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History of the Waterways

In the 18th Century in England people were realising that good transport links were vital to move raw materials to the factories and the products to consumers, including those in the expanding British Empire. More roads were being built and improved but they couldn’t easily handle heavy bulk materials like coal, or fragile materials like pottery. Commercial companies realised that one horse could pull fifty tons in a boat, and there were over a thousand miles of navigable rivers, but their potential was becoming exhausted, they didn’t go to the right places anymore.

Along came the wealthy third Duke of Bridgewater, fresh from his Grand Tour of Europe where he had seen the Canal Du Midi in France. The Duke owned coal mines at Worsley, North West of Manchester, a big city with an appetite for coal. The Duke made plans together with John Gilbert, one of his estate managers, and they brought in the engineer James Brindley (1716 - 1772) who had previously built a reputation working on mills, water wheels etc.

The Duke decided in 1759 to build a short canal to link his coal mines at Worsley with the River Irwell, a navigation which led to Manchester. He didn't actually link his Bridgewater Canal to the river but by-passed it, taking his coal directly to Manchester and also to Liverpool

Over the next fifty years, Rivers like the Mersey, Trent Severn and Thames were all linked by two thousand miles of canals. Huge industrial cities and regions like the Staffordshire Potteries were able to transport their goods via the canals which made these areas very wealthy.

There were two names that became synonymous with building canals, James Brindley and Thomas Telford. Telford was a civil engineer and although he did not invent suspension bridges, he is more famous for the Severn suspension bridge and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

In the fifties and sixties there was increased interest in leisure use of canals and the Inland Waterways Association was formed to promote their rescue. A number of derelict canals were reopened, including the South Stratford and Kennet and Avon, and restoration projects are now underway on others like the Rochdale and Huddersfield Narrow Canal that have been closed for over fifty years. Volunteers, including those with the Waterways Recovery Group have been centrally involved in reconstruction work on a number of closed canals. Most commercial traffic is now on just a few navigations, like the River Weaver and the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation. The rest of the system is used by private pleasure boats, hire (rental) cruisers, hotel boats and day trip boats. There are more boats on British canals now than there ever were during its commercial heyday!

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