Chapter XI.
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“With the advance of railways the waterways lost the monopoly of inland goods traffic which they had previously enjoyed, and their position began to deteriorate.  As railway competition developed, many were reduced to a precarious position.  Efforts by Parliament to improve the competitive position of the canal companies by enabling them to vary their tolls, to become carriers of goods and to make working arrangements proved unsuccessful, and ultimately, in many cases at the instance of the canal companies themselves, about one third of the total mileage then existing passed to the control of the railways.  This occasioned much disquiet, and during the second half of the nineteenth century several public enquiries took place, but without any tangible result.” [1]

Canals and Waterways, The British Transport Commission (1955)


By the 1840s, the era of steam-hauled public railways had begun in earnest and with it the inexorable decline of the canal network, with significant parts falling into neglect or being abandoned.  It is worth considering the factors that led to this outcome.

In several ways the rot was already established within our canal network by the beginning of the railway era.  It stemmed from the parochial outlook of the canal owners and from a lack of standardisation in canal construction, both being defects that the new railway companies were not to exhibit in any material way, as events quickly proved:

“Canals in their day reached a far greater pitch of prosperity than the railways have ever attained to, but they suffered fatally, and do so now, from the want of any serious movement towards their becoming a united system of communication.  Each navigation was constructed purely as a local concern, and the gauge of locks and depth of water was generally decided by local circumstances or the fancy of the constructors without any regard to uniformity.  The same ideas of exclusiveness seem to have been perpetuated in the system of canal management; there is no Canal Clearing House, and with few exceptions every boat owner has to deal separately with the management of every navigation over which he trades.”

Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers, Henry Rodolph de Salis (1904)

Some of these weaknesses might have been addressed with foresight and determination, but others are inherent in the canal concept.

Other than the comparatively small amount required to raise steam, the new railways did not depend on a sufficiency of water to support their operations; in this respect they were easier to construct and maintain than a canal, and more versatile in the locations that they could serve.  A crew of three could operate a freight train hauling a load of 500 tons or more; the same workforce manning a pair of narrow boats could move around 50 tons.  Quicker transit time was another advantage in the railways’ favour.  Even in their earliest days, steam trains ran at a far higher speed than their waterborne counterparts.

Although the railways generally had transit time on their side, this was not always so.  Where a journey was short and the supplier and consumer both had canal wharfs ― often the case on the Birmingham canal network ― the speed advantage could lie with the canal, and canals in this category quickly became targets for their voracious new competitors.  Efficient management could also make a considerable difference to transit times, and here it is interesting to note a passage from the Rusholme report, the writer referring to government control of canals during WWI . . . .

“The Committee [2] sought to organise traffic on these canals with a view to relieving the congestion on the railways, and the result of their efforts was a considerable increase in the amount of traffic carried and an improvement in the speed of conveyance, until it compared on the whole not unfavourably with that of heavy traffic on the railways.”

Canals and Waterways, The British Transport Commission (1955)

. . . . and this despite a backlog of repair and maintenance work that had built up during the war years, which suggests that transit times might have been improved with more efficient management and better co-ordination between canal companies, requirements that were generally lacking.  But little could be done to manage the weather.  Steam-hauled railways rarely suffered from delays due to drought and were less affected by freezing conditions, but each could bring canal traffic to a standstill, sometimes for long periods despite the construction of reservoirs and bore holes, and the operation of ice-breaking.

But lack of speed alone did not bring about the decline of canal carrying.  The failure of canal companies to develop inter-working ― let alone to amalgamate ― was a significant drawback, and one in which government might have intervened by forcing mergers similar to those that they eventually imposed on the railway companies in 1921 (the ‘grouping’).  Various inquiries and commissions on canals and transport over the years came to much the same conclusion as that arrived at as recently as 1928:

“. . . . we are of the opinion that certain canals still possess considerable value as a means of transport, and that, properly rationalized and developed, they can be made to render much useful service to the community in the future.  We are satisfied that a process of amalgamation is a necessary preliminary to any developmental programme.”

The Royal Commission on Transport, Sir Arthur Griffith Boscawen (1928)

Together with investment, company amalgamations might, over time, have ironed out another significant difficulty, the lack of standardization.

Canals were generally built to serve the needs of local industries, which fostered a parochial attitude to their construction and management.  Their dimensions were influenced by the type of trade they were designed to serve, by local conventions, [3] by the amount of capital available for their construction, by water supply and other topographical limitations:

“The locks and waterways of canals are altogether wanting in uniformity.  One of the great difficulties of canal traffic in Great Britain, in England and Wales especially, has been that scarcely two canals have a continuous gauge.  We find even upon one canal two or three different gauges of locks.  In some instances the canals forming a continuous line are approximately of the same size, but the gauge of the locks is entirely different.  Either their locks are considerably shorter, or are considerably narrower, or the water-way is considerably shallower.  There is nothing like a common uniform gauge of canal throughout the whole distance.”

