Chapter XII.
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― I.―

“The London and North Western Railway Company have, it is well known, thrown the carriers off their lines, monopolizing the whole of the traffic themselves, and retaining the more influential merely of the dispossessed carriers as agents, upon condition that they further give up their canal traffic whenever it is considered by the company to interfere with their interests.  In pursuance of this condition the parties so retained by this company have since been obliged to cease carrying upon canals; and the only employment they, therefore, now possess as carriers is in conveying goods to and from the railway.  Thus the canals are in a moment deprived of their most enterprising and wealthy traders, whose operations, together with their influence, acquired principally upon this once flourishing field of enterprise, and at a period before railways were in existence are thrown into the scale of their monopolizing rivals.”

Hope for the Canals! Thomas Boyle (1848)


Profile of the Birmingham to Brentford route.  Note the heavy lockage across the Avon Valley.



While the London & Birmingham Railway was under construction the Grand Junction Canal Company found itself facing another potential competitor, and from an unexpected quarter ― a competing canal.  But before touching on this potential interloper it is worth mentioning a slightly earlier scheme that appears to have grown out of a general dissatisfaction with both the charges (including ‘compensation charges’) and the transit time between Birmingham and the terminus of the Grand Junction Canal at Braunston.  This was the ‘London & Birmingham Junction Canal’:

“At a meeting of the Coal and Iron Masters held at the Hotel in Dudley, on Monday, the 11th day of February, 1828, on the subject of the proposed London and Birmingham Junction Canal . . . . that the present tonnages on the iron and coal, navigated upon the canals between Staffordshire and London, and intermediate places, are higher than they reasonably ought to be, and the rates exacted from the public under the plea of compensations, merely for passing out of one canal into another, are unjust and oppressive.  Resolved.  That this Meeting . . . . consider the making of such a canal to be a measure entitled to their cordial support, inasmuch as it will be of important benefit to the iron and coal trades of this district, by affording a much more expeditious and direct conveyance to London, at a considerable reduction of freight, and by relieving the public from the exactions to which they have been so long subjected. . . . . after a comparison of Parliamentary and other charges on existing lines, it is calculated that a saving of 2s 6d per ton will be effected in the freight of coals carried from Staffordshire to the line of the Grand Junction Canal, and a saving of 5s per ton in the freight of iron, grain, general merchandize passing between Braunston and Birmingham.”

The Times, 21st February 1828

Surveyed by Telford, the proposed canal was to commence at a point on the Stratford-on-Avon Canal about ten miles from Birmingham, then, following a 20-mile pound, form a junction with the Oxford canal near Braunston.  The promoters claimed the scheme would reduce the number of locks between Braunston and Birmingham by 57 and shorten the Birmingham to Coventry journey by 18 miles (and 36 locks).  But the scheme failed when it was discovered that its subscription list had been fraudulently inflated to make it appear there were more subscribers than was the case.  It does, however, serve to illustrate the dissatisfaction in terms of cost and delay with the Braunston to Birmingham route ― when later faced with railway competition, the canal companies on that section needed to reduce their charges significantly (between 2s 6d and 5s per ton) in order to retain trade.

While the London & Birmingham Junction Canal did not pose a commercial threat to the Grand Junction Canal Company, the next canal scheme to appear did, for the ‘London & Birmingham Canal’ was intended to bypass the Grand Junction Canal altogether and, by taking advantage of the latest developments in canal engineering, halve the journey time from Birmingham to London.  This canal was to start at Lapworth, on the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal, then following a line via Banbury, Brackley and St. Albans, terminate on the Regent’s Canal.  The scheme’s proprietors claimed that this would reduce the number of locks between Birmingham and London by 120, which implies that much of the route was planned to be on the level and would therefore require considerable engineering in the form of embankments, cuttings and tunnels, much in keeping with what would later be expected of a railway:

“The proposed Navigation will possess all the improvements of the best modern canals; where tunnelling is necessary, two tunnels, with a towing path under each, will be made; the sides of the Canal will be walled, and the greatest of all modern improvements, the double towing path, will be carried throughout the whole line. . . . By the proposed route, goods will be delivered in London in 32 hours, instead of 70 by the existing route. The saving in freight 20s per ton.”

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 26th March, 1836

By this date construction of the London & Birmingham Railway was well advanced and there was insufficient interest to finance a new waterway, particularly on such a grand scale.  The original proposal was then pared down.  The line from Birmingham would “terminate at or near the south end of a certain Tunnel called the Blisworth Tunnel” (nicely understated), thereby “avoiding the enormous lockage, and the imperfect structure of the Warwick and Birmingham, and Warwick and Napton Canals, and the unjust compensation tolls now paid to the Oxford Canal Company at Napton.”  The amended scheme also came to nothing, leaving the Grand Junction to face the impending onslaught from the London & Birmingham Railway.



