomas' first chapel of ease; it was donated by H. Ward, a local coal merchant, and used until it sank in 1868. It was replaced by a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas, which remained in use until 1892.
For reasons of economy and the constraints of 18th-century engineering technology, the early canals were built to a narrow width. The standard for the dimensions of narrow canal locks was set by Brindley with his first canal locks, those on the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1776. These locks were 72 feet 7 inches (22.12 m) long by 7 feet 6 inches (2.29 m) wide. The narrow width was perhaps set by the fact that he was only able to build Harecastle Tunnel to accommodate 7 feet (2.1 m) wide boats.
His next locks were wider. He built locks 72 feet 7 inches (22.12 m) long by 15 feet (4.6 m) wide when he extended the Bridgewater Canal to Runcorn, where the canal's only locks lowered boats to the River Mersey.
The narrow locks on the Trent and Mersey limited the width (beam) of the boats (which came to be called narrowboats), and thus limited the quantity of the cargo they could carry to around thirty tonnes. This decision would in later years make the canal network economically uncompetitive for freight transport, and by the mid 20th century it was no longer possible to work a thirty-tonne load economically.
Brindley believed it would be possible to use canals to link the four great rivers of England: the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames. The Trent and Mersey Canal was the first part of this ambitious network, but although he and his assistants surveyed the whole potential system, he did not live to see it completed - coal was finally transported from the Midlands to the Thames at Oxford in January 1790, eighteen years after his death. Development of the network was left to other engineers, notably Thomas Telford, whose Ellesmere Canal helped link the Severn and the Mersey.
The bulk of the canal system was built in the industrial Midlands and the north of England, where navigable rivers most needed extending and connecting, and heavy cargoes of manufactured goods, raw materials or coal most needed carrying. Most of the traffic on the canal network was internal. However, the network linked with coastal port cities such as London, Liverpool, and Bristol, where cargo could be exchanged with seagoing ships for import and export.
The great manufacturing cities of Manchester and Birmingham were major economic drivers for the 'canal mania' which reached its peak in 1793, and both benefited from a network of canals, most of which survive.
In the industrial conurbation of Birmingham and the Black Country, a dense network of nearly 160 miles (260 km) of canals, dubbed the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) was constructed to serve the network of industries.
Manchester had a canal connection to the nearby port of Liverpool via the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. However, in the nineteenth century, Manchester's merchants became dissatisfied with the poor service and high charges offered by the Liverpool docks, and the near-monopoly of the railways. They decided to bypass the Liverpool monopoly on coastal trade by converting a section of the Irwell into the Manchester Ship Canal, which opened in 1894, turning Manchester into an inland port in its own right.
Birmingham's canals linked to the national network in several directions. To the north, several trunk cross-country canals, linking Birmingham to Manchester were constructed, including the Trent and Mersey and Shropshire Union Canal. The Coventry Canal, the Oxford Canal, and what is now the Grand Union Canal linked southwards to London. And to the south-west, the Worcester & Birmingham and Staffordshire & Worcestershire canals linked to the River Severn.
The industrial revolution saw Yorkshire towns and cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Huddersfield develop large textile and coal mining industries, which required an efficient transport system. As early as the late 17th century, the Aire and Calder and Calder and Hebble navigations had been canalised, allowing navigation from Leeds to the Humber Estuary, whereas the River Don Navigation connected Sheffield to the Humber.
Later in the 18th century, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was constructed, creating an east-west link, giving access to the port at Liverpool allowing export of finished goods. The Rochdale and Huddersfield Broad and Narrow canals connected to Manchester.
The East Midlands cities of Nottingham and Leicester were connected to the national network via the canalised River Trent and River Soar, whilst Leicester had a connection to London via the Grand Union Canal.
By contrast, London was a port, served by already-navigable rivers like the Thames and the River Lea, (which was canalised). It needed canals only to take goods in and out from seagoing ships, where such rivers were unavailable.
As early as 1790 London was linked to the national network via the River Thames and the Oxford Canal. A more direct route between London and the national canal network; the Grand Junction Canal opened in 1805.
The South West of England had several east-west cross-country canals, which connected the River Thames to the River Severn and the River Avon, allowing the cities of Bristol and Bath to be connected to London: These were Thames and Severn Canal which linked to the Stroudwater Navigation, the Kennet and Avon Canal and the Wilts and Berks Canal, which linked to these three rivers; all of these linked into the national canal system via the Oxford Canal and the River Severn (via the Worcester & Birmingham and Staffordshire & Worcestershire canals). All of these east-west canals fell derelict in the early 20th century, and only the Kennet and Avon is today navigable, having been restored.
