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Canal mania: The history of canals in England

Eighteenth century canal mania

During the second half of the 18th century industry and commerce in England were experiencing a definite boom. Manufacturing had changed from local craftsmen manufacturing goods by hand to supply the needs of the local area to large factories and mills producing goods in large quantities by machine to supply the whole of England.

A good communications network to move supplies and goods was vital to the economy of England at this time. This caused new roads to be built but there were still restrictions as to the types of freight that could be carried on them. Roads were not suitable for the vast quantities of coal that were required for the factories, nor were they suitable for fragile items such as china and glass.

It was already known that a horse could pull a heavier load by boat than by wagon (50 tons by boat) and the navigable rivers of the country were already being used in this way, but a more extensive network was now needed. The idea of a canal network was first suggested by Francis Egerton, the third Duke of Bridgewater, who had seen what he believed to be the solution during his Grand Tour of Europe. He had been inspired by the Canal Du Midi in France.

Back in England in 1759 he decided to build a short canal that would link his coal mines in Worsley with the River Irwell which would then take the coal into Manchester. He ended up bypassing the river and using the canal to take his coal straight into Manchester and on to Liverpool. This meant that he avoided the costly tolls on the River Irwell. This had the effect of immediately cutting coal prices in half and he became even richer.

Other men of substantial means were quick to follow his example and over the next 50 years many fortunes were made as a result of the canals. Over 2,000 miles of canal were built and the Rivers Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames connected. As a result of this new and improved communications network areas such as the Staffordshire Potteries and the Black Country began to prosper.

The impact of canals

The construction of the canals and waterways of England enabled regions and areas that had previously been remote and separate to become networked, which in turn enabled a greater distribution of goods. The extensive network that canals provided also lowered the cost of the transportation of raw materials, agricultural produce and manufactured goods, which in turn encouraged the growth of agriculture and industry. The linking of the various regions of the county meant that news and information could be spread more easily and areas became less introspective.

The railways take over

By 1815 most of the canals in England had been completed and the money made, which was just as well as after another ten years or so the same men would be investing in the railways. At first the railways made little impact on the canals as they were used for passenger journeys and the transportation of lighter goods. By the middle of the 19th century the railways network was the more extensive of the two and the canals were forced into a decline, from which they would never recover. The lucky ones were bought out by the railways and so managed to recoup some of their losses.

In 1947 the canals were nationalised along with the railways, but by now many were in a state of neglect. In the 1950s and 1960s the Inland Waterways Association was especially concerned with re-opening a number of derelict canals to promote their use for recreation.

Today the canals of England are largely used as passenger networks,and boating and narrow boat holidays are a pleasant way to enjoy the country's scenery.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]