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The new canal age

Mike Clarke, canal historian, explains how the canal system emerged from post-war decline to become the treasured leisure destination of today.

Walkers, a cyclist, angler and boater on the Grand Union Canal

Following nationalisation of the canals, railways and ports in 1948, it was suggested that most of Britain's smaller waterways should be closed. However, the need for further legislation to achieve this meant that the waterways survived, albeit with significant underfunding from Government.

It was fortunate for the canal system that Tom Rolt's book, 'Narrow Boat', was published at the end of the Second World War. It described his journey around a system in decline, but one which retained an unspoilt charm.

Tom Rolt

Boat on the Grand Union Canal

His descriptions of the unchanged way of life surviving on canals proved attractive to many with increasing amounts of leisure time and, in those post-war days of austerity, a longing for the certainties of the past. An important result was the formation in 1946 of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), to fight for the preservation of and investment in Britain's waterway system.

An uphill battle for the canals

For many years the development of canals for leisure was an uphill battle, requiring a complete change in attitude for a traditional cargo carrying industry. However, gains were made, with the Ellesmere Canal (now known as the Llangollen) brought back to life in 1955.

The British Waterways Board was set up in 1963, but it was not until Barbara Castle's Transport Act of 1968 that the leisure value of canals was officially recognised and the waterways were given public money to support their use for recreation.

Local communities and economies

To push for further improvements, practical restoration-projects were begun by enthusiastic canal societies and the IWA, amongst them being the restoration of the Kennet & Avon, Peak Forest and Ashton canals from the 1950s to the 1970s. Once again, the importance of canals to local communities was beginning to be realised, though this time for leisure and recreation.

The successful canal restorations carried out by enthusiasts in the 1960s and '70s, together with the innovative reuse of canals in Birmingham's city centre, planned by British Waterway's Architect Peter White, led to a re-evaluation and recognition of the benefits of canals to local economies

Catalysts for regeneration

Trip boat goes past a roundabout in the canal at a three-way junction, with an iron pedestrian bridge and pub in the background.

Such works acted as catalysts for urban regeneration in Birmingham and elsewhere and encouraged the growth of ‘brown-field' redevelopments long before the term had become fashionable. Today the heritage value of old industrial architecture has become widely accepted, with many canalside buildings now finding new uses – from museums and leisure centres to pubs, restaurants, offices and Manhattan-style loft conversions.

The traditional use of canals has not been forgotten, but to assist modern life, canals do not just move heavy goods. Fibre-optic cables hidden below the towpath carry the traffic of modern information technology and we also use the waterways to transfer water from regions of surplus to areas where it is most needed. Such operations are very much the hidden aspect of canals, as most people see them as a place of leisure – for walking, boating, cycling, fishing and enjoying their industrial history and wildlife.

In 2012, the Canal & River Trust was formed, with government passing control of our waterways to the new charity.

Volunteering outside

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Last Edited: 13 March 2024

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