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

Since Roman times, waterways have proved to be vital for transportation, irrigation, and travel, with the networks relied upon throughout the world. Here in the UK, canals have always played an important role in the economy, however it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that the great age of canal building started when the Bridgewater Canal was constructed.

During this time the UK was a busy hub of trade, with factories producing more than ever before. As demand for products grew, both in the UK and around the world, it was canals that were able to quickly and cheaply transport everything from delicate pottery to coal and steel, with a single towing horse capable of pulling fifty tonnes of goods in a canal boat.

By 1815 the majority of British canals were built, and investment had started to shift towards railway schemes as the industrial revolution began to take hold. Initially, the canals and railways worked alongside each other, however the continued expansion of the rail network meant that by the middle of the 19th Century canal traffic had reduced significantly.

Following World War II, the government nationalised the network and canals became popular for leisure purposes, with traffic today comprising commercial traffic, private boats, hire cruisers, paddle boarders and other water sports enthusiasts.

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 - this is where The Rothen Group come in to help manage and maintain the UK's canals. Here’s a look at the evolution of canals:

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

Although canals have played an important role in the UK economy, it is thought that the Chinese built the first canal in the world in the 10th Century, the Grand Canal of China. In fact, the pound lock which is still used within British canals was supposedly invested by Chhiao Wei-Yo in 983. However, as these early canals were often simple extensions to natural rivers, it is very difficult to say whether prior river management and extensions were already in existence.

For example, the Roman engineers built the Fossdyke to connect Lincoln to the River Trent in roughly AD50, which was very important for both drainage and navigation. This was followed by the Car Dyke, which was a key part of the supply route from Cambridge to York.

Who constructed the first canals in Britain and where?

Although these initial Roman waterways proved to be very important, it wasn’t until 1761 that the first modern canal was opened in the UK. The Bridgewater Canal was named after its owner, Francis Egerton, the third Duke of Bridgewater, and it was this design that was used as a benchmark development for many similar canals around the country. This canal was used to transport coal from the duke’s mines, and was designed by James Brindley, a highly skilled individual who quickly became a pioneer for canal engineers.

At its peak, the nationwide canal network extended to almost 4,000 miles, and following the initial Bridgeware Canal, the majority of the network was built between the 1770s and the 1830s. Other, notable canals built during this time included the Caledonian Canal and the Manchester Ship Canal, with many others that were carefully planned never actually being built.

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 canal 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?

Each canal was unique, with some designed to be narrow and others designed to be broad with large locks, bridges, and tunnels to allow wide workboats to navigate with ease. The earliest canals were known as contour canals, as they followed the contours of the hills. However, as technology advanced canal engineers quickly learnt how to cut through or even over hills by using tunnels and aqueducts.

The ability to create quick transport routes which no longer relied on the natural flow of rivers allowed canals to be built in key areas of production, such as cities, large towns, ports, coal mines, mills, quarries, and factories. During the golden age of canal building, heavy and bulky materials such as coal and steel were transported alongside delicate items, which would have been too fragile to transport long distances via horse and cart.

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.

What type of engineers build canals?

Although the education system at the time meant that a marine engineering qualification was not yet a possibility, the experience and skill of engineers such as James Brindley led to the development of many engineering features which are still used today within effective canal maintenance and repair.

Other examples of notable engineers include Thomas Telford, who was responsible for the Ellesmere Canal and its impressive Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, whilst also being involved in the design of the Caledonian Canal, the Crinan Canal and many other waterways around the world. Another impressive engineer was John Smeaton, the creator of many canals around Birmingham and the impressive Fossdyke Canal.

Although it was highly skilled engineers who designed canals, they were physically built by a workforce of manual labourers known as ‘navvies’, a term derived from the work ‘navigator’. These unskilled labourers were used around the country to assist with both the construction of the waterways and their management, with projects taking years to complete.

How do you keep water in a canal?

Although the engineers 200 years ago did not have access to the technology used today, the often-huge canal embankments, viaducts and aqueducts have stood the test of time. Although many canals follow natural rivers, they also cut across drainage divides, so structures such as aqueducts and viaducts are needed to move water over roads and streams, whilst keeping the water in the canal itself.

The water within canals is usually controlled by a series of dams and locks, with the dams designed to raise water levels to usable depths, whilst the locks allow waterway traffic to ascend or descend. In contrast, some canals are designed to keep changes in water levels to a minimum, with these contour canals following longer, winding routes so that boats are able to follow flatter altitudes.

The various dams and docks often leverage the resources of parallel natural rivers, which allows the length of the levels to be increased, although canals also use external water sources such as water flowing from higher elevations. The most common form of lock is the pound lock, which features a chamber that allows the water level to be raised or lowered, so that two stretches of water that are at different levels can be connected. For example, if a boat needs to climb a hill, a succession of locks at regular intervals will create a series of water levels similar to a stairway.

However, locks require a vast amount of water, so engineers have designed systems for use in situations where water levels are low, such as boat lifts and inclined planes which are essentially a steep railway system.

How do canals maintain water levels?

There are various features within canals that are designed to tackle potential water level issues, such as the famous Suez Canal, which is connected to the sea. In other canals, water is transported from nearby rivers and springs, and where this water is not available, reservoirs are often built with water pumped from them into the canal. In addition, locks, sluices, and weirs all help to top water levels up, with ongoing dredging used as a key factor in maintaining water levels.

Historically, the canal itself is lined with a material such as clay or limestone, which waterproofs the channel and keeps vital water inside. In some areas, cows would be used to flatten the clay to remove cracks, air bubbles or lumps before the water was added. However, as marine engineering technology develops, new equipment is helping to maintain water levels in the expansive canal network.

This evolution of equipment and civil 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.

Who is responsible for canals in the UK today?

Since 2012, the majority of canals and navigable rivers in the UK have been managed by the Canal & River Trust, which is responsible for the maintenance of over 2,000 miles of waterways. This includes everything from the waterways themselves to the locks, bridges and even flood management. There are various regional partnerships which cover different waterway areas, with each responsible for the maintenance of the canals and rivers in their area.

The trust and its regional offices rely on the expertise of marine engineers and contractors to ensure the canals can be enjoyed by everyone, and here at The Rothen Group we are proud to play a key role in this huge task today. As the canal maintenance specialists in the UK, we have an unrivalled knowledge of UK waterways, which allows us to design and build our own boats and plant machinery, alongside providing an efficient contracting service utilised by the Canal & River Trust.

To find out more about the history of UK canals and how our team are protecting and maintaining these networks, contact us today and we will be pleased to share our knowledge.

Who built the UK canals?

For more information regarding UK canal restoration and waterways management, please visit The Rothen Group.

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