The creation of England’s inland water-transport network during the 1700s was among the most important contributors to the Industrial Revolution. In the second half of the century, manufacturing, already transformed by entrepreneurial labor management, was shifting from cottage industry to factories, where machines mass-produced goods. A cheap, efficient transport infrastructure was vital to gather raw materials and distribute products. Because England’s disjointed road network was inadequate, and because new industrial areas in the north were not always served by navigable rivers, the initiative (and money) of industrialists and merchants combined with engineering skill and a great deal of hard work to develop a national system capable of moving bulk goods. England’s so-called Canal Age opened the country to the Industrial Revolution as the itinerant canal builders—they were known as “navigators”—changed the face of Britain. Between 1700 and 1835 some 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) of waterways were added to the 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of navigable rivers.
England’s first modern canal was the Sankey Brook Navigation, engineered by Henry Berry and Thomas Steers. Authorized by Parliament in 1755, two years later it was carrying coal to the industries of Liverpool on the River Mersey. In 1759 the third Duke of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton, impressed by a recent visit to France’s Canal du Midi (1667–1694), proposed building a 10-mile (16-kilometer) waterway to link his Worsley coal mines with the River Irwell and thus with industrial Manchester. The millwright James Brindley (1716–1762) was employed to work on the project with the duke’s land agent, John Gilbert. In the event, the Bridgewater Canal, which became operational by 1765, bypassed the Irwell, taking the coal directly to Manchester and Liverpool. It was more important than the Sankey Canal because it began a national network of waterways that would eventually join the manufacturing center of Birmingham to Britain’s major rivers: the Mersey, the Severn, the Trent, and the Thames.
Over the next seventy years those rivers were connected by 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) of canals, and industrial regions like the Staffordshire Potteries and the Midlands Black Country prospered because of their access to national and world markets. Many of the most successful canals were built between 1760 and 1770, the first authorized to be built similar in size to the river navigations. But the construction cost of canal locks constrained developers to reduce their size, and as trade increased the narrow waterways could no longer meet demand. In the early 1780s an economic depression practically halted canal building, but recovery a decade later led to what has been called “canal mania,” and there was a great deal of speculative promotion and ill-advised investment. Although final construction costs often exceeded estimates, most proposals were oversubscribed, often with ruinous results. Some schemes were profitable; others were abandoned during construction. Few showed much profit.
The construction of the canal system was an awesome enterprise. Some names appear often and they are generally interrelated. In many ways, James Brindley set the standards for those who followed. The success of the Bridgewater Canal gave him impetus for other canal projects: the Grand Trunk, the Staffordshire and Worcestershire, the Coventry, the Oxford, the old Birmingham, and the Chesterfield—altogether, a 360-mile (580-kilometer) network—were designed and constructed by this self-educated engineer. Another self-styled “civil engineer,” John Smeaton (1724–1792), built the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland and the Grand Canal in Ireland (with William Jessup, whom he trained). Jessup (1745–1814) worked on several river navigations and canals, mostly in the Midlands and eastern England; he was engineer on the Grand Junction, Ellesmere (later the Llangollen), and Rochdale Canals. Under Jessup, the famous Thomas Telford (1757–1834) was an engineer on the Ellesmere Canal. He became chief engineer on the Liverpool and Birmingham (Shropshire Union) Canal; where, unlike his predecessors who chose to follow land contours, he built embankments and made cuttings to follow a more direct route. He also made improvements to the Birmingham Canal systems. John Rennie (1761–1821) was a university-trained engineer who became surveyor and engineer on the Kennet and Avon Canal and on the Rochdale and Lancaster Canals.
Around 1830, investors began to turn to the new railroads. For a while canals and railroads were complementary, the canals carrying bulk cargoes while the railroads conveyed passengers and light goods. But by the mid-nineteenth century a national network of standard-gauge railroads had developed, and canal tolls were forced down. Most could no longer compete economically. Some railroad companies bought up canals and closed or abandoned them. But that was not the only reason for decline; the other was that, although they were interlinked and covered large areas of Britain, the canals were never conceived as an integrated system. The canals for the most part were built piecemeal for local traffic using traditional regional vessels that often varied in size. Because there was no standard canal lock, a fragmented, inefficient transport system resulted. They gradually went out of use as commercial thoroughfares.
World War II witnessed a temporary revival. Following years of neglect and war damage, the canals were soon regarded as derelict. They were nationalized under the aegis of British Waterways in 1947 and over the next couple of decades their leisure and recreation value began to be recognized. The Inland Waterways Association was formed to “rescue” them, and volunteer restoration projects continue. Millions of pounds are being spent on maintenance projects, and there are now more craft using British canals than at the height of their commercial success.