The Historical Importance of Britain's Canals

The development of Britain's canal system is often said to be central to the history of the industrial revolution, but how much do we really understand about that development. Were our canals a hotbed of engineering innovation, and did they provide a national integrated transport system? Our views have been coloured by early writers on industrial history, such as Samuel Smiles, and the reality is actually some way from the history we are usually taught.

The chamber lock was first used here on the Canal de Bereguardo, above. The idea was subsequently developed by Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, below, where a preserved lock shows some of the improvements to paddle gear he made.

Did canal engineering blossom in Britain? No, it was already well established on the European mainland. Wooden gates, to allow boats through flood and tidal protection banks, were first used in twelfth-century Holland. The first summit level canal was built in Germany; the Stecknitz Canal, opened in 1398, linked the Hanseatic port of LŸbeck with the Elbe and the important salt producing area of Luneburg. The chamber lock was introduced on the Canal de Bereguardo, near Milan, in 1458, and was further developed by Leonardo da Vinci in the 1490s. In his old age he left Italy, settling in France where he helped introduce the latest canal technology. By the seventeenth century, the development of canal engineering in France had reached the highest standards. Several books were published on the design and construction of canals in French, Dutch, German and Italian. Of particular importance was Architecture Hydraulique, published in France in 1753, copies of which could be found in the libraries of both Telford and the Duke of Bridgewater, as well as in other British libraries.

A drawing from Architecture Hydraulique which shows the detailed designs which were available to early English canal engineers.

It gave all the necessary detailed advice for constructing canals using examples already in use in France. For example, the Canal de Briare, opened in 1642, had an eight-rise flight of locks at Rogny, construction of which had begun in 1610. The Canal du Midi, opened in 1681, had all the features necessary for a modern canal — water supply from a reservoir, cuttings, embankments, aqueducts and a tunnel, as well as using locks with ground paddles, as developed on the Brussels Canal in 1561.

Building the eight rise flight at Rogny began in 1610. Ground paddles were used from the start, which created some problems when the locks were lengthened in the eighteenth century. Today they are bypassed by larger locks built c1880 when Fressinet was Minister of Transport

Engineering innovation was not the only aspect of canals developed prior to EnglandŐs canals. Their economic benefits were also well recognized in the Low Countries where the trekvaart system was built in the 17th century, with 658km of canal constructed in the mid-1600s. Canals linked all the major centres, with regular passenger and small packet boats operating to timetables. It was possible to travel by inland waterway almost the whole distance from Dunkirk to Groningen, some 578km, in 1650. On the same system, market boats carried food from villages to local towns, and the supply of provisions to growing urban centres was an important aspect of the trekvaart. Freight was not so important for the simple reason that the area had few natural resources, apart from sand. Coastal and river navigation provided all the transport needed for heavy goods, with larger sea-going boats providing a better economic solution. British engineers were aware of the trekvaart system, among them Richard Castle who mentioned the system in his Essay on Artificial Navigation in 1730, and John Smeaton who visited the Low Countries in 1755 to look at the new canals and mills in the area.

Why then are EnglandŐs canals so important historically in international terms? Certainly not for engineering innovation. For the answer we need to look to the start of the eighteenth century, more than fifty years earlier than the Duke of BridgewaterŐs Canal and James Brindley. Perhaps the most important revolutionary new British waterway was the Aire & Calder Navigation, though the Don Navigation in the same region was also important, and they were simply constructed using technology which a good millwright would have understood. What was different was that up until the A&CN received its Act in 1699, most inland waterways had been built by the Crown, by the aristocracy or wealthy landowners, and were primarily to do with the supply of agricultural provisions to London. The new Yorkshire waterways were promoted by local merchants and industrialists to increase and facilitate local trade, particularly in coal and textile goods. They mark the successful beginning of the era when local people invested in the local infrastructure to improve the local economy. This was the key to the industrial revolution.

Leeds in 1715 with Leeds Lock in the centre middle distance. The earliest locks probably had wooden chambers and were replaced by stone structures during the 1770s navigation improvements.

The remains of Methley Lock were revealed after the River Aire was breached by bank failure at an open cast mine. Note the stone wall sitting on the wooden lock chamber foundation, with the remains of the wooden weir foundations alongside. This lock was bypassed by the 1770s navigation improvements. The replacement canal, just visible beyond the wall, has itself disappeared when the new Lemonroyd Lock was built.

Lancashire soon followed where Yorkshire had begun. Thomas Steers, LiverpoolŐs first Dock Engineer, arrived in the town in 1709. Three years later he had not just begun construction of the worldŐs first commercially-successful wet dock, but had surveyed and promoted the Mersey & Irwell and the Douglas Navigations. He was also involved with the Weaver Navigation, completed the Newry Canal, BritainŐs first summit level canal, and surveyed the Calder & Hebble Navigation, the survey being used by Smeaton when he built the navigation later. Steers realised that good transport links were vital to economic development and success.

Dean Lock Weir, built in 1740, is one of the few remains of the Douglas Navigation. It is a typical eighteenth century navigation weir built of stepped stonework. How many other waterway structures of this date remain, nationally, in their original condition?

Investing in that infrastructure was something done by the new generation of industrialists and merchants. Those already established were slow to risk their wealth resulting in the decline in previously important cities, such as Bristol and Lancaster, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lack of improvement of the Severn was probably a major factor in the relative decline of industries in the Ironbridge Gorge.

