Joint meeting 20th November 2020


Speaker: Martin Buckland


A canal is defined as an artificial waterway which may join up rivers whilst rivers are natural waterways. Canals have locks and need to be able to climb hills such as The Cotswold Canal for example which climbs 106.68 metres. Canals were good at moving fragile goods such as pottery. A horse carrying about 2 cwt was slow and could break the product compared to a barge with a horse pulling 20 cwts in safety. Irrigation was the origin of the canals. Between about 520 and 510 BC the Persian Emperor, Darius I built a canal linking the Nile and the Red Sea and the Grand Canal in Venice built between 3rd Century BC and 13century AD is used for irrigation and transport.

The Pont du Gard the ancient and highest Roman aqueduct bridge  built in the first century AD to carry water over 50 km used only basic surveying equipment.

Britain’s canals were started by the Romans.

The Exeter Ship Canal which leads from the River Exe to Exeter Quay joining a river to the sea opened in 1566 and is one of the oldest artificial waterways in the UK. 

The Bridgewater Canal in North West England was commissioned by 3rd Duke of Bridgewater to transport coal from his mines in Worsley to Manchester. 

James Brindley designed and built the canal from 1759 to 1761 which has 47miles of tunnels within the mine.  Its advantages over land and river transport meant that within a year of its opening in 1761, the price of coal in Manchester fell by about half.

Interestingly today the distance of canals in the UK is actually greater than the distance of motorways. 

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a navigable and the highest canal aqueduct in the world carries the Llangollen Canal across the River Dee  in northeast Wales. A footpath runs alongside the watercourse on one side and is 38 m above the river. 

There were a number of horse drawn passenger packet boats on the canals but they didn’t last very long because the passengers did not find it comfortable or warm.

The Suez Canal was designed and constructed between 1859 and 1869 by Ferdinand de Lesseps.  Construction was easy with no locks and only sand to dig.

 The Panama Canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean today allows the biggest cruise ships through.  Lesseps given the task of constructing the canal with locks and very difficult terrain failed disastrously with thousands of Chinese workers dying. Eventually the USA took over the building to complete it.

On a working boat a family of four were expected to live in a space 6ft by 8 ft wide with a stove, cupboards, and child bunks etc.

Canal boats are traditionally decorated with roses and castles but nobody knows why.

Barges were built by well known companies such as Harland and Wolff at Woolwich.

Canals were built by hand by people called navvies, an abbreviation for navigator. They used a barrow carrying about ½ cubic yard of soil and rock and worked on piecework.

There used to be a steep ramp with a rope connecting the barrow to the top and pulled by a horse. The navvy emptied the barrow at the top and had 30seconds to fill and empty and be ready to start again and with no health and safety injuries were terrible.

Later steam driven diggers came on the scene.

Boatmen called a Number One owned their own boat, were self employed and relied on cargo but if no cargo then no income. The great freeze of 1947 caused the massive decline in the use of canals.

There was no National Health Service and the Education Act 1844 did not work for the boat people on the move but their parents were numerate having to calculate the costs to transport the goods

During the War the women had to take over the boats after only about two weeks training.

Canal restoration started about 1946. Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt was the founder of the Inland Waterways Association and campaigned for the restoration of canals for leisure and its subsidiary The Waterway Recovery Group are the volunteers who support waterway restoration across England and Wales.  They run week-long working holidays known as ‘canal camps’ as well as weekend visits to restoration projects through the regional groups. 

HRH Prince Charles is patron of Canal and River Trust and the HRH The Duchess of Cornwall is patron of the Wilts and Berks Canal Trust which has the aim of restoring all 72 miles of the canal.

Help comes from company team building, Help for Heros, school involvement and local government and rambler groups. 

It is true that canals had a plug in the bottom. When workers on the Chesterfield and Stockwith Canal found a chain during cleaning work they pulled it up and went to lunch. When they came back the water had drained away as there was a plug on the end of the chain.

Today some canals are still used for freight transport, Tesco use the Manchester Ship Canal to transport imported wine from Liverpool.

During questions it was noted that the Basingstoke Canal by helping to build the Great Western Railway hastened its demise as did the railways generally. 

Examples of the pumps used to pump water back from below a lock to the canal length above to save the water can be seen at the Crofton Beam Engine and the Kew Steam Engine Museum.

There are a number of books available about life on and as a canal boatman.

If you want to get involved with canal restoration then the contacts

are and

Report by Bryan Pledger

Picture of Vicki