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History explorer: Britain’s inland waterways

In the wake of the BBC Four documentary, The Golden Age of Canals, Charlotte Hodgman speaks to Joseph Boughey about nine places linked to the postwar revival of Britain's inland waterways

Britain’s waterways have enjoyed a renaissance since the Second World War. (Photo by George W Johnson/Getty Images)
Published: July 17, 2011 at 7:13 pm
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This article was first published in the July 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine


Cruising on waterways has now become the holiday of choice for thousands of Britons. From travelling along the Norfolk Broads in a canal boat, to a relaxing trip along the Thames in a pleasure cruiser, boating for leisure is a popular way to unwind. But, as Joseph Boughey, an honorary research associate at the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History, explains, the future of Britain’s inland waterways once hovered on a knife-edge.

The canal-building boom of the 18th century began as a means of improving river navigation – replacing rivers that may have been otherwise unnavigable or unreliable – and providing a viable alternative to roads for transporting goods.

In Britain, the use of canals for transport peaked during the Industrial Revolution, stimulated by a need to move large quantities of raw materials at the cheapest possible price. In England, the first modern canal for navigation purposes was opened in 1757, known as the Sankey Navigation Canal in Lancashire. More than 100 others were built across Britain between 1760 and 1820.

The birth of the railways in the early 19th century heralded a decline in the use of inland waterways for transport and, as a result, many were sold to railway companies or simply fell into disuse. By 1945, although there were surviving inland waterways across Britain – such as the Manchester Ship Canal – there was often little or no investment in them, and most canals were small by continental standards.

Though passenger boats first appeared on Britain’s canals as far back as the 19th century – and the first significant canal boat hire company opened for business in Chester in the 1930s – it wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that the public started using canals for recreation in any great numbers.

So why did Britons suddenly fall in love with the idea of spending their leisure time on a waterway? "The answer," says Joseph Boughey, "lies partly with a book, published in December 1944 as the Second World War was ending, which opened people's eyes to the hidden, and rapidly disappearing world of life on Britain's canals. In his book, Narrow Boat, LTC Rolt wrote extensively of his experiences living on a converted narrowboat, Cressy, and unintentionally renewed public interest in Britain's then somewhat neglected canal systems."

Narrow Boat triggered a campaign, headed by the Inland Waterways Association (formed in 1946), to arrest the decline of Britain's canals and to encourage their further development. This was a rare occurrence in an era when pressure groups were far from commonplace.

In 1945, many canals remained under government wartime control. They were then nationalised as part of the British Transport Commission, which believed that most of Britain’s inland waterways had a limited future. The Inland Waterways Association disagreed, stating that the traditional way of life on the waterways should remain. It proposed further freight development, and declared that canals’ potential as a leisure source be exploited as a way of keeping the waterways thriving.

“A lack of investment had reduced traffic on Britain’s waterways,” says Boughey, “and waterways owners before nationalisation in 1948 did not see it as their role to develop canals for heritage and leisure purposes.

“Canals, they believed, were solely there for freight purposes. Worse still, some of the nationalised waterways were already closed. The future of Britain’s inland waterways hung in the balance for about 25 years after the end of the Second World War.”

Many people were still unconvinced of the value of an inland waterway leisure industry – the 1958 British Waterways’ staff magazine stated that the development of pleasure boating “will not mean greatly increased earning in the kitty and our main efforts must always be directed towards getting commercial traffic”. Nevertheless, interest in canal holidays increased during the 1950s, and in 1968, a Transport Act gave the first official recognition to the recreational value of waterways with a new remit for British Waterways to develop their leisure potential.

As the revival increased in speed, so too did the choices for those opting to holiday on the canals. By the mid-1950s, the one canal boat hire firm available in 1945 had multiplied to at least ten similar companies. The addition of creature comforts and waterside facilities only increased their popularity.

“Boating in the 1940s and 1950s was a relatively primitive experience,” says Boughey. “Boats were often much smaller, about 20 to 25 feet long, and usually built of timber.

“There was virtually no canalside leisure industry, even for basic amenities such as lavatories. Many of the boats had a tendency to leak – both through the roof and through the floor – so boating was rather like camping on water. The revival of waterways for the leisure industry during the 1950s changed the experience for the better.”