The Grand Junction Canal Company had a reasonably firm business foundation.  Besides forming part of a direct transport link between the Midlands and the Capital ― the only canal to do so ― much canal-side business was developing along the Uxbridge to Norwood section and on the Paddington Arm, while the adjoining Regent’s Canal provided an important link with the City and the London Docks.  Unlike many other canals, the Grand Junction did not depend heavily on one particular local trade, such as coal, but carried a variety of goods ranging from short distance loads of agricultural produce ― especially hay and straw to sustain the Capital’s horse-powered traffic ― to long distance consignments of coal, salt, pottery, glass and other manufactured goods.  London was expanding at this time and in need of stone, timber, lime and bricks (many brickfields sprang up in the Hillingdon area to meet this demand) together with sand and gravel from the pits along the line.  And when the brickfields and sand pits were worked out they were in-filled with barge loads of the city’s refuse.  Return cargoes from London included manure, ashes (used in brick manufacture) and imported goods from the London docks.  A summary of trade on the Canal was given during the House of Lords committee stage of the London & Birmingham Railway Bill in June 1832, during which one canal trader predicted that the waterway would loose all the quick (fly-boat) trade to the Railway together with revenue of some £97,000 p.a. (see Appendix).

In 1836, the Company earned its peak annual revenue of £198,086, undoubtedly boosted by the construction materials it was then transporting to create its new neighbour, with whom a freight price war was soon to begin.  Following the opening of the Railway in 1838, the Company reduced its tolls; tonnage rose in response, but the increase was insufficient to compensate for the price reduction and the Company’s fortunes fell into decline.  Data submitted to the Select Committee on Railways and Canals Amalgamation in 1846 shows the extent of the reductions, per ton, between London and Langley Mill in Derbyshire, a route for which the Company had been able to reach tariff agreements with the other canal companies along the line:

STATEMENT of Reduced TONNAGE of Canals from London to Derbyshire, showing the advantages which the Public have derived by Competition between Railroads and canals.

Tonnage on the under-mentioned Line of canals.


Rates which they were entitled to under their Acts to Charge, & which they did charge.

Reduced since 1836 to:


GJC, 97 miles:


N.B.—No general and scarcely any partial reduction could be brought about until competition was established between the railways and canals.

On Sundries

16s 3¾d 2s 0¼d

On Coal

9s 1d 2s 0¼d



Grand Union, 24 miles:


On Sundries

6s 0d 5½d

On Coal

2s 11d 5½d



Old Union, 19 miles:


On Sundries

4s 9d 5½d  

On Coal

2s 1d 5½d  



Leicester Nav., 16 miles:


On Sundries

2s 6d 4d  

On Coal

1s 2d 4d  



Loughboro’, 10 miles:


On Sundries

2s 6d 4d  

On Coal

1s 2d 4d  



Erewash, 11 miles:


On Sundries

1s 0d 4d  

On Coal

1s 0d 4d  

In presenting these figures to the Select Committee, the Company’s Chairman, Sir Francis Bond Head, made some observations on the price advantage to be had in canal amalgamation, where this could be achieved:

Q – Do those canals of which you have now given a list, with the prices, form one chain of navigation?
A – We have, as regards tolls, practically speaking, amalgamated with those canals, and the result has been very extraordinary.
Q – Do you think that those canals were able to make those great reductions in their charges in consequence of their coming to an amalgamation?
A – They have made those reductions, and other lines of canal with which we are connected have declined to join us, and the consequence has been that on the distance from London to Leicester, which is 139 miles, the whole tonnage is 2s 10¾d per ton, while the whole tonnage from London to Birmingham, which is 144 miles, amounts to nearly 7s., showing the difference between the prices on the amalgamated and non-amalgamated lines of canal . . . . from the cheap amalgamated line our tonnages in money have increased from £6,000 to £15,000 and £17,000 a year; whereas from the non-amalgamated lines, which have kept up the high tonnages, our receipts have diminished from £80,000 to £41,000.

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

And so the Company faced railway competition with the added impediment that, by keeping up their charges, other canal companies on the Braunston to Birmingham line (the Oxford and the Warwick canals) were reducing the competitiveness of long haul canal transport over the entire route.  By comparison, the London & Birmingham Railway Company’s domain extended between those two cities, leaving its directors free to determine their freight charges, which could be cross-subsidized from their passenger account if necessary.  By 1844, Grand Junction Canal Company shares had fallen from their peak of £350 in 1824, to £155; dividends from 13% in 1832 to 5% in 1849, after which they remained around the 4% mark until the formation of the Grand Union Canal Company in 1929.

