The first canals
Although canals played a large part in the history of the UK, we were not the first country to build them.
China claims that the Grand Canal of China, built in the tenth century, is one of the oldest canals in the world. But there are examples of even earlier canals than that – most connected with natural rivers.
France’s awe-inspiring Canal du Midi, linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean was certainly among the earliest canals. The Canal du Midi is also credited with motivating the Duke of Bridgewater to build his pioneering Bridgewater Canal – the inspiration for Canal Mania.
The building of Britain’s canals
The Bridgewater Canal was finished in 1776. With it came an innovative aqueduct (one of the first of its kind) and tunnels which led directly into the coal mines at Worsley. The Bridgewater Canal quickly became a profit-making machine, slashing the price of coal in Manchester as transport became quicker and easier. It did not take long for investors to recognise the financial potential of canals for carrying freight, and so the great age of canal building began.
Canals and the industrial north
The era of canal building was split into two. The first, from the late 1750s to the early 1770s, concentrated on building canals to service the heavy industry of the north and the midlands. Canals sprung up around Birmingham and the Black Country, around Lancashire, the Potteries and into the Pennines where the flourishing textiles industry was powered by coal – brought by canal boat.
Canals were built and owned by private companies or individuals. There was no real interlinked waterway network as the early canal engineers simply envisaged canals as a means to transport goods between two points, eg from the coal fields to the factories.
The canals come to London and the south
There was at first little reason to build canals in London and the south, where there were no coal fields, industry was light and the way of life was mainly agricultural. But after the American War of Independence, a new period of canal building began and canals started springing up away from areas of heavy industry. Investors had seen canals as a profitable enterprise and were keen to feed more money into them – without realising the important link between industry and transport. Unfortunately, many of these later canals were eventually closed or abandoned, some having barely repaid their construction costs and leaving investors all over the country out of pocket.
On the plus side though, this period of canal building finally saw London linked to the canal network. In 1793 an act was passed to allow the building of the Grand Junction Canal (now known as the Grand Union Canal) from Braunston on the Oxford Canal to Brentford on the River Thames. Eight years later, London gained another link with the opening of the Paddington Arm.