E. J. Lloyd, Engineer to the Warwick canals, giving evidence to the
Select Committee on Canals (1883)

Even the dimensions of the ubiquitous ‘narrow boat’ varied:

“’Narrow boats’ or ‘monkey’ boats are by far the most numerous class of vessel engaged in inland navigation.  They are from 70ft to 72ft long by 6ft 9ins to 7ft 2ins beam, and draw from 8ins to 11ins of water when empty, loading afterwards to about 1ins to 1 ton.” [4]

Bradshaw’s Canals & Navigable Rivers, H. R. de Salis (1904)

Because government took no interest, statutory standards designed to facilitate inter-working between different canal systems were not imposed, and waterways continued to vary in the maximum size and loading of craft they could accommodate.  The Grand Junction Canal main line is an example; it can accommodate craft 72ft long by 14ft 3ins beam and 3ft 8ins draught, [5] but the locks on the adjoining systems at Gayton and Norton restrict craft to 7ft beam, although they in turn lead to broad waterways.  In the 1930s, the Grand Union Canal Company widened the line from Braunston to Birmingham via Napton Junction, which includes a short section of the adjoining Oxford Canal, but with that exception the Oxford Canal is narrow:

“As almost all the through routes between important centres at the present time contain links to narrow canal, the effect of these diversities of gauge is to confine any long distance through traffic to narrow boats.  Nothing but a narrow boat can navigate between London and Northampton, London and Leicester, London and Nottingham or Manchester, and nothing but a narrow boat can get into or out of Birmingham from anywhere.  If we attempt to take our narrow boat from London to Leeds we shall fail altogether, as we shall be stopped at either Wigan, Sowerby Bridge, or Cooper Bridge, by the locks on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, or Calder and Hebble Navigation, which, although twice the width required by the narrow boat, are 10 feet too short.”

H. R. de Salis (Vice Chairman Fellow, Morton & Clayton) giving evidence to
the Royal Commission (1906).

Narrow locks also slowed traffic, due to pairs of narrow boats having to lock through individually rather than abreast.  Even within the otherwise broad Grand Junction Canal, the Blisworth and Braunston tunnels were too narrow to allow wide boats to pass, while river barges (14ft beam) could only be accepted without restrictions on its more heavily worked southern section below Berkhamsted. [6]

Coupled with the physical limitations on through working, craft traversing different companies’ systems faced a chaotic pricing structure that subjected them to varying charges at toll offices along their route.  And where a craft briefly entered another canal company’s system in order to reach its destination, disproportionately high ‘compensation tolls’ [7] were often imposed.  An example was the Oxford Canal, which was authorised to impose a compensation toll of 2s 9d a ton on coal and 4s 4d on all other items at the junction of the Warwick & Napton Canal, and in this way received a quarter of a million pounds over twenty years. [8]  All this meant that ‘through charges’ could not be determined accurately in advance; craft were gauged and the captains paid in cash at each toll office they passed on their journey, or if working for a carrying company with an account, then the company was billed.  Chaos would have ensued had the same charging system operated on the railways.

By comparison, from the Liverpool & Manchester Railway onwards, the 4ft 8½ins gauge applied to most of our mainline railway network, [9] thereby permitting traffic to move from one company’s system to another.  Railway company mergers also took place resulting in longer routes under single managements. [10]  Where passengers and freight passed through the domains of different companies to reach their destination, arrangements were negotiated for through working and end-to-end charging ― set up in 1842, the Railways Clearing House allocated the revenue received in proportion to the resources that each had provided. [11]

Overall, railway companies had a much wider vision of their business and how it might be developed than did their blinkered waterway competitors of their own assets.  Boyle summed the position up succinctly:

“The canal, on the contrary, is not calculated to deceive anybody.  Beside the railway it appears the embodiment of quiet, plodding, undisguised sluggishness; and if this is not actually the case, it must be admitted the erroneous impression is not altogether without foundation.  There is certainly nothing fast about a canal.  It seldom changes or improves; and when it does so, it is only by imperceptible degrees.  It is apparently the same yesterday, today, and for ever; ― perpetuating its primitive arrangements to all time and under all circumstances.  Enlightened enterprise appears to have shunned it as an ungenial sphere for all its operations, and the world in its march of improvements seems to have left it behind hopelessly on the road.”

