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Who built the UK canals? A history of the British Canal system

Right from the beginning canals have offered a vital resource to humans, whether this was to transport water for irrigation or to facilitate travel.

Since then, canal networks have grown throughout the world, having a major economic impact as they allowed large amounts of goods to be transported at lower costs. In more recent times, canals are increasingly used for leisure activities including towpath walks, paddle boarding and weekends on the water. Here’s a look at the evolution of canals:

When was the first canal built? Who built the first canals in the world?

Looking back in history, the Chinese can claim to have created one of the first canals in the world, the Grand Canal of China. This was built in the tenth century, however, given the evolution of river management and extension that progressed even earlier than this, it is hard to say for sure.


Who constructed the first canals in Britain and where?

In the UK, one of the first modern versions of a canal was the Bridgewater Canal. Opened in 1761, this canal was built without following an existing watercourse and therefore marked the beginning of many other similar UK canals. It was named after its owner, Francis Egerton the third Duke of Bridgewater, who commissioned the engineer James Brindley to build this canal to transport coal from his mines.


James Brindley was one of the early, pioneering canal engineers. While an education in marine engineering was not yet a possibility given the early stages of the evolution, Brindley had experience working with watermills so had relevant knowledge. When building Bridgewater Canal, Brindley developed many of the engineering features used today when it comes to canal repair and canal management.

The workforce responsible for carrying out the manual labour required to build these canals were known as ‘navvies’. This term comes from ‘navigator’ as they were unskilled labourers employed to help with the construction of the waterways and waterway management.


Each canal was different, some were narrow while others were broad with large locks, bridges and tunnels. These broad canals allowed wider workboats to use them without difficulty. Early canals were known as contour canals, these went around hills rather than over or through them. However, as technology began to improve engineers became better versed in how to cut through or over hills with the use of tunnels or aqueducts.

How were the UK canals built?

All those years ago, before advanced technology and canal equipment was available to speed up the process, building a canal took years. A channel would be dug out using shovels and pickaxes, with wooden frames supporting the sides and preventing collapse. There wasn’t any electric equipment or diggers so gunpowder was used to blast through rock when needed, making the occupation a dangerous one. Transporting the material being removed required basic tools like wheelbarrows, saws and hammers so workers had to be physically fit to carry out the job.


How do canals maintain water levels?

The canal would then be lined with a material to make it waterproof. This material would depend on the local area, but limestone and clay were popular choices to keep water in the canal. In some areas, cows would be used to flatten the clay to remove cracks, air bubbles or lumps before the water was added.

Following this, water from nearby rivers and streams would be redirected into the canal. For those in danger of running dry during the warmer seasons, reservoirs would be used to keep the water topped up, as would locks, sluices and weirs. This river maintenance was complemented by ongoing dredging operations.


This evolution of equipment and marine engineering has played a pivotal role in creating the expansive network of canals the UK knows and uses today. Each canal connects different areas of the UK together and increases access for all, so waterway management and canal repair is essential to maintain these channels.


For more information regarding UK canal restoration and waterways management, please visit www.therothengroup.co.uk

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