Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, of Great Britain/Preface

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The Origin of Inland Navigation, like most other useful discoveries, is involved in great obscurity, and any attempt to ascertain the precise period of the invention or the name of him, who first pointed out the utility of these important adjuncts to the convenience and profit of commercial nations, would be merely to speculate on a subject, which has hitherto bid defiance to conjecture, and which will, in all human probability, for ever remain without satisfactory elucidation. Not so, however, the results to which it has given rise—as the great Newtonian Sytstem of Gravitation owed its existence to a trifling accident of almost daily occurrence, so the numerous canals, which intersect nearly every country of the civilized world, though they might possibly be traced to circumstances of the same trivial import, are no less remarkable for the astonishing effects they produce and the advantages they hold out, as well to the industrious artisan as to the enterprising trader.

That the ancient inhabitants of every part of the globe, wherewith history has made us acquainted, were alive in a greater or less degree to the benefits resulting from the adoption of inland navigation, is a fact that may without difficulty be substantiated.

In India, particularly in that part of it known to us as the province of Bengal, the use of canals was early appreciated; not later than 1355 the Emperor Ferose III. made a canal one hundred miles long, from the River Suttuluz to the River Jidger: in the following years of his reign the same illustrious monarch completed no less than five other canals, all of which were of the greatest utility to the districts through which they passed, inasmuch as they afforded a supply of water for the fertilising of the lands upon their banks, and an easy conveyance for the produce thus obtained. Nor should the Ganges and Burrampooter pass unnoticed, since these rivers, with many tributary streams, form a series of natural canals, which, with little aid from the art of man, add at once to the convenience and prosperity of the extensive district through which they flow; and which, we have substantial reasons for concluding, were a principal source of emolument to the people of India from a very early period.

In Egypt, the great canal, whereby a communication was made between the Nile and the Red Sea, was commenced so early as the reign of Necos, son of Psammetichus, and completed by the Second Ptolemy. Its breadth was such that two gallies abreast could easily be navigated thereon, and by it the riches and merchandize of the east were conveyed from the Red Sea to the Nile, from thence to the Mediterranean, and to all the commercial nations of that day. The Nile also with its numerous branches, and if we may here use the term, its collateral cuts, afforded ample means of water carriage to the people both of Upper and Lower Egypt; the result of which was an astonishing increase in the commerce, and consequently in the prosperity, of every part to which this mode of conveyance extended.

In China, particularly in the eastern provinces of that immense empire, multitudes of canals are every where met with; most of which furnish undeniable evidence of their antiquity and of the skill of their original constructors. The Royal Canal which was completed in the year 980 and occupied the labour of thirty thousand men for forty-three years, is a most stupendous monument of the enterprise, ingenuity and perseverance of the ancient Chinese. Its length of main line is upwards of eight hundred and twenty-five miles, and innumerable collateral branches are cut from it in every direction. Upon the surface of this canal and its subsidiaries many thousand families live in vessels, which form their travelling habitations, and which they seldom quit from their birth till their decease. And some idea may be formed of the traffic upon it, when it is stated that the Emperor alone has ten thousand vessels constantly employed upon the different parts of its line.

The utility of inland navigation was hardly likely to have escaped the notice of Greece, skilled as her ancient people were in every branch of art and science, we accordingly find in history, that though well supplied with rive2, many canals and aqueducts were constructed, or at least begun, in the days of her prosperity. And here it may not be out of place to offer as a conjecture, that canals were in many instances originally adapted to other purposes than those of commerce, and that this latter object was rather an adaption than an invention. Thus the canals, which Strabo informs us were cut in Beotia for drawing off and keeping at a certain level the waters of Lake Capois, were afterwards used for the purposes of commerce and formed a commodious line of navigation. A navigable communication between the Ionian Sea and the Archipelago was early attempted by the Greeks, who designed a line of canal across the Isthmus of Corinth, but failed in the execution.

Their rivals and, in most cases, successful imitators, the Romans, were equally alive to the advantages of inland navigation. No less than three of the Roman Emperors renewed the attempt of cutting a canal across the Isthmus, but were obliged to abandon the project.

