The Development of Canals in the Industrial Revolution

Basingstoke Canal, England
Basingstoke Canal, England.

JHvW/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Water was an important method of transport in Britain prior to the industrial revolution and was used heavily for freight. Basically, to have a working economy, goods had to be moved from the place of production to the place of need, and vice versa. When travel was based on horses, no matter how good the road, there were limits on products, in terms of fragility or freshness or quantity. Water, which could take more, and faster, was crucial. There were three key aspects of water-borne trade: the sea, the coast, and rivers.

  • Sea Carriage: Overseas trade required large ships and was important for importing and exporting goods and raw materials. Several key British ports, including the hub of the nation in London, had been growing on trade even before the boom of the revolution, and many traders had built public buildings. As the revolution got underway and Britain experienced an export boom in the late eighteenth century, wealth was reinvested in refurbishing ports, and they expanded greatly.
  • Coastal Trade: Moving heavy goods at sea along the coast of Britain was much cheaper than moving the same items along the road network, and coastal trade was a key aspect of Britain’s economy. Between 1650 and 1750, i.e. before the industrial revolution, half a million metric tons of coal was moved this way from Newcastle in the north to London in the south. Foodstuffs could be moved fairly quickly through coastal trade, and the access supported provincial trade. The east coast, with a sheltered, smooth sea, had the greatest use, and most early industries like iron, tin, and grain depended on this method.
  • Navigable Rivers: Britain made major use of its river network for transport as well as waterwheel energy, but there were problems. Rivers didn’t always—or rarely—went where you wanted your goods to go, and they were affected by drought and erosion, as well as other industries being in the way. Many were simply unnavigable. People had tried to improve the river network by dredging, widening, and cutting past meanders by the start of the eighteenth century, and canals became the logical next step. Indeed, it was river improvements that gave the engineers of the canals their start.

However, lots of important industrial areas in Britain, such as Birmingham, didn’t have any water links and were held back. If there wasn't a river, or you weren't on the coast, you had transport problems. The solution was to be found in canals, a man-made route in which you could (mostly) direct the traffic. Expensive, but if done right, a way of making large profits.

The Solution: Canals

The first British canal to follow a totally new route (the first British canal was the Sankey Brooke Navigation, but this followed a river) was the Bridgewater canal from collieries in Worsley to Manchester. It was opened in 1761 by the colliery’s owner, the Duke of Bridgewater. This reduced the Duke’s shipping costs by 50%, vastly cheapening his coal and opening up a whole new market. This illustrated to the rest of Britain’s industrialists what canals could achieve, and it also demonstrated both what engineering could do, and what wide-ranging enterprise could create: the Duke’s money had come from agriculture. By 1774 over 33 government acts had been passed providing for canals, all in the Midlands where there were no comparative or realistic alternative means of water transport, and the boom continued. Canals became the perfect answer to regional needs.

The Economic Impact of Canals

Canals allowed a greater volume of goods to be moved more precisely, and for much less, opening up new markets in terms of location and affordability. Seaports could now be connected to inland trade. Canals allowed for the greater exploitation of coal reserves as the coal could be moved further, and sold cheaper, allowing a new market to form. Industries could now relocate to coalfields or move to towns, and the materials and products could be moved either way. Of over 150 canal acts from 1760 to 1800, 90 were for coal purposes. At the time—before the railways—only canals could have coped with the swiftly rising demand for coal from industries like iron. Perhaps the most visible economic effect of canals was around Birmingham, which was now joined to the British freight transport system and grew hugely as a result.

Canals stimulated new ways of raising capital, as the majority of canals were built as joint stock companies, with each company having to apply for an act of Parliament. Once created, they could sell shares and buy land, bringing in widespread investment, not just local. Only a tenth of the funding came from the elite of wealthy industrialists, and the first modern company management structures were put in place. Capital began to flow around the constructions. Civil engineering also advanced, and this would be fully exploited by the railways.

The Social Impact of Canals

The creation of canals created a new, paid, labor force called ‘Navvies’ (short for Navigators), increasing spending power at a time when industry needed markets, and each canal needed people to load and unload. However, people tended to fear navvies, accusing them of taking local jobs. Indirectly, there were also new opportunities in mining, hardware, and other industries, for instance, the potteries, as markets for goods opened right up.

The Problems of Canals

Canals still had their problems. Not all areas were environmentally suitable for them, and places like Newcastle had relatively few. There was no central planning and the canals weren’t part of an organized national network, constructed in different widths and depths, and largely limited to the Midlands and North West of England. Canal transport could be expensive, as some companies monopolized areas and charged high tolls, and competition from rival companies could cause two canals to be built along the same route. They were also slow, so things had to be ordered well in advance, and they could not make passenger travel cost effective.

The Decline of the Canals

Canal companies never solved the problems of speed, making the invention of a faster method of transport almost inevitable. When the railways were introduced in the 1830s people felt that the advancement would spell the immediate end of the canals as a major network for freight. However, canals continued to remain competitive for a number of years and it wasn’t until the 1850s that railways really replaced the canals as the primary method of transport in Britain.

Sources and Further Reading

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The Development of Canals in the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Development of Canals in the Industrial Revolution. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Development of Canals in the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).