Evidence suggests that the first British canals were built in Roman times, as irrigation canals or short connecting spurs between navigable rivers, such as the Foss Dyke in Lincolnshire. A spate of building projects in medieval times, such as castles, monasteries and churches, led to the improvement of rivers for the transportation of building materials. In the 16th century some natural waterways were ‘canalised’ or improved for boat traffic.
The transport system that existed before the canals were built consisted of either coastal shipping, or horses and carts struggling along mostly un-surfaced mud roads (although there were some surfaced Turnpike roads). There was also a small amount of traffic carried along navigable rivers. In the 17th century, as early industry started to grow, this transport situation was highly unsatisfactory. The restrictions of coastal shipping and river transport were obvious and horses and carts could only carry one or two tons of cargo at a time. The poor state of most of the roads meant that they often became unusable after heavy rain. Because of the small loads that could be carried, supply of essential commodities such as coal, and iron ore were limited, and this kept prices high and restricted economic growth.
The modern canal system was mainly a product of the 18th century and early 19th century. It came into being because the Industrial Revolution (which began in Britain during the mid-18th century) demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. By the early 18th century, river navigations were becoming quite sophisticated, to avoid circuitous or difficult stretches of river. Eventually, the experience of building long cuts with their own locks gave rise to the idea of building a “pure” canal, a waterway designed on the basis of where goods needed to go, not where a river happened to be.
In the 1760s the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, who owned a number of coal mines in northern England, wanted a reliable way to transport his coal to the nearby city of Manchester, which was rapidly industrialising. He commissioned the engineer James Brindley to build a canal for him. Brindley’s design included an aqueduct carrying the canal over the River Irwell – an engineering wonder which (when the canal opened) immediately attracted tourists. The construction of this canal was paid for entirely by the Duke, and was called the Bridgewater Canal. It opened in 1761.
The new canals proved highly successful. The boats on the canal were horse-drawn with a towpath alongside the canal for the horse to walk along. This horse-drawn system proved to be highly economical and became standard across the British canal network. Commercial horse-drawn canal boats could be seen on Britain’s canals until the 1950s (although by then steam and diesel powered boats had become more common).
The canal boats could carry 30 tons at a time with only one horse pulling – more than ten times the amount of cargo per horse that was possible with a cart. Because of this huge increase in supply, the Bridgewater canal reduced the price of coal in Manchester by nearly two-thirds within just a year of its opening. The Bridgewater was also a huge financial success, with it earning what had been spent on its construction within just a few years.
This success proved the viability of canal transport, and soon industrialists in many other parts of the country wanted canals. All of Britain’s canals were built in the same way as the Bridgewater canal – by an amalgamation of private individuals with an interest in improving communications. In Staffordshire, for instance, the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood saw an opportunity to bring bulky cargoes of clay to his factory doors, and to transport his fragile finished goods to market in Manchester, Birmingham or further afield by water, minimizing breakages. Within just a few years of the Bridgewater’s opening, an embryonic national canal network came into being.
The new canal system was both cause and effect of the rapid industrialization of the British Midlands and north. The period between the 1770s and the 1830s is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of British canals. During this period, huge sums were invested in canal building, and the canal system rapidly expanded to nearly 4000 miles (7000 kilometres) in length, and had no external competition.
The bulk of the canal system was built in the industrial Midlands and the north of England, where navigable rivers most needed extending and connecting, and heavy cargoes of manufactured goods, raw materials or coal most needed carrying. Relatively few canals were built in southern England or London, (the Grand Union Canal being an exception). The great manufacturing cities of Manchester and Birmingham were major economic drivers for the ‘canal mania’ which reached its peak in 1793, and both benefited from a network of canals, most of which survive.
On the majority of British canals the canal-owning companies did not own or run a fleet of boats. Instead they charged private operators tolls to use the canal. From these tolls they would try, with varying degrees of success, to maintain the canal and pay back initial loans. In winter special icebreaker boats with reinforced hulls would be used to break the ice.
A variety of boats were used on canals, including flyers that carried light cargo and passengers at relatively high speed day or night, and a variety of river craft. The workhorse of the canal system, however, was the traditional narrow boat. These were owned and operated by individual carriers, or by carrying companies who would pay the helmsman a wage depending on the distance travelled, and the amount of cargo.
From the 1830s, railways began to present a threat to canals, as they could not only carry more than the canals but could transport people and goods far more quickly than the walking pace of the canal boats. Most of the investment that had previously gone into canal building was diverted into railway building.
Canal companies were unable to compete against the speed of the new railways, and in order to survive they had to slash their prices. This put an end to the huge profits that canal companies had enjoyed before the coming of the railways, and also had an effect on the boatmen who faced a big drop in wages. With this drop in wages, the only way the boatmen could afford to keep their families was by taking their families with them on the boats. This became standard practice across the canal system, with in many cases families with several children living in tiny boat cabins, creating a huge community of boat people.
By the 1850s the railway system had become well established and the amount of cargo carried on the canals had fallen by nearly two-thirds, lost mostly to railway competition. In many cases struggling canal companies were bought out by railway companies. Sometimes this was a tactical move by railway companies to gain ground in their competitors’ territory, but sometimes canal companies were bought out to close them down and remove competition. Larger canal companies survived independently and were large enough to continue to make profits. The canals survived through the 19th century largely by occupying the niches in the transport market that the railways had missed, or by supplying local markets such as the coal-hungry factories and mills of the big cities.
