A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 16

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[ 165 ]

CHAPTER XVI

THE CANAL ERA


The initiation, in the middle of the eighteenth century, of the British Canal Era was primarily due, not to any examples in canal construction already offered by the ancients, by the Chinese and other Eastern nations, or by Continental countries, but to a natural transition from certain forms of river improvement already carried out in England.

I have shown, on page 131, that when, in 1661, Sir William Sandys obtained his Act for making the Wye and the Lugg navigable, he secured powers, not only for the usual deepening and embanking of the river itself, but for cutting new channels where these might be of advantage, in order to avoid windings of the stream or lengths thereof which offered exceptional difficulties to navigation. In proportion as river improvement increased, the adoption of these "side cuts," as they were called, with pound-locks to guarantee their water supply, was more and more resorted to, and they became one of the most important of the measures by which it was sought to overcome the difficulties that river navigation so often presented.

In 1755 the Corporation of Liverpool and a number of merchants of that port obtained Parliamentary powers to deepen three streams flowing from the St. Helens coal fields and combining to form the Sankey Brook, which drains into the Mersey at a point two miles below Warrington. The promoters sought, by making the Sankey Brook navigable, to bring Liverpool into direct communication with the twelve or fourteen rich beds of coal existing in the St. Helens district of Lancashire, and thus to gain a great advantage for their town.

For many generations the fuel consumed at Liverpool consisted mainly of peat, or turf, of which there were great quantities in Lancashire. At one time, says Baines, in his [ 166 ]"History of the Commerce and Town of Liverpool," the turbaries around the town were considered of great value. The Act passed in 1720 for the navigation of the Douglas had allowed of coal from the pits at Wigan being taken down that river to the Ribble estuary, and then along the coast to the Mersey estuary, and so on to Liverpool; but the advantage which would be offered by a shorter and safer route was obvious, and the Sankey Brook scheme was taken up with much earnestness.

The original idea, that of making the brook itself capable of being navigated, was found to be impracticable. Not only did the stream wind a great deal, but after heavy rains on the surrounding hills the whole valley through which the brook ran was liable to floods, and these would have effectively stopped navigation so long as they continued. Happily the powers obtained by the promoters included one which allowed of "a side cut"; and the first plan was abandoned in favour of a canal separate from the brook, though cut parallel with it somewhat higher on the hillsides, where the floods would be less felt. The canal was to be provided with locks, overcoming the fall of 90 feet in twelve miles to the Mersey, together with a pound, fed by the brook, on the highest level, to ensure an adequate water supply.

The immediate result of the construction of this pioneer canal was, not only to provide a convenient coal supply for Liverpool, but, also, in conjunction with the earlier rendering of the Weaver navigable, to put the salt industry of Cheshire in direct water communication with the Lancashire coal-fields. These advantages led (1) to a great expansion of the Cheshire salt industry; (2) to a substantial increase in the export of salt from Liverpool; and (3) to the ruin of the salt trade of Newcastle-on-Tyne, since, when the makers on the Weaver could readily get an abundance of coal, they, with their great natural stores of brine noted for its superlative quality and strength had a great advantage over the makers on the Tyne, who obtained their salt from the waters of the sea.

It is thus incontestable that the Sankey Brook Canal both started the Canal Era and formed the connecting link between the river improvement schemes of the preceding 100 [ 167 ]years and the canal schemes which, themselves a great advance thereon, were to be substituted for them, only to be supplanted in turn by the still further development in inland communication brought about by the locomotive.

All the same, it was the canals of Francis, Duke of Bridgewater, as constructed by James Brindley, a remarkable genius and a great engineer, which gave the main incentive to the canal movement.

The chief purpose of the Bridgewater canals was to meet the deficiencies of the Mersey and Irwell navigation by providing new waterways, cut through the dry land, and carried across valleys and even over rivers without any connection with streams already navigable or capable of being rendered navigable,—an advance on the precedent established by the Sankey Canal.

The Duke's first artificial waterway was from his collieries at Worsley to the suburbs of Manchester. His coal beds at Worsley were especially rich and valuable; but, although they were only about seven miles from Manchester, and although Manchester was greatly in need of a better coal supply for industrial and domestic purposes, it was practically impossible to get the coal carried thither from Worsley at reasonable cost. The seven-mile journey by bad roads was not to be thought of. The alternative was transport by the Mersey and Irwell navigation, which was, in fact, within convenient reach of the collieries. But the company of proprietors would not abate their full charge of 3s. 6d. per ton for every ton of coal taken along the navigation even in the Duke's own boats, and in 1759 the Duke obtained powers to construct an independent canal. Possessing no technical skill himself (though he is said to have been greatly impressed by what he had seen, in his travels, of the grand canal of Languedoc, in the south of France), he called in James Brindley to undertake the carrying out of his plans.

