During February I have spent some time exploring some of Londons canals and I thought I would do a short series of posts about canals. They are are great place to enjoy some leisure time as I often do at the Grand Union canal near me but they weren’t always so sedate.
It’s impossible to understand the modern history of Britain and the industrial revolution without considering canals.
Before 1700, most British inland waterways had been built by aristocratic landowners to carry agricultural products in southern England. However, in that year a new waterway opened that was radically different.
The Aire & Calder Navigation linked Leeds to the sea and was built primarily by textile merchants and coal owners who saw a better transport infrastructure as a key part of the development of their trade. It took a couple of decades to become established, but by the 1770s many of the original promoters had become so wealthy from increased trade, that they were able to purchase large country estates.
More river navigations were built by northern merchants in the first half of the eighteenth century, strengthening the position of established industrial towns like Leeds and creating new ones like Liverpool and Manchester.
It was the success of these early industrial navigations, together with his visit to the Canal du Midi, which prompted the Duke of Bridgewater to build his canal.
For Britain, it was unusual in that he alone financed the project, and because of his social position, the canal became a magnet for visitors – both from Britain and abroad. His example certainly aided the promotion of canals, and their effect on Britain’s economy was dramatic. For example, when the Duke’s canal opened from his coal mines in Worsley to the centre of Manchester in 1763, the price of coal in the town was halved overnight.
The next 20 years saw the formation of most of Britain’s most important canals, set up by merchants, aristocrats and bankers, but particularly by coalmine owners, textile manufacturers and pottery barons wanting to open up new markets for their products.
These early canals, linked directly to trade, were highly successful. National economic problems during the 1780s almost stopped further canal building, but by 1790 the existing canals were beginning to make a profit and were seen as a good investment.
Numerous new canals were promoted, and though a few were based on the solid foundation of trade, many of the others were pure speculation. This was the time of the Canal Mania when many thought that a canal alone would create wealth.
Due to the tremendous effort and investment to construct and run canals, several were to bankrupt their investors and none other than Adam Smith in 1776 said:
“Navigable cuts and canals are of great and general utility; while at the same time they frequently require a greater expense than suits the fortunes of private people.”
Despite some high profile failures, there were many successful canals, and the volume of goods carried by canal increased rapidly, enabling Britain to become the first industrial power in the world.
As a result many people were to move from the country to the town, changing completely the face of British society. The success of the waterway system, and the industries it supported, had a major effect on Britain’s economy, creating the wealth necessary for the country’s world dominance in the Victorian era.
However, waterways were essentially local in character – financed and built by local people, and their greatest effect was upon the communities through which they passed.
It could be argued that despite their success, canals never quite fulfilled their potential as to a certain degree their golden age was curtailed quite quickly by the invention of the steam locomotive that killed off less successful canals but for well over a century, successful canals were easily able to compete with railways.
A large investment in the canals before WW2 was very well timed and the canals offered an important alternative method of transportation when the more obvious and more easily damaged train lines were bombed.
Sadly progress and the decline of many traditional industries after 1945 put an end the most of the commercial use of the canals and many fell in to total disrepair and became both dangerous and impossible to navigate.
From the 1960’s however, great investment and probably more importantly, a massive amount of time and hard work from officials and volunteers has re-opened and restored a 2,000 mile network of canals in England and Wales. Though there is some limited commercial transport on the canals and rivers, these days the canals are primarily given over to leisure and nature.
And it is with that in mind that in my next few posts I will be posting on some of the canals in London which I sought out for my new Canals of London Private Guided Tour Walk.