Canals: The Mak­ing Of A Na­tion

Au­gust (re­peated on BBC Four in Septem­ber)

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - TV & RADIO -

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

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