Born in 1716, in the High Peak of Derbyshire, and apprenticed to a wheelwright whose calling he adopted, Brindley had been brought up entirely without school learning. Though in his apprenticeship days he taught himself to write, his spelling was so primitive that even in his advanced years he wrote—in a scarcely decipherable hand—"novicion" for navigation, "draing" for drawing, "scrwos" for screws, [ 168 ]"ochilor servey" for ocular survey, and so on. But he made up for his lack of education by being a perfect genius in all matters calling for mechanical skill, combining therewith a quickness of observation, a fertility of resource, and a power of adaptability which led to no problem being too great for him to solve, and no difficulty too great for him to overcome. Arthur Young, who had opportunities of judging of his work and character, speaks of his "bold and decisive strokes of genius," and tells of his "penetration, which sees into futurity, and prevents obstructions unthought of by the vulgar mind merely by foreseeing them."

Under Brindley's direction the canal from Worsley to Manchester was duly constructed, and, though a professional engineer had derided, as "a castle in the air," Brindley's design of carrying the canal on a viaduct over the Irwell at Barton (in order to maintain the waterway at the same level, and so avoid the use of locks down one side of the river valley and up the other), the result showed that the new plan (sanctioned by a further Act obtained in 1760) was perfectly feasible, and had been carried out with complete success. To coal consumers in Manchester the new waterway meant that they could obtain their fuel at half the price they had previously paid, while to the Duke it meant that he now had a market for all the coal his collieries could produce.

The canal from Worsley to Manchester was opened for traffic in July, 1761; but before the financial results of the one scheme had been established the Duke had projected another and still more ambitious scheme—that of a canal between Manchester and Liverpool, on the surveys for which Brindley started in September of the same year.

The need for a further improvement in the transport conditions between Manchester and Liverpool was undeniable. The opening of the Mersey and Irwell navigation, under the Act of 1720, had been of advantage when bad roads were the only means of communication; but there were disadvantages in river transport which were now felt all the more because in forty years both Manchester and Liverpool had made much progress, and the necessity for efficient and economical transport between the two places was greater than ever.

The Mersey and Irwell navigation followed, in the first place, a very winding course, the bends and turns being such [ 169 ]that the rivers took from thirty to forty miles to pass a distance of, as the crow flies, not more than twenty or twenty-five. Then the boats could not pass from Liverpool up to the first lock, above Warrington Bridge, without the assistance of a high tide, and they could only pass the numerous fords and shallows higher up the stream in great freshes or, in dry seasons, by the drawing of great quantities of water from the locks above. Alternatively, there might be an excess of water due to winter floods, and then navigation would be stopped altogether. Aikin, in referring to the navigation in the book he published in 1795, says: "The want of water in droughts, and its too great abundance in floods, are circumstances under which this, as well as most other river navigations, has laboured." He adds: "It has been an expensive concern, and has, at times, been more burthensome to its proprietors than useful to the public." Even in the most favourable conditions of tide or water supply, the boats had to be dragged up and down the stream by men, who did the work of beasts of burden until the construction of the rival waterway led to the navigation proprietors employing horses or mules instead.

That there were great delays in the river transport, occasioning much loss and inconvenience to Manchester traders, will be easily imagined. As it happened, too, whether the navigation were burthensome to the proprietors or not, they took the fullest advantage they could out of their monopoly, at the expense of the traders. They maintained the highest rates in their power, and when goods were damaged in transit, or when serious losses were sustained through delays, they refused all redress.

It is no wonder that, in all these circumstances, the Manchester merchants were often obliged to return even to the bad roads for their transport, and this although road carriage between Manchester and Liverpool cost forty shillings a ton, as against twelve shillings a ton by river. The traders of each town welcomed the Duke of Bridgewater's proposal to construct a competitive waterway which would be navigable at all times, independently of tides, of droughts and of floods, would be nine miles shorter than the rivers, and the tariff on which for the goods carried was not to exceed six shillings per ton.

[ 170 ]Manchester residents were no less in need of improved communication than were the Manchester and Liverpool traders. Smiles, in his "Life of James Brindley," speaks of the difficulty experienced in supplying the increasing population with food, and says: "In winter, when the roads were closed, the place was in the condition of a beleaguered town, and even in summer, the land about Manchester itself being comparatively sterile, the place was badly supplied with fruit, vegetables and potatoes, which, being brought from considerable distances, slung across horses' backs, were so dear as to be beyond the reach of the mass of the population. The distress caused by this frequent dearth of provisions was not effectually remedied until the canal navigation became completely opened up."