Drusus, who commanded, under Augustus, an army which was to march into Germany, had a canal made from the river, now called the Rhine to the Issel, for the sole purpose of conveying his army upon it. By this canal he lessened the waters of the right branch of the Rhine, and in the course of his work formed a third mouth of that river into the sea, as is mentioned by Pliny, Lucius Verus, when the Roman Army under his command was in Gaul attempted a canal between the Moselle end the" Rhine; another canal twenty-three miles in length was made by the Romans in the reign of Claudius, between the Rhine and Maese, supposed to be the canal, which now commences at Leyden and passes by Delft to its junction with the Maese at Sluys. This is an instance of adoption, the canal being originally cut for the purpose of draining the country when overflowed by inundations from the sea, but subsequently applied to the purposes of navigation. The canal, which is still used for the purposes for which it was constructed, viz. that of draining Lake Celano, formerly the Fucine Lake, into the Liris, was executed by Claudius, who employed thirty thousand men thereon for no less a period than twelve years.

In France the history of inland navigation may be traced backward for a long succession of years. The great canal of Burgundy, better known as the canal of Briare, commencing at that town in the River Loire, and passing on to Montargis, proceeds to a junction with the canal of Orleans, and falls into the Seine at Fontainbleau. This work was commenced under Henry the Fourth. The famous canal of Languedoc, forming a junction between the Ocean and the Mediterranean, was projected in the reign of Francis I. in 1661, and finished in fifteen years; it is remarkable for being the first canal whereon tunnels were used, having one of considerable length under a mountain in the neighbourhood of Belgiers. We could easily enlarge the list of French Canals, but the above will be sufficient to prove the length of time, during which the utility of such modes of conveyance has been known and acted upon in that country.

In Russia the Czar Peter, ever alive to projects for the improvement of his vast empire, became soon convinced of the utility of navigable canals; in his tour of Europe he had means of ascertaining the extent, to which the various countries he visited were enriched by the instrumentality of these modes of conveyance, and he was not slow to profit by the example. One of his principal projected canals was that from the Caspian Sea to Petersburg, whereby he proposed to open a mercantile communication between that place and Persia. This project, however, he did not live to accomplish. But what he had designed was carried on by his successors with so much zeal, that there is not a country in the world, where inland navigation is more extensively employed than in Russia. And here, by the way, we must not omit noticing the high compliment paid by foreign countries to the talents of our English engineers, an instance of which occurred in the reign of the illustrious Catherine, who offered a large sum of money and many local advantages to our countryman, Mr. Smeaton, on condition of his accepting the office of chief engineer in her dominions.

We cannot within our present limits enumerate all the canals existing in Russia at time present day, it may therefore suffice to remark, that with a trifling interruption of only sixty miles, goods may be conveyed from the frontiers of China to Petersburg, being no less a distance than four thousand four hundred and seventy-two miles; the same advantages of transit by water are experienced by the traders between Petersburg and Astracan, whose merchandize is conveyed in that direction one thousand four hundred and thirty-four miles.

That England, pre-eminent as she is in commerce, should have promptly availed herself of this method of conveying her manufactures from one part of the island to another, is hardly to be wondered at. Her first canals were, however, the works of foreigners, and amongst these, the most remarkable one on record is the Caerdike, cut by the Romans with a view of forming a communication between the Rivers Nyne or Nene and the Witham; the length of this stupendous work, for such it then was, however it has been exceeded by those of more recent date, was forty miles from its commencement in the Nene near Peterborough to its opening into the Witham three miles below Lincoln. For what has been effected from that time to the present day, we refer to the following pages, and shall now proceed to consider the other branch of commercial transit, the rail and tramroad.

Of the first adoption of the conveyance of goods on Railways, we have no distinct account; by whom they were originally brought into use, and in what part they obtained their celebrity, are facts alike unknown. To a certain degree they no doubt have been introduced many years ago; indeed it is not too much to suppose that the first workers of mines, not only in Britain but in other countries also, were acquainted with the method of laying a kind of tram for the sledge to run upon, afterwards fitted with wheels and converted into small waggons; to which we may trace the origin of our present improved mode of constructing them. But whatever may have been their origin, it appears that they were soon generally adopted—to a trifling extent, it is true, for during a great part of the time that they have been known, they have been limited to the conveyance of minerals from various parts of a mine to its mouth, in places where horses could not find room, and where the labour of propelling by manual force would have been particularly tedious and oppressive without their aid.

