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The rise and fall and rise of British canals

The national canal network of Britain powered its Industrial Revolution, then fell into disuse, and then rose again in the late 20th century.


Lesbardd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When people think of the Industrial Revolution a few images spring to mind: coal, trains, factories, iron, steam, grime! But in fact the history of the early Industrial Revolution in Britain begins with horses and canals.

In the late 18th century the burgeoning manufacturing industry needed fast and efficient transportation. Raw goods and coal needed to get to factories and mills; manufactured goods needed to get to consumers; most of the roads between them were dirt roads. Or, given that this is Britain we’re talking about, mud roads. A horse and cart could realistically transport about one or two tonnes at a time along those roads – assuming that they weren’t hopelessly bogged down. It simply wasn’t enough.

Enter the canals. An artificial waterway was expensive to build and maintain, but a horse-drawn canal barge could easily transport thirty tonnes of cargo, and get it to its destination faster than the roads. And if it rained… that actually helped!

Between the 1790s and the 1830s, fuelled by huge private and public investments, artificial waterways were dug all across the country. In total, nearly six and a half thousand kilometres of canals moved goods quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. The Industrial Revolution could not have flourished without the ditch and the dray.

Then along came the train, and canals were suddenly the slow, less efficient, more expensive option. Although they never went away, the use and popularity of canals faced a steep decline in the second half of the 19th century. Canals were bought out (often by railway companies). The rise of better sealed roads also lead to a drop in canal use; many were abandoned completely and literally dried up.

The second turn, back to popularity, kicked off around fifty years ago. By this time the canal network had been nationalised, and a new niche for the canals was found: leisure and tourism. Today you can rent or buy a narrowboat and cruise the canals all around Britain to your heart’s content. Canals are being restored to their original glory. Many people even live in their boats year-round, like this guy:

(End note 1: I recommend checking out that whole channel, by the way; the vlogger is an excellent, cheery, benign, and occasionally cheeky narrator of the intricacies of the British canal system.)

(End note 2: I first learned about the canals through the excellent board game Brass and its reinvented sequel Brass: Birmingham. If you’re into board games, they are great stressful fun.)

(End note 3: I promised to write about the canal network back in July of last year when I wrote about roving bridges and also in Update 1. Promise finally fulfilled!)

Categories: Early modern history Economics & business Europe History Modern history Places Sciences Technology

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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