Nevertheless, the opposition offered to the Duke of Bridgewater's new scheme was vigorous in the extreme. His first project for taking the Worsley coals to Manchester by canal had gone through unopposed; but the second one, which seemed to threaten the very existence of the Mersey and Irwell navigation, put the proprietors thereof on their most active defence. Just as those having vested interests in the Idle and the Trent had opposed the improvement of the Don, so now did the river interests rise in arms against the canal interests, foreshadowing the time when these, in turn, would fight against the railways. "Not even," says Clifford, in his "History of Private Bill Legislation," "the battles of the gauges, or any of the great territorial struggles between our most powerful railway companies, were more hotly contested than the Duke of Bridgewater's attack in 1761-2 upon the monopoly of the Mersey and Irwell navigation."

When the Duke applied for powers to construct his canal from Manchester to Runcorn, where it would connect with the Mersey, the proprietors of the Mersey and Irwell navigation petitioned against it on the ground that there was no necessity for the canal as the Mersey and Irwell navigation, with which it would run parallel, could convey more goods than the existing conditions of trade required; that the canal could confer no real advantage on the public; that the proprietors of the river navigation had spent over £18,000 thereon; that "great part of their respective fortunes" was at stake; that they had expended their money on the [ 171 ]navigation on the faith of their being protected by Parliament; and that for Parliament now to allow a canal to be established to compete with them would be a gross interference with their vested rights. Active opposition was also offered by landowners whose property was to be either taken for the canal or, as they argued, would be deteriorated by it in value; and still more opposition came from traders interested in the river navigation. The controversy of the pro-canal and anti-canal parties even got mixed up with politics, Brindley writing in his notebook that "the Toores mad had agane ye Duk" ("the Tories made head against the Duke").

But, in the result, the Duke got his Bill, and Brindley proceeded to make the canal. It proved to be a far more costly work than had been anticipated. In a total length of about twenty-four miles from Longford Bridge, Manchester (where it connected with the Worsley Canal), to Runcorn, it passed through a bog with a quicksand bottom; it crossed two rivers; it required numerous aqueducts, and it necessitated the provision of many road bridges and culverts, together with a flight of locks at Runcorn to overcome the difference between the canal level and the Mersey level, this being the first occasion on which locks of this kind had been constructed in England.

Even the Duke of Bridgewater's ample fortune did not suffice to meet the expense of the costly work he had thus taken upon himself. There came a time when his means were exhausted, and he found the greatest difficulty in replenishing them. No one either in Liverpool or in Manchester would honour for him a bill for £500 on a then doubtful enterprise. There were Saturday nights when the Duke had not sufficient money to pay the men's wages, and when he had to raise loans of £5 or £10 from among his tenants. He reduced his personal expenditure to £400 a year, while the recompense that Brindley received from him for carrying out schemes which were to be the wonder of England and introduce a new era in locomotion never exceeded three-and-sixpence a day, and was more often only half a crown a day.

The Duke eventually surmounted his financial difficulties by borrowing, altogether, £25,000 from Messrs. Child, the [ 172 ]London bankers, and the new canal was partly opened for traffic in 1767, although the Runcorn locks were not completed till 1773. The total amount spent by the Duke on his two canals was £220,000.

In 1772 the Duke added to the usefulness of his Manchester-to-Runcorn canal by establishing passenger boats which could accommodate sixty passengers, and on which they were carried twenty miles for a shilling. He afterwards had larger boats, holding from 80 to 120 passengers, the fares on these being 1s., 1s. 6d. and 2s. 6d. per twenty miles, according to class. Each of these boats, says Macpherson, in his "Annals of Commerce," was "provided with a coffee house kept by the master; wherein his wife serves the company with wine and other refreshments."

The effect of the new canal on the trade and commerce of Manchester and Liverpool was considerable. It diverted to Liverpool the stream of export traffic which had previously gone from Manchester via Bridgnorth and the Severn to Bristol; it enabled Manchester manufacturers to obtain raw materials more readily from Liverpool, to supplement the cheaper supplies of coal they were already obtaining from Worsley; and it opened up the port of Liverpool to a wider stretch of country than could otherwise benefit from the facilities thereof, to the advantage both of Liverpool itself and of industrial Lancashire, though other canal schemes, leading to like results, were to follow.

Even before the Manchester and Runcorn Canal was opened for traffic, Brindley had started on a much bolder project. The new scheme was one for a canal connecting the Mersey with the Trent, and, also, with the Severn, thus opening up direct inland water communication between Liverpool, Hull and Bristol, and affording an alternative to road transport not only for the Potteries, but, by means of branch canals, for the industrial centres of Staffordshire and Worcestershire, then, as it were, more or less landlocked.