Spurred on by the impending railway competition, the Company also embarked on a programme of service and engineering improvements.  Restrictions on night traffic were lifted, and in 1835 the Stoke Bruerne flight of locks was duplicated to relieve congestion.  In 1836, the locks between Stoke Hammond and Marsworth Top Lock (the Tring summit) were also duplicated by the addition of narrow locks, the aim being to quicken the progress of narrow boats travelling singly which, when water was in short supply, were obliged to await a partner in order to fill a broad lock.  Water supply to the Tring summit was also improved in 1839, when the largest of the Tring Reservoirs, Wilstone No. 3, was opened.  A further improvement to water supply was made shortly after with the opening of a line of back-pumping stations between Fenny Stratford and Marsworth.

In 1846, the London & Birmingham Railway amalgamated with the Grand Junction Railway and the Manchester & Birmingham Railway to form the London & North Western Railway Company, the largest joint stock company in the United Kingdom.  There followed mounting concern that the increasing railway dominance of the canal network was acting contrary to the public interest.  The Grand Junction’s then Chairman, Thomas Grahame, summarized the position:

“This competition which commenced in 1831 (when the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened), was, till the year 1845, carried on under great disadvantage by Canal Companies.  While Parliament conferred on Railway Companies full power to act as carriers on their own and adjacent lines of Railway to vary their charges in order ‘to accommodate them to circumstances;’ and while Railway Companies obtained the most ample powers to enter into permanent agreements as to working and traffic on connecting lines of rail fixing for a term of years or leasing to each other the tolls exigible on their respective lines, these privileges were absolutely denied to Canal Companies.  This unjust and one sided system of legislation has proved most prejudicial to the interests of the public.  Deprived of power to combine for self protection many Canal Companies entered into contracts with competing Railways sacrificing for a fixed dividend not only the just rights of connecting navigations but the interests of the public by conceding a monopoly of transit to the contracting Railways.”

Correspondence between the Board of Trade and T. Grahame, Esq. Published London, 1852.



Prior to 1845, canals were not subject to general legislation but were regulated by the provisions of their individual private Acts.  The Canal Carriers Act (1845) was the first general canal legislation, its aim being to place the independent (i.e. not railway controlled) canal companies on a more equal business footing with the railways.  But the Act was both too late and flawed, for a railway company that had already acquired an interest in a canal could redefine itself as a ‘railway and canal company’ and by this means take advantage of provisions in the legislation that had been intended to operate against railway dominance.  But the Act did contain one provision that was to affect the Company’s business.  Although it was not specifically precluded from acting as a common carrier, its right to do so (and that of many other canal companies) was unclear in law.  The 1845 Act removed any doubt about canal companies being able to act in this way [2] and to offer complementary services . . . .

“. . . . for the better enabling them so to do, to purchase, hire, and construct, and to use and employ, any number of boats, barges, vessels, rafts, carts, waggons, carriages, and other conveniences, and also to establish and furnish such haulage, trackage, or other means of drawing or propelling the same, either by steam, animal, or other power, or for the purpose of collecting, carrying, conveying, warehousing, and delivering such goods, wares, merchandise, articles, matters, and things, as to any such company or undertakers shall seem fit . . . .”

This change to the law was followed in 1847 by Messrs. Pickford & Co. withdrawing from long-distance canal carrying.  This firm, whose roots extend back to the 17th century (making it one of Britain’s oldest companies), came to specialize in transporting goods between Manchester and London by road.  By the end of the 18th century it had also become an established canal carrier, and as the canal network grew, so did the extent of its operations.  The completion of the Coventry and then of the Grand Junction canals saw the firm’s carrying service reach Paddington Basin, and a service to Leicester commenced in 1814 with the completion of the (old) Grand Union Canal.  The Regent’s Canal, opened in 1820, provided Pickfords with a terminus ― the City Road Basin ― much nearer to the heart of the Metropolis, and here the firm established its headquarters.

In 1817, Joseph Baxendale joined the firm, which during the depression following the Napoleonic Wars had reached the verge of bankruptcy.  He brought with him two partners and the capital needed to develop Pickfords into a carrier operating on a national scale.  Baxendale was endowed with much drive and determination, as well as being a skilled manager and accountant:

“. . . . when he began his career as a carrier, the highways of the country were to a great extent little better prepared for traffic than the worst of our cross-roads are now.  To conduct the business thoroughly relays of horses for the fly vans were as necessary as for the ordinary coaching traffic of the time, and equally so for the fly boats which traversed the canals: to this a large staff of energetic, well-paid agents had to be added, and to these the working labouring body, a small army of itself.  Hours on hours were withal occupied on the transit of goods which is now effected by rail in a fraction of the time.

In the conduct of the business his energy and judgment were equal to the necessity.  Night after night he traversed the roads in his special travelling carriage, on the look-out to see that none of his employees slackened in their duty, as often as not passing by by-roads so as to double back on the drivers, who in consequence never knew whether he was before or behind them; so, general vigilance thus became the rule of all.”

The Times, 6th January, 1873

Baxendale foresaw the impact that the railways would have on the freight business, and in 1847 moved the firm away from long-distance canal carrying to concentrate on rail freight. [3]  The firm retained its premises at City Road Basin and continued to handle some lightered goods between the docks, City Road, and their Camden Depot, but its use of canal transport was greatly reduced.