Attitudes towards Britain’s canals underwent a major change during the second half of the 20th century, but even with the revival of the waterways for leisure purposes, many remained abandoned and derelict. Those that stayed open, says Boughey, often did so purely because in many cases it was too difficult and expensive to dispose of them. According to British Waterways, despite the best efforts of campaigners and volunteers, by the end of the 1960s, Britain’s canal network had shrunk by 1,500 miles from its peak of over 4,000 miles.

Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Joseph Boughey, an honorary research associate at the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History.

Britain's canals: 9 places to explore


National Waterways Museum (Ellesmere Port, Cheshire)

Where a group of enthusiasts created a major visitor attraction

In 1945 there was no museum provision for, or interest in, waterways from a heritage perspective. As such, many historic boats would not have survived if it hadn’t been for the birth, in 1976, of the North West Museum of Inland Navigation – later the National Waterways Museum – at the canal docks at Ellesmere Port.

Beginning as a small-scale, private project undertaken by a group of enthusiasts, the museum brought together early canal boats, traditional clothing, painted canalware and tools in an attempt to preserve the disappearing world of the waterways.

The museum is now a visitor attraction of the type that would have been inconceivable in 1945 when the history of Britain’s waterways was deemed of little or no importance. It has received substantial funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and is home to three major collections: the Inland Waterways Collection; the Historic Boat Collection; and the Waterways Archive.

The museum is housed on a seven-acre site, and previously formed part of a canal port still in use as late as the 1950s. In addition to perusing the collections, visitors can enjoy a walk round the museum’s locks, docks and warehouses and visit its forge, stables and workers’ cottages.

Visit nwm.org.uk


Welshpool (Powys)

Where volunteers took part in the Big Dig of 1969

The Montgomery Canal in Welshpool was originally constructed in three sections over a period of 30 years. The first part opened in 1796, and linked the limestone quarries of Llanymynech with the Ellesmere Canal in Shropshire.

Officially abandoned in 1944, the waterway became unnavigable after a number of new road crossings were built over the canal, leaving no headroom for boats to pass. However, when the canal was threatened by a new road scheme in 1969, a group of local residents and canal enthusiasts felt moved to take action. In what was known as the Montgomery Canal Big Dig, 300 of them joined forces over one weekend with the aim of cleaning out the canal and demonstrating that its appearance could be improved and its waters made navigable. They achieved all three aims and, by the end of the dig, a boat was floating down the canal – the first to do so since the 1940s.

The campaign to stop the new road scheme was successful and further restoration work on the canal continues to this day. The road crossings that had made the canal unnavigable through Welshpool have been replaced and boats can now travel along the waterway.

Visit www.canaljunction.com


Stalybridge (Greater Manchester)

Where a once destroyed canal now flows again

Affectionately named ‘Little Venice’ in recognition of the Huddersfield Narrow canal and river Tame, which run directly through the town, Stalybridge has seen a great transformation in its waterways since the 1940s.

The canal originally opened in 1811 after 17 years’ work but, like many other inland waterways, fell into disuse due to increasing competition from the railways. It eventually closed in 1944. Over the next 30 years, sections of the abandoned canal were filled in, its bridges lowered and the majority of its 74 locks dismantled or made safe. The filled-in waterway was built over and, at one time, a section at Stalybridge was home to a sports centre and a factory.

However, in 1981, volunteers from the Huddersfield Canal Society undertook a successful restoration of a half-mile section of the canal, and in 1985 Tameside, Oldham and Kirklees councils, the Huddersfield Canal Society and British Waterways joined forces with the aim of opening the canal to allow through navigation. By 1996, what was once dubbed ‘The Impossible Restoration’ was well under way and over 12 miles of the canal’s original 20-mile length had been renovated. The canal reopened in 2001, shortly after the restoration of the section through Stalybridge.

Visit www.stalybridge.org.uk


Sankey Navigation (St Helens, Merseyside)

Where England’s first modern canal was closed

Much of the Sankey Navigation opened in 1757; it was built for the purpose of transporting coal from Lancashire coalmines to growing chemical industrial centres in Cheshire and to Liverpool. Interestingly, the canal was designed for ‘Mersey Flats’, a type of local sailing boat whose masts necessitated opening swing bridges along the canal’s route.

As the railways overtook the inland waterways in the transportation of coal, the canal’s final cargo was raw sugar from Liverpool, which was carried to the Sankey Sugar Works at Earlestown. The sugar trade ceased in 1959 and the last navigable section of the canal closed in 1963. The canal soon fell into disrepair, with a drainage scheme removing an entire section. Swing bridges and locks were dismantled, making the canal unnavigable. To add salt to the wounds, domestic refuse was dumped in one section from 1975. The two locks into the river Mersey were restored in the early 1980s to form marinas for sea-going and estuary pleasure boats. However, the eventual aim is to fully restore England’s first modern canal and make it navigable once more.

