The history of canal boats in the UK

9th April 2020

Most of the UK have some knowledge about the canal system and how it used to operate, but nowadays the British Waterways are more commonly known for canal boat holidays or day trips. Beginning as working boats used for transportation of goods, narrowboats have an interesting history dating back to the 18th century. From beginning their journey as horse-drawn canal boats to the evolution of using canal boats for recreation and homes, learn more about the history of canal boats in the UK now from our timeline.

British waterways history

For a timeline on the history of canal boats in the UK, we’ve collated the key events and facts from each century in a condensed timeline:

Canal Boat History

18th century

During this period, canals were the most reliable way of transporting goods, services and commodities in large quantities. Using narrowboats became the most economical way of doing business and trade, coming to life because of the Industrial Revolution – which happened in the middle of the 18th century. During this time, traditional narrowboats were originally built as working boats, and this was the continuing function of the canal boat for the 19th and 20th centuries too. Interestingly, horse-drawn canal boats were also a common sight during the 18th century, through to the 20th century. Mostly wooden, these traditional narrowboats could be seen in abundance across the UK, as hundreds of companies that needed to transport goods either long or short distances would use horses to do so.

19th century

Adaptation of the British Waterways system was underway and new major canals emerged, including the Manchester Ship canal. Towards the end of the 19th century, competition arose from the growing railway industry, and canal transport found itself in decline due to mile-ton charge decreasing and the use of the British railway system beginning to pick up for transporting cargo.

20th century

With the 20th century also brought another competitor – road haulage. During this time, road usage to transport goods became increasingly popular, and only the strongest canals survived the competition of both rail and road transport. By the mid 1960’s, there were only a few key canals still active for industrial use. The Second World War also didn’t benefit the canal systems, as there was a significant lack of maintenance during this time. In 1963, The British Transport Commission (which then became the British Waterways Board) discontinued most of its narrowboat carrying operations.

21st century

During this period, restoration periods began with the narrowboat industry seeing a rise in enthusiastic volunteers, ready to restore the canal network. Staple highlights of the British Waterways were restored, such as the Anderton Boat Lift – which is one of the 7 Wonders of the Waterways – as well as the well-known Falkirk Wheel. This century also saw the rise of pleasure boating. Although this had been a feature that was becoming more popular towards the end of the 20th century, by the 1970s boatbuilders had sprung up building purpose-built steel narrow beamed boats purely for private use, or for companies to hire. This encouraged the boom in holidaymakers using modern narrowboats for trips away with family, friends and loved ones across the waters.

How were canals filled with water?

Ever wondered where canal water comes from? It actually depends entirely on the canal system itself, but it’s likely to come from nearby rivers and streams. Historically, once the channel had been dug and lined to make it waterproof using limestone and clay, the canal could be filled with water. As they didn’t have hose pipes during this era, water from nearby rivers and streams was then redirected into the canal – using reservoirs and rain to keep the water topped up.

The Canal River Trust have created handy guides which detail where the water comes from at various locations – such as the Anderton Boat Lift at Anderton Marina, and Llangollen Canal. For example, the water in Llangollen canal comes almost entirely from the River Dee at Llantysilio at Horseshoe Falls. Whereas the Anderton Boat Lift connects the Trent and Mersey canal and the River Weaver navigation, meaning the boat brings the water from the River Weaver up to the Trent and Mersey canal, and vice versa. Learn more about how canals were filled with water from our guide on how canals were built.

Here at ABC Boat Hire, we have a range of canal boats and canal locations on offer for holidaymakers interested in a trip cruising along the canal. For more information on our narrowboat holidays, or information on the British Waterways history, get in touch with our helpful team at ABC Boat Hire now.

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