In that year Thomas Grahame replaced Sir Francis Bond Head as Company Chairman, a change that was probably brought about by differing boardroom opinions over whether the Company should enter the canal carrying trade as permitted by the 1845 Act.  Under the new leadership a wholly-owned subsidiary, the Carrying Establishment, was created, the Board regarding the Company’s entry into canal carrying as “an act of self preservation”.  To fund this development further capital was raised by the sale of £104,550 of 6% preference shares, part paid, the first call raising £26,137.

Bryan Pagett Gregson was appointed General Manager of both the Carrying Establishment and the Canal.  He set up a formidable carrying organisation, taking over the canal businesses of Messrs Pickford & Co. and Wheatcroft & Co. among others, thereby providing the new Carrying Establishment with depots in Birmingham, Dudley and Wolverhampton on the Birmingham Canal Navigations.  The Company entered the carrying trade on 1st December 1847, having made arrangements to facilitate ‘through traffic’ at mutually advantageous rates of toll with the Oxford ― for once being co-operative ― Coventry, Warwick & Napton, Warwick & Birmingham, Grand Union and the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union canals.  The new firm’s advertising proclaimed daily fly-boat services from Paddington to Leicester, Loughborough, Derby, Burton and Nottingham, the carriage charges including collection, delivery and reasonable warehousing.  It was also planned to recommence daily fly-boat services to Manchester and Liverpool in the New Year, routes on which traffic had ceased following Pickford’s withdrawal from the trade.

Although the Carrying Establishment undoubtedly stemmed the haemorrhage in revenue caused by Pickford’s withdrawal from the business, it never produced the expected returns.  During its first six months of operation carrying commenced between London and Manchester, and between London and Derby, Leicester and Nottingham.  According to the half-yearly report, trading results were no more than “satisfactory”.  In the case of Manchester, “a considerable portion of the trade had been restored”, while on the second route “there was steady progress”; no mention is made of the planned Liverpool service.

Carrying had so far been confined to Manchester and to the midland counties, and the Company’s efforts to gain new business carrying coal and other heavy traffic appears to have alarmed at least one London & North Western Railway Company shareholder, whose correspondence with the Chairman of the newly formed railway company was subsequently published:

“. . . . a rival [to the LNWR] started into existence where none had been calculated.  The Canal Companies having had a foretaste of what was in store for them, applied to and obtained permission from Parliament to become Carriers on their own account ― a privilege which up to that time they had not possessed.  The result has been that the Grand Junction Canal Company, to preserve itself from destruction, is competing for the Goods traffic between London and the North, at rates so low that the Railway Company cannot venture to touch them, much less to drive the Canal Company as competitors from the field.  When this unseemly strife will end no man can foresee.  Life and death are in the balance so far as the Canal Company is concerned; excessive loss in character and fortune in as far as the Railway Company is affected. . . . The London and North Western Railway Company as you are aware is at the present time carrying goods from London to Manchester at 40s per ton!  The Grand Junction Canal Company are doing the like by Canal at 30s per ton!  As both undertake to collect and deliver without extra charge the real fact is that the Railway charge is 30s per ton the Canal 20s per ton the difference 10s being the cost of collection and delivery.”

Letter to George Carr Glyn Esq. MP, Chairman of the London and North Western Railway Company,
from John Whitehead (London, 15th November). Published London, 1848 [4]

By June 1849, the Company was able to report that canal trade was improving and that carrying was increasing ― for the six months ending in December, 1848, 521,783 tons of merchandise were transported generating revenue of £41,095 ― but that after meeting operating expenses, further setting up charges and the 6% dividend due on the preference stock, canal carrying turned in a loss.  The Chairman’s report does not dwell on its extent, but warns shareholders that the outturn from carrying did not represent new business, but retained business that might otherwise have been lost:

“Nothing short of the company taking the conveyance of goods into their own hands could have prevented a large portion of that revenue from being abstracted from the Canal; because private carriers, by whom the trade was formerly conducted, have neither the means of meeting the competition of powerful railway companies, nor sufficient permanent interest in the canal to induce them to make the sacrifices necessary to do so with effect.”

But on another important front, aggressive railway competition had subsided ― for the time being:

“The committee are happy to say that competition between the North-Western Railway Company and the canal has, by recent arrangement, been confined within legitimate bounds; and they have reason to hope that it will not be renewed in a hostile spirit or form.”

Address to the half-yearly General Meeting of the GJCC, June, 1849.

By the end of the year the shareholders were being advised that the carrying business continued to extend, and that coal and other heavy traffic . . . .

“. . . . has recently exhibited indications of revival.  Great savings in the carriage of coal by water have been affected by the company; and the fact is beginning to be known that many of the inland coals are no whit inferior in quality to the seaborne, while they possess some peculiar advantages, besides being considerably cheaper in price.  The demand upon the committee for the means of bringing these coals to the London market have lately being more than they have been able to comply with . . . .” [5]

Address to the half-yearly General Meeting of the GJCC, December, 1849.

