History of Canals in Britain

Routes of the Industrial Revolution


In the history of canals, Britain was not a pioneer. The Chinese can claim that the Grand Canal of China was one of the first, in the tenth century, although even earlier examples existed in that country. The earliest canals were connected with natural rivers, either as short extensions or improvements to them. The difference between a natural river, and a wholly man-made canal is clear, but in between are many variations of river improvement and extension so it is therefore difficult to be precise about which navigation can claim to be the first canal! The familiar pound lock which is in use today in Britain is said to have been invented by Chhiao Wei-Yo, in the year 983, in China, although the mitre gate, an important part of the canal lock today, is credited to Leonardo Da Vinci.n (1452 - 1519)

Portrait of Francis, Duke of Bridgewater. Copyright The National Trust

In Britain the Romans built the Fossdyke from Lincoln to the River Trent , for drainage and for navigation and also the Caer Dyke around AD 50. A notable waterway completed in 1566 was the Exeter Canal which bypassed part of a river to make navigation easier. This had the first pound locks in Britain, equipped with lifting, vertical gates. The mitre gate, which has V shaped gates held together by the water pressure, was introduced in this country on the River Lee, at Waltham Abbey. Some other early British canals are an improved section of the River Welland in Lincolnshire, built in 1670, and the Stroudwater Navigation, in Gloucestershire, built 1775 - 1779 and the Sankey Canal in Lancashire, opened in stages, 1757 - 1773.

The great age of canal building started with the construction of the Bridgewater Canal. This pioneering waterway is nowhere near the town of Bridgwater but was the initiative of the third Duke of Bridgewater, pictured left (image coutesy of The National Trust). A well educated young man, the Duke had visited a great early French navigation, the Canal du Midi, 150 miles long, which had been completed in 1681. The Duke owned coal mines at Worsley, north west of Manchester, a big city with an appetite for coal. The Duke made plans together with John Gilbert, one of his estate managers, and they brought in the engineer James Brindley (1716 - 1772) who had previously built a reputation working on mills, water wheels etc. The enabling Act was passed in 1759 and there were further Acts of Parliament to amend and extend the scheme. Completed in 1776 the Bridgewater Canal was the catalyst that started half a century of canal building. Brindley had built an aqueduct which was regarded as a remarkable achievement, and there were tunnels right into the mines at Worsley where the coal was loaded. The price of coal in Manchester fell as the new means of transport made cheap deliveries possible.

Next there followed a number of long distance navigations, with Brindley as the leading canal engineer of his time. He largely built the so-called "Grand Cross" of canals which linked the four great river basins of Britain, the Severn, Mersey, Humber, and the Thames, the latter being reached from 1790 via the Oxford Canal, lengthy route to London from the north. There were two concentrated periods of canal building, from 1759 to the early 1770's and from 1789 to almost the end of the eighteenth century. The American War of Independence separated the two periods. London and the south east did not feature much in the first period. Canals were built to serve the heavy industry of the north and midlands and whilst London had industry and the country's major port, it did not have coal mines and the surrounding south east of England was mainly agricultural.

It was not until 1793 that an Act was passed to authorise the Grand Junction Canal from Braunston on the Oxford Canal, to Brentford on the river Thames west of London. London was not joined directly to the national canal network until 1801 with the opening of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal.

Some Useful Links for Further Reading

Leonardo Da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology, Milan for more about Da Vinci and his invention of the type of lock known in the UK as a mitre lock.
Leonardo Museum, Vinci, Italy, for further references to Da Vinci's life and work
A Brief History of English Canals by Mike Clarke. More detailed than the above summary.
The Great Duke of Bridgewater, by Espinasse (1874) Edited by Coakley
Duke of Bridgewater's Underground Canal at Worsley, - site by Dave Lane

London Canals Online Bookshop