Chapter I.

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Until well into the 19th century the best speed at which a traveller could progress from one town to another was that of a galloping horse, assuming of course that the highway was fit to gallop over, which was not always the case.

The Romans thoroughly understood the value of good roads, but for centuries after their departure their successors did not.  It was not until the end of the 17th century and the creation of the first ‘turnpike trusts’ that some effort was made to improve the quality of main roads by turning road construction and maintenance into a business.[1]  Trusts were authorised to raise loans for road repairs and erect tollhouses for the collection of tolls from road users other than pedestrians.  Although turnpikes resulted in some improvement, the problem of how to construct a sound road remained until the end of the 18th century when the civil engineer John Metcalf constructed roads having firm foundations and good drainage, drainage being achieved using a smooth convex surface (camber) that allowed rainwater to run off into roadside drains.  Metcalf’s work was developed by Thomas Telford and by John Loudon McAdam, who appreciated the importance of a hard, watertight (‘macadamised’) road surface.  However, the construction of good main roads made slow progress ― even turnpike roads often had poor reputations ― with most continuing to be maintained by the parish until the Local Government Act of 1888 transferred this responsibility to county and county borough councils.

The Flying Wagon.

Many records exist of travellers through pre-industrial Britain complaining bitterly about the appalling condition of our highways.  This is what seasoned traveller Arthur Young (1741-1820) had to say about the state of a road in Lancashire over which he was obliged to pass . . . .

“I know not, in the whole range of language, terms sufficiently expressive to describe this infernal road.  Let me most seriously caution all travellers who may accidentally propose to travel this terrible country, to avoid it as they would the devil; for a thousand to one they break their necks or their limbs by overthrows or breakings down.  They will meet with ruts, which I actually measured, four feet deep, and floating with mud, only from a wet summer; what, therefore, must it be after winter?”

Rather than being uncommon, Young’s experience was typical.  Britain’s roads were sometimes impassable in summer and often so in winter.  That doyen of Victorian biographers, Samuel Smiles, in his biography on the civil engineer Thomas Telford, related another unfortunate traveller’s experience . . . .

“As late as 1736 we find Lord Hervey, writing from Kensington, complaining that ‘the road between this place and London is grown so infamously bad that we live here in the same solitude as we would do if cast on a rock in the middle of the ocean; and all the Londoners tell us that there is between them and us an impassable gulf of mud.’  Nor was the mud any respecter of persons; for we are informed that the carriage of Queen Caroline could not, in bad weather, be dragged from St. James's Palace to Kensington in less than two hours, and occasionally the royal coach stuck fast in a rut, or was even capsized in the mud.”

Such was the state of our roads for the traveller, but when goods were to be moved the problem in obtaining any passage, let alone a swift one ― other than by navigable river or the sea ― became even more difficult.  Transport of goods by wagon over distance was impractical due to the ploughed-up and often water-logged condition of the highway, and thus packhorses were the norm.  Although limited in the load they could carry [2] and the speed at which they could travel, packhorse trains were heavily used in the transport of goods, even surviving in isolated areas until well into the 19th century.

A pack-horse convoy.




From the middle of the 18th century Britain entered a period of rapid technological and social change that continued for the next century.  Aptly named the ‘Industrial Revolution’, this era was to have a marked impact on almost every aspect of our lives and to a far greater extent than in any previous period in history.

The factors that led to the Industrial Revolution are complex, but they can be summed up as a rapid development and bringing together of new ideas, methods and machinery.  Amongst the latter were mechanical inventions for streamlining the manufacture of textiles, which were to lead to the factory system and the growth of our manufacturing towns and cities.  James Watt’s condensing steam engine was, quite literally, a driver for change, for it provided mines with effective pumping equipment, thereby allowing lower-level seams to be worked, and factories with a reliable source of power free from the vagaries of the mill stream or river.

The Industrial Revolution was to bring about major changes in agriculture, mining and manufacturing and with them a demand for the transport of raw materials and finished goods more quickly, cheaply and reliably than was possible over the highways and packhorse roads of the age.  The outcome was a further revolution ― in methods of transport.



Depiction of a flyboat.


Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736-1803),
canal promoter.

Canals marked a huge leap forward in both transport and civil engineering.  They became our first transport network, ending decisively the situation in which heavy materials in quantity, such as coal and iron, could only be moved inland for short distances, mainly along navigable rivers; and until the arrival of public railways, which soon captured the trade, canal ‘flyboats’ [3] also provided comparatively quick transit for high value goods and a comfortable journey for passengers, although passenger carrying on canals was never common.

