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What was canal mania?

23rd March 2022

The UK is home to 4,700 miles of canal that stretches throughout British countryside, towns and cities. Canals are a seamless part of the British landscape, however, have you ever wondered how they came to be? In this blog, we will be investigating the history of ‘canal mania’ and how this small island became home of the waterways.

The first canal age

Canals have been a staple part of the UK since the Roman times. During these periods, canals were mainly used for irrigation, albeit it was the 18th century that marked the beginning of the canal age. Before the 1700s, canals were mainly built by aristocratic landowners who needed to transport their goods to southern England. However, by the 1770s, there was a heightened need for industrial transport and canals were the centre of upcoming industrial revolution.

What caused the boom in canal building?

Before canals were used for transportation, goods would be transported via road, however, there were various issues with this mode of transport. During these times, roads were poorly built, vulnerable to robberies and were overall inefficient. The switch from roads to waterways meant that much heavier loads of precious products such as coal, wool, and other textiles, could be transported at a greater mass. Horses and carriages were simply not as efficient as barges and couldn’t transport heavy loads at great lengths.

However, the need for canals was reflective of Britain’s rapid industrial growth – the country experienced an export boom in the late 18th century, and many traders invested in refurbishing ports and other public buildings. The river network was largely unreliable and needed vast improvements - these traders invested in widening, dredging and cutting the meanders of the river, which led to the building of canals. Another aspect is the boom of factories – British factories were teaming with workers, and they produced materials into valuable goods in great masses, which, of course, all needed transporting.

The solution? Canals

The Bridgewater canal was one of the first of its kind. It flowed from Worsley to Manchester and was opened in 1761 by the Duke of Bridgewater. The Bridgewater canal slashed the price of coal and opened up a whole new market. By 1774, a total of 33 acts of parliaments had been passed, encouraging the new development of canals. This was perfect for the increasing demand for coal, iron and other raw materials. Birmingham was perhaps the most visible result of the boom in canals as the city amassed more canals than Venice.

Canals became central for English industrialism and raised capital in various ways – in the beginning of canal mania, the canals were mainly extended the north and midlands, and these areas became developed and wealthy as a result of their canal systems. However, as time progressed, the building extended to the south and across the UK.

Engineers such as James Brindley and Thomas Telford continued to revolutionise the canals, as they designed aqueducts and bridges to make the canals more efficient.

Rise of railway and decline of the canals

With the rise of Britain’s railway, the need for canals slowly declined, as railways provided a cheaper and speedier way to transport goods. In the late 18th century, many canals became derelict as investors gradually took their money out of the canal systems and into the railway. Today, much of the waterways have been restored and are home to both history and beautiful landscape.

If you would like to explore the canal network, take a look at our routes today. We have something for everyone and with many towns, cities and villages to explore. Contact our helpful team for more information.

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