In the same year (1755) in which the Bill for the construction of the Sankey Canal was obtained, the Corporation of Liverpool already had under consideration a scheme for a canal from the Mersey to the Trent; but no definite action was then taken, and it was left for private enterprise to carry [ 173 ]out the idea. The chief promoters were Earl Gower (ancestor of the Duke of Sutherland), the Duke of Bridgewater, the Earl of Stamford, Josiah Wedgwood, and various other landowners and manufacturers. Parliamentary powers were obtained in 1766, and the work of construction, as planned by Brindley, was begun at once. The name of "Grand Trunk" was given to the undertaking, the idea being that the waterway would form the main line of a system of canals radiating from it in various directions, and linking up the greater part of the country south of the Trent with the three ports mentioned.

We have here the first suggestion of any approach to a real system of inland communication, as applying to the country in general, which had been attempted since the Romans made the last of their great roads in Britain. Apart from the natural limitations of navigable rivers, the turnpike roads so far constructed had been chiefly designed to serve local interests, and successive rulers or Governments had either failed to realise the importance of carrying out a well-planned scheme of inland communication, embracing a great part even if not the whole of the country, or had been lacking in the energy, or the means, to supply what had become one of the greatest of national wants.

There was thus all the more credit due to the little group of far-sighted, enterprising and patriotic individuals whose names I have mentioned that they should themselves have undertaken work which was to have an important influence on the industrial and social conditions of the country. Yet the nature of the conditions under which the Trent and the Mersey section of the Grand Trunk system was made afforded an early example of the physical difficulties attendant on canal construction in England which were to be a leading cause of the decline of canals as soon as the greater advantages of the railway and the locomotive had been established.

Canals were superior to rivers in so far as they could be taken where rivers did not go, and could be kept under control in regard to water supply without the drawbacks of floods or droughts, of high tides, or of being silted up by sand or mud. It is, indeed, reported that when, after he had made a strong pronouncement in favour of canals, James Brindley was asked by a Parliamentary Committee, [ 174 ]"Then what do you think rivers are for?" he replied, "To supply canals with water."

On the other hand, water would not flow up-hill in canals any more than in rivers, and in the making and operation of canals there was, literally as well as figuratively, a great deal of up-hill work to do.

Between the Mersey and the Trent there were considerable elevations which formed very difficult country for water transport. These elevations had to be overcome by the gradual rising of the canal, by means of locks, to a certain height, by the construction, at that point, of a tunnel through the hills, and by a fresh series of locks on the other side, to allow of a lower level being reached again. The rise of the Trent and Mersey Canal from the Mersey to the summit at Harecastle, near the Staffordshire Potteries, was 395 ft., a final climb of 316 ft. being made by means of a flight of thirty-five locks. Through Harecastle Hill there was driven a tunnel a mile and two-thirds in length, with a height of 12 ft. and a breadth of 9 ft. 4 in.[1] South of this tunnel the canal descended to the level of the Trent, a fall of 288 ft., by means of forty locks. In addition to this the canal, in its course of 90 miles, had to pass through four other tunnels and be carried across the river Dove by an aqueduct of twenty-three arches and at four points over windings of the Trent, which it followed to its junction therewith at Wilden Ferry.

These engineering difficulties were successfully overcome by Brindley, and the canal was opened for traffic in 1777. The benefits it conferred on industry and commerce, having in view the unsatisfactory alternative means of transport, were beyond all question. English traders saw established across the island, from the Mersey to the Humber, a line of inland navigation which, apart from the long and tedious voyage round the coast, and, also, from the scarcely passable roads, was the first connecting link in our national history between the ports of Liverpool and Hull. But of even greater importance were the facilities for making use of either or both of these ports—the one on the west coast, and the other on the east coast—which were opened up to [ 175 ]manufacturers and traders in the midland districts, and especially when the Trent and Mersey Canal was supplemented by the Wolverhampton (now the Staffordshire and Worcestershire) Canal, connecting the Trent with the Severn; the Birmingham Canal; the Coventry Canal (which gave through navigation from the Trent via Lichfield and Oxford, to the Thames); and others.

Of the many districts benefitted it was, perhaps, the Potteries that received the maximum of advantage. Fourteen years before the Trent and Mersey Canal was opened for traffic—that is to say, in 1763—Josiah Wedgwood perfected a series of improvements in the pottery industry which foreshadowed the probability of the manufacture of coarse pottery—already carried on in North Staffordshire for many years—developing into the production of wares of the highest excellence, for which a great market would assuredly be found not only throughout England but throughout the world. The one drawback to an otherwise very promising outlook lay in the defective communications. The roads were hopelessly bad and the navigable rivers were far distant. It was almost impossible to get sufficient clay for the purposes of raw material, and the cost and the risk of damage involved in long land journeys before the goods could be put on the water, for carriage to London or the Continent, almost closed those markets for the Staffordshire manufacturer.

