The Start of the Age of Canals

By | April 24, 2017

From 1760, the rivers of the British Isles were knit together, ports connected, mines served, factories provided for, by over 5,000 miles of navigable river and canal: about 900 in Ireland, the rest in Britain.

cropped to image, recto, unframed

cropped to image, recto, unframed

The coasting trade was important; the roads carried the speeding mail-coaches, the post-chaises of the wealthy and the ponderous stages of the common man, though goods traffic was mainly local, and often directed to the nearest wharf, but the arteries that served the industrial heart of the nation were filled with water. Clear and sparkling, opaque, polluted or smelly, it foamed through the opening paddles of lock-gates or over river weirs, as it carried a medley of keels, flats, trows, barges and narrow boats. It was more than water, it was money, life, progress.

And then, one day in 1830, beautiful Fanny Kemble, fresh from the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden, took a ride from Manchester with a north-countryman.

‘You can’t imagine it,’ she wrote, ‘how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath, and rhythmical, unvarying pace… I stood up, and with my bonnet off drank the air before me.’

sankey-canalThe engine was the Northumbrian, the companion, George Stephenson, the speed 35 mph, the line the Liverpool & Manchester, and when they stopped, it was beside the viaduct where the Sankey Canal passed under the railway. Four years later, boats in the harbour of the Grand Canal at Dublin heard a pulling locomotive on the tracks of the first railway in Ireland, the Dublin & Kingstown. Water was still needed, but now mostly combined with coal to make steam.

Public Ownership or Private Enterprise

We regard the controversy between public ownership and private enterprise as a modern one. But our ancestors were exercised whether it was right for private people to make undue profit out of providing a public utility, and their conclusion that this was justifiable has greatly influenced our canal situation today.

The first true canal in England, the Exeter had been built by the city corporation, whose successors now own its successor. Some rivers had been made navigable by private people, but there was one conspicuous case where these had failed, and public trustees had succeeded: the River Weaver in Cheshire. Parliament had decided that road improvements should only be carried out by, and the right to levy tolls granted to, public bodies of turnpike trustees.

Thus, when canals were planned, it was for a time very arguable whether private companies or public bodies should build them. Should private men who had risked their own money on what was, without hindsight, a speculative proposition, benefit if it proved unexpectedly successful? And if the answer was yes, to what extent? It was to our ancestors a genuine moral dilemma.

Josiah-WedgwoodJosiah Wedgwood

A man like Josiah Wedgwood did not promote the Trent & Mersey Canal with the profit motive primarily before him. He did so because the object would benefit the public. Of course he would be benefited also, but probably he would not have shown such zeal and single minded interest for his own sake alone.

He wrote in terms such as, ‘The public-spirited scheme’, ‘your Country calls’, and, a year before the Act, proposed ‘that the intended navigation be as free as a Tum-pike road, and conducted by commissioners chosen out of the Gent’! in the country along which the canal shall be made’.

Then, in modification, that commissioners should be ‘appoint‘ out of the gent? in the Country along the Canal as a cheque over the undertakers to see that the trust is executed, and the public not injured’. And then that the plan for commissioners ‘is very strongly objected to, the objections are plausible, and abundantly verified by Experience. On the other hand, the very term Private Property is obnoxious’. It will be difficult to find people who will ‘bestow so much of their time and attention Pro Bono Publico as the carrying into execution & conducting this design will require’.

And so a company was chosen, though with the motto on their seal, Pro Patriam Populumque Flair.

Acts, Tolls & Dividends

In some of the early canal Acts, like that for the Staffordshire & Worcestershire, commissioners from the local men of standing, or Justices in Quarter Sessions, were given power to approve changes in tolls. An alternative was a clause in the enabling Act limiting dividends, usually to 7 or 8 per cent.

The Trent Navigation, Derby Canal and Glamorganshire Canal proprietors were among those so limited. But, after 1800 had come and gone, such ideas of combining public control and private profit died away and directors were unrestricted.