A few self-contained canals, not connected to the national system, were built in Devon and Cornwall, such as the Bude Canal and the St. Columb Canal. The same was true for South Wales, with several isolated canals running along the South Wales Valleys. These included the Swansea Canal, the Neath and Tennant Canal, the Glamorganshire Canal and the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal. Nearly all of these canals were constructed to serve local industries, and fell derelict when faced with competition from other modes of transport.
Within Scotland, the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal connected the major cities in the industrial Central Belt; they also provide a short cut for boats to cross between the west and the east without a sea voyage. The Caledonian Canal provided a similar function in the Highlands of Scotland. The Crinan Canal avoided the need for a long diversion around the Kintyre peninsula, and the Glasgow, Paisley and Johnstone Canal was intended to link these three places directly to the west coast of Scotland, but never reached beyond Johnstone. The Monkland Canal was conceived in 1769 by tobacco merchants and other entrepreneurs as a way of bringing cheap coal into Glasgow from the coalfields of the Monklands area.
On the majority of British canals, the canal-owning companies did not own or run a fleet of boats since this was usually prohibited by the Acts of Parliament setting them up to prevent monopolies developing. Instead, they charged private operators tolls to use the canal. These tolls were also usually regulated by the Acts. From these tolls they would try, with varying degrees of success, to maintain the canal, pay back initial loans and pay dividends to their shareholders.
In winter special icebreaker boats with reinforced hulls would be used to break the ice. The boats used on canals were usually derived from local coasting or river craft, but on the narrow canals the 7-foot-wide (2.1 m) narrowboat was the standard. Their 72-foot (22 m) length came from the boats used on the Mersey estuary, with their width of 7 feet (2.1 m) chosen as half that of existing boats, and adopted to make canals cheaper to build. All boats on the canals were horsedrawn. Packet boats carried packages up to 112 pounds (51 kg) in weight as well as passengers at relatively high speed day and night. To compete with railways, the flyboat was introduced, cargo-carrying boats working day and night. These boats were crewed by three men, who operated a watch system whereby two men worked while the other slept. Horses were changed regularly. When steam boats were introduced in the late nineteenth century, crews were enlarged to four. The boats were owned and operated by individual carriers, or by carrying companies who would pay the captain a wage depending on the distance travelled, and the amount of cargo.
From about 1840 railways began to threaten 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 drop in wages. Flyboat working virtually ceased, as it could not compete with the railways on speed and the boatmen found they could only afford to keep their families by taking them 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 considerable 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. Sometimes this was a tactical move by railway companies to gain ground in their competitors' territory, but sometimes canal companies were bought out, either to close them down and remove competition or to build a railway on the line of the canal. A notable example of this is the Croydon Canal. Larger canal companies survived independently and were able to continue to make profits. The canals survived through the 19th century largely by occupying the niches in the transport market that the railways had missed, or by supplying local markets such as the coal-hungry factories and mills of the big cities.
Overall, the canals adapted to the appearance of railways and in 1900 the canal network differed little from its extent in 1830.
During the 19th century in much of continental Europe the canal systems of many countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands were drastically modernised and widened to take much larger boats, often able to transport up to two thousand tonnes, compared to the thirty to one hundred tonnes that was possible on the much narrower British canals. As it is economic to transport freight by canal only if this is done in bulk, the widening ensured that in many of these countries, canal freight transport is still economically viable.
This canal modernisation never occurred on a large scale in the UK, mainly because of the power of the railway companies who owned most of the canals and saw no reason to invest in a competing, and from their point of view obsolete, form of transport. In view of this attitude, there was little point in the non-railway owned canals modernising, since they controlled only parts of the system. The only significant exception to this was the modernisation carried out on the Grand Union Canal in the 1930s. Thus almost uniquely in Europe, many of the UK's canals remain as they have been since the 18th and 19th century: mostly operated with narrowboats less than 7 feet (2.1 m) wide and 70 feet (21 m) long (although in parts of the country slightly larger canals were constructed, called 'broad' or 'wide' canals, which could take boats that were 14 feet (4.3 m) wide and 70 feet (21 m) long). A major exception to this stagnation was the Manchester Ship Canal, newly built in the 1890s using the existing River Irwell and River Mersey, to take ocean-going ships into the centre of Manchester via its neighbour Salford.
