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https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2021/08/16/a-brief-history-of-canals/

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CANALS

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Since the medieval period, permission for building roads and other public works has been granted by acts of Parliament. Permission to build canals and railways has been granted this way since the eighteenth century, and since 1794 promoters of these projects were required to submit plans of the proposed work to support their application. As a result, many acts and deposited plans exist in the Parliamentary Archives. In this blog post, we’ll use a few highlights from the collection to guide us on a quick cruise through the history of our inland waterways.

This blog was written by Nicole Hartland, Archives Assistant (Graduate Trainee).

BRIDGEWATER: THE FIRST ‘MODERN’ CANAL IN BRITAIN?

The Bridgewater Canal was considered the first ‘modern’ or ‘pure’ canal in Britain (although there is some debate). River navigations such as the Aire and Calder navigation were sophisticated by the early eighteenth century and the experience of building longer and multi-level ‘cuts’ to avoid difficult stretches of river gave rise to the idea of a ‘pure’ canal – designed based on where goods needed to travel, and not where a river happened to be.

The Duke of Bridgewater commissioned the canal in 1759 to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to market in Manchester – setting off the canal-building boom of the eighteenth century and helping to fuel the early decades of the Industrial Revolution. The enabling act was passed in 1759 (pictured below) and the canal opened on 17th July 1761.

Photograph of a rolled act, partly unrolled showing writing on unrolled section.
An Act to enable the Most Noble Francis Duke of Bridgewater to make a navigable Cut or Canal, from or near Worsley Mill, over the River Irwell, to the Town of Manchester, in the County Palatine of Lancaster, and to, or near, Longford Bridge, in the Township of Stretford, in the said County., 1759 HL/PO/PB/1/1759/33G2n13,  Parliamentary Archives

This canal was a great feat of engineering, and its engineer James Brindley is considered a ‘canal pioneer’ for many reasons including: setting the template for narrow canals which saved water, using puddle clay to waterproof the base of canals, and innovations such as the Brindley lock which allows boats to ascend and descend waterways. The Trent and Mersey Canal, Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, Droitwich Canal, Coventry Canal, Birmingham Mainline Canal and Oxford Canal all began to be developed during this period, and Brindley had a hand in all of them. He was heavily involved as engineer in the Trent and Mersey canal which was vital to the development of the ceramic industry. Industrialist Josiah Wedgewood was an early advocate of canals and pushed hard with Brindley for their construction. Read more on James Brindley from the Canal and River Trust.

‘CANAL MANIA’: THE CANAL BOOM BETWEEN THE 1790s AND 1810s

Many of Britain’s most important canals were built over the next twenty years. They were 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. Forty-four acts for new canals were passed between 1791 and 1795, but only a few were to make money for their investors. Plans are deposited in support of these Acts and include plans, sections, books of reference and estimates of expenses. These can include lists the names of owners, occupiers and lessees of land, or property affected, along with the subscribers of capital. Because of this, the plans are a great resource for family history - here’s a guide from our website if you would like to know more Deposited Plans for Family History - Parliament Archives.

The plans and sections for the Montgomeryshire Canal (1815) and North Walsham and Dilham Canal (1812) are below – from these we can see the course and elevation of the proposed canals and the many towns and lives it will impact. These two are also great examples of how aesthetically pleasing these plans can be!

Plan of a proposed canal. The plan shows the line of route and the neighbouring parishes.
North Walsham and Dilham Canal, 1812, HL/PO/PB/3/plan16, Parliamentary Archives

 

Image of canal plan. The plan shows the proposed line of route and the neighbouring townships.
Montgomeryshire Canal, 1815,  HL/PO/PB/3/plan19, Parliamentary Archives

CHANGING LANDSCAPE, COLONIAL LEGACY

The sudden boom of canal-building between 1790s and 1810s had a huge impact on the landscape of Britain. The artist and travel writer William Gilpin, famous for the originating the idea of the picturesque in the late eighteenth century, had this to say about the landscape around Cannock Chase, now ‘disfigured by a new canal, which cuts it in pieces’ in 1772:

“It’s lineal, and angular course – its relinquishing the declivities of the country; and passing over hill, and dale; sometimes banked up on one side, and sometimes on both – its sharp, parallel edges, naked, and unadorned – all contribute to place it in the strongest contrast with the river. An object, disgusting in itself, is still more so, when it reminds you, by some distant resemblance, of something beautiful.”

This is unsurprising given the romanticism of the picturesque movement but shows us the strong emotions stirred up by such drastic and sudden changes to the landscape of Britain. The history of canals in British art is a very interesting and varied one and can tell us a lot about canals and the British imagination. If you would like to know more, here are two blog posts to get you started: Canals in British art | Apollo Magazine, Canals in art | Canal & River Trust

Plan of the Grand Junction Canal. The plan shows the proposed route and the land owners surrounding the route.
Grand Junction Canal, 1818 HL/PO/PB/3/plan22, Parliamentary Archives

The impact on the British landscape was huge, and for a long time canals were the main form of transporting goods within Britain. Earlier canals such as the Bridgewater Canal transported coal, fuelling the heavy industry of the industrial revolution. Canals also carried goods from the British Empire such as cotton, tobacco and sugar produced by enslaved peoples in the colonies. It is important to remember how inextricably linked this rapid growth of industry and wealth is with exploitation throughout the British Empire. Many wealthy individuals who funded and held shares in canal-building projects gained that wealth through slavery. Moses Benson, a Liverpool slave-trader, invested in the Lancaster Canal which subsequently had a huge impact on the economy of Preston including the building of cotton mills. Another slave-trader William Carey, who was an attorney in Jamaica, also owned shared in the Grand Junction Canal (pictured above). Dr Jodie Matthews, research fellow for the Canal and River Trust,  has produced a preliminary literature review on Canals and Transatlantic Slavery should you want to learn more about this legacy.

THE DECLINE OF THE CANALS

In the second half of the 19th century, a large part of the traffic and investment which had sustained the canal network had been funnelled into the booming railways. Many once busy canals were converted into rail routes and those working on the canals often brought their wives and children on board to keep costs low. These boating families developed a distinctive decorative style for their floating homes called ‘Rose and Castle’. This form of decoration has an eclectic range of influences and can be seen in many photographs of the period in the Waterways Archives. ‘Roses and Castles: Canal Folk Art’ is a great introduction if you want to find out more.

Some successful canals were able to compete with railways, but many closed or were taken over. The decline in traditional industries occurred for a number of reasons following each of the World Wars, having a dramatic impact on the commercial use of canals. Large waterways such as the Aire and Calder did survive but the winter of 1963/4 saw a shift from coal gas to North Sea gas – marking the end for a canal industry incapable of meeting the growing demands of customers reliant on quick deliveries thanks to newly built motorways.

RESTORATION, REGENRATION, RENEWAL

After the nationalisation of canals in 1948, it was difficult for the government to close the canals despite their declining condition. Luckily, canal enthusiasts across Britain began promoting the value of canals for leisure which had a strong impact on government attitudes. The British Waterways Board was set up in 1963, and the 1968 Transport Act officially recognised the leisure value of canals and provided public funding. The Inland Waterways Association and other canal societies pushed through a host of restoration projects between the 1950s and 1970s including the Kennet and Avon, Peak Forest and Aston Canals – revitalising both the waterways and local communities. This regeneration has continued, and the waterways are now a vibrant and beloved part of our landscape. The Canal and River Trust was formed in 2012 and control of the waterways was transferred to them from the government. The Trust look after all things waterways, and the Waterways Archive is fantastic if you want to learn more, as is our catalogue where you can see all the plans in this blog and many more.

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