In 1760—three years before Josiah Wedgwood started his new era in pottery manufacture—the number of workers engaged in the industry did not exceed 7000 persons; and not only were they badly paid and irregularly employed but in their position of almost complete isolation from the rest of humanity they were, as Smiles puts it in his "Life of James Brindley," "almost as rough as their roads." They were ill-clad, ill-fed and wholly uneducated; they lived in dwellings that were little better than mud huts; they had to dispense with coal for fuel, since the state of the roads made its transport too costly for their scanty means; they had no shops, and for such drapery and household wares as they could afford to buy they were dependent on the packmen or the hucksters from Newcastle-under-Lyme. Their favourite amusements were bull-baiting and cock-fighting. [ 176 ]Any stranger who ventured to appear among such a people, devoid as they were of most of the attributes of civilisation, might consider himself fortunate if he escaped rough usage simply because he was a stranger.

Of conditions such as those to be found in the Potteries at the period in question one gets some glimpses in William Hutton's "History of Birmingham" (1781). He tells of a place called Lie Waste, otherwise Mud City, situate between Halesowen and Stourbridge. The houses consisted of mud, dried in the sun, though often destroyed by frost. Their occupants, judging from the account he gives of them, could have been little better than scarcely-clad barbarians. Of a visit he paid to Bosworth Field in 1770 the same writer says:—

"I accompanied a gentleman with no other intent than to view the field celebrated for the fall of Richard the Third. The inhabitants enjoyed the cruel satisfaction of setting their dogs at us in the street, merely because we were strangers. Human figures, not their own, are seldom seen in those inhospitable regions. Surrounded with impassable roads, having no intercourse with man to humanize the mind, no commerce to smooth their rugged manners, they continue the boors of nature."

How industry and improved communications may tend to civilise a people, as well as ensure economic advancement, was now to be shown in the case of the Potteries. Wedgwood's enterprise led to the employment of far more people; the better means of communication allowed both of the industry being greatly developed and of the introduction of refining influences into a district no longer isolated; and the combination of these causes had a striking effect on the material and the moral conditions of the workers.

In giving evidence before a House of Commons Committee in 1785, eight years after the Mersey and Trent Canal was opened, Wedgwood was able to say that there were being employed in the Potteries at that time from 15,000 to 20,000 persons on earthenware manufacture alone—an increase of from 8000 to 13,000 in twenty-five years, independently of the opening of new branches of industry. Work was abundant, and the general conditions were those of a greatly enhanced comfort and prosperity.

[ 177 ]Then, also, when John Wesley visited Burslem in 1760 he wrote that the potters assembled to laugh and jeer at him. "One of them," he says, "threw a clod of earth which struck me on the side of the head; but it neither disturbed me nor the congregation." In 1781 he went to Burslem again. On this occasion he wrote: "I returned to Burslem; how is the whole face of the country changed in about 20 years! Since which, inhabitants have continually flowed in from every side. Hence the wilderness is literally become a fruitful field. Houses, villages, towns, have sprung up, and the country is not more improved than the people."

This actual experience of John Wesley's would seem to confirm the view expressed by Sir Richard Whitworth in the observations he offered to the public in 1766 on "The Advantages of Inland Navigation." It was, he argued, trade and commerce, and not the military force of the Kingdom, which could alone enrich us and enable us to maintain our independence; but there were millions of people "buried alive" in parts of the country where there were no facilities for transport, and where they had hitherto been "bred up for no other use than to feed themselves." What advantage would not accrue to the nation when these millions were brought into the world of active and productive workers! "Hitherto," he continued, "the world has been unequally dealt, and, though all the inhabitants of this island should have an equal right to the gifts of nature in the advantages of commerce, yet it has only happened to those who live upon the coasts to enrich themselves by it, while as many millions lie starving for want of opportunity to forward themselves into the world. Though the city, village, or country in which they live is at the lowest ebb of poverty it will, in a short time, by trade passing through it, alter its very nature and the inhabitants become, from nothing, as it were, to a very rich and substantial people; their very natural idea of mankind, and their rude and unpolished behaviour, will be altered and soothed into the most social civility and good breeding by the alluring temptations of the beneficial advantage of trade and commerce."

The opening of the Grand Trunk and other canals connecting with it led to such reductions in the cost of carriage as are shown in the following figures, from Baines's "History [ 178 ]of Liverpool," where they are quoted as from "Williamson's Liverpool Advertiser" of August 8, 1777:—


COST OF GOODS TRANSPORT PER TON.
BETWEEN BY ROAD. BY WATER.
£00s.00d. £00s.00d.
Liverpool and Etruria 2010000 0013004
Live"pool a"d Wolverhampton 5000000 1005000
Live"pool a"d Birmingham 5000000 1005000
Manchester and Wolverhampton 4013004 1005000
Manc"ester a"d Birmingham 4000000 1010000
Manc"ester a"d Lichfield 4000000 1000000
Manc"ester a"d Derby 3000000 1010000
Manc"ester a"d Nottingham 4000000 2000000
Manc"ester a"d Leicester 6000000 1010000
Manc"ester a"d Gainsborough 3010000 1010000
Manc"ester a"d Newark 5006008 2000000


Thus the cost of transport by canal was in some instances reduced to about one-fourth of the previous cost by packhorse or road waggon.