The half-yearly report goes on to explain that some reorganisation of the carrying department was necessary to separate it from the management of the canal and its works, and that Gregson had agreed to continue as Canal Manager at a reduced salary.  A replacement would be found to manage the carrying operation “at an expense smaller than the proportion of salary relinquished by Mr. Gregson”.  Gregson appears to have left the Company’s service in 1850 [6] to return to the Lancaster Canal, where he completed his long canal career in the role of Secretary.



In 1846, the Birmingham Canal Navigations allied themselves to the London & Birmingham Railway [7] and, following the railway merger in that year, with the newly formed London & North Western Railway.  The Act authorising this alliance specified that the London & North Western would rent the Birmingham canal system in exchange for a guaranteed 4% p.a. dividend, which the the Railway would make up from its own resources if necessary.  Subsequently, under railway control, canal tolls were increased on this section of the through route to the north.

An outcome of this canal/railway alliance appears to have been that by 1852, the “arrangement” that had existed between the Grand Junction Canal and London & North Western Railway companies had lapsed, and hostilities had recommenced.  In referring to the Railway’s control of the Birmingham canals, the Grand Junction‘s Chairman, Thomas Grahame, had much to complain about:

“From a link in the chain of water communication connecting the important district of Birmingham and its vicinity, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, and the North, with London and the South, the Birmingham Canal has been converted into a barrier to that communication.  The tolls exacted on that navigation are imposed in the view of extinguishing traffic, not of obtaining revenue.  Were the tolls on the other Canals forming the water route from the Birmingham district and beyond to London and the South, the same as on the Birmingham Canal, all transit by the water route must be at an end . . . . The tolls which they thereby obtained power to perpetuate on the lines of the Birmingham Canal are in many cases double and treble the entire freight chargeable on the rival and parallel Railway route.”

Correspondence between T. Grahame Esq. and the Board of Trade, London, 2nd April, pub. 1852

By August, 1853, the Morning Post was able to report that “the Grand Junction Canal, notwithstanding the rivalry of two lines of railway between Birmingham and London [i.e. the London & North Western and the Great Western railways], was seldom or ever so fully employed as at the present moment”.  The smouldering price war was soon to reignite, probably at the instigation of the Grand Junction, which was attempting to attract the South Staffordshire coal trade.  At the February meeting of London & North Western shareholders, a complaint was raised that the railway company’s directors were pursuing every means of increasing their traffic regardless of whether it resulted in profit.  In particular, that their rivalry with the Grand Junction was such that each was carrying goods at such reduced rates that neither could make money:

“The Grand Junction Canal Company have announced that from the 8th of this month the rates on all class of goods to and from London and Birmingham will be 20s. per ton.  The rates charged by both railway companies to London have hitherto been 27s. 6d. per ton, and to Liverpool 20s.; by the Grand Junction Canal to London 25s. 10d.  An old competition, which it was expected was mutually abandoned, has thus been revived.”

The Times, 14th September 1857

But the price war extended beyond these two competitors.  The London & North Western was also in hot competition with the Great Western Railway for the Birmingham freight trade, their Goods Manager informing the press that he had been instructed to offer reduced rates comparable to those of the Great Western “however low these rates may be”.  By the beginning of 1858, the damaging terms on which each party was doing business were such that normality had to be restored:

“One source of competition, however, in the South Staffordshire districts, which arose from the Grand Junction Canal Company having lowered their rates and diverted a large portion of the trade to water conveyance, while the two railway companies were charging agreed higher rates of freight, has been already terminated.  The rates between South Staffordshire and London have been again raised to a scale which will admit of moderate profit to the companies without impeding the full course of the traffic . . . . No efforts will be spared to mature and give effect to those arrangements, as well as to carry forward in a liberal spirit other negotiations tending to secure traffic at remunerative rates, without hostile competition.”

The Times, 11th February 1858



In 1859, the Company lost a useful source of revenue with the opening of the 4½-mile branch railway between Southall and Brentford Docks.  The problems that the Great Western Railway needed to overcome typifies the drawbacks of canal transportation ― slowness, drought, and ice, added to which in this particular case were the costs of railway to canal transhipment and canal tolls:

“Hitherto all the heavy traffic upon the Great Western Railway destined for the Port of London has left the main line at Bull’s-bridge, whence it has been taken down the Grand Junction Canal to Brentford.  For a long time past the means of transit thus afforded have proved quite inadequate for the greatly increased traffic which the opening up of the Welsh coalfields and the connexion of the Great Western line with Birmingham . . . . and other places have brought upon it.  Between Bulls-bridge and Brentford there are upon the canal no fewer than 11 locks, and the delay which these occasioned was enhanced in winter by frosts and in summer by droughts.  The tonnage dues also were heavy, and all these circumstances affected very prejudicially the goods and mineral traffic upon the trunk line.  These considerations led to the construction of the new railway and dock, which were yesterday opened for public traffic.”