Hope for the Canals, Thomas Boyle (1848)

In Britain, the need for large-scale modernisation of the canal system was an issue in which the state took no part, for transport was seen as a matter for individual companies.  Some of our early canals ― especially those built before the French Wars drove up construction costs ― paid large dividends rather than investing their revenue in straightening, widening and deepening their waterways, and in providing bank protection when steam-power became feasible ― some systems would not at first accept powered craft.  In France, Belgium and Germany, where the introduction of railways also had a damaging impact on inland waterways, the state intervened.  The outcome was that waterways were modernised and steam haulage introduced, while protective legislation regulated canal and railway tariffs.  Not until nationalisation in 1947 did the British government take a material interest in inland waterways, but by then it was too late.  The development of road transport and of the motorway network made canal modernisation along northern European lines wholly uneconomic.



The success of the Bridgewater Canal proved the viability of canal transport, and within a few years of its opening an embryonic national canal network came into being with the construction of canals such as the Trent & Mersey and the Oxford.  The early 1790s saw the period known as ‘canal mania’, when huge sums were invested in new canal schemes, often with little serious consideration of their viability.  Partly as a result, the canal network grew to over 4,000 miles, becoming both cause and effect of the rapid industrialisation of the Midlands and the North of England.  The period between the 1770s and the 1830s is often referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of British canals, an age in which canal companies faced no serious competition and the complacency of the monopoly operator became established.

If any single date marks the beginning of the decline of our canal network, the 15th September 1830 must be a serious contender, for on that day the world’s first mechanically-operated inter-city public transport link, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, commenced business:

“Although the advantages of a railway for the conveyance of passengers and goods are very superior to any other mode, even when horses are employed as the moving power; yet, these advantages are vastly increased by the substitution of Locomotive Steam Engines . . . . The fare between these towns [Liverpool and Manchester] for inside passengers by the railway is five shillings; before the opening of the railway it was twelve and fourteen shillings by the ordinary coaches.  The distance between the towns is run on the railway in two hours: by the turnpike road it occupies four and a half or five hours. . . . Goods shipped at Liverpool by water conveyance to Manchester, are thirty-six hours on the passage; but by the railway they are delivered in about five hours . . . . And in winter, the canal part is frequently frozen for many weeks, so as to obstruct all passage; and goods have to be transferred from the canal to land carriage, suffering loss of time, increase in expense, and risk of damage in the transfer.”

Observations on Railways: particularly on the proposed London & Birmingham Railway, Anon (1831).

Although the march of technology would have delivered the steam-hauled public railway, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway grew out of a commercial need, to combat the high charges and poor service provided by the Bridgewater Canal and the Mersey & Irwell Navigation in transporting goods between Liverpool and Manchester (it was said that goods could take longer passing between the two cities than in crossing the Atlantic).  The irony was that the Bridgewater Canal had been built seventy years earlier to address the very same problem, the expensive and poor service then provided by the Mersey & Irwell Navigation.

The waterways did what they could to oppose the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, even to the extent of threatening physical violence to the railway surveyors.  The first Bill laid before Parliament failed, but at the second attempt the railway company succeeded [12] in obtaining the necessary private Act, and construction commenced.  Faced with a fait accompli, the waterways attempted to retain their trade by reducing tolls and improving services; the Irwell Navigation straightened sections of its line and improved its water supply; the Bridegwater Canal Company built new docks and warehouses, improved access to the River Mersey at Runcorn and linked their docks to the Weaver Navigation.  In 1844, the Bridgewater bought the Mersey & Irwell Navigation and eventually reached a trading agreement with its new competitor, the London & North Western Railway.

In these respects the Bridgewater Canal is unusual.  Faced with the railway onslaught, the company responded with vigour and continued to trade profitably until acquired by the Manchester Ship Canal Company in 1885.  But compared with many other canal companies the Bridgewater had the advantage of a strong business foundation.  At one end of its line lay Manchester, a major manufacturing city, and at the other end lay the Runcorn docks and a river link to a major seaport, Liverpool.  In addition, there was a healthy coal trade that lasted into the 1970s.  When faced with railway competition, canal companies in less fortunate circumstances followed the Bridgewater example by reducing their charges, generally by between 30% and 50% of their former level, [13] but although this slowed their commercial decline it did not halt it.  Tonnage often increased in response to the cheaper toll rates, but total revenue fell, resulting in reductions in manpower levels and waterway maintenance, and in the sale of company assets.

The new railways quickly acquired business where transit time was important, such as with perishables, packages and passengers.  Passenger traffic was never a staple source of revenue for canals, although in the north-west of England and in Scotland it did make a contribution on some systems. [14]  Most of the railways’ passenger traffic was either entirely new, or was taken from the stagecoach operators on routes where they competed (such as Liverpool to Manchester), the stagecoach operators going out of business (or becoming feeders) almost as soon as a competing railway commenced business.  Having established a profitable line in passenger traffic, the railways then began to capture freight where another significant, although less obvious advantage of speed, lies in swifter logistics.  This allows manufacturers and retailers to reduce their stocks of raw materials and finished goods, thereby saving on financing charges and/or releasing some of their capital for other purposes.



