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The first canal age

The 18th century saw a surge in canal building and the dawn of a new 'Canal Age'. Canal historian Mike Clarke explains why some canals were very successful and others were doomed to fail.

Freight carrying on the Grand Union Canal

Before 1700, most British inland waterways had been built by aristocratic landowners to carry agricultural products in southern England. However, in that year a new waterway opened that was radically different.

The Aire & Calder Navigation, linking Leeds to the sea, was built primarily by textile merchants and coal owners who saw a better transport infrastructure as a key part of the development of their trade. It took a couple of decades to become established, but by the 1770s many of the original promoters had become so wealthy from increased trade, that they were able to purchase large country estates.

Halving the price of coal

More river navigations were built by northern merchants in the first half of the eighteenth century, strengthening the position of established industrial towns like Leeds and creating new ones like Liverpool and Manchester.

It was the success of these early industrial navigations, together with his visit to the Canal du Midi, which prompted the Duke of Bridgewater to build his canal.

Duke of Bridgewater

For Britain, it was unusual in that he alone financed the project, and because of his social position, the canal became a magnet for visitors – both from Britain and abroad. His example certainly aided the promotion of canals, and their effect on Britain's economy was dramatic. For example, when the Duke's canal opened from his coal mines in Worsley to the centre of Manchester in 1763, the price of coal in the town was halved overnight.

The next 20 years saw the formation of most of Britain's most important canals, set up by merchants, aristocrats and bankers, but particularly by coalmine owners, textile manufacturers and pottery barons wanting to open up new markets for their products.

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“Navigable cuts and canals are of great and general utility; while at the same time they frequently require a greater expense than suits the fortunes of private people.”
Adam Smith, 1776

Canal Mania

These early canals, linked directly to trade, were highly successful. National economic problems during the 1780s almost stopped further canal building, but by 1790 the existing canals were beginning to make a profit and were seen as a good investment.

Boatmen on the Grand Union Canal

Numerous new canals were promoted, and though a few were based on the solid foundation of trade, many of the others were pure speculation. This was the time of the Canal Mania when many thought that a canal alone would create wealth.

They should have listened to Adam Smith, who in 1776 said:

“Navigable cuts and canals are of great and general utility; while at the same time they frequently require a greater expense than suits the fortunes of private people.”

Some 44 Acts for new canals were passed between 1791 and 1795, but only a few were to make money for their investors.

Britain becomes an industrial power

Despite these failures, there were many successful canals, and the volume of goods carried by canal increased rapidly, enabling Britain to become the first industrial power in the world.

As a result many people were to move from the country to the town, changing completely the face of British society. The success of the waterway system, and the industries it supported, had a major effect on Britain's economy, creating the wealth necessary for the country's world dominance in the Victorian era. However, waterways were essentially local in character – financed and built by local people, and their greatest effect was upon the communities through which they passed.

Boosting Britain's economy

Successful canals were easily able to compete with railways, but some less successful ones closed or were taken over. It was the decline in traditional industries after each of the two World Wars which put an end to most commercial use of canals.

In the video below, Sir Neil Cossons talks about canals today, the history of the canals and the importance of preserving this national asset for future.

Last Edited: 13 March 2024

photo of a location on the canals
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