The Times, 16th July 1859



While the railways were slowly but inexorably soaking up the Company’s established business, new opportunities did open up from time to time, one being leisure.  Boat excursions on the Grand Junction Canal were not new, and sketches from the Canal’s early days show parties setting out from Paddington Basin.  Whether these trips were regular summer offerings and whether they had any material impact on Company revenue is not known, but they did on occasions attract the attention of contemporary commentators:

“The adaption last summer of one or two of the barges for pleasure boats to take parties for excursions on the Paddington (Grand Junction) Canal was found to be so palatable to the larger body of the respectable working classes who patronized the speculation, that this summer the number of such pleasure boats has been increased, and, aided by the material advantage of genial weather, the canal . . . . has become quite a pleasure stream, and the scene which presents itself at Paddington . . . . by the arrival and departure of parties of these pleasure trips down the canal, is of the most lively and cheering character.  The barges are entirely devoted to the purpose, and furnished with seats covered and ornamented, and being gaily decorated are not unsuitable vehicles for the enjoyment of the parties, who include hosts of respectable women and children, who, with their provisions and other adjuncts, avail themselves of the novel means of making water excursions several miles from the metropolis.”

The Times, 11th July 1849

A leisure cruise leaving Little Venice, Paddington, 1840

Another writer, who could not help but observe that canals were a thing of the past, added an interesting social perspective to his view of this piece of commercial acumen:

“The glory of the first public Company which shed its influence over Paddington has in a great measure departed; the shares of the Grand Junction Canal Company are below par, though the traffic on this silent highway to Paddington is still considerable; and the cheap trips into the country offered by its means, during the summer months, are beginning to be highly appreciated by the people, who are pent in close lanes and alleys; and I have no doubt the shareholders’ dividends would not be diminished by a more liberal attention to this want.”

Paddington Past and Present, William Robins (1853)

An entirely new source of revenue to appear at this time ― and one that continues to the present day ― was that of leasing wayleave to telecommunications companies to erect their telegraph circuits along the towing paths.

A form of electric telegraph developed by Cooke and Wheatstone received its first public demonstration in 1837 using a line set up between Euston and Camden stations, the test being witnessed by none other than the railway’s Chief Engineer, Robert Stephenson.  By 1846, The Electric Telegraph Company had set up in business to provide overland telegraph services and it was soon followed by competing companies among which was The United Kingdom Telegraph Company.  Formed in 1860, this company attracted business through its flat-rate charge of 1s., irrespective of distance, for a twenty-word message.  It soon acquired the sobriquet ‘The Shilling Telegraph’, although this was misleading, for message collection and delivery charges could more than double the 1s. transmission charge:

“The construction of new lines of telegraph proposed by the United Kingdom Telegraph Company was commenced yesterday at Acton.  The first sod was cut, and the first pole erected, by the directors of the company.  This company proposed to adopt the system of uniform charges, on the principle of the penny postage; messages of not more than twenty-five words are to be sent between all the principal towns and cities in the United Kingdom at the uniform tariff of one shilling.  From Acton, the telegraph lines will be carried along the road to Oxford; thence the wires will be carried on posts along the canals, the proprietors of which have given the requisite permission for setting up the poles on their land.  The principal towns to be provided for by the new telegraph company will be, in the first instance, Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds, and Hull, including, of course, some of the smaller towns which lie between the more important places of business on the route, the line followed being principally that of the existing canals.  The telegraph will be aerial, and not subterranean, experience having proved that wires supported on posts can be more generally relied upon for efficiency than those which are laid underground; where convenient to do so, the wires will be carried on the house-tops.”

Morning Chronicle, 20th November, 1860

Following a challenge in the courts from its competitors, the ‘Shilling Telegraph’ was prevented from laying its trunk cables beneath public highways and had to resort to conveying them along canal towing paths.  In later years, lines of telegraph poles disappearing into the distance were to become a common feature in canal-side photographs.

Telegraph poles stretching off into the distance in Tring cutting.
A fibre optic cable now lies beneath the towpath.

During its first year of operation (1861), the telegraph company installed circuits between Liverpool and Manchester, and London and Birmingham.  Their line between London and Birmingham followed the Grand Junction Canal from Brentford to Braunston, with circuits to Leicester and Northampton following the towing paths of those waterways.  From Braunston, the line followed the Oxford and Warwick canals, and the Birmingham Canal Navigations.  The circuits to Manchester and Liverpool departed along the Birmingham Canal Navigations to join the Trent & Mersey Canal, and then followed the Bridgwater and the Leeds & Liverpool canals, the tails into the city centres extending from the canals’ terminal basins.  Circuits were also laid into the London docks along the Paddington Branch and the Regent’s Canal.

