History of the British Canal Network

History of the British Canal Network

The original purpose of the British Canal Network was for commerce and travel. At the time roads were just being constructed and were very muddy. Being so muddy made the roads hard to travel so for any type of mass transit the canals were the safer and faster route to take.

The first canals were actually constructed in the Roman times. These were mainly used as land drainage canals or for irrigation purposes. However, there were short canals that connected the rivers that could be navigated.

In the Middle Ages the canals were improved so that building materials for various projects could be transported in safety. During this period castles and monasteries were built in abundance which meant that having the canals were more important than in previous years. With the improvement of the canals the government began regulating the goods transported on the waterways.

During the 16th century is when the major improvements of the canal navigation system began. In fact 29 major navigation improvements for the riverways took place between the 16th and 17th centuries. This set the stage for the Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century.

The Industrial Revolution brought the modern canal system into being, mainly due to the demand for a economical way to safely transport goods in large quantities. Locks were installed in abundance to help travelers and goods avoid the dangerous rivers or rivers that were simply difficult to navigate. It was during this time that the idea of a “pure” canal came into being. Instead of letting where a river was located determine how goods were transported the “pure” canals could be constructed so that the goods could be shipped where they needed to go in the least amount of time.

There are two canals that are debated about as having claim to being the first “pure” canal. One is the Sankey Brook Navigation and the other is the Bridgewater Canal.

Grand Union Canal in winter c.1930
Grand Union Canal in winter c.1930

Transportation along the canals has changed over time as well. One of the first ways that boats were moved up and down the river was by having horses pull the boats along. This method of moving the boats was highly successful. One horse could pull a boat that was carrying about thirty tons of weight. With such a high rate of success this method was actually used until the 1950s but with the introduction of steam-powered boats, it was soon obsolete.

In the beginning there were no families that lived and worked on the canal boats. Instead the crews were all male and their families occupied homes along the banks. This continued until after World War One. During the late 19th century wives and children began coming aboard to provide extra labor and reduce the costs of extra hires and rent for their homes.

From their meager beginnings the canals have evolved to provide not only recreation but jobs for many people. Even though some are artificially made they still have served a purpose and without them who knows how different the transportation of goods would have been over the centuries.