Although theirs was not the earliest canal to be built in the British Isles, [4] much of the credit for the birth and execution of the idea must go to the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, [5] to his land agent and engineer, John Gilbert  (1724-95), who supervised much of the work, and to his canal engineer James Brindley (1716-72).  Between them they constructed a waterway whose commercial success was to give rise to our canal network.

The Duke’s father, Scroop Egerton (1st Duke of Bridgewater, 1681-1744), was involved in a scheme to use canals to transport coal from Lancashire into Manchester, but nothing came of it, possibly due to the difficulty of raising adequate finance.  As a young man, the 3rd Duke had seen and been impressed by the Canal du Midi in southern France. [6]  Knowing his father’s ideas on canals and seeing the French canal possibly spawned in his mind the idea of using canal navigation for his own purposes, but credit for the idea might equally rest with John Gilbert.

James Brindley (1716-72), canal engineer.

In 1759, the Duke obtained a private Act of Parliament to build a canal to convey coal from his mines at Worsley in Lancashire to Manchester, and he commissioned James Brindley as engineer.  Brindley, an accomplished millwright by trade, had previously made a preliminary survey for the Trent and Mersey Canal.  When he was appointed engineer to the Bridgewater Canal, construction was already underway.  Brindley immediately revised the route to Manchester, later extending the canal to the Mersey, which it entered through a long flight of locks at Runcorn.

The Bridgewater Canal opened in 1761.  Generally accepted as our first true canal, it was a startling success.  The improvement that it brought about in the conveyance of coal to Manchester halved its price.  However, the canal did not yield its full potential until the development of James Watt’s condensing steam-engine some years later and its widespread application to manufacturing, which rendered a cheap and abundant supply of coal vital to Manchester’s commercial success.  The advantage of canal-borne transport then became clear; the average packhorse could be loaded to ⅛ ton; a horse could haul a wagon loaded to ⅝ ton over an unmade road or, if on a macadamised surface (where they existed), 2 tons; but a horse could haul a canal barge loaded to 30 tons.

John Gilbert (1724-95), engineer
and land agent.

The success of the Bridgewater Canal proved the viability of canal transport and industrialists elsewhere became interested in canals as a means of improving transport communications and increasing their sales.  In Staffordshire, the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood saw in canals an opportunity to convey cargoes of clay to his factory doors and to transport his fragile finished goods to market, and he became a strong supporter of what became the Trent and Mersey Canal. [7]  During the 1790s, a period known as the ‘canal mania’ set in with huge sums being invested in canal building, sometimes by investors who saw an opportunity for earning high rates of return from canal tolls and sometimes by speculators intent on making a killing from the rapidly rising prices of canal shares.  Although many schemes came to nothing, between 1760 and 1829 [8] over 100 canals were built and the system expanded to over 4,000 miles in length.

Parliament did not, however, mandate constructional standards for canals.  The outcome was that canals varied in width and depth, their locks also varied in the size of the lock chamber, and other restrictions combined to prevent the canal system from operating as a true national network, unlike the railways that were to follow.  Despite this drawback, canals provided a great leap forward in transport communications.  In particular, cheap coal became widely available and inland coalfields expanded massively to supply the demand of heavy industries in inland areas, most notably the Potteries and the industrial Midlands.

He will be ever memorable among ‘those who were honoured
in their generations, and were the glory of their times.’

Impulit ille rates ubi duxit aratra colonus
[He sent barges across the fields the farmer formerly tilled]

The  Duke of Bridewater's tomb, church of
St Peter & St Paul,
Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire.




The Grand Junction Canal grew out of a need for a better waterway than that provided by the Oxford Canal and the Thames, to link the industrial Midlands with London, which besides being a considerable market in its own right was also one of our principal seaports.

Brindley’s ‘Grand Cross’, a system of canals linking
London, Liverpool, Bristol and Hull.

