Barging into the picture: The story of our canals

Liz McIvor, who presents a new TV series about the history of England's canals.
Liz McIvor, who presents a new TV series about the history of England's canals.
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They were the backbone of the Industrial Revolution and today are enjoyed by thousands of tourists. Chris Bond speaks to historian Liz McIvor about the story of our canals.

THERE is something inherently soothing and seductive about pootling along a canal.

A few weeks back myself and a group of friends spent a very pleasant afternoon wending our merry way from Skipton to Kildwick. This is a particularly scenic stretch of the Leeds Liverpool Canal that takes you past gently undulating fields and woodland glades where you’re likely to catch a glimpse of wild rabbits, or the occasional heron posing nonchalantly on a fence post.

It’s the kind of bucolic scene familiar to those who regularly travel along England’s network of canals and one that you might assume has changed little over the past 200 years. But while today our canals are popular for pleasure cruises and with boating enthusiasts eager escape from the stresses and strains of modern life, back in their pomp during the 19th century they were anything but the tranquil waterways we recognise now.

There has been a dramatic resurgence of interest in our canals in recent decades and yet 70 years ago the idea of a canal holiday in this country would have been almost unthinkable. These were our forgotten backwaters, relics of a bygone industrial era that had long since become obsolete.

The story of these waterways is the subject of a new BBC 4 TV series, Canals: The Making of a Nation. The six-part series, which starts tonight, examines how our canals not only transformed the landscape but also the lives of those who lived in our towns and cities.

Liz McIvor, curator of social history and technology at Bradford Museums and Galleries, presents the series and has written an accompanying book. “The canals have been covered by television programmes before, which have lately tended to focus on them as pleasureways,” she says. “This is how most of us know and love them today, but not so long ago they were used for the opposite of leisure and were not the rural idyll they now seem.”

The canals were the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution that saw Britain become the world’s economic powerhouse during the 19th Century, and the TV series charts this transformation and the subsequent fall and rebirth of our waterways.

“They were a crucial part of the infra-structure that linked our towns and cities and completely changed our landscape. There wouldn’t have been an Industrial Revolution without the canals.”

It’s a very modern tale, one that is full of wealthy industrialists, greedy investors and cheap labour as people jumped on the bandwagon in their desire to get rich.

Liz also looks at some of the key figures who helped mastermind the creation of Britain’s man-made waterways. People like James Brindley, who was barely literate but proved to be a skilled engineer, and John Rennie, the man behind the largest flight of locks in the country.

She also examines the crucial, yet unsung, role played by the scores of navvies – the social outcasts whose backbreaking work carved the waterways out of rock and soil, and without whom the canals wouldn’t have existed.

Liz points out that the canals we know today are a world away from the working waterways of the 19th Century. “They were crowded, dirty and dangerous, you had people charging tolls and stealing goods. Two hundred years ago the canals were used in a completely different way. People would never have been allowed to walk their dogs or cycle along the towpaths.”

In the first programme, Liz examines the mammoth engineering feat involved in creating what became the Leeds Liverpool Canal. This was, sometimes quite literally, an uphill challenge.

“If you proposed that now people would say it was lunacy and that it would cost far too much. The idea of blasting tunnels through solid rock seemed like madness and yet they did it using picks, shovels and gunpowder. They didn’t have modern equipment, there was no radar or geo-mapping, it was a slow, laborious process.”

It was also a potentially lethal one. Fifty people were killed during the construction of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal alone - more than two lives for every mile.

Despite the heavy number of casualties, they had a huge impact. “The canals changed our landscape completely. They were the veins and arteries that connected towns and cities like Leeds, Huddersfield and Wakefield.”

They weren’t just crucial commerce routes. “People who were looking for work in North Yorkshire could travel to places like Doncaster and Sheffield on the canal and would work their passage.”

But not everyone welcomed the arrival of the canals, with some aristocrats regarding them as an expensive engineering folly. “The landed gentry and country gentlemen weren’t so keen because they didn’t want their position usurped by these underlings as they saw them, and they didn’t want these dirty and smelly canals cutting through or near their land.”

The factory owners, merchants and shopkeepers who were benefitting from more trade, were, not surprisingly, in favour of them.

However, if the 19th century saw canals reach their peak, the following century witnessed their slow demise. “It was a gradual decline as they were slowly superseded by the railways, but the final nail in their coffin was the development of the roads and the motorways,” says Liz.

Just as the canals had transformed the landscape so they, too, found themselves overtaken by technology and by the end of the Second World War many were in a state of disrepair.

But over the past 50 years they have slowly been revived to the point where they’re enjoying a boom. “People probably think that a canal is a canal. But while they broadly look the same one of the pleasing things I’ve found is that they retain their own unique identities and it’s been lovely to discover that.”

Not only are our canals being used again but with our road network struggling to cope with the volume of traffic and our railways stretched, there has even been talk in recent years of creating new waterways to move freight around to help reduce congestion on the roads.

Liz points out that it isn’t as far fetched as it might sound. “When they talked about building a canal from Leeds to Liverpool some people said it was a pipedream and would never happen and it did. Sometimes, what seems ridiculous turns out to be quite practical.”

Canals: The Making of a Nation, BBC 4, Tuesdays at 8pm. The accompanying book, Canals: The Making of a Nation - A journey into the heart of industrial Britain, published by BBC Books, is out now priced £14.99.