1 December 2022 — Untangling the History of Britain's Inland Waterways

If someone brings up the British canal system, does it make you think of quaint narrow boats putting along no faster than a typical pedestrian, or remarkable feats of engineering, or the odd zig-zagging of capitalism stumbling over its own feet? Amazingly, the history of the complex British inland waterways is all of these, and much more. 

The driving force behind the development of a major canal system in Great Britain was the beginnings of industrialization—the shift to coal for energy, and the development of production in factories, as opposed to small-scale local artisan shops. Transportation of heavy and bulky cargo such as coal, and of fragile manufactured items such as pottery, was problematic on the limited—and sometimes unreliable—road network. While waterborne transport was more suited to such cargo, as Historic UK Ltd puts it:

At this time there were over a thousand miles of navigable rivers in Britain, but the problem was, they didn’t go to the right places anymore …the industrial north and the Midlands were not connected with the consumer-based south, nor the ports through which their goods could be exported. 

a man walks beside a horse on a lead path while the horse pulls a narrowboat on a canal

Initially, narrowboats were drawn by a horse, walking alongside the canal on a towpath. Photo: Mike Fascione via Wikimedia Commons

The answer was to build canals to connect waterways and to carve out intentional transport paths for boats to carry materials to manufacturers and goods to consumers. The savings were clear: the Bridgewater Canal, linking underground coal mines in Worsley to Manchester, had effectively halved the price of coal in Manchester within a year of its opening in 1761. In addition to leading the way for a construction boom many would call a “canal mania,” the project, paid for in part by the duke of Edgerton, owner of the coal mines benefitting from the canal, was an early example of the private-enterprise model of canal construction. Investors built canals to serve their own business interests, or in hopes of profits from tolls. Because their own funds were in the game, they most often sought out the cheapest options, including building narrow locks at the transitions between elevations along a canal route. There wasn’t a common standard along this ad-hoc network, but by the time the dust had settled, lock builders had settled upon a minimum width of 7 feet, meaning that a boat must be narrower than 7 feet in order to pass through the entire network, as many of the locks are just that width. The design of canal boat that evolved to maneuver in the canals is called a narrowboat. They were towed along by a horse led along a towpath alongside the canal.

narrowboat painted green with red and white trim in a lock.

Narrowboats are generally about 6 feet ten inches wide and about 72 feet long, although only boats 57 feet long or shorter can access the entire network of British canals. Just look how snugly this boat fits into the Minworth Bottom Lock, in Birmingham. Note the brightly-colored paint job, as well as the traditional flowers and castles depicted on the doors. Photo: Roger Kidd, via Wikimedia Commons

The canal-building boom in the UK was brief; as railroads emerged as an efficient means of transportation in the 19thcentury, they bought certain canal routes to halt the competition, and other, less-useful canals became unpassable from neglect. But canal boats continued to serve established routes well into the 20th century; often whole families would make their homes aboard their narrowboats. There is a lovely movie about the canal-boat culture called Painted Boats, named for the common practice of painting the boats in bright colors, and for the colorful depictions of roses and castles typically painted on the boats and household items on board. I highly recommend it, if you can obtain a copy or find it on a classic-movie channel. Around the same time as the release of that film, engineer and historian L. T. C. Rolt published the book Narrow Boat about life aboard his narrowboat, Cressy. The book is credited with inspiring a new interest in the canal system, and Rolt was a co-founder of the Inland Waterway Association in 1946. The IWA, and activists it inspired, helped press for the preservation and even recovery of segments of the canal network. 

Today, the British canal system is used primarily for leisure, and thousands of Britons choose to live aboard narrowboats as a type of floating tiny-house option. One of the appeals of “cruising the cut” for recreation is the opportunity to experience some of the engineering marvels of the canal system that were developed to meet challenges in topography; we'll talk a little more about those structures in the next installment of Sea History Today.  

Canal boat families took pride in keeping a cozy home inside their limited space. Here, a Mrs. Skinner prepares the evening meal. Photo: public domain

"Extra Credit" Reading

If you particularly enjoyed reading about British inland waterways and want to know more, here are some book recommendations:


Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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