However, the public became increasingly discontent with the limited accessibility, frequent delays, poor transmission quality and high charges of the privately run telegraph networks generally, and the government decided to act.  Under the Telegraph Acts of 1868 & 69, the overland telegraph companies were nationalized, the Postmaster General taking (monopoly) control on 28th January, 1870.  However, the wayleave agreement with the Grand Junction Canal Company remained in force:

“On such Acquisition as aforesaid the existing Agreements between the Company of Proprietors of the Grand Junction Canal and the United Kingdom Telegraph Company (Limited) shall determine, and the Postmaster General shall have a perpetual Right of Way for his Poles, Wires, and Telegraphic Apparatus over the whole of the Canal Company’s System of Navigation as it now exists, or may hereafter be altered or converted, but so that such Poles, Wires, and Apparatus shall not interfere in any way with the Convenience and working of the Canal or its Alteration from Time to Time, or Conversion in whole or in part into a Railway, or obstruct the working of the Traffic thereon, and in consideration thereof he shall pay to the Canal Company such Sum by way of yearly Rent as shall be determined by Agreement . . . . and the Postmaster General shall also transmit to their respective Destinations all Messages of the said Canal Company bond fide relating to the Business of that Company between any Places in the United Kingdom free of Charge.”

Extract from the Telegraph Act (1868)

The clause “or Conversion in whole or in part into a Railway” provides an interesting insight into the prevailing view of the future of canals.

Canals continue to carry telecommunications circuits.  During the 1990s, British Waterways entered into new telecommunication wayleave agreements, the outcome being that many hundreds of miles of inter-city fibre-optic circuits now lay buried beneath Britain’s canal towpaths.



Another hoped-for boost to revenue adopted by the Company during the 1860s, was the use of steam power to move greater loads more quickly, thus improving competitiveness with the railways.

The use of steam power on canals dates back to the early years of the nineteenth century, when a stern-wheel paddle tug, the Charlotte Dundas, designed by William Symington, was demonstrated on the Forth and Clyde Canal.  At the time, canal banks were not protected by walls or sheet piling, and fears that the wash from powered craft would cause bank erosion ended the trial; indeed, this remained an obstacle to the use of powered craft on canals for many years.  But trials continued nevertheless.  On 29th September, 1826, the Tring Vestry Minutes record that “The first steam boat passed down the Grand Junction Canal”.

Elsewhere, experiments with steam propulsion took place, which despite its apparent advantages met with the usual civil engineering objection, bank erosion.  However, in 1838 a notable experiment took place that departed from the impracticable ‘paddle wheel’ propulsion, utilising instead an early application of the ‘screw propeller’ to a design by John Ericsson. [8]  Twin screw propellers were fitted to an ordinary canal boat, the Novelty, which, on 28th June 1838 set off from London along the canals to Manchester, later returning by way of Oxford and the Thames:

“We have already stated that the Novelty is the hull of an old canal boat.  Her form, to those unacquainted with the build of those boats, will be better understood when we state that her length is about seventy-four feet, with seven feet six inch beam, she is heavily constructed, and when loaded draws about two feet of water.  We noticed that her engine is high pressure, and of four horses’ power, supplied with steam from a small locomotive boiler.  The boat is fitted with a species of paddles, already described, but perhaps better known as Ericsson’s propellers, in substitution of the side paddles of the old steamers — which are constructed so as to propel without raising a surge injurious to canal banks, and so as to pass through the narrow locks with ease and safety — objects hitherto unattained, and deemed impracticable . . . . During the trip no injurious ripple was produced by the propellers; but where the water was shallow, a ripple, caused by the displacement of water by the boat, followed midway, and considerably impeded her progress.  With deeper water her speed accelerated, and on the Thames she is said to have achieved a rate varying from eight to nine, and even up to and exceeding ten miles per hour. . . . It is perhaps premature to speculate on the great revolution which the success of this experiment, and the consequent adoption of steam power on canals would occasion . . . . are of course contingent on the success of the mechanical invention, in its application to canals, and on the degree of cordiality with which canal proprietors approve of a change which some of them may imagine (whether justly or not we do not affirm) will cause greater wear and tear to their property than to which the ordinary mode of horse towing at present subjects them.”

Manchester Guardian, 18th July 1838

Although nothing came of the experiment, it served to demonstrate the considerable advantages in practicality and efficiency of screw propulsion over paddle wheels. [9]

The Guardian’s report is also interesting for describing the effects of shallow water on speed.  Hydrodynamics is a branch of physics that was only then becoming understood.  To the early canal engineers, determining the dimensions of a new canal was simply a matter of providing sufficient depth for full loading and sufficient width to permit a pair of barges to pass.  But a barge that moves with little clearance above the canal bed, and/or about its sides, is unduly affected by hydraulic drag.  Its movement creates a reverse flow of water that must take place in the confined space between the barge and the canal bed and banks, which increases the resistance to motion.  Hence, for a given motive power, a barge in the confines of a narrow and shallow canal moves more slowly than it would in a wide and deep canal.  Drag is particularly affected by anything that serves to reduce a canal’s depth, such as shoals (i.e. the need for dredging), drought and leakage.  Thus, when depth is reduced by a comparatively small amount, for example from 4.0 to 3.9 feet, the corresponding drag on a barge drawing 3.5 feet is increased by about 25 percent.

