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Canals of the British Isles: A history


The history of canals and river navigations in the British Isles is long, complicated, and continuing, and thus hard to summarise. Joseph Boughey, author of British Canals: The Standard History has selected six historical developments in which there have been confusions and varied interpretations.

1. Canals and industrialisation

The first is that British canals are said to have been a crucial force in the industrial revolution, and that, starting with the Bridgewater Canal near Manchester, engineered by James Brindley, these greatly lowered prices of coal and other raw materials. Before the canals, however, there were coastal trading and river navigations, and the latter developed in engineering and economic terms well before the first modern canals. Not all river navigations were successful, but neither were some early canals - the Stamford Canal, for instance, and in the north of Ireland, the Newry Canal. Both of these, and the Sankey Canal in Lancashire, preceded the better-known Bridgewater. The extensive network through Ireland did not foster industrialisation.

2. The forgotten engineers

Second, although James Brindley was a significant figure in early canal engineering, and Thomas Telford an important later figure (who also furthered civil engineering as a profession), there were many others, and much depended on their assistants. Neither Telford nor Brindley had any involvement with waterways in Ireland or South Wales. William Jessop engineered more waterways than either (and had a larger hand in the major Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Wales than Telford’s memoirs asserted), but did not fit the somewhat romanticised view, propagated by Victorian writers like Samuel Smiles, of the engineer as pioneering genius.

3. The growth of the railways extinguished waterborne trade on canals

Third, it is often assumed that the growth of railways served to stifle waterborne trade on canals, and that railway companies deliberately acquired canal companies in order to destroy potential competition. This could be seen as true in some cases - passenger traffic soon disappeared on canals with railway competition, while the sites of some canals were used to build railways. Often, however, this was not the case - sometimes the canal had a local monopoly, and while traffic actually increased in the early railway era, revenues declined as tolls had to be lowered. In many cases canal companies sold out to the railways for higher capital sums than their revenues would justify, simply to remove opposition to the promotion and development of the railway. Victorian legislation prevented railway companies from neglecting their waterways, and some railway companies continued to encourage and develop trade on their canals.

4. The canals in the Midlands weren’t always the most successful

Fourth, the canals of the English midlands were some of the smallest navigable trade canals in the world, although those in Scotland, Northern England and Ireland were all larger - and sometimes more successful in their time. The reasons for this small scale lay partly in engineering and water supply, and partly in underestimates of their likely traffic. A further reason was the failure to enlarge these - with exceptions, even smaller canals in continental Europe were developed with much bigger dimensions than the larger canals in the British Isles. State ownership elsewhere fostered new development and improvements, along with controls over competing railway routes. In the British Isles, major enlargements, improvements and new lines were proposed from the 1880s to the 1940s, but, by the time nationalisation had finally taken place, it was too late to counter road competition. An exception was the Manchester Ship Canal, which made Salford and Manchester into inland ports, and forms one of the most significant survivals of Victorian engineering achievements. Ship and large barge canals elsewhere were repeatedly advocated, but little was developed bar some river improvements.

5. Not all boatpeople lived on the water

Fifth, much stress has been laid upon trade boats as gaily painted narrow boats upon which families lived - an image that was fostered, among others, by L T C Rolt’s seminal Narrow Boat of 1944. But family narrow boats only operated on the narrow canals of the English midlands, and then formed a minority of such boats; most were ‘day boats’, whose steerers lived on land. Other trade boats - in Ireland, Wales and Scotland) did feature cabins in which boatmen (all men, no families) could sleep on board, prepare meals and rest, but the workers lived in houses. Conditions, far from being romantic, were often grim, and even at times of high interwar unemployment there were shortages of crews.

6. When did the leisure revival start?

Sixth, while many canals and rivers became unnavigable before the 1940s and nationalisation, there would be a revival following Rolt’s book and the formation of the Inland Waterways Association in 1946. This body (and its Irish equivalent, IWAI) played a major part in their revival, growth and restorations for leisure use. It has frequently been portrayed as the triumph of volunteers against an uncaring and capricious bureaucracy, in the form of the nationalised transport body. On closer examination, voluntary physical work on restoration was limited until the 1960s, while the Inland Waterways Association was primarily a pressure group that sought to revive waterways for transport, and only secondarily for leisure. Its perceived opponents were charged with the development only of waterways with significant transport potential, which meant that most of the smaller waterways need not be retained, even when the IWA saw this as faint-heartedness and negative. The inability, legal and practical, to rapidly withdraw traffics and destroy or sell less-used waterways formed an ill-acknowledged major factor in their retention and restoration, as did steadily-growing leisure use. Carrying by narrow boat did decline rapidly after the 1940s, with road competition and industrial modernisation, and the IWA and nationalised owners would come to consider leisure as a priority. In Ireland, almost all carrying had ceased suddenly in 1960, and the IWAI, with a less confrontational approach, had pressed for leisure revival. While most waterways would survive, it was a very close-run thing, and the position in Ulster, in which all but one navigation (the Lower Bann) was closed after 1945, could well have applied to most waterways in the British Isles.

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