Canals: The Making Of A Nation
August (repeated on BBC Four in September)
BBC ONE REGIONS We may now think of our canals as sleepy and slow, but it wasn’t always thus. In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when Britain’s network of man-made waterways was being built, the canals represented a new infrastructure. Canals were exciting and, between around 1790 and 1810, canal mania – a prelude to the speculative railway mania that followed in the 1840s – gripped the nation.
“In some cases, canals were built for very good economic reasons, with a proper business plan, and in other cases they were thrown together almost to make money just for the sake of having a canal rather than thinking about the sustainability of it in the long term,” says Liz McIvor, historian and presenter of Canals, which tells the story of these waterways in programmes that each focus on a particular region of the country.
Those routes that were financially viable transformed the country, and the most successful remained in use commercially through to the 1960s and 1970s. Not only did they speed up trade, but they acted as a catalyst for the Industrial Revolution.
And it wasn’t just raw materials and goods that were moved around by boat. Anyone tracing a family tree and finding forebears who relocated from one area to another during the canal era might want to consider the idea that their ancestors were navvies, the workmen who dug the canals. Or perhaps they were temporary “jobbing hands”, people who worked on the boats in exchange for passage. “People do that in mining areas,” explains McIvor. “They use canal boats and canal routes to navigate from one place of work to another.”
BBC Four is showing a major new documentary series on Britain’s canals