The Oxford Canal was designed by James Brindley as a constituent of his grand plan for a waterway ‘cross’ to link the rivers Thames, Mersey, Trent and Severn, and hence the ports of London, Liverpool, Hull and Bristol.  Its 78 miles extend from the outskirts of Coventry, via Rugby and Banbury to Oxford, where it connects with the River Thames.  Construction commenced in 1769, but shortage of funds hampered progress resulting in the canal being opened in stages.  Eventually completed in 1790 by James Barnes (a Banbury brewer who was to play an important role in future events), during the following fifteen years the Oxford Canal became one of the most important and profitable transport links in Britain, carrying much of the commercial traffic between London and the Midlands.  Cargoes of coal from the Coventry coalfields produced some two thirds of its revenue, but it also carried stone, agricultural products and other goods.

In common with other early canals, the Oxford Canal suffered the drawback of the limited civil engineering knowledge of its time.  Built originally to follow the contours of the land, this approach ― much favoured by Brindley ― avoided the need for expensive cuttings, embankments, aqueducts and tunnels.  The outcome was a meandering canal that provided many opportunities for building wharves along its length, but at the cost of increased distance; and with the Industrial Revolution's growing commercial pressures, increased distance meant increased time, and time cost money.  Having reached the Thames, there was then a lengthy journey between Oxford and the Metropolis along a river that was at times prone to difficult navigation through drought on the one hand and flooding on the other.  Thus, there arose a business case for a shorter more reliable route between the industrial Midlands and the marketplace of London:

“It was in the year 1792 that this undertaking first had its origin.  In the beginning of that year the Marquis of Buckingham instructed Mr. Barnes, the eminent engineer, to make a survey of the country between Braunston, in Northamptonshire, the place where the Oxford Canal has its junction with the present canal, and the Thames near London, in order to mark out a line of canal, whereby the circuitous course by the Thames Navigation from Oxford might be avoided, and the transit of goods to the metropolis accelerated.  Mr. Barnes's survey was laid before a public meeting at Stoney-Stratford, in June of the above year, when his plan was approved, and a committee formed for carrying on the scheme.”

Navigable Rivers, Canals and Railways of Great Britain: Joseph Priestley (1831)

In fact the route was surveyed twice.  The first was that undertaken by Barnes, but the better-established canal engineer William Jessop was then asked to resurvey the route chosen by Barnes; he found little to change.  The outcome was a Bill for the Grand Junction Canal, which passed Parliament on 30th April 1793.  William Jessop was appointed Engineer-in-Chief and Barnes Resident Engineer.  In practice this meant that Jessop’s role was that of formulating or approving plans, giving advice and exercising oversight, while Barnes and his assistants managed the day-to-day construction.

Much of the new canal was opened by 1800, but excavating the long Blisworth Tunnel (3,076 yards) met with severe engineering difficulties resulting in the section from Blisworth to Stoke Bruerne remaining unfinished until 1805.

When complete, the Grand Junction Canal shortened the earlier route between London and the Midlands by some 60 miles and not being prone to the vagaries of the Thames, it also provided a more reliable waterway.  As a result the new canal thrived: in 1810 it carried 343,560 tons of goods through London, with roughly equal amounts into and out of the capital.



While the canal network was extending its tentacles through industrial Britain, a new generation of transport communication was being conceived that would quickly overtake the canals as Victorian Britain’s principal mode of transport.


A horse-operated plateway.  Built by Benjamin Outram, this 5-mile long line carried coal from Denby Hall Colliery to the Derby Canal.
It operated between 1795 and 1908.

Industrial tramways had been in use for many years preceding the building of Brindley’s first canals.  They probably grew out of the realisation that a horse could draw a far greater weight of merchandise over a smooth and level track built of wooden planks laid in parallel, end-to-end:

“The use of wooden rails gradually extended, and they were laid down between most of the collieries on the Tyne and the places at which the coal was shipped.  Roger North, in 1676, found the practice had become extensively adopted, and he speaks of the large sums then paid for way-leave - that is, the permission granted by the owners of lands lying between the coal-pits and the river-side to lay down a tram-way for the purpose of connecting the one with the other.

A century later, Arthur Young observed that not only had these roads become greatly multiplied, but formidable works had been constructed to carry them along upon the same level.  ‘The coal wagon-roads from the pits to the water,’ he says, ‘are great works, carried over all sorts of inequalities of ground, so far as the distance of nine or ten miles.  The tracks of the wheels are marked with pieces of wood let into the road for the wheels of the wagons to run on, by which one horse is enabled to draw, and that with ease, fifty or sixty bushels of coals.’ . . . . In these rude wooden tracks we find the germ of the modern railroad.”

The Life of George Stephenson, Samuel Smiles (1857)


Early iron plate railway line.

