A look at the first canal age

A look at the first canal age

Posted 11th January

Canal & River Trust historian Mike Clarke talks us through the first canal age which took place in the 18th century

At this time, there was a huge surge in canal buildings and the dawn of a new 'Canal Age' - Mike Clarke explains exactly why some were so successful and others were destined to fail.

Prior to 1700, most British waterways were built by aristocratic landowners as a way of carrying agricultural products in southern England. However, that year, a new waterway opened that was radically different.

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

Halving the price of coal

More river navigations had been 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.

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

In Britain, it was unusual to see a project financed alone, and due to 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 effects on the economy proved to be dramatic. For instance, 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.

For the next 20 years, some of Britain's most important canals were formed, set up by merchants, aristocrats and bankers, but especially by coalmine owners, textile manufactures and pottery barons who wanted to open up new markets for their products.

Canal mania

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

Many new canals were promoted, and though a few were based on the solid foundation of trade, many of the others proved to be pure speculation. This was a period of Canal Mania, with many thinking a canal alone would be enough to create wealth.

In reality, 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."

Between 1791 and 1795 there were 44 Acts for new canals passed, yet only a few of these were to make money for their investors.

Britain becomes an industrial power

Despite these failures, there were many successful canals, with the volume of goods carried by canal rapidly increasing, thus allowing Britain to become the first industrial power in the world.

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

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

Text, information and images courtesy of The Canal & River Trust and Mike Clarke

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