As their use became more apparent, the mode of applying it became more extensively sought into. From their former situation in the mine, they became a part of the machinery on the surface, making a communication between one mine and another, or between a series of mines and the place for depositing the minerals dug from them; as they became better understood, they were made more generally useful, till at last combined with inclined planes and other machinery connected therewith, they formed a communication not only between the mines and their depots, but also between these latter and the vessels, whereon the minerals were to be embarked for the purpose of conveyance to distant parts. Here the railway or tramroad appeared to have reached the extreme point of application, and here for several years it remained unaltered, except as to some trifling changes in the materials of which it was constructed, and the form into which those materials were shaped. But as the other branches of mechanical science became more extended, and particularly when the application of that powerful agent, Steam, became so generally practicable, a new era commenced with respect to railways and tramroads.

We believe we are correct in assigning to Mr. Treventhick, of Cornwall, the honour of first applying the steam engine to the propelling of loaded waggons on railways; his scheme was improved upon by Mr. John Blenkinsop, manager of the collieries at Middleton, near Leeds, belonging to the late Charles Brandling, Esquire, of Gosforth House, Northumberland, who obtained a patent for the construction of the railway, and the steam carriage thereon, which he immediately put in practice on the road from Middleton to the coal staith at Leeds, a distance of about four miles, on which road the coals for supplying that town are daily conveyed by steam. Since his application of the principle, most of our eminent engineers have turned their attention to the subject, and the consequence is, that in a few years we may expect travelling in steam carriages to be of as common occurrence as the conveyance of coal by the same means is now. The late experiments, made with the carriages of Messrs. Gurney, Stephenson, Errickson, Braithwaite, and other celebrated engineers, on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, have proved with what speed the distance between different places may be traversed, and the numerous applications to parliament, for acts to legalize the construction of railways in many parts of the country, sufficiently prove the interest with which the subject is taken up; whilst from the very circumstance of the rapidity wherewith carriages have been propelled on this railway, it is now probable that ere long his Majesty's mails will be conveyed on the plan introduced by Mr. Dick.

It is not our intention in the present work to enter into a detail of the nature and mode of construction of canals, railways, locks, aqueducts or other works connected with them. Having presented our readers with a brief account of the progress of canals and railways from their first adoption to the present day, we must refer to the following sheets for a more particular detail of proceedings in all works of either description, already executed or in course of execution in England; and it now only remains for us to discharge a most pleasing part of our duty, that of acknowledging, which we do with most heartfelt gratitude, the support and encouragement we have received in the progress of our arduous undertaking. The work has presented numerous difficulties, of which at the outset we had formed no adequate ideas, whilst the expenses, attendant on the whole, have been materially increased by various circumstances, over which we had no control. Cheered, however, by the gratifying list of our subscribers, amongst whom we are proud to number many of exalted rank and distinguished talent in every branch of science, we have surmounted great difficulties and feel confident of having brought our design to a successful termination. In a work of such a nature, the materials whereof were so widely scattered, it is impossible entirely to guard against error or mistake, yet this we may assert, that every care has been taken to state each particular connected with our plan, on as good authority as the most diligent attention and careful reference to original and parliamentary documents could produce, we area therefore, willing to hope, that few mistakes of material import will be found in any of the succeeding pages.

In order to bring down the list of Canals and Railways to the time of the dissolution of the late parliament and thereby to furnish the particulars of every act at present in existence, the publication of the map has been delayed, at a great loss indeed to the proprietors, who have a large capital embarked in the undertaking, but, as they are well aware, to the advantage of their subscribers, and to the increased value of the work itself.

To many valued friends the compiler of the following pages has to express his gratitude for information and assistance in various parts within their immediate knowledge. To none of them are his thanks more justly due than to Mr. John Walker, civil engineer, one of the proprietors of the map and the surveyor by whom it has been executed. This gentleman, in the course of his survey of the kingdom, devoted a considerable portion of time to the collection of materials, which have added greatly to the value and interest of the volume now most respectfully presented to the public.



April, 1831.