The canal network gradually declined. During the early 20th century, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, many canals, mostly in rural areas, were abandoned due to falling traffic, caused mainly by competition from road transport. 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 final blow was delivered by technological change.
Most of the canal system and 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. A report in 1955 by the British Transport Commission placed the canals in the UK into three categories according to their economic prospects; waterways to be developed, waterways to be retained, and waterways having insufficient commercial prospects to justify their retention for navigation. 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. Most of the traffic on the canals by this time was in coal delivered to waterside factories which had no other convenient access. In the 1950s and 60s, these factories either switched to using other fuels, often because of the Clean Air Act of 1956, or closed completely. The last regular long distance narrow boat carrying contract, to a jam factory near London, ended in 1971, although lime juice continued to be carried between Brentford and Boxmoor until 1981, substantial tonnages of aggregates were carried by narrow boat subsequently on the Grand Union (River Soar) until 1996 and more recently between Denham and West Drayton.
Under the Transport Act of 1962, the canals were transferred in 1963 to the British Waterways Board (BWB), which later became 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 by BWB to formally cease most of its narrow boat carrying on the canals - with boats and traffics transferred to a private operator, Willow Wren Canal Transport services. By this time the canal network had shrunk to just two thousand miles (3,000 kilometres), half the size it was at its peak in the early 19th century. However, the basic network was still intact; many of the closures were of duplicate routes or branches.
The Transport Act 1968 classified the nationalised waterways as:
British Waterways Board was required, under the Act, to keep Commercial Waterways, mainly in the north-east, fit for commercial use; and Cruising Waterways fit for cruising. However, these obligations were subject to the caveat of being by the most economical means. There was no requirement to maintain Remainder waterways or keep them in a navigable condition; they were to be treated in the most economic way possible, which could mean abandonment. British Waterways could also change the classification of an existing waterway. Parts, or all, of a Remainder Waterway canal, could also be transferred to local authorities, etc.; and this transfer could, as happened, allow roads and motorways to be built over them, mitigating the need to provide (expensive) accommodation bridges or aqueducts. The act also allowed local authorities to contribute to the upkeep of Remainder Waterways.
Though commercial use of the UK's canals declined after the Second World War, recreational use gradually increased as people had more leisure time and disposable income. The establishment in 1946 of a group called the Inland Waterways Association by L. T. C. Rolt and Robert Aickman has helped revive interest in the UK's canals to the point where they are a major leisure destination.
Since the formation of the Basingstoke Canal Purchasing Committee in March 1949,waterway restoration organisations have returned many hundreds of miles of abandoned and remainder canals to use, and work is still ongoing to save many more. Many restoration projects have been led by local canal societies or trusts, who were initially formed to fight the closure of a remainder waterway or to save an abandoned canal from further decay. They now work with local authorities and landowners to develop restoration plans and secure funding. The physical work is sometimes done by contractors, sometimes by volunteers. In 1970 the Waterway Recovery Group was formed to co-ordinate volunteer efforts on canals and river navigation's throughout the United Kingdom.
British Waterways began to see the economic and social potential of canalside development, and moved from hostility towards restoration, through neutrality, towards a supportive stance. Whilst British Waterways was broadly supportive of restoration, its official policy was that it would not take on the support of newly restored navigations unless they came with a sufficient dowry to pay for their ongoing upkeep. In effect, this meant either reclassifying the Remainder Waterway as a Cruising Waterway or entering into an agreement for another body to maintain the waterway.
There has also been a movement to redevelop canals in inner city areas, such as Birmingham, Manchester, Salford and Sheffield, which have both numerous waterways and urban blight. In these cities, waterways redevelopment provides a focus for successful commercial/residential developments such as Gas Street Basin in Birmingham, Castlefield Basin and Salford Quays in Manchester, Victoria Quays in Sheffield. However, these developments are sometimes controversial. In 2005 environmentalists complained that housing developments on London's waterways threatened the vitality of the canal system.
Today the major majority of canals in England and Wales are managed by the Canal & River Trust which, unlike its predecessor British Waterways, tries to have a more positive view on canal restoration and in some cases actively supports ongoing restoration projects such as the restoration projects on the Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal and the Grantham Canal.