Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Golden Age of the Canal in England and Northern Wales

By Jude Knight

If a breakthrough technology is one that offers a solution to a complicated problem, leading to explosive economic growth, canals were one of eighteenth-century England’s breakthrough technologies.

Not that canals were new, or even unique. The Persians and the Chinese built massive canals, and the Chinese are credited with inventing the pound lock, with a sluice gate either side and a pool in the middle that could be lowered or raised by opening one gate or the other.

Mitred gates followed. With a mitred gate, the gates are slightly too large to close flat. They meet with mitred edges pointed towards the higher water level, and water pressure keeps them shut. When the level on both sides is the same, the pressure is off and the gates open easily.

Canal Lock

Europeans started building canals in the twelfth century, and the first mitred gate was built in the fifteenth century. It was probably the San Marco lock in Milan, which joined two canals at different levels.

Canals were slow but steady
The impetus, of course, was economic. Canals allowed heavy goods to be moved reliably, efficiently, and in bulk lots.

The roads, where they existed at all, were dreadful, limiting the amount that could be pulled by a team of horses or oxen. Boats could carry heavier loads, if they could move. Rivers had currents: travelling against them was hard and even drifting downstream could be dangerous after rain. Sails are fine if the wind is blowing and in the right direction, but what about when the river bends? On a river, boat captains had to wait: for the weather, the tide, a fair wind.

A canal offered still water. Even better, a horse or mule could be yoked to the boat and walk beside the canal. A horse could move around fifty times as much weight pulling a boat on still water than on pulling a cart over old-fashioned roads.

The industrial revolution depended on transportation
By the mid-eighteenth century, England was putting together the elements of what would later be called the industrial revolution. Cheap cotton from the colonies fed the textile mills. All sorts of industries began to mechanise, with more and more efficient steam engines to turn the wheels of their operations. Mechanised manufactories turned out vast quantities of goods compared to previous methods. And those engines consumed huge amounts of coal. How could raw materials get to the mills? How could the finished products get to the market. A complicated problem, indeed!

In 1759, the Duke of Bridgewater proposed a simple canal project: a canal with a series of locks to join his coal mine to the nearest river, the Irwell, which travelled through a valley three miles away. Brindley, the engineer he hired had a far more ambitious plan. He proposed a canal straight to Manchester, ten miles away, jumping the Irwell on an aqueduct and built as level as possible to avoid time-wasting locks. 

Salt Mills Canal

The Bridgewater canal opened in 1861 and the duke’s coal reached Manchester for half the previous cost. The great age of canal building had begun, and before it ended the whole of the South, Midlands, and parts of North England and Wales would be linked by a connected network of canals, locks, aquaducts, and tunnels.

Canals fed the factories; factories fed the canals
Others soon followed. The first canals were built by private individuals who had stuff to move. Josiah Wedgewood was one. He needed clay at his manufactory in Staffordshire, and then wanted to transport the pottery he created to market with as few breakages as possible.

Canals allowed the existing manufactories to move more goods at lower prices, and encouraged others to build along their lines.

Brindley, builder of more than 300 miles of canal, set the standard dimensions for canal locks, and those dimensions governed the length of the boats. The locks were 72 feet 7 inches long, and 7 feet six inches wide. The boats had to be a smidgeon shorter, and became known as narrowboats. They could carry thirty tons of cargo, and be pulled by a single horse, walking the towpath.

The network ran on horses and horse feed 
The horses worked hard all day. They had to be fed well and regularly with high energy food, and stalled in a stable at the end of each day's journey (because a hot tired horse will become ill if kept in a cold field at night).

So the canal system was peppered with stopping places where horses could be cared for and where local farmers could sell corn, crushed oats and chopped hay.

To keep working, a horse had to be fed well and regularly with high energy food and all the corn, crushed oats and chopped hay had to be prepared and available at the provender stores all over the system. An army of ostlers and blacksmiths made sure the horses were well and well-shod. The system employed thousands of people and horses, quite apart from those who were on the water.

The railways were the beginning of a long century of decay
When I first started researching the canals, I saw them through a Victorian lens, and expected to find families living on the boats, but in the glory days of the canals, narrowboating was a male enterprise. Families lived in cottages along the banks or at one terminus or the other. Once the railways began, they offered a faster alternative for transporting bulk goods, and the rates for the narrowboats dropped to the point that wives and children came to live aboard, to save rent and to provide extra labour.

Motorised canal boat on the Pontcysyllte aqueduct

Though canal boats, most now motorised, would continue for more than a century, the golden age of the canal was over.

Salts Mill Canal.jpg
Salt's Mill from the canal, Saltaire
Salt's Mill is mainly on the south bank of the Leeds and Liverpool canal. But there is also a building on the north bank, connected by an enclosed bridge. On a Monday morning in early March, it was really quiet between the buildings, the loudest sound was the ducks quacking. Think of it 150 years ago when barges would have been loading and unloading at the large doors on the ground floor in the foreground.
© Copyright Rich Tea and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Canal boat on aquaduct.jpg
A canal boat traverses the longest and highest aqueduct in the UK, at Pontcysyllte in Denbighshire, Wales
Public Domain image

Canal lock.jpg
Kennet and Avon Canal, Wootton Rivers looking north-east The lock gates don't appear to be particularly watertight. The lock-keeper's cottage is the white building to the right of the image.
Brian Robert Marshall [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

[This is an Editor's Choice archive post, first published on EHFA on May 9, 2017]


Jude Knight’s writing goal is to transport readers to another time, another place; to give them a virtual holiday within a compelling story with interesting company.

In her novel A Raging Madness, released 9 May 2017, her hero and heroine are fleeing villains; one near crippled after an injury and the other recovering from forced laudanum addiction. If they go by road, they’ll be dead or caught. Jude sends them on a canal boat, one of the slowest forms of transport known to human kind, but so ubiquitous in the early 19th century landscape as to be nearly invisible. Researching canal boats was great fun.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I mention the opening of the Oxford Canal in my novel The London Monster, which will be released in January 2021. It was opened in 1790 and helped transport coal into London at a much faster rate than before because it linked the Thames with the Coventry Canal.


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