Faced with a losing battle, some canals ― mostly the less successful ― soon sold out to the competing railways, sometimes even offering themselves for sale.  By purchase, amalgamation or lease, [15] the railway companies gradually acquired a substantial interest in the canal network to the extent that by 1865, about one third of canal mileage in England and Scotland was under some form of railway control. [16]  On occasions a canal fitted the railway’s business, acting as a feeder or giving freight access to areas of the country served by a competing railway company, but generally a railway company’s acquisition permitted it to remove waterway competition by a combination of increased tolls and declining maintenance:

“The cases in which railway companies have a more or less strong or less strong positive interest in pushing the trade on the canals belonging to them are exceptions to the rule.”

Report of the Royal Commission on Canals, pub. 1909.

One company stifled by railway ownership was the Kennet & Avon Canal, which links Reading on the Thames with Bristol.  This waterway comprises sections of the rivers Kennet and Avon, which between Newbury and Bath are linked by a 57-mile ‘broad’ canal.  Engineered by John Rennie Snr. and opened throughout in 1810, the Kennet & Avon was successful in its early years ― mainly carrying coal and stone ― although its dividends never exceeded a modest 3¾% (1840) due mainly to its heavy construction costs.  The opening of the Great Western Railway in 1841, followed by the Berks & Hants Railway in 1847, diverted most of the Kennet and Avon’s trade to rail despite the canal company having lowered its tolls.  When taken over by the Great Western Railway in 1852 for a fraction of its construction cost, its tolls were increased and its trade, unsurprisingly, declined still further.  By 1868, the canal’s annual tonnage had fallen from 360,610 in 1848 to 210,567, and the canal ceased to make any profit after 1876.  [17] Following WWI, when more trade was lost to road transport, the Great Western Railway Company attempted to close the canal but were prevented from doing so:

“The local authorities in Wiltshire, Berkshire, and Somerset, through whose area the Kennet and Avon Canal runs, are still a little anxious as to the fate that awaits this old waterway.  The Great Western railway, which originally proposed to apply for powers to abandon the canal altogether, has now, in consequence of widespread opposition, promised to modify its application so that, though the canal will be closed to traffic, the company will remain liable to carry out its present obligations ‘except those which have been necessary for traffic purposes.’

In that qualifying phrase a great many fears which the railway company has sought to answer have been revived.  The one specific promise given is that the company will maintain the pumping station at Crofton and so ensure a flow of water into the canal.  The local bodies are asking if the locks and their gates will be kept in proper repair; whether the channel will be allowed to become choked with weeds and silted up; and whether ultimately there may be stretches of virtually stagnant water in and near the towns once served by this waterway that joins the eastern and western seas. . . .”

The Times, 19th January, 1927

By 1950 most of the Kennet & Avon was disused and impassable, an outcome shared by much of the railway controlled canal system.  A further attempt at closure in the 1950s having failed, sufficient of the Canal survived into the preservation era, since when, with unstinting volunteer effort and Lottery grant support, it has been transformed into what the 1968 Transport Act classifies as a ‘cruising waterway’. [18]

Another, and in some ways more damaging strategy adopted by railway companies to stifle canal trade, was to gain control of a short section of a much longer through route.  The toll for that section could then be increased to the highest permissible level, thereby imposing a disproportionately high increase to the overall through charge.  An example was the through toll on iron goods from South Staffordshire to London, of 4s 6d per ton.  The sum charged over the 10-mile Birmingham section, controlled by the London & North Western Railway Company, amounted to 1s 6d, while the independent canals received 3s for the remaining 146 miles.  Had the Birmingham section being charged at the same rate as the remainder, the through toll would have been reduced by a quarter. [19]  However, it must be said that the railway companies were merely adopting a strategy already operated by some canal companies in the same circumstances:

“One great impediment has been found to exist, in the present disjointed state of the Canal interests and the varying systems under which they carry on their operations.  Some of the existing Companies, possessing lines of Canal which form central links in a great chain, take advantage of their peculiar position, and establish a rate of charges so high as to secure to themselves a large return for their capital, even upon a small amount of traffic.  This practice, while it obliges the other Companies, not so advantageously situated, to reduce their rates to such an extent that they are unable to conduct their business with a profit, at the same time prevents such a reduction in the general charges of the line as would enable the several Companies, as a body, to maintain a fair competition with the Railways.”

Second Report from the Select Committee on railways and Canals Amalgamation (1846)

Following WWI., the canals were faced with increasing road competition and difficulties in recruiting boat crews (many who had joined the forces or found better-paid employment in factories engaged on munitions work, never returned) while the railways were by then being subsidized by the State:

“The main difficulty with regard to the extension of the use of canals lies in the freight charges.  The railways, subsidized by the State, have been able to keep their charges down, while on canals increased expenses have forced freight charges up.  In 1913 the canal charges were lower than those on the railways; to-day they are considerably higher.”

