The decline of the canals in the twentieth century

The decline of the canals in the twentieth century


Posted Friday


In the next part of our history of the canals series, courtesy of the Canal & River Trust and historian Michael Clarke, we find out about the decline they went through during the twentieth century

When the first canals had been built, people were unsure about the future return of their investment - the result of this was just over one quarter of the UK's waterways were built as narrow canals, with the locks just seven feet wide, with the belief being this would make them less expensive.

These narrow canals proved to be marginally cheaper, but their small size meant they were less suited to coping with the increasing traffic that developed, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was during this period, that increasing traffic developed, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century. During this period, most new trade would be carried by railways, with a few canal companies even building railways along their waterway to offer an improved service.

However, for most canal companies, their income was insufficient to even cover the improvement of their waterway, with the less successful taken over by railway companies. Not all of these which were taken over were closed, and some, like the Shropshire Union Canal, would be improved as they ran through an area which was served by a competing railway company.

Canals and the First World War

Despite this, successful canals held on to their traffic during the nineteenth century, with some increasing their tonnage of goods carried. It was the First World War which served as the beginning of the end for carriage of goods by canal.

There was an increased unionisation, with demands for working hours unsuited to canal transport, while there were surplus army lorries created a road transport industry. With little Government support, these problems - coupled with a move away from traditional industries and a falling demand for coal, led to a rapid decline in canal transport.

A few larger waterways including the Aire and Calder didn't survive, but instead slowly faded away. The winter of 1963/64, and the change from coal gas to North Sea gas in the following decade, marked the end for a canal transport industry which was incapable of coping with the demands of customers who were increasingly reliant on speedy deliveries by the newly constructed motorways.

Following nationalisation, it would be difficult for government to close the canals, though their condition did decline. Yet amateurs began promoting the greater use of canals for leisure - it was here they were able to start changing the attitudes of the government.

Text, image and information courtesy of the Canal & River Trust and Mike Clarke





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