  • If they controlled the Birmingham Canal or the Loughborough Navigation, they could pay 100 per cent.
  • If the Trent & Mersey, 75.
  • The Oxford or the Coventry, 30 to 40, and so to those which paid little or nothing.

Private Enterprise Wins

The public benefit was best found, it was held, by leaving private people free to make judgements of their own interest. Good judgement would, and could, be rewarded; bad, penalised. So it came about that our canal system was largely built by private enterprise – though with just a few exceptions.

In Europe

On the Continent this was usually not so, principally because improved means of transport preceded development, and were meant to encourage it, whereas in Britain they answered to a pre-existent need.

In this respect Ireland followed the Continental and not the English pattern. Most waterways were built with public money, and when private companies participated, as later in the construction of the Grand Canal, public subsidies were sought and expected.

In the US

In the United States both companies and the public were concerned. The Erie, greatest of the New World canals, was built by the State of New York so profitably that, opened in 1825, in 1883 tolls upon it could be abolished, to make it a free waterway. The State of Ohio built 731 miles of canal and 91 miles of river navigation, and in Canada the military built the Rideau.

On the other hand, the first American canal, the Santee, opened in 1800, and the Middlesex from Boston to Lowell on the Merrimack, were companies; so was the great Chesapeake & Ohio. Some were private companies given state donations or special privileges; others began privately, like the Welland Canal, failed, and were taken over by the state.

For Profit or Public Benefit

Then, as now, businessmen varied in type. There were some whose pockets were all important; there were some whose motives were mixed, and who combined making money with a real interest in the development of scientific discovery, either for its own sake, or as a means to benefiting humanity, and in national and local achievement.

Josiah Wedgwood is an example: able businessman, he had a real love for the art that underlay his trade of a potter, and also wide scientific interests. So did Matthew Boulton, button-maker of Birmingham, who minted coins and partnered James Watt in developing the steam engine. These three were members of the Lunar Society where, during the 1770s and 1780s, ideas were exchanged on everything under the moon, especially everything scientific.

Wedgwood was the leading promoter of the Trent & Mersey Canal, Boulton‘a founder member of the Birmingham Canal company, and Watt, though more truly a scientist and mechanical engineer, had much practical canal experience—he had already built the Monkland Canal in Scotland, and surveyed for others.

God’s Handiwork

There were also the religiously-minded industrialists, many of them Quakers: men who believed that scientific studies were also a discovery of God’s handiwork, and that to contribute to industrial development was in right ordering because it would both raise the standard of living and increase opportunities for education and self-improvement by working men; industrialists who on Sundays sat down with their workmen and their families on the same benches in the same meeting houses to hear each other’s ministry or to listen to their common God, and who in business meetings joined together to conduct the Society of Friends. Such men, organisers by training, rich men by ability, became expert personnel managers by the operation of their kind of religious practice.

Such were the Darbys and the Reynoldses of Coalbrookdale:

‘many of the workmen in and about the works were Friends, and gathered in complete unity of spirit and equality before God, with the Darby, Reynolds, Dearman, Luccock and other Quaker families’, says the historian of Coalbrookdale. ‘It is not possible to separate, in any of its leaders, their character and habit as Friends from their outlook and actions as employers and works managers.’

These men early saw the advantages of better transport: they built horse tram-roads, including the first to use iron for rails, and later a network of small canals which were lifted over the hills of east Shropshire from Shrewsbury to Donnington, Coalport, Horsehay and Coalbrookdale not by looks, but by inclined planes or boat railways. They provided the initiative, much of the money, and the engineering skill.

Cheap Bulk Transport

Probably private persons built the canals of Britain more efficiently than public bodies would have done, for many who promoted and later managed them had a direct interest in their success. All over the country businessmen were avid for cheap bulk transport. The unimproved rivers were useful, but too variable to be reliable, flooding in winter and low in summer; the roads, turnpiked as many were, too expensive ; horse tram roads useful, but their loads were too small in relation to their cost of construction, maintenance and haulage to make them economic except for local traffic. And so colliery owners, quarry proprietors, glassmakers, ironmasters, textile magnates, merchants, concerned themselves with canals.