The network then gradually declined. During the early 20th century, many minor canals were abandoned due to falling traffic. However the main network saw brief surges in use during the First and Second World Wars and still carried a substantial amount of freight until the early 1950s.
The canal system and most inland waterways were nationalised in 1948, along with the railways, under the British Transport Commission, whose subsidiary Docks and Inland Waterways Executive managed them into the 1950s. During the 1950s and 1960s freight transport on the canals declined rapidly in the face of mass road transport, and several more canals were abandoned during this period.
Under the Transport Act of 1962, the canals were transferred in 1963 to the British Waterways Board (BWB). . In the same year a remarkably harsh winter saw many boats frozen into their moorings, and unable to move for weeks at a time. This was one of the reasons given for the decision to formally cease commercial carrying on the canals. By this time the canal network had shrunk to just 2000 miles (3000 kilometres), half the size it was at its peak in the early 19th century.
Though commercial use of Britain’s canals declined after World War II, recreational use increased as people had more leisure time and disposable income. This led to the establishment of a group called the Inland Waterways Association, which has revived interest in Britain’s canals. In the past few decades, many hundreds of miles of abandoned canal have been restored, as British Waterways has come to see the economic and social potential of canalside development.
There has also been a movement to redevelop canals in inner city areas, such as Birmingham, Manchester, Salford and Sheffield, which have both numerous waterways and urban blight. In these cities, waterways redevelopment provides a focus for successful developments in Manchester, Salford Quays and Victoria Quays in Sheffield.
The Grand Union Canal
The Regent’s Canal, a part of the Grand Union Canal, is the one on which Battlebridge Basin stands.
At first, the Grand Junction Canal provided the main route to bring goods from the industries of the north and midlands to the capital. It was started in 1793.
The canal opened from Braunston to Weedon on 21st June 1796, and a few weeks later it was extended as far south as Blisworth, where a long tunnel was under construction. Blisworth Tunnel and an embankment at Wolverton were not finished until March and August 1805 when the Grand Junction was opened as a through route for the first time. In the meantime goods had to bypass Blisworth Tunnel on a temporary railway, and at Wolverton a diversion via the river Ouse was required.
The initial plan was to link Braunston in Northamptonshire (where there were other canal connections to Birmingham and the north) with the river Thames at Brentford. This would have served central London only via the river – a long way around. In 1794, long before the main line was complete, the company had the idea of a branch or “arm” from Bull’s Bridge in west London to Paddington, which was much closer to the heart of the capital and was served by the “New Road” connecting it with the City. The Paddington Arm opened on 10th July 1801, and was a rapid success. Paddington was soon a busy inland transhipment point, with goods being carried on to other parts of London on carts.
The Grand Junction was a busy route throughout its commercial life, although the struggle of competition with the railways was a constant problem from the mid 19th Century onwards. In the 1920’s discussions took place between the Grand Junction, Regent’s and Warwick Canal companies with a view to a merger. This took place on 1st January 1929. The Regent’s Canal Company bought the other two companies.
In the 1930’s the new company, now called the Grand Union Canal Company, worked hard to modernise both the canal and the boats operating on it. Locks were extensively rebuilt to take wide beamed barges, particularly on the Warwick Canal which had previously been for narrowboats only. There was financial support from the government for this work, which helped to relieve unemployment in the great depression of the 1930’s.
The name of Battlebridge for the area immediately to the north-east of King’s Cross Station is said to originate from the fact that it is the place where Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni tribe had a pitched battle with the Roman invaders almost two thousand years ago – an idea which can never be proved, one way or the other!
Until the late 18th century, the area was still open countryside to the north of the city, not yet swallowed up by the outward sprawl of London as it expanded. It became known as King’s Cross, after a short-lived statue of George IV was placed at a road junction early in the 19th century. The area began to be filled with houses and rubbish heaps, where waste from many of the breweries and ash from the city’s domestic fires were dumped.
The Regent’s Canal was built to link the Grand Junction Canal’s Paddington Arm, with the Thames at Limehouse. The Regent’s Canal Act was passed in 1812 and the company was formed to build and operate it. James Morgan, was appointed as the canal’s Engineer. It was opened in two stages, from Paddington to Camden in 1816, and the rest of the canal in 1820. Although the canal was intended to link the Thames with the Midlands, local transport became much more important, particularly in carrying coal: in 1835 one-fifth of all coal imported into London entered the canal, mostly for local use. Building materials also formed much of the tonnage, which more than doubled between 1823 and 1832. The growing trade also attracted building along the canal. Battlebridge (known then as Horsfall basin), near York Way, was opened in 1825, with warehouses, depots, and businesses nearby. After the opening of the London & Birmingham Railway in 1838, transhipment helped to maintain the tonnage carried by water, particularly coal for the gasworks and timber. Commercial craft belonged only to private carriers after 1963, when the canal and basin passed to the British Waterways Board.
From its urban development in the early 19th century, until recently, the area was one of relatively low status housing, and industrial development, lapsing at times into having a reputation for drug dealing and prostitution. The arrival of the permanent Channel Tunnel rail link at St Pancras station in the summer of 2007 has acted as an engine for regeneration in the area, and there is a great deal of property development going on. Many of the old buildings around the basin have already been converted into flats and offices, and there is a large new building being constructed at one corner, called King’s Place. When it is completed in 2008, it will contain the offices of Guardian Newspapers, a concert hall, a sculpture gallery, and homes for two orchestras.