The Times, 10th October, 1919

But aggressive railway competition was not the sole reason that canal companies went to the wall.  Other causes of failure lay in their original business case being unsound (e.g. under-estimated construction costs, over-estimated traffic receipts) [20] or in the local industry(s) on which they relied disappearing under changed circumstances, such as coal mines becoming worked out, canal-side iron works closing in favour of large steel mills, or grain mills moving to the ports to be more economically placed to mill cheap imported grain.  The Basingstoke Canal (also known as the London and Hampshire Canal) in part fell victim to London increasingly receiving its agricultural produce from the midlands and north of England via the Grand Junction Canal, and later the railways, and importing cheaper foodstuffs through the London docks.

The Basingstoke Canal linked that town with the Thames at Weybridge, via the River Wey Navigation [21] ― several plans to continue it to the South Coast never materialised.  Engineered by William Jessop and built as a broad canal, it was opened throughout in 1794.  Unlike the canals in the midlands and the north of England, which served mainly industrial needs, the Basingstoke Canal was intended to stimulate agricultural development in central Hampshire by transporting timber, flour, malt and agricultural produce to London, with return cargoes of coal, manure and groceries.  Construction costs were much higher than anticipated added to which the traffic projections proved over-optimistic  By 1796 the Company was on the brink of bankruptcy.  To stave off failure bonds were sold, but servicing the interest absorbed the profits resulting in the Company’s shareholders failing to receive a dividend at any time in the Canal’s history.  By the 1820s, improved roads in the area led road transport presenting serious competition, with a faster door-to-door service at comparable charges.

Ironically, trade revived briefly during the 1830s with the construction of the South Western Railway, the canal being used to transport railway construction materials; but once the railway had been opened, canal trade slumped.  Price-cutting by both companies continued throughout the 1840s, the railway having the advantage of being able to cross-subsidise reduced freight rates from its passenger receipts (by then a common practice):

“Another consideration which must not be overlooked is, that although it has been stated that with proper management Canals might maintain a successful competition with railways in the carriage of heavy goods, still such competition has hitherto been carried on under great disadvantage, owing to the large profits made by Railway Companies on passenger traffic, which enables them to submit in some instances even to a loss on the carriage of merchandize with a view to withdraw traffic from Canals.”

Second Report from the Select Committee on railways and Canals Amalgamation (1846)

Another short boost to trade occurred in 1854, when the Canal was used to transport materials for the construction of Aldershot Camp, after which business again declined.  In June 1866, the proprietors resolved to go into liquidation.  By this time, other canals in the south ― notably the Wey and Arun, the Thames and Severn, and the Wilts and Berks ― had already expired, but the Basingstoke was not abandoned.  There followed a succession of owners, one attempting to sell in 1904:

“The canal was purchased in 1896 by its present proprietors, who have expended a considerable amount of money on its restoration and improvement, but apparently without success, as at the present time (1904) the navigation is again for sale.  Of late the towing path has become much overgrown in places, thereby causing horse towing to be very difficult.”

Bradshaw’s Canals & Navigable Rivers, H. R. de Salis (1904)

Despite the auctioneer’s encouraging sales pitch [Appendix] there were no takers.  WWI brought a further brief revival of trade, with Government stores and munitions being carried to Aldershot Camp with return cargoes of manure and timber.  In 1923, the Canal was bought by Alexander Harmsworth, who ran a successful business until his death in 1947, but only on the section below Woking, the upper reaches having by then become a picturesque backwater:

“Long stretches of this waterway are among the quietest and least-frequented places in the country.  Rich vegetation abounds on its banks.  In places the trees meet above it, forming in summer long tunnels in which the light is tinged a greenish shade, giving to whoever may pass through them, in a boat hardly propelled through the weed-thick water, a ghostly and baleful air.  Here and there a broken bridge crosses the water, here and there an empty boat-house stands mournfully on the bank”.

The Times, 28th August, 1929

The Canal was not taken into the nationalisation programme in 1947, and by the 1960s it was derelict.  But as with the Kennet & Avon, sufficient of it survived for restoration.  Today, after years of effort by members of the Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society in partnership with local authorities, 32 miles of the Basingstoke Canal are again open to navigation, albeit restricted at times due to water shortage.

Some waterways did manage to hold their own against the railway onslaught, but these tended to be the river navigations, which required comparatively few locks, had a dependable water supply and could more readily be widened and deepened.  An example is the Aire & Calder Navigation in West Yorkshire, which runs for 34 miles from Leeds to Goole, with a 7½ mile branch from Wakefield (where it connects with the Calder & Hebble Navigation) to Castleford.  During its life the Navigation has been widened and deepened, its locks have been lengthened, and canal cuts have been constructed to straighten sections of the route.