Lord Middleton, owner of coal mines near Nottingham, pressed the Nottingham Canal forward, as did the Earl of Moira the Ashby; the lessees of the great Caldon quarries east of the Potteries worked for a branch from the Trent & Mersey to carry their limestone: once built, it served its purpose for a century and a half.

The glassmakers of Stourbridge were chief promoters of the Stourbridge Canal, and Abiathar Hawkes, glassmaker of Dudley, was for many years treasurer of that canal company, whose line extended the Stourbridge Canal upwards into the coal lands and ironworks owned by the great industrial magnate, the Earl of Dudley.

In south Wales and Monmouthshire, the great names in iron were canal promoters, shareholders and committee-men, almost without exception; Mackworths, Crawshays, Hills, Guests, Harfords, Homfrays.

In the north were the textile men: Sir Richard Arkwright of Cromford did much to get the Cromford Canal started, and Samuel Oldknow so greatly concerned himself with the Peak Forest that the great Marple aqueduct on the line towards Manchester is often called ‘Oldknow’s’ today.

Merchants, also, especially in the north: there were twelve out of twenty-one on the first board of the Rochdale Canal. These, and hundreds more like them, were the principal driving force behind canal construction, in money, drive, and administrative ability.

The Contribution of Landowners

Associated with them were the landowners, and perhaps for the first time with any frequency landed men met manufacturing men on canal committees, and each group learned more about the other. The contribution landowners could make was enormous, for in the early days of canal promotion, they and their friends, controlled Parliament. And canal bills had to pass through Parliament before power to buy land compulsorily could be obtained, or to form a joint-stock company with limited liability. Parliamentary power they had to give; what had they to gain? On the whole, not personal gain, though that came in time to many of them, but the pleasurable power that comes from acknowledged leadership in an activity that is manifestly of public benefit.

Earl Gower, brother-in-law of the Duke of Bridgewater, had great estates in Staffordshire and Shropshire, and for agent Thomas Gilbert, MP, businessman and poor law reformer, brother of John Gilbert, agent to the Duke. In 1764, with the two Gilberts, he formed Earl Gower & Company to develop coal and iron deposits on his Shropshire land, and to build a small-sized tub-boat canal taking boats about as large as those that worked within the Worsley mine.

In 1765 Wedgwood and other supporters of the Trent & Mersey Canal often visited Trentham near Stoke-on-Trent to inform and interest Lord Gower. If he would lead them, all would be well; to insist, as Wedgwood wrote to his fellow promoter, Thomas Bentley the Liverpool merchant, in 1765,

‘as much as decency & propriety will permit us of Gowers coming down into Staffordshire & PUBLICLY at a meeting of the Gentlemen in this Country… to put himself at the head of our design and take it under his patronage’.

And, triumphantly, a week or so later, Gower comes into Staffs to put himself at our head.

He did, taking the chair at the inaugural meeting which accepted Brindley’s report on the proposed canal and decided to seek an Act, and putting his name down for £2,000 worth of shares. And when the bill was referred to a committee of the Commons, its chairman, fortunately, though perhaps not coincidentally, was Thomas Gilbert. It passed; the canal was built, the country near it prospered. Lord Gower never regretted his leadership, and in 1786 became Marquess of Stafford amidst the congratulations of his contemporaries.

Further down the line of the Trent & Mersey, Thomas Anson, elder brother of the circumnavigating admiral, lived at Shugborough. He took to canals like any water-bird, subscribing £800 to the Trent & Mersey, becoming a member of its committee, supporting the building of the Birmingham Canal and taking shares in it, and generally getting involved in navigation affairs. So much did he enjoy it that he had his great house painted with a canal boat passing in the foreground.

