The Commercial Development

of English Canals

The development of inland water transport was a major influence on the 'Industrial Revolution' in England. From the middle of the eighteenth century, British industry increased rapidly because canals and river navigations provided reliable movement of raw materials and manufactured goods. The use of inland water transport in England, where rivers are not large by European standards, may seem unusual. With nowhere further than about 100 kilometres from the sea, road transport would seem to be more attractive. However, the small size of the country could have been an advantage. In the eighteenth century, hydraulic technology and civil engineering were still in their infancy. The small scale works necessary for canals and river navigations in England would certainly have been easier to organise and construct.

Canal technology was already well established in Europe. Why, then, are these English canals so important to European history? It is because, unlike most earlier canals, they were financed by factory owners and merchants. To maximise their profits, they realised they had to invest not just in factories but also in transport. The financial success of many English canals and navigations came as an added bonus to the growing profits merchants made from industry and commerce.

However, there were two problems with English canals. Firstly, to keep down costs, canals were often constructed to small dimensions. Early canal builders and financiers did not realise that there would be a rapid growth in the demand for transport during the eighteenth century.

Secondly, most canals were built to carry goods between a port and an industrial area. Apart from the narrow canals in the English midlands, they were not envisaged as an interlinked transport system. There was no national standard size for canal locks.

The effect of these factors was an inland water transport system which was fragmented and inefficient. England’s canal system can be divided into two by the size of locks. River navigations and some canals were built to accommodate coastal vessels. Their locks were over 4,3 metres wide and between 18,5 and 25 metres long. However, when the first canals were built between central England and the coast, it was decided to reduce the size of locks to make construction cheaper. Locks were just 2,15 metres wide and 21,5 metres long, with the boats only capable of carrying about 20 tonnes.

Because canals were owned by different companies and were of different sizes, it was extremely difficult to develop trade between towns on different canals. Cargoes had to be transhipped or carried in boats small enough to fit every lock. A single rate for the whole trip was impossible as each company had its own financial system. The problem of quoting through rates for goods was only solved when transport in Britain was nationalised in 1948. Innovation and competition

Few technical improvements were introduced on English canals. Perhaps their small size made such innovation unprofitable, or, in the nineteenth century, railways were built instead.

However, new materials were introduced. Cast iron was used on Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, 310 metres long and 39 metres high, on the Llangollen Canal. Opened in 1805, a cast iron trough on stone piers carries the canal across the valley of the River Dee. A second area of innovation was in containerisation. Perhaps the most significant development was on the Aire & Calder Navigation where a compartment boat system for carrying coal was introduced in the 1860s. Each compartment boat carried 40 tons, and they were moved by steam tugs in trains of up to 30 boats. At the port, they were lifted out of the water and tipped by hydraulic machinery, emptying their cargo into sea-going ships. The final area of innovation was the development of boatlifts and incline planes. The first modern boat lift opened at Anderton, Cheshire, in 1875, and formed the basis for subsequent boatlift development elsewhere in the world. It is currently being restored as a technical monument. Incline planes were also developed successfully in England. The Monkland incline of the 1860s and the later Foxton incline of 1900 set new standards in design.

The Decline of English Canals

Railway competition in the nineteenth century reduced canal profits. A few companies converted their canals to railways while others were purchased by railway companies. The remainder, about half, continued to be independent. This caused further problems in quoting through rates, with railway companies often raising tolls on their canals to discourage canal traffic. A few railway companies did operate their canals efficiently, but this was usually because their canals gave them access to the district of a competing railway company.

Despite their disadvantages, canals continued to provide a useful service. There was even increased interest in water transport, following the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894. Several more ship canals were suggested, but the First World War effectively put an end to these proposals. After the war, surplus military road vehicles were used for road transport, and this led to a rapid decline on smaller canals. Most canals continued to carry their established traffic, but rarely acquired new ones.

Money for improvement and renewal of facilities was only available to the most successful of canals and river navigations. Once again, the geography of the country influenced development. Canals in England have large numbers of locks, with an average of one lock every 2 kilometres. Some canals had far more than this, for example the Rochdale Canal has a lock every 570 metres. There are also some 5,000 bridges, 60 tunnels and 400 aqueducts on the 3,500 Km long system. With such a large number of structures, often surrounded by industry and housing, it is small wonder that the English canal system was never extensively improved. The cost would have been prohibitive. In the 1930s the Government did provide money for some improvements. The Grand Union Canal, linking London to Birmingham was widened at this time, though its locks were only doubled in width to 4.3 metres so that two narrow boats could pass through at the same time.

After the Second World War, transport was nationalised, including many of the narrow canals which, despite using boats only able to carry 20 tonnes, were still providing a useful service. Old traditions were difficult to change, and England continued to use eighteenth century canal technology. Diesel engines had been fitted to many boats, but horses still towed others, particularly on narrow canals, until the 1970s. Even today, many people in England still think in terms of horse drawn narrow boats when they read about canal transport.