During the 1840s, the Aire & Calder’s trade was reduced by about a third following the arrival of the railways, but the Navigation was fortunate in having two innovative engineers, Thomas Bartholomew and, following his death in 1852, his equally talented son, William.  Thomas was an early advocate of steam propulsion and by the time of his death two-thirds of the traffic on the Navigation was hauled by steam tug.  Besides carrying out many improvements to the waterway, William Bartholomew developed a sectional barge system.  Known as ‘Tom Puddings’, each comprised six separate compartments with a bow and stern section, which, under the control of four men, could move 800 tons of coal.  On arrival at Goole the contents of each compartment (‘tub’) could then be emptied mechanically into a collier by means of dockside hydraulic hoists.  By 1913, there were 18 tugs, 1,010 compartments and 1,560,006 tons of coal was being carried annually. [22]  The compartments were still carrying around half a million tons of coal until the late 1960s, long after most British canals had ceased to be used for commercial traffic, but the gradual demise of the coal industry led to compartment traffic ceasing in 1986.

A Tom Puddin ― Bartholomew’s sectional boat.

In addition to investing in the Navigation’s development, its success can also be attributed to a firm business base in the shape of the large Yorkshire coalfields that it serviced and on the company’s development of Goole Docks, from which coal and other goods were exported in quantity and into which pit props for the mining industry were landed:

“. . . . the collector of customs at Goole, said that there were large warehouses there belonging to the Aire and Calder Navigation Company.  He produced a mass of reports made to the Board of Customs, from which it appeared that cotton-twist, fustians, woollen goods, coals, and iron were exported thence.”

The Times, 15th July, 1845

The decline of the coal industry and of heavy manufacturing generally saw commercial traffic on the Navigation dwindle, but not disappear. As recently as 2007 the Navigation is reported to have carried 300,000 tons, mostly of petroleum and building aggregates.  During the 1960s, the navigation underwent further modernisation, in which the locks from Goole to Leeds were upgraded and enlarged to accommodate vessels conforming to the 700-tonne Euro-barge standard.  The Navigation also provides important leisure cruising links to, among other waterways, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and, via the Calder & Hebble Navigation, to the Huddersfield Broad and Narrow canals and the Rochdale Canal (the latter two being restored to use).

But overall, the Aire & Calder’s success was untypical of British inland waterways, which went from a position in the 1840s in which they carried more freight than the railways, to one at the end of the nineteenth century when their share of the market had slumped to about a tenth; or put another way, overall growth in canal carrying during the period remained almost static whilst the corresponding rail freight business burgeoned.



In 1825 the tract of country lying between London and Birmingham was surveyed by Messrs John and Edward Grantham, for the purposes of ascertaining the practicability of forming a railroad between the metropolis and the town of Birmingham.  Sir J. Rennie, likewise, surveyed a tract of country for the same purpose carrying the route of line along the valley of the Thames to Oxford and thence to Birmingham.  This, however, was abandoned on account of the tunnelling necessary at Oxford, and the periodical floods to which the Thames is subjected.  Various portions of country were also surveyed and diversions made in all directions until the most eligible, and that which presented least, difficulties, was evident.  In 1828, the first public intimation appeared of the formation of ‘A Company for making a Railway from London to Birmingham,’ with the name of Mr Stephenson, of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, subjoined as its engineer.

The London and Birmingham Railway Guide: Joseph W. Wyld (1838)

The seeds of the London & Birmingham Railway were sewn as early as 1825.  Sir John Rennie proposed a London to Birmingham railway passing through Qianton and Banbury, but nothing came of the scheme or of a later proposal by Francis Giles for a line passing through the Watford Gap, Rugby and Coventry.  However, both schemes caused considerable alarm among canal companies, turnpike trusts, stagecoach operators and the proprietors of coaching inns and stables.  Each group could be depended on to oppose with vigour any railway bill that eventually came ― they did not have long to wait.

In 1829, two schemes were published in which lines were proposed along the routes put forward by Rennie and by Giles.  Rather than compete with each other ― in addition to numerous opposing commercial and landed interests ― the schemes’ proprietors sensibly combined forces, employing George and Robert Stephenson to review their plans and recommend which to adopt.  The Stephensons having chosen the eastern route, a detailed survey was then undertaken by Robert Stephenson and Thomas Gooch, [23] which formed the basis of a Bill submitted to Parliament in 1832.  This Bill passed the Commons but was rejected by the Lords, the dissenting landowners being in the majority of 59 to 53.  The original route was then altered to avoid the estates of most of the opposition, while the remaining dissenters along the line were made financial offers they found difficult to refuse.  The outcome was that on the second attempt the London & Birmingham Railway Bill passed both houses and received the Royal Assent on 6th May, 1833.