This story could be repeated for many canals. There was:

  • The Marquess of Buckingham who sat on the Grand Junction board (his arms were incorporated in their seal) along with the Duke of Grafton, the Earls of Clarendon and Essex, and Earl Spencer.
  • The Earls of Stamford who had shares in the Stourbridge’and Dudley canals because of their Staffordshire estates, and in the Leicester Canal by reason of interests there.
  • The Earl of Powis, who greatly helped to promote the Ellesmere and the later Montgomeryshire Canal, or the Earl of Egremont, whose money so greatly supported the Wey & Arun, the Portsmouth & Arundel, and the Western Rother.

The list would lengthen indefinitely, and to supplement it there would be the country gentlemen, who sometimes were also the county members of Parliament, the clergy, and the doctors.

The Clergy’s Participation

Until the 1840s, when the religious revival brought it almost to an end, the clergy’s participation in canal ownership and management was notable.

  • There was Dr Samuel Peploe, chancellor of the diocese of Chester, who helped to get the Chester Canal started, took £2,000 worth of shares, and sat on its committee for five years;
  • Dr George Travis, archdeacon of Chester, who gave the Rochdale company much of its early drive;
  • Rev John Rocke, a committeeman of the Shrewsbury and the Shropshire canals, treasurer for the latter, and then partner in a local bank.
  • Or the group of clergymen, which often included the vice-chancellor or college heads, who formed a majority of the highly successful Oxford Canal’s committee for more than a century.


Probably the most famous doctor who concerned himself with canals was Erasmus Darwin, perhaps the original mover in the scheme that became the Trent & Mersey. He was a member of the Lunar Society, and a prolific inventor, among other things of a lift for raising canal boats vertically from one level to another; foreseeing enough to write in a poem of 1792,

Soon shall thy arm, Unconquer’d Steam! afar Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car.

yet later remembering:

. . . with strong arm immortal Brindley leads His long canals, and parts the velvet meads.

But an old friend, merely because he turns up so often, is Dr Robert Bree, senior, of Leicester, who presumably attended his patients in such spare time as he had from sitting on the promotion and management committees of the Leicester Canal – he was chairman for three years – and helping to promote the Leicestershire & Northants Union and the Grand Junction. It must have been in the blood, for his son, Dr John, was for thirty years a committeeman of the Warwick & Birmingham and the Warwick & Napton, and the Rev Thomas, maybe his brother, helped to manage the Coventry Canal.


Finally, there were the solicitors. Canal companies were accustomed to employ a solicitor as part-time clerk to deal especially with their legal business, but sometimes these men took so much interest in their canals, that their efforts went far beyond their duties. John Sparrow of Newcastle-under-Lyme was one of the original promoters of the Trent & Mersey, and became its clerk. Over the next ten years or so, he was constantly at work, organising, visiting other companies, local authorities or useful people, helping to raise money.

William Cradock of Loughborough became clerk and treasurer of the Loughborough Navigation in 1776, and of the Erewash Canal in 1777. In 1788 he passed his jobs to his son John and went on both committees until he died in 1805. Son John continued in both jobs, and on the committee of the Loughborough for most of the time, until 1832. At his death, his son John took on‘for six years, died also, and was followed by Thomas until 1863. The Cradocks knew so much about the two canals that they were in fact also the managers, dealing with a mass of administrative and even engineering matters in between meetings of the committee.

To the south one remembers the Bristol firm of Isaac Cooke & Son, clerks to the Bridgwater & Taunton and the Chard Canals, who not only involved themselves in unwisely lending the firm’s money on mortgage to the two companies, but participated in boat ownership and a trade in canal-borne coal.

No analysis is exhaustive; but we may look principally to the large and lesser industrialists, merchants and landowners, and to the professional men, clergy, doctors and solicitors, for the energy to promote and the administrative ability to manage the canals in their heyday. But where did the money come from?