Under the new conditions the numerous manufactures in the Birmingham and Black Country districts obtained their raw materials much cheaper than they had done before, and secured much better facilities for distribution, the difference in cost in sending guns, nails, hardware, and other heavy manufactures from Birmingham to Hull by water instead of by road being in itself a considerable saving, and one likely to give a great stimulus to the industries concerned. Ores from the north were brought at less expense to mix with those of Staffordshire, and the iron-masters there were enabled to compete better with foreign producers. The manufacturers of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby were afforded a cheap conveyance to Liverpool for their wares. The fine ale for which Burton was famous had been sent to London by way of the Trent, the Humber and the Thames since, at least, the early part of the seventeenth century, and, exported from Hull, it had won fame for the Burton breweries in all the leading Baltic ports and elsewhere. It was now to be conveyed by water to the port of Liverpool, and find fresh or expanded markets opened out for it from the west coast, as well as the east. Cheshire salt obtained a better [ 179 ]distribution; the merchants both of Hull and of Liverpool could now send groceries and other domestic supplies throughout the midland counties with greater ease, and with much benefit to the people; while among still other advantages was one mentioned by Baines: "Wheat which formerly could not be conveyed a hundred miles, from corn-growing districts to the large towns and manufacturing districts, for less than 20s. a quarter, could be conveyed for about 5s. a quarter."

The towns which had least cause for satisfaction were Bridgnorth, Bewdley and Bristol, the traffic that had previously gone by the long land route from the Potteries to the Severn, and so on to Bristol, being now diverted to Liverpool by the Grand Trunk Canal, just as the salt of Cheshire had been taken there on the opening of the Weaver navigation, and the textiles of Manchester on the completion of the Duke of Bridgewater's canal.

These developments had, consequently, a further influence on the growth of the once backward port of Liverpool, and such growth was to be stimulated by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

Sanctioned by Parliament in 1769, six years before the Grand Trunk Canal was opened, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was mainly designed to overcome the natural barrier, in the form of a chain of lofty hills, which separated Lancashire from Yorkshire, serving to isolate Liverpool and to keep back from her the flow of trade and commerce from industrial centres on the other side of the hills which should otherwise have regarded Liverpool as their natural port. The canal was further intended to open up more fully than had been done before the great coal-fields of Lancashire, ensuring a better distribution of their mineral wealth both to Liverpool and to the manufacturing towns of Lancashire; while, by connecting with the Aire at Leeds, the capital of the Yorkshire woollen industry, the canal was to provide another cross-country connection, by inland navigation, between Liverpool and Hull.

The work of constructing the Leeds and Liverpool Canal included (1) the piercing of the Foulridge Hills by a tunnel, 1640 yards long, which alone took five years of constant labour; (2) an aqueduct bridge of seven arches over the [ 180 ]Aire; and (3) an aqueduct carrying the canal over the Shipley valley. The total length of navigation was 127 miles, with a fall from the central level of 525 ft. on the Lancashire side, and of 446 ft. on the Yorkshire side. The entire work of construction extended over 41 years, and the total cost was £1,200,000.

The effect of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal on the industrial districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire was no less remarkable than the effect of the Grand Trunk Canal on the industries west or south of the Trent. When the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was formed there was, as Baines observes in his "Lancashire and Cheshire," not one town containing 10,000 inhabitants along the whole of its course from Liverpool to Leeds. With the improved facilities afforded for the conveyance of raw materials and manufactured goods from or to the port of Liverpool came a new era for the textile trades all along the route of the canal—and the now busy and well-populated towns of Wigan, Blackburn, Nelson, Keighley, Bradford and Leeds are indebted in no small degree for their industrial expansion to the better means of communication which the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, in the days when railways were still far off, opened up to them.

Still another canal that was made in order to establish a line of communication west and east, and to serve important intermediate districts, was the Rochdale Canal, which starts from Manchester, rises by a succession of locks to a height 438 ft. above the Manchester level, and, fed on the hill summit by some great reservoirs, descends to the river Calder at Sowerby Bridge, the point from which that river is navigable to the Humber.