Construction then proceeded swiftly.  Boxmoor was reached in July, 1837; Tring in January 1838; Denbigh Hall in April; and the line was opened throughout in September of that year.  The 112½-mile railway had taken five years to complete; the 131½ miles of the Grand Junction Canal (including its pre-1805 branches) had taken twelve.

The route chosen by Robert Stephenson keeps close company with the Canal for many miles.  From Cassiobury Park, Railway and Canal ascend the valleys of the Gade and the Bulbourne before crossing the Tring Gap in deep cuttings.  There then follows a long descent to Milton Keynes where Canal and Railway briefly part company, the Canal weaving a sinuous path around the modern town while the Railway takes a more direct route to Wolverton.  Both then cross the valley of the Great Ouse, the Canal on a substantial earth embankment, the Railway on a brick viaduct.  At Roade, rather than following Barnes’s example of tunnelling the ridge, Stephenson took the Railway through in a deep cutting.  At Buckby, Railway and Canal finally diverge, the Canal heading west towards its nearby rendezvous with the Oxford Canal, the Railway departing in a north-westerly direction towards the Watford Gap and the notorious Kilsby Tunnel.  Here Stephenson met his Nemesis in the form of the quicksand deposits and severe flooding that had been encountered by the canal tunnelers at Blisworth ― in neither case did the trial borings reveal the problem.

Until railway competition changed the picture, the Grand Junction Canal Company had taken full advantage of its monopoly status as a transporter of goods:

“As a special instance of a canal taking advantage of its position to raise its rates, we may mention the Grand Junction Canal, which extends from Paddington to Braunston where it joins the Oxford Canal.  The Grand Junction Canal was an important link between London and the great mining and manufacturing sections of Warwickshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, etc.  It was a monopoly without competitor; its exactions, excessive rates, discriminatory rates, and its supercilious conduct caused loud and general complaints even as late as 1836.”

Remarks on the tonnage rates and drawbacks of the Grand Junction Canal, Mercator (1836)

No sooner had the new railway company commenced operations, than it too began to exploit the monopolistic position that it had won from the stagecoach operators:

“THE LONDON AND BIRMINGHAM RAILWAY: No system appears to us to require more vigilant scrutiny, nor the conduct of any body of persons to be more jealously watched, than railway companies and railway directors.  The moment that all means of opposition ceases an attempt is made to impose on the public the most exorbitant and unjustifiable charges for goods and passengers.  We last week expressed our opinion on the subject of the increase of price for the carriage of parcels from 1d to 1½d per pound, and we believe we may now congratulate the public on its abandonment, and the immediate reduction to the old prices.  But there are other ways that these great monopolies are made to press hardly on public convenience; among others, we beg this week to direct the attention of our readers to the sudden increase in the price of conveyance that has taken place to all the intermediate stages since the opening of the railway throughout to London, and the consequent removal of the stage-coaches from that line of road.”

The Times, 29th September, 1838

The London & Birmingham Railway’s tussle with the Grand Junction Canal Company over their respective shares of the freight traffic between London and the Midlands was slow to start, for the Canal was not affected by the Railway’s prime interest at that time ― passengers.  But as the railway moved into freight carrying, a price-cutting war began that was to last off and on until nationalisation eventually brought railways and canals under a single owner, the State.



(The Times, 28th October, 1904)

THE BASINGSTOKE CANAL.—By order of the High Court of Chancery, the Woking, Aldershot, and Basingstoke Canal was offered for sale by auction at the Mart yesterday, by Mr. B. I’Anson Breach, of the firm of Messrs. Farebrothers, Ellis, Egerton, Breach, and Co.

In giving particulars of the property the auctioneer remarked that the occasion presented a unique opportunity for speculators.  The canal, which was constructed under two Acts of Parliament passed in the reign on George III., was built at a cost of between £150,000 and £200,000, and it was opened in 1794.  It started in the town of Basingstoke, and, passing through some of the most picturesque and beautiful residential neighbourhoods of Hampshire and Surrey, it ended at the junction of the river Wey, by means of which a direct line of navigation was opened to London, a distance of nearly 70 miles.  The canal was about 37 miles long, and there were 29 locks.  The traffic at the outset was very remunerative, but when the South-Western railway was constructed it seemed gradually to “swamp” the Canal.  There were 13 wharves conveniently placed at important military and trading centres; and along the canal were a number of lockkeepers’ dwellings, warehouses, &c., principally let.  The property embraced a total land and water area of about 366 acres.  There were low rentals now coming in amounting to £500 a year, and the revenue — the general trading of the company — was £5,000.  He saw no reason why the Canal should not be carried on to Southampton; and a splendid opportunity was afforded to the War Office of connecting their waterways with the camp at Aldershot.  Replying to questions, the auctioneer stated that the lack of water in the canal about a month ago near Woking arose from the fact that the receiver had been putting in a new lock gate.
Under the existing Act it was clearly defined that the Canal was to be used for the purposes of a canal; but he knew no difficulty which would prevent a purchaser from obtaining a short Act of Parliament to enable him to convert it into a motor track if he wished to do so.  Adjoining property owners, under section 101 of the Act, had the right of pre-emption on terms which would have been settled by Commissioners.  He then invited bids for the property.

