Rivers & Transport : The British Canal Network
Lock gates at Exeter
The role of canals in the 19th century
Canals had a key role in the economic era known as the ‘Industrial
Revolution’, they were seen as heroes ...cheaper raw materials
and finished goods, and villains ...built by disorderly navvies
and carving an unsightly gash in a previously tranquil landscape
and making London to Birmingham a swift journey of only four or
five days! Their creation was an example of private capital investment
to produce national infrastructure. ‘Canal Mania’ was
at its height in the 1790s, and by 1850, there were over 4,000 miles
of navigable waterways in Britain and the network transported over
30 million tonnes of freight each year.
Many people believe that it was the railways that killed off this
thriving traffic on the canals. It is true that the railways acquired
many canal companies for reasons of self-interest, but freight carrying
continued on the narrow canals until after the Second World War.
It was competition from the new motorways and the final blow of
the terrible winter of 1962/63 that effectively killed off freight
on the waterways except on the broad navigations mostly to be found
in the North East of England.
The Canal Network after World War 2
The waterways entered public ownership in 1948 under the provisions
of the 1947 Transport Act. Waterways declined and by the late 1960s,
the network had declined to 2,775 miles from a peak of over 4,000
in its heyday. Many canals were abandoned and often they were filled
The Transport Act 1962 created the British Waterways Board and
the Transport Act 1968 actually recognised the value of waterways
The financial rules under which British Waterways had to operate
loaded the dice heavily in favour of continued decline and closure
for more of the network. However, the work of bands of hardy volunteers
and some enlightened local authorities saved and restored many of
the waterways we still have today.
In the largely agricultural South West there are only a small number
of canal systems but they can provide an opportunity to study this
fascinating part of transport history.