Connection with the Calder, and thus with the cross-country navigation of which it formed a part, was also obtained by means of the Huddersfield Canal, a waterway twenty miles in length which, starting from Ashton, rises 334 ft., to the Saddleworth manufacturing district (situate in the wildest part of the Yorkshire hills), passes through a tunnel three miles long, and descends 436 ft. on the Huddersfield side in reaching the level of the Calder.

The reader will have concluded from these references to other canals that, although the Duke of Bridgewater had [ 181 ]found a difficulty in raising the means with which to complete his canal to Runcorn, public confidence in canals must have been reassured, and ample money must have been forthcoming, to allow of these further costly and important schemes being undertaken. This conclusion is abundantly warranted. The position following the construction of the Bridgewater canals was thus described, in 1796, in "A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation," by R. Fulton:—

"So unacquainted were the people with the use of canals, and so prejudiced in favour of the old custom of river navigations, that the undertaking was deemed chimerical, and ruin was predicted as the inevitable result of his Grace's labour.... Yet it was not long finished when the eyes of the people began to open; the Duke could work on his canal when floods, or dry seasons, interrupted the navigation of the Mersey; this gave a certainty and punctuality, in the carriage of merchandize, and ensured a preference to the canal; the emoluments arising to the Duke were too evident to be mistaken; and perseverance having vanquished prejudice, the fire of speculation was lighted, and canals became the subject of general conversation."

The farming community, more especially, had looked with suspicion upon this new-fangled idea of sending boats across fields and up and down the hill-sides. The author of "A Cursory View of the Advantages of an Intended Canal from Chesterfield to Gainsborough" (1769) finds, however, a sufficient excuse for them in the conditions of locomotion and transport with which alone they had hitherto been familiar. He says:—

"Though this useful set of Men, the Farmers, will undoubtedly reap a Proportion of Advantages from the Execution of this beneficial Scheme, they are far from being satisfied, and seem to reflect upon it with many Doubts and Fears. Custom, indeed, and Occupation in Life, cast a wonderful Influence on the Opinions of all Mankind; it is therefore by no means surprizing that men, whose Forefathers, for Ages, have been inured to rugged and deep Roads, to wade after their Beasts of Burden up to the Knees in Mire, to see their loaded Waggons stick fast in Dirt; Men, who from their interior, inland Situation, are almost totally unacquainted with all Objects of Navigation; it is by no means strange, [ 182 ]that People, so unaccustomed, should consider an Attempt, to introduce a navigable Canal up to the Town of Chesterfield, and within the Air of the Peak-Mountains, with alarming Ideas, with Suspicion and Amazement."

Another set of scruples was thus dealt with by Richard Whitworth—himself a canal enthusiast—in his "Advantages of Inland Navigation" (1766):—

"It has been a common objection against navigable canals in this Kingdom that numbers of people are supported by land carriage, and that navigable canals will be their ruin.... I must advance an alternative which would free the carrier from any fear of losing his employment on selling off his stock of horses, viz.:—That no main trunk of a navigable canal ought reasonably to be carried nearer than within four miles of any great manufacturing town, ... which distance from the canal is sufficient to maintain the same number of carriers, and employ almost the same number of horses, as usual, to convey the goods down to the canal in order to go to the seaports for exportation.... If a manufacturer can have a certain conveniency of sending his goods by water carriage within four miles of his own home, surely that is sufficient, and profit enough, considering that other people must thrive as well as himself, and a proportion of profit to each trade should be the biassing and leading policy of this nation."

In some instances certain towns did succeed in maintaining a distance of several miles between themselves and the canals they regarded with prejudice and disfavour. They anticipated, in this respect, the action that other towns were to take up later on in regard to railways; and in the one case as in the other there was abundant cause for regret when the places concerned found they had been left aside, much to their detriment, by a main route of trade and transport.

Other alarmists predicted the ruin of the innkeepers; protested against the drivers of packhorses being deprived of their sustenance; prophesied a diminution in the breed of draught horses; declaimed against covering with waterways land that might be better used for raising corn; and foreshadowed a detriment to the coasting trade that, in turn, would weaken the Navy, "the natural and constitutional bulwark of Great Britain"—this being a phrase which, [ 183 ]no doubt, was rolled out with great effect in the discussions that took place.

The discovery, however, that canals were likely to be not only exceedingly useful but a profitable form of investment was quite sufficient to overcome all scruples, and even to give rise, in 1791-4, to a "canal mania" which was a prelude to the still greater "railway mania" of 1845-6. In the four years in question no fewer than eighty-one canal and navigation Acts were passed.