To his suggestion that they should begin at £50,000 there was no response, upon which he invited offers of £40,000 and £30,000 with the same result.  He was, he remarked, in the hands of intended buyers; but he was acting under sealed instructions, and could therefore give no hint as to prices.  Subsequently he invited bids of £25,000 and £20,000, adding that he could not go below the last-mentioned amount.  No offer, however, was made for the property, which was accordingly withdrawn.


[Chapter XII.]




. . . and this applied equally to the inquiries held in 1906 (Shuttleworth), in 1920 (Chamberlain), and in 1930 (Boscawn).


From 1917 to 1920 important canals were managed by the Canal Control Committee of the Board of Trade.


As indeed was the 4ft 8½ins ‘standard gauge’, which subsequently became law ― vide the Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act 1846.


The author then goes on to describe further regional variations on this formula.


Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers, H. de Salis (1904).  By 1950, the Inland Waterways Association were stating maximum draft over the entire length to be 3ft 6ins.


77ft length, 14ft 3ins beam, 4ft 6ins draft from Brentford to Berkhamsted; wide beam craft could travel north of Berkhamsted providing they were of shallow draft.  Inland Waterways of Great Britain L. A. Edwards (1950).


Authorised in the company’s canal Act and designed to compensate for traffic lost to an adjoining system. 


Canals and Inland Waterways, Cadbury and Dobbs (1929).


Vide the Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act 1846.  Until eventually abolished in 1892, the problem of Brunel’s broad gauge did lead to interchange delays and costs on some routes.  Similar delays between standard and the comparatively few narrow gauge systems appear not to have been a material problem.


The GJCC’s competitor, the London & North Western Railway Company, was formed in 1846 from the amalgamation of the Grand Junction Railway, the London & Birmingham Railway, the Manchester & Birmingham Railway and the country’s first branch line, the Aylesbury Railway.  The L&NWR later absorbed other railway companies.


Among other roles, the Railways Clearing House also provided a neutral meeting point where different railways could discuss points of disagreement and make suggestions that could benefit other railways.


7 George IV Cap XLIX, RA 5th May 1826: “An Act for making and maintaining a Railway or Tramroad from the Town of Liverpool to the Town of Manchester, with certain Branches therefrom, all in the County of Lancashire.”


Development of Transport in Modern England, W.T. Jackman (1916)


 In 1828, passenger fares on the Forth & Clyde Canal accounted for 25% of the total revenue.  The Bridgewater; the Manchester, Bury & Bolton; and the Carlisle canals were others where passenger carrying was important.


The Canal Carriers Act (1845) made it possible for one canal company to lease another.  As some canals had by then been acquired by railway companies, an unforeseen consequence was that a controlling railway company could then lease other canal companies.  By this means, railway domination was extended through lease rather than purchase.


Development of Transport in Modern England, W.T. Jackman (1916)


During the period 1848-78, receipts fell by 87% due to the corresponding amount of traffic being shunted onto the railway.  Development of Transport in Modern England, W.T. Jackman (1916).


Defined in the Act as waterways to be available principally for cruising, fishing and other recreational purposes.


Cited in The Transport Revolution, Philip Bagwell (1974).


A problem that applied equally to railway companies.  An analysis of the dividends paid by the 59 railway companies operating in England and Wales for the year 1854 was: 15 paid no dividend; 34 paid less than 1% to less than 5%; 5 paid dividends 5%-6% incl.; 5 paid dividends of 7% to 10% incl.   Development of Transport in Modern England, W.T. Jackman (1916).


A much more successful waterway, the Wey survived the railway era and continued to trade until well after WWII.  In 1964, its last owners, Stevens & Sons, donated the Wey to the National Trust and today it is one of the few financially self-supporting waterways, having no call on the Trust’s general finances or on public funds.


In total, in the years leading up to WWI., the Aire & Calder carried some 3,000,000 million tons annually, of which two-thirds was coal being shipped from the Yorkshire collieries to Goole.  The Times, 10th October, 1919.


Thomas Longridge Gooch (1808-82), brother of better known Daniel Gooch of the Great Western Railway.