One English engineer proposed new, larger canals which followed the 100 m contour and linked the main industrial areas. Unfortunately, the idea never received official recognition. It was only river navigations, with their comparatively small number of locks, regular water supply and ease of increasing navigable depth and width, which were improved to any great extent. Even here, standards rarely reached those found on similar waterways elsewhere in Europe.

English Canals Today

Following nationalisation in 1948, there was a great change in England's canals. Declining traffic and rising maintenance costs brought proposals for the closure of many canals. Some were closed, but increasing leisure use has now ensured the survival of virtually the complete system. Today, the waterway authority, British Waterways, receive most of their income from government subsidy, leisure use and property, though there is a significant income from freight on waterways in the north-east and south-east.

Over the last twenty years, most canalside property developments have used heritage as part of their marketing strategy. As a result, most people in England now perceive canals as small and antiquated, despite the fact that around 4 million tonnes are carried annually on our larger inland waterways.

The smaller English canals are not used regularly for transporting goods, though some enthusiasts still operate narrow-boats, mainly carrying household coal. They are also carry occasional small cargoes for publicity purposes. Environmental considerations sometimes prove useful. For the last three years, sand and gravel from a quarry near the River Soar has been carried by 4,3 metre wide barges because of the problems with road access. The 1994 Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has recommended that water transport must be used, where feasible, before planning permission is given for new large quarries. The Commission highlighted the benefits of water transport, suggesting an increase of 20% in inland and coastal shipping by the year 2000. Also, the recent Planning & Policy Guidance Note 13 states that planning authorities should encourage water transport. Grants are available for capital projects to improve facilities which will help to reduce freight traffic on environmentally sensitive roads.

In the south of England, the Thames is the main area for coastal and inland shipping, accounting for 49% of goods moved. The majority of this is seagoing. On inland waterways, a new waste traffic has just started on the River Lee, though there has been a reduction in similar traffics on the Thames. Road traffic problems in London are severe, and planners are now beginning to see the benefits of water transport. Additional passenger ships are suggested as one way of reducing rush-hour congestion, and the increased use of shipping for the carriage of bulk cargoes into the centre of London is often suggested.

Commercial use of canals and river navigations in north-west England has declined drastically over the last twenty years. Today, the River Weaver, with locks 46 metres long by 10 metres wide, is used by one tanker per week. Things are better on the Manchester Ship Canal which is recovering after losing most traffic on its upper reaches. Today, this section is increasingly being used by 'short-sea' vessels.

In north-east England, on rivers around the Humber Estuary, there have been several improvements since the 1960s. The major ports of Hull, Grimsby, Immingham and Goole are operated by Associated British Ports, while independent companies own most of the remaining wharves on the estuary and on the River Trent. British Waterways are responsible for the River Ouse where freight tonnage increased by 25.6% in 1995/96. Purely inland cargoes included paper from Goole to York, while on the River Trent, sand and gravel is carried regularly.

The locks on the Aire & Calder Navigation were enlarged about thirty years ago, and are now 61.5 metres long by 6.15 metres wide. Vessels carrying up to 640 Tonnes can now reach Leeds. One interesting traffic on this navigation is coal to Ferrybridge 'C' Power Station. Compartment boats, each capable of carrying 170 Tonnes, are used, with tugs pushing three compartments. At the power station, the compartments are lifted out of the water for emptying. Although the Ferrybridge traffic is still operating, the earlier 40 Tonne compartment boat system ended in 1986 (around the same time as the Lastrohrfloss, a similar German system, ended on the Mittelland Kanal) because of colliery closures. Other traffics still using the Aire & Calder Navigation include oil, sand and gravel.

The Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation was improved in the early 1980s, and now has lock dimensions similar to the Aire & Calder Navigation, suitable for 700 Tonne vessels. The first proposal for enlarging the navigation from its former 100 tonne standard came in the late 1960s. Before they would provide the finance, the Government insisted upon stringent conditions, far more severe than those given to either road or rail. Consequently, it was over twelve years before work could start. The improved navigation re-opened just in time for the closure of local steel works and collieries which were to have provided the majority of the traffic. Cargoes are still carried, but the waterway's lack of success has adversely affected governmental attitudes to inland water transport.

However, the need for an environmentally and ecologically safe form of transport is slowly being realised. In 1994, 7.05 million tonnes were carried internally on British inland waterways, with a further 54.81 million tonnes being handled on inland waterways by seagoing vessels,* and spare capacity is available on all British commercial waterways. Because of Britain’s small size, it has been difficult for waterways to compete internally with road transport. The average length of journey within Britain is too short to make inland water transport viable in all but the most advantageous circumstances. But now people are beginning to realise once more that our most useful inland waterways are our coastal waters, estuaries and rivers. Despite their comparatively small size, several British rivers and canals are used regularly by European river-sea ships. Some canals and river navigations could be improved to European standards. However, to finance such improvements, they must be seen as part of an integrated European transport system.

* Figures from "Waterborne Freight in the United Kingdom, 1994", available from Dept. of Transport, Room A 602, Romney House, 43 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 3PY.

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Mike Clarke
Milepost Research
8 Green Bank
BB18 6HX
tel: +44 (0)1282 850430

Fax: 0870 134 5609


last revised: 21 November 2005