Visit canalrivertrust.org.uk


Hawkesbury Junction (Coventry, West Midlands)

Where canal boat crews once gathered

Hawkesbury Junction, also named Sutton Stop after the family that provided several lock keepers in the 19th century, was once a major meeting point for working boats awaiting orders for their next cargo from the many coal pits in the area. The junction was formed by the meeting of the Coventry Canal and the Oxford Canal and was a central hub for narrowboats transporting coal to the London area. The lean-to at the rear of the junction’s pump house once housed an engine, installed in 1821, that was used to raise water into the canal from a stream flowing underneath.

Today, many of the junction's original buildings remain, including the Greyhound Inn and the Victorian iron bridge, built in 1837. Sutton Stop was celebrated in a book called A Canal People by Robert Longden, and is still seen by many as a window into the history of those who lived and worked on Britain's canal boats.

Visit www.canaljunction.com


Ribble Link (Preston, Lancashire)

Where the first new waterway constructed entirely for leisure was opened

Opened in July 2002, Ribble Link is the first example of a new waterway constructed entirely for leisure purposes, a feat that would have been deemed impossible in 1945 when the sole role of the waterways was freight transport.

The completed canal was the result of a long campaign to get both the land and permission to build the new waterway. However, once permission was secured, it took just three years to construct at a cost of around £6m. The link provides a connection between the main canal system and the Lancaster Canal, which until then had only been accessible by sea. The idea, however, was not new. The original plan had been to build the Lancaster Canal between south of Wigan to Kendal, through Preston, with an aqueduct over the Ribble, though this was never completed.

As the operation of the Ribble Link is determined by the tide and weather, it may be closed at certain points in the year and is not open for navigation in the winter months.

Visit www.ribblelink.co.uk


Benburb (County Tyrone, Northern Ireland)

Where the Ulster Canal now spans two countries

The 46-mile Ulster Canal, which opened in 1841, is unusual in that half of it runs through Northern Ireland, while the other is in the Republic of Ireland. It was originally designed to link the ports of Belfast and Coleraine with the river Shannon and onwards to Limerick or Dublin.

By 1860, the Ulster Canal had become virtually derelict. Due in part to a poor water supply, inappropriately sized locks and the arrival of rail and road transport, the canal was abandoned in 1931. With around 70 per cent of the original canal still in place, a major cross-border restoration scheme has begun. But, although work is under way in the Republic, costs have largely brought proceedings to a halt in Northern Ireland. Some work has, though, taken place at Benburb, which has seen its part of the canal dug out. There are plans to further restore this section in the future.

Visit www.discovernorthernireland.com


Falkirk Wheel (Falkirk, Scotland)

Where a magnificent feat of engineering reunited two canals

When engineers were given the task of reconnecting the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal, they were faced with one sizeable barrier: the fact that one of the canals (the Union) lay 115 feet above the other (the Forth and Clyde). Their solution to this lofty conundrum was the Falkirk Wheel, an ambitious £84.5m rotating boat lift that opened in 2002.

The wheel, which replaced a series of 11 locks that were closed in the 1930s, is one of only two in the UK (another type of boat lift can be found at Anderton in Cheshire) and is the only rotating boat lift of its kind in the world.

Visitors can experience the wheel for themselves on specially arranged boat rides and enjoy the 15-minute ascent from the basin to the Union Canal above.

Visit www.thefalkirkwheel.co.uk


The Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation (South Yorks and Lincolnshire)

Where a major waterway was developed for freight traffic

The Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation, which runs for 40 miles between Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and the river Trent, was once part of a major waterway enlargement scheme designed to encourage new traffic in coal, metals and aggregates. In 1983, the locks between the New Junction Canal and Rotherham were extended to around 230×29 feet to accommodate 700-tonne barges.

The project was beset with problems, including a long delay in getting finance for the work. However, the scheme is an excellent example of how, even as late as the 1980s, inland waterways were being developed for freight purposes.

Unfortunately, by the time the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation scheme was completed, the steel and coal industries were in decline. Despite this, the waterway did see some freight traffic, as it does today.


Visit www.penninewaterways.co.uk


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