Grand Union - A new canal for a new age

In this blog, Kate Langley talks about Knowle Locks on the Grand Union Canal.

Knowle Lock Flight

If you stroll down the majestic Knowle locks on the Grand Union, you cannot help but be impressed by the sheer concrete constructions emerging from the water. On first glance, you may not notice the modest flight of locks running parallel. They are older and smaller, constructed out of brick. The stark contrast between the two is clear to see. Knowle Locks tell a fascinating part of our waterway history showing the transformation from old to a new super highway and they are well worth a visit.

After the war, a scheme was launched to link smaller waterways into one waterway. This not only served to employ men after the First World War but created a wider channel for more efficient trade use. The railways had arrived and the canals needed to compete as a viable form of freight transport. It was a different world and the Grand Union Canal Company were trying to meet this with gusto, by re-designing a huge section of pre-existing waterways that were better suited the needs of trade in one swoop.

Knowle Lock Flight - archive collection

This ambitious project saw the Grand Union Canal Company secure a chain of canals forming a complete through route from the River Thames to Birmingham. The Grand Union Canal Company, took over the entire route and re-named it the Grand Union Canal. The Company immediately embarked on a major modernisation programme in a bid to make the canal commercially successful. The original gauge of the Warwick & Napton and the Warwick & Birmingham was widened in 1932-34 to accommodate two narrow boats side by side, with the exception of Camp Hill Locks. Horse drawn craft were no longer an efficient mode of transport, and to make the canal viable the whole length of the waterway had to be suitable for accommodating an unlimited number of craft powered by motor engines.

Long lengths were dredged and strengthened with concrete bank protection. Bridges were widened or replaced. The narrow locks between Braunston and Birmingham were replaced with broad locks, as was the case at Knowle. The canal company also embarked on building a large fleet of narrow boats but it struggled to find crews to man them.

The ambitious scheme was completed in 1937 but much of the canal remained too shallow for broad boats to pass each other. However, narrow boats could now easily and quickly work in pairs. Initially the plan was successful, with traffic increasing in the short term, but after the war the long-term downwards trend was relentless as canal side factories ceased using coal as a fuel or obtained it from other sources.

The old locks alongside the new at Knowle remain as a testimony to one of the last large scale attempts at improving a UK inland waterway for 20 Century transport purposes.  

Kate Langley
Graduate Heritage Advisor (Midlands)

Last date edited: 11 April 2018

About this blog

Heritage team

The work carried out by the heritage team is extremely varied, covering all sorts of structures and a wide variety of projects. Not one week is the same and we keep learning all the time, meeting some fascinating people and visiting stunning places along the way. We are hoping that through our blogs we can share some of our passion for the amazing industrial heritage of the inland waterways.

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