It was next discovered that this crude form of track would wear better if reinforced with iron plates, from which it was a simple transition, as manufacturing methods improved, to construct a track entirely of iron plate, usually ‘L’-shaped, which would contain the wagon wheels with the additional advantage that the wagons could also be used on ordinary roads.  However, plates were prone to break, and so emerged the forerunners of the strong ‘edge rails’, requiring flanged wheels, that are used on our railways today.  Again, Samuel Smiles . . . .

“In 1789, Mr. William Jessop constructed a railway at Loughborough, in Leicestershire, and there introduced the cast-iron edge-rail, with flanges cast upon the tire of the wagon-wheels to keep them on the track, instead of having the margin or flange cast upon the rail itself; and this plan was shortly after adopted in other places. In 1800, Mr. Benjamin Outram, of Little Eaton, Derbyshire, used stone props instead of timber for supporting the ends or joinings of the rails. Thus the use of railroads, in various forms, gradually extended, until they became generally adopted in the mining districts.”

In common with the first canals, tramways were mainly constructed by mine and quarry owners to convey their goods to wharfs for shipment by water.  The fact that they were built for horse-drawn wagons and dimensioned accordingly, is thought to be behind the modern 4 ft 8½" ‘standard gauge’.

This was the stage that railways had reached when the next important development took place, attempts to replace the motive power provided by a horse or mule with the steam engine.




By the close of the 18th century, Watt’s steam engines had achieved such a degree of mechanical sophistication that they had become the indispensible workhorses of our growing industrial economy. [9]  But Watt had never shown any interest in applying his inventions to transportation, perhaps realising that the form in which he had developed the steam engine precluded it.  Because of the danger of exploding boilers, which were then in a primitive stage of development, and ongoing problems with steam leaks, he shied away from the use of high pressure steam.  Instead, his engines used steam near to atmospheric pressure, which meant they needed large diameter pistons to produce the required thrust supplemented by a condenser ― itself quite massive ― to create a vacuum on the low pressure side of the piston.  This made such engines unsuitable for anything but marine use, where size and weight were of less importance than in a road or rail vehicle.

By comparison, a high-pressure steam engine derives substantial thrust directly from the pressure of steam in the boiler, thereby enabling smaller diameter pistons to deliver the same thrust as in a Watt engine of comparable power.  This results in a smaller and lighter engine.  Furthermore, as most of the pressure difference that drives the piston is provided by the high boiler pressure, the low-pressure side of the piston may be left at atmospheric pressure ― in other words, the condenser needed to generate a vacuum in a Watt engine may be dispensed with.

The Cornish mining engineer and inventor, Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), is credited with the first use of high-pressure steam and its application to railway use.  The world’s first steam-hauled railway journey took place on 21st February 1804, when Trevithick’s steam locomotive hauled a train comprising 10 tons of iron, five wagons and 70 men a distance of 9¾ miles at an average speed of about 2½ mph along the tramway of the Penydarren Ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil.  But Trevithick’s locomotive was too heavy for the tramway, damaging its cast iron plates, and no further use was made of it for that purpose. [10]

A reconstruction of Trevithick’s locomotive ― Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

A locomotive to a design by Trevithick was later built at the Wylam Colliery at Newcastle.  Although it also proved too heavy for the colliery’s wooden track, it did inspire others to build locomotives of their own design.  Among them was George Stephenson, a self-taught and accomplished mechanical engineer who, in 1814, built his first railway locomotive.  Not only did he go on to improve the design of the steam locomotive and of the iron rails on which they ran, but he also became an accomplished civil engineer.

The ‘Railway Mania’, 1845.
Deposits of railway plans with the Board of Trade. There had
been a similar period of ‘Canal Mania’ during the early 1790s.

In 1822, Stephenson built his first railway, an eight-mile line between Hetton Colliery and a landing stage on the River Wear at Sunderland.  It was also the first railway designed to be operated by mechanical means, partly by cable-haulage using stationary steam engines and partly by steam locomotives.  However, it was the railways that followed for which George Stephenson is best known; the 26 mile Stockton & Darlington Railway, opened in 1825, introduced the concept of a public railway for the transport of passengers and goods, and the use of steam locomotives; the 35 mile Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened five years later was the world’s first purpose-built steam railway.