So great had the eagerness of the public to invest in canal shares become that when, in 1790, the promoters of the Ellesmere Canal held their first meeting, the shares for which application was made were four times greater than the number to be issued. In 1792, when a meeting was held at Rochdale to consider the proposed construction of the Rochdale Canal, £60,000 was subscribed in an hour. In August, 1792, Leicester Canal shares were selling at £155, Coventry Canal shares at £350, Grand Trunks at the same figure, and Birmingham and Fazley shares at £1170. At a sale of canal shares in October, 1792, the prices realised included—Trent navigation, 175 guineas per share; Soar Canal (Leicestershire) 765 gs.; Erewash Canal, 642 gs.; Oxford Canal, 156 gs.; Cromford Canal, 130 gs.; Leicester Canal, 175 gs., and ten shares in the Grand Junction Canal (of which not a single sod had then been cut) at 355 gs. premium for the ten.

The spirit of speculation thus developed led to the making of a number of canals which had no real prospect of remunerative business, were commercial failures from the start, and involved the ruin of many investors. Canals of this type are still to be found in the country to-day—picturesque derelicts which some persons think the State should acquire and put in order again because it is "such a pity" they are not made use of.

Dealing with the general position as it was in 1803, Phillips wrote in his "General History of Inland Navigation" (4th edition):—"Since the year 1758 no less than 165 Acts of Parliament have received the royal assent for cutting, altering, amending, etc., canals in Great Britain, at the expense of £13,008,199, the whole subscribed by private individuals; the length of ground which they employ is 2896½ miles.... Of these Acts 90 are on account of collieries opened in their [ 184 ]vicinity, and 47 on account of mines of lead, ore, and copper which have been discovered, and for the convenience of the furnaces and forges working thereon."

Among the more typical of the canals, in addition to those already mentioned, were—the Grand Junction Canal, connecting the Thames with the Trent, and thus with both the Mersey and the Humber; the Thames and Severn Canal; the Ellesmere, connecting the Severn with the Dee and the Mersey; the Barnsley Canal (of which Phillips says: "The beneficial effects of this canal, in a rich mineral country, hitherto landlocked, cannot fail to be immediately felt by miners, farmers, manufacturers and the country at large"); the Kennet and Avon (opening, according to the same authority, "a line of navigation, sixteen miles in length, over a country before very remote from any navigable river"); the Glamorganshire Canal ("has opened a ready conveyance to the vast manufactory of iron established in the mountains of that country"); the extensive network of the Birmingham Canal system; the Shropshire Union, which connects the Birmingham Canal with Ellesmere port, on the Mersey, and has branches to Shrewsbury, Llangollen, Welshpool and Newtown; and the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal. To the last-mentioned, constructed under an Act of Parliament passed in 1791, Baines alludes as follows in his "Lancashire and Cheshire":—

"The River Irwell flows directly down from Bury to Manchester, and the river Croal, which flows through Bolton, joins the Irwell between Bury and Manchester; but neither of these streams was considered available, by any amount of improvement that could be given to it, for the purposes of navigation. They are both of them very impetuous streams, occasionally sending down immense torrents of water, but at other times so shallow as not to furnish sufficient depth of water for the smallest vessels. Instead, therefore, of wasting time and money upon them, a canal was cut at a considerably higher level, but following the general direction of the river Irwell."

The Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal was thus a further example of the resort to artificial canals, with water channels capable of regulation, in preference to further schemes for rendering rivers navigable.

[ 185 ]How the situation brought about by the creation of the network of navigable waterways thus spread, or being spread, throughout the country was regarded by an impartial observer in the "Canal Mania" period is shown by the following comments thereon by Dr Aikin:—

"The prodigious additions made within a few years to the system of inland navigation, now extended to almost every corner of the Kingdom, cannot but impress the mind with magnificent ideas of the opulence, the spirit and the enlarged views which characterise the commercial interest of this country. Nothing seems too bold for it to undertake, too difficult for it to achieve; and should no external changes produce a durable check to the national prosperity, its future progress is beyond the reach of calculation. Yet experience may teach us, that the spirit of project and speculation is not always the source of solid advantage, and possibly the unbounded extension of canal navigation may in part have its source in the passion for bold and precarious adventure, which scorns to be limited by reasonable calculations of profit. Nothing but highly flourishing manufactures can repay the vast expense of these designs. The town of Manchester, when the plans now under execution are finished, will probably enjoy more various water-communication than the most commercial town of the Low Countries has ever done. At the beginning of this century it was thought a most arduous task to make a high road practicable for carriages over the hills and moors which separate Yorkshire from Lancashire; and now they are pierced through by three navigable canals! Long may it remain the centre of a trade capable of maintaining these mighty works!"

The day was to come, however, when it would be a question, not of the additions made to inland navigation justifying the expense incurred, but of the inherent defects of the said "mighty works," the increasing manufactures, and the introduction of still better methods of transport and communication giving to canals a set-back akin to that which they themselves had already given to navigable rivers.




  1. Subsequently supplemented by a tunnel of larger dimensions alongside, constructed by Telford.