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

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