The first wave of canal building in England resulted in canals such as the Duke of BridgewaterŐs Canal, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, the Oxford Canal and the Trent & Mersey Canal. All were built by merchants or coal owners to develop their existing trade, and all were designed just to improve the economy of their immediate surrounding area. Any idea of a national system was subordinate to the improvement of individual local industries — coal mining, textiles, pottery or the small wares of Birmingham. Canals such as these remained successful into the twentieth century, investors making their money from the trade encouraged by the canal as well as the canal itself.

Their success led to Canal Mania of the 1790s, where canals were promoted by people outside the immediate area of the proposed canal hoping that the canal itself would make sufficient profit for their investment. Many of these canals were unsuccessful, probably because they were not promoted by local people who would also make money from the expansion of established local trade. Transport has to be linked to existing trade, something which the motorway builders of today have forgotten and which calls into question the need for a national transport system, be it road, rail or canal. Successful eighteenth century merchants realized that just moving goods about was expensive and should be kept to a minimum. Successful canals were built to serve local needs, moving raw materials and manufactured goods between ports and industrial areas. Few served more than one industrial area, but they formed the foundation on which the success of that area depended.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a magnificent structure, but not of major importance in terms of canal technology. No similar structures where built, other cast iron aqueducts being much more restrained in their design.

Although the historical importance of EnglandŐs canals is primarily economic, there were some significant engineering developments here. Perhaps the most important were the organizational skills required to control construction over long distances. Standardization of measurement was significant. Dimensions along the canal needed to be the same and variation in lock widths and lengths on early canals are possibly the result of reliance on non-standard local measurements. New materials were introduced as costs came down. Cast iron replaced wood frames extensively on our canals, particularly for paddle gear, making it more robust and easier to use. Structures were also built from cast iron, such as Pontcysyllte Aqueduct — an iconic work, it is no wonder that Telford used it to advertise his consulting engineering business. But was it an important development? The canal was unsuccessful, and no cast iron aqueduct on a similar scale was built elsewhere. To find an important English canal engineering development, we have to look to the late nineteenth century and the construction of Anderton Lift. England had always been at the forefront of canal lift and incline development, and with Anderton they had an example which was copied around the world.

Anderton Lift, EnglandŐs major innovation in canal technology terms, is seem here in the 1930s with a pair of Potters boats ascending.

For a waterway which represents the historical importance of EnglandŐs canals, look at the Aire & Calder Navigation. It may be a surprising choice to some, but as the importance of EnglandŐs canals was primarily economic, it is important to choose a canal which represents successful investment by local people. The first true industrial waterway, its opening in 1700 by local entrepreneurs marks the beginning of the industrial revolution more effectively than any other event. Many historical structures survive. Archaeological remains of the original navigation have recently been excavated at Methley, and the old, disused Leeds Lock is a survival of the navigations first reconstruction in the 1770s. In the nineteenth century, the navigationŐs engineer, Bartholomew, was at the forefront of waterway engineering. Locks were extended to accommodate new steam boats and his innovative Tom Pudding system revolutionized the transport of coal by water, and engineers in Germany studied the system before building the Dortmund-Ems Canal. BartholomewŐs developments can still be seen in the structure of most locks and by the Boat Hoist at Goole. The waterway continued to be controlled by local merchants and coal owners up to nationalization, ensuring its continuing benefit to the local economy. It epitomizes all that is important about English waterway history — the locally financed use of existing and new engineering solutions to create a useful transport route for local businesses.

Ferrybridge Lock c1980, with Burdale passing through en route for Goole. The photo shows several extensions to the lock and the side dock entrance on the right. At normal river levels boats could sail straight through the lock, which only operates in flood conditions.

Boat Hoist at Goole in the late-1990s after it had been restored by ABP, the owner of Goole docks. The docks were the first to use steam engines to produce hydraulic power to work cranes, bridges and locks.

The realization that EnglandŐs canals are historically important for economic rather than engineering reasons does not change their appeal, and their place in each local landscape can be better appreciated when they are considered alongside local industry. Walking the towpath gives the opportunity to see two hundred years of development and usage; but how many understand what they see? The real charm of our waterways are those small details which the eye takes in but are not really ÔseenŐ. Rope marks, bollards or mooring rings, the curve of a structure to allow for tow lines, variations in the tow path edges — all have their reason, but few understand their true significance. Without them the waterway looses much of its identity and appeal.

Starting pins, for helping horse boats to move out of a lock, can still be found on a couple of locks at Johnsons Hillock (L&LC). Such details, together with the rope marks and bumper fixings on the lock entrance could easily disappear if not properly recorded and appreciated. They also add interest for visitors to the canal if properly interpreted. How many such details have already disappeared to the detriment of the general canal environment.

Because they were rarely improved, English canals provide a store house of historical detail just waiting to be interpreted. Large structures are adequately recorded and protected, but often redevelopment destroys many small historical details if it is not done sympathetically and with extensive local knowledge of the history of the waterway. Hopefully the recent Parliamentary suggestion that British Waterways set up an environmental heritage strategy will encourage a better understanding of waterway heritage.  To make this happen, small historic details need to be recorded, but research into the surviving detailed heritage necessary will be impossible to finance nationally. It is up to individuals and canal societies to identify, record and promote what is important, and for that, an understanding of why waterways were built in the first place is crucial.

Sheffield basin always feels a little antiseptic to me, with its bare open spaces lacking the details which once linked the wharves to the waterway. Such developments need careful recording, conservation and interpretation to bring out the story of the site and to make it a more interesting place to visit.

Mike Clarke, 2007.

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Mike Clarke, 8 Green Bank, BARNOLDSWICK. UK, BB18 6HX

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last revised: 27 March 2014