The Stockton & Darlington and the Liverpool & Manchester railways were a great success.  During the 1830s and especially the 1840s, a period known as the ‘Railway Mania’, many public railways were built, among them the London & Birmingham Railway.  By 1838 ― the year in which the London & Birmingham Railway was completed ― Nicholas Wood was able to state, with confidence, that the rapid strides then being made in railway engineering would soon render our quiescent canals, obsolete:

“Canals ever since their adoption have undergone little or no change; some trivial improvements may have been effected in the manner of passing boats from one level to another and light boats have been applied for the conveyance of passengers; but in their general economy, they may be said to have remained stationary.  Their nature almost prohibits the application of mechanical power, to advantage in the conveyance of goods and passengers upon them; and they have not therefore partaken of the benefits which other arts have derived from mechanical science.

The reverse of this is the case with railroads; their nature admits of the almost unrestricted application of mechanical power upon them and their utility has been correspondingly increased.  No wonder, then, that canals, which at one time were unquestionably superior to railroads, in general economy, by remaining in a state of quiescence, should at some period or other be surpassed by the latter, which have been daily and progressively improving, and that time has arrived.”

A Practical Treatise on Rail-roads, and Interior Communication in General. Nicholas Wood (1838)

This period marked the zenith of the canal network, with about 4,000 miles of canals in operation.  From then on, the railways gradually won over the canal’s trade, for not only could they carry more but could do so quicker than the walking pace of a horse-drawn canal boat.  They were also less affected by the adversities of the weather in the form of icing and drought.  In order to compete, canal companies were forced to make substantial reductions to their rates of toll.  But revenues and dividends fell, and many sold out to a competing railway, which, having acquired their business, then let the waterway fall into disrepair ― such was the fate of the Kennet & Avon Canal following the opening of the Great Western Railway in 1841.  Other once important canals, such as the Thames & Severn and the Wilts & Berks, fell gradually into dereliction and were filled in.

By the time of the 1968 Transport Act ― the first legislation to recognise its leisure potential ― the 4,000 mile network had shrunk to its nadir of some 1,400 miles of navigable waterways.  Commercial traffic had fallen to negligible levels, but leisure boating was by then on the increase and during the following decades canals gradually acquired a new purpose in life.  Today, some sections are busier during the summer months than they ever were in their industrial heyday.

The former London & Birmingham Railway station at Berkhamsted (1838).  The Grand Junction Canal is to the right.

The Grand Junction Canal shared the fortunes of the canal network in general.  Its trade was badly damaged by the railways, for although the tonnage it carried remained fairly buoyant for many years, it did not share in the greatly increased volume of freight carried by rail, while what it did carry was at greatly reduced rates.  In 1929 its owners amalgamated with other canals to form the Grand Union Canal Company, but the new company continued to experience mixed fortunes, its trade not being helped by WWII.  Whether nationalisation in 1948 was of benefit or not is a matter of conjecture; suffice it to say that the waterway survived into the age of leisure boating and a sustainable future.

[Chapter II.]




Each turnpike trust was created under its own Act of Parliament, as were the canals and railways that came later.


Depending on the size of animal, about 250 to 300 lbs (110 to 140 kgs) per horse in balanced panniers.


Narrowboats with covered seating for passengers, usually towed by two horses. They had right of way over other canal traffic and could also bypass queues at lock gates.  The term ass also applied to cargo-carrying narrow boats that operated an express service by travelling non-stop, day and night, to their destination.


Earlier canals were the Exeter Canal (1567), the Newry Canal (1741), and the Sankey Brook Navigation, later to become the St. Helens Canal (1757).


Francis, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736-1803), Scroop Egerton’s youngest son.


Opened in 1681, this 150-mile canal together with other waterways links the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. The continentals were far ahead of Britain in their development of inland waterways.


The Trent and Mersey Canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1766, its first sod being cut by Josiah Wedgwood in July that year at Middleport.


During the early 1790s, there was a dramatic rise in the number of schemes promoted, and this period has become known as that of ‘canal mania‘ (there was a similar speculative frenzy in railways shares during the 1840s).  The number of canals authorised by Act of Parliament in 1790 was one, in 1793 it was twenty.  The capital authorised in 1790 was £90,000 (£8.7 million as of 2012), but this had risen to £2,824,700 (£266 million as of 2012) by 1793.  After 1829 there was only one important canal Act, that authorising the Manchester Ship Canal (1884).


In 1800, following the expiry of Boulton & Watt’s patents, other engine-builders entered the field.


The locomotive finished its life as a stationary engine driving hammers.



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