DON’T BLAME THE TRAINS..
If you thought the railways shunted the canals into history, you might want to think again about what really brought an end to the canals’ working life
Did the railways really kill the canals? Well, yes and no and here’s why
‘We shall do well enough if we can keep clear of those damn’d tramroads.’ Those were the views of the Duke of Bridgewater who famously promoted a canal from his mines at Worsley into Manchester in 1760.
The railed tracks of the tramroads, or tramways, had connected mines and other industrial complexes in many parts of Britain to the navigable waterways and throughout the 18th Century had depended on horses to haul the trucks.
But it was on one of these tramways in 1804, linking Samuel Homfray’s iron works at Merthyr Tydfil to the Glamorgan Canal that the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick gave the first public demonstration of a steam locomotive.
The engine itself was a success, but it broke the brittle cast iron rails and it was not until 1812 that the world’s first commercial steam railway went into operation, taking coal from Middleton Colliery to barges on the Aire & Calder. It still seemed at this stage that railways, far from being a threat to canals, were useful additions.
Thomas Telford even went so far as to declare that the only possible use for railways was to feed goods to navigable waterways.
This was what the early railways mainly did: even the famous Stockton & Darlington Railway of 1825 was mainly seen as linking collieries to rivers, and although it ran a passenger service, this consisted of nothing more advanced than an old-fashioned stagecoach fitted with flanged iron wheels and pulled by horses not by a locomotive.
Everything changed with the arrival of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830, a scheme that had been bitterly opposed by the local river navigations and the Bridgewater Canal Company. This was an intercity line, carrying both freight and passengers, drawn by a new generation of fast, powerful locomotives, based on the new design developed by Robert Stephenson for the pioneering locomotive Rocket.
It was followed by an enthusiastic promotion of other lines right across Britain, and this time there was no escaping the fact that this was a real threat to the canal world. The trade that was hardest hit by railway competition was that of the flyboats.
Among the new lines promoted were ones linking Birmingham to Manchester and south from Birmingham to London.
One company that had a thriving trade carrying between London and the north west was Pickford’s, who owned an extensive fleet of narrow boats, which they worked as flyboats, travelling night and day and managing an average speed for the whole journey between London and Manchester of two miles per hour, which was considered remarkable, considering this included time spent in
working locks, and changing crews and horses.
But two miles an hour was pathetically slow compared with the new railway locomotives, which were not only far faster – Rocket had managed over 30mph on its first trials – but the powerful engines could also haul far greater loads in their string of trucks. Pickford’s began reducing their canal trade. By 1847 they had abandoned the canals forever and sold off the last of their boats. But at least others were prepared to buy them. The canals were by no means defeated: they just had to find ways of competing with the new rival.
Before the arrival of the railways, canal carriers mostly operated much as road hauliers had done for centuries. Boat crews set out on their journeys, left their cargoes and, with luck, received a new cargo for the return journey. They then went home to their wives and families.
Now the carriers needed to find a way of cutting costs. The prices paid for boats and horses were fixed and so was the price of food for the animals. There was only one item that could be cut and enable them to make a profit: the wages of the crew. This was just as true of the Number Ones, who owned just one boat and a horse to pull it as it was of large companies.
Yet the boatmen still had to earn a living as well. The solution was to give up the life on land and make a permanent home on the boats. They no longer had to pay rent for a home and, more importantly, there was now a full crew available in the shape of the family. Wives were no longer housewives: they would have to become boatwomen, and the children too would be expected to help out as soon as they were big and strong enough.
There was, of course, an immediate problem: nothing could be done to increase the size of the boat, which was determined by the size of locks on the canal for which it was built. The narrow canals that formed the heartland of the English canal system could only accommodate boats that were approximately 70ft long and seven wide, and most of the space was taken up with
the cargo hold. That left, as you probably know, only the back cabin into which the whole family had to be squeezed.
All the family’s goods had to be stored away, and cupboards were fitted with drop- down fronts that could serve as bed or table, and a stove that was used for both heating and cooking. All in all, it was a miracle of organisation.
The census returns for 1841 list just 379 boat women living on board, but by 1851 that had shot up to 2,503. The trouble here is that it is not at all clear how ‘boat women’ were counted at either time – and the figure of over 2,000 never appears again in any 19th century census return. But it does seem to be clear that the railways brought profound changes that affected entire families.
It was a hard life. Nell Cartwright, interviewed by Mike Lucas of Mikron Theatre many years ago, looked back on her hard life. “I have loaded and emptied 25 tons of corned beef, I have emptied 31 tons of spelter, I have done 25 tons of timber – to me work was nothing.” In spite of it all, she loved the life, working a horse boat. “I mean you look along the boat as it was going and you see that horse just walking along that road and the hedges and trees and everything going by. No one could ask for better than that.”
The effect of railway competition on individual companies varied enormously. During the Canal Mania years that began in the 1790s there was a rush of canal construction, with very little thought as to whether or not there would ever be enough traffic to justify the expense.
The Oakham Canal was promoted as an extension of the Melton Mowbray Navigation in 1791 and by 1800 only ten miles had been completed and a fresh Act had to be obtained in 1800 to complete the work. It passed through an almost entirely rural region with very little in the way of cargo to justify its existence. The shareholders must have despaired of ever seeing a return on their investment. Then along came the Midland Railway. The canal lay along just the line they wanted for their new track, so they offered to buy up the old waterway. The shareholders were delighted: it was their one chance to get their money back and the Oakham Canal disappeared from the map.
In other cases, railway companies bought up canals wholesale, mainly in order to be able to control any possible competition. The Great Western Railway acquired a whole swathe of waterways. My copy of the Canal Bradshaw for 1908 lists them as: the Kennet & Avon, the Stratford on Avon, the Stourbridge extension, the Bridgwater & Taunton, the Grand Western, the Stover, the Brecon & Abegavenny, the Monmouthshire and the Swansea, including the Trewyddfa Canal.
By law they were required, in most cases, to keep them open, but one is reminded of the old saying of the medical profession: “Thou shalt not kill, but needst strive, officiously to keep alive”.
Many were allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that trade became more or less impossible. Some of those GWR-owned canals disappeared forever: others have been brought back to life to serve the canals as we now know them today.
A similar story can be told of other canals bought up by major railway companies. But it was not railway competition that finally brought commercial traffic to an end on the vast majority of Britain’s waterways.
They were still able to offer cheap, if slow, transport and in the latter part of the 19th Century, many companies fought back with innovations, such as the train of coal barges hauled by tugs on the Aire & Calder, known popularly as Tom Puddings.
The end came with the availability of door-to- door deliveries offered by trucks and lorries in the 20th Century. The coming of the railways had a profound effect on Britain’s canals, but they survived the competition for 100 years.
‘You look along the boat and see that horse just walking along that road and the hedges and trees and everything going by. No one could ask for better than that”
Boatwomen unload coal from a narrow boat in Oxford
Roses & Castles to make life more homely
Coal is heaped high and transported in Tom Puddings
Boat children at Chirk
Side by side on the Grand Junction Canal