Welcome Bridge Map Places to Visit Canal Topics

The First Transport Revolution

Can you imagine what it was like to travel before the invention of ‘planes, trains and automobiles?  When roads were nothing more than dirt tracks and only the very brave travelled far from home.  Charles Dickens describes a journey taking place in November 1775 in Chapter 2 of A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the Dover road that lay, on a Friday night late in November, before the first of the persons with whom this history has business.

The Dover road lay, as to him, beyond the Dover mail, as it lumbered up Shooter's Hill.

He walked up the hill in the mire by the side of the mail, as the rest of the passengers did; not because they had the least relish for walking exercise, under the circumstances, but because the hill, and the harness, and the mud, and the mail were all so heavy, that the horses had three times already come to a stop, besides once drawing the coach across the road, with the mutinous intent of taking it back to Blackheath.

1775 RoadsDickens goes on to describe the other three passengers, as well as the guard, and the coach driver. There are just 6 people in all, and yet four horses cannot pull the coach up the hill with them in it.  Pulling things uphill is very hard work for the horses, especially when the ground is very muddy. Their hooves are slipping all over the place, and the metal rimmed coach wheels are being sucked into the mud. That is what roads were like in 1775! Look at this picture of a 1774 bridge. It’s overgrown with grass now, but imagine what it would be like with carts tearing up the grass. Then imagine it’s been raining a lot.  It’s no wonder the horses were mutinous!

All that changed when the canals were cut. In Mr Dickens’ story, the four horses pulling the Dover mail had problems getting up Shooter's Hill  with a 2 tonne coach.  But there are no hills or bumps on a canal; it’s as flat as the water in a lake. The towpath is flat and solid, and it drains quickly when it rains, so it isn’t very muddy and the horse is on a firm footing.  It’s so much easier for the horse that just one horse can pull a Leeds and Liverpool Canal barge with a cargo weighing over 50 tonnes. When the boat has to go up or down a hill, it goes into a lock and the water level is raised or lowered, with the boat floating on it. The Archimedes principle does the work, and the horse actually gets a rest!

The canals were very important in supercharging the industrial revolution.  Most people think of railways when they think of the industrial revolution, but railways need miles and miles of steel track. Where do you think all that steel track came from? Someone had to make it, and the raw materials had to be brought to one place for that to happen. They were carried by canals, of course.

Steel production is a two step process that needs three raw materials:

  • Iron ore - The ore is turned into pig iron, which is the main raw material of steel.
  • Lime - Used in iron production as a flux which promotes efficient heat distribution, and cleans the ore from the iron.
  • Coal - The fuel needed to melt the ore to produce pig iron, and to melt the pig iron during the steel making process. It is the source of carbon used in steel.

While all of these raw materials are available in the UK, it was only when the canals arrived that they could be brought together, anywhere, but especially the Black Country, in the huge quantities needed for the exponential industrial growth of Britain, and the rest of the world.

Of course, the industrial canal traffic has declined now, but the narrow strip of canal and its banks are teeming with with life. They are wildlife superhighways, bringing wildlife right into the heart of our towns and cities.

Newsflash! Canal brings raw materials together for manufacture... Supercharges Industrial Revolution in the Black Country

That’s not all. The canal  had a big local impact on villages and small towns right from the start. It doesn't just connect Liverpool and Leeds or Wigan, it connects all the villages and towns, large and small along its route, to each other and to Liverpool and its port. The idea wasn't just to move Wool from Leeds to Liverpool, or coal from Wigan to Liverpool, but to move all sorts of goods for short distances along the canal. For example, milk from dairy farms near Sefton was sent to Liverpool, and if you look carefully at the stones lining the canal at Gorsey Lane you’ll see the sort of marks you get from moving milk churns. In those days, they coludn’t keep milk cold for long, but they could get it 5 miles from Gorsey Lane to Liverpool in an hour, and they needed to! The explorers “Build a Canal” game shows how trade between villages and towns results in growth.

The influence of the canal on architecture is just as important. There is no natural limestone in Liverpool, but you would hardly think so to look at its 18th and 19th century buildings, like St Georges Hall, the Walker Art Gallery or World Museum in the civic centre. The limestone comes from Yorkshire, on the canal. And it’s not just Liverpool. The slates on the roofs of Wigan are Welsh, brought by sailing boat to Liverpool, transferred to canal barge at a yard on Lightbody Street, at the Liverpool end of the canal, then pulled by horse to Wigan.

Newsflash! New Transport Link Opens Up New Trading . Villages bartering like crazy!  "Business is going through the roof", claims dairy farmer.

The Superhighway to Wigan Pier

The stretch of Leeds and Liverpool Canal between Liverpool and Newburgh (which includes all of the canal in Sefton) was completed and opened in February 1774.  By October that year, the canal had been linked to Wigan via the Douglas Navigation.  4 horses could pull 4 canal barges, each carrying 50 tonnes. That's 100 times as much as the Dover mail in Mr Dickens’ story! So it’s no wonder that, within a few years, the Leeds and Liverpool canal was bringing more coal and other cargo, into Liverpool than any other route.  Over 150 years after the canal first opened, when George Orwell published his famous book, "The Road to Wigan Pier" in 1937, the Canal was still the most used route for delivering coal into Liverpool. The amount of coal delivered was huge.  The record was 1,879,721 tons of coal, delivered on the canal in the year 1865.