The next notable steam propulsion trial on the Grand Junction Canal took place in December 1851.  Recognising that higher speeds would increase the drag inherent in a narrow channel ― and would also increase bank erosion ― an alternative strategy was to harness the steam engine’s ability to sustain tractive effort by hauling much heavier loads, but at the usual horse-dawn speeds of 2 to 2½ mph.  And so a further experiment was carried out on the lockless section of the Canal between Bull’s Bridge and Paddington by a steam-powered tug hauling a train of eight barges laden with bricks.  The outcome was that a speed of 2¼ mph was attained “without exciting the slightest wave or perceptible disturbance in the water”.  When repeated the following day, the test met with equal success, the Times correspondent reporting that “it was universally admitted that much benefit to canals must result from the adoption of this economical motive power; from it the heavy traffic, now seriously menaced by railway competition, must equally derive great and immediate advantage”.  Despite this apparent success, the Company’s adoption of steam power was anything but immediate and further tests took place during the 1850s, but without a decision being reached.

From a slightly later era to that being discussed, the Steam tug Buffalo at Bushell Brother’s boatyard at Tring.

The Buffalo is known to have been owned by William Mead & Co., a family that leased wharves at Paddington and owned interests in the brickfields at Iver, so she may have been used for hauling barge loads of bricks on the Long Level to Paddington’s South Wharf.  In his autobiography, John Mead refers to her purchase ― “We heard that the Birmingham Carrying Company had 2 tugs for sale, the Antelope and the Buffalo.  The Canal foreman was against having these, but the price was low and we bought them, and they were a success.  Mead is vague on the date of this transaction, but it appears to have been around 1898.


Towards the end of 1859, the Company’s Chairman and Surveyor visited the Leeds & Liverpool and the Forth & Clyde canals to examine their use of steam tugs.  They gained a favourable impression in consequence of which the Company decided to fit an existing canal barge with a 6hp steam engine.  On trial, the Pioneer proved capable of towing six barges of total weight 300 tons.  It was claimed that she and her butty could travel from London to Birmingham and half way back on a full bunker of coal (2½ tons), and at a cost 25% below that of towing by horse.  So satisfied was the Board, that in December 1860 they placed an order for “three new iron boats, three new wooden boats with iron sterns and three new wooden boats with iron sheets at the stern all fitted with steam engines and screws similar to those in Pioneer . . . . that there be built two iron tug boats of greater power for the purpose of conveying the trade on the Canal to and from Paddington and Cowley Lock” [10] ― the differing hull designs probably resulted from there being no precursor on which to base a reliable design, which had to be derived by trial and error.  Because the Carrying Establishment’s cash resources were unlikely to cover the cost of construction, arrangements were made with Praed & Co., the Company’s bankers, to advance up to £4,000 for the purpose.  By June, 1863, the Chairman was able to report that the Carrying Establishment had twenty-four steamers and three tugs at work, and it was hoped to increase the number to “enable them to dispense with the use of horses on the Grand Junction Canal, as well as to convey its traffic on the River Thames with greater despatch and economy”.

The eventual development of the steam narrow boat.
‘President’ was built in 1909 by Fellows Morton and Clayton at their dock at Saltley, Birmingham.
The boiler and bunker took up space, and the plant required the attention of an engineer.

Although steam power soon became established, the Carrying Establishment remained a substantial owner of horses.  At the beginning of 1870 they owned 140, which the half-yearly report claimed where being fed according to a plan devised by the General Omnibus Company, which resulted in a saving in provender of £4 per horse per annum and that “the Company’s horses were in much better condition than previously”.  Economies were also being made in the way boatmen were paid, which changed from a per trip basis to one based on the tonnage carried.  This, it was hoped, would encourage them to pick up “all the traffic they could along the canal”.



On 2nd October, 1874, a disaster occurred that brought the Company’s carrying business to a sudden end.  In the early hours of the morning a train of six barges left the Company’s wharf in City Road Basin on the Regent’s Canal drawn by the steam tug Ready.  Third in the line was the barge Tilbury, carrying among other items a quantity of petroleum and some five tons of gunpowder, most of it being in barrels but some was contained in a box.  When passing under the Macclesfield Bridge the Tilbury blew up killing her crew of three and causing extensive damage to nearby property, fortunately mitigated by the blast being deflected by the small cutting in which the explosion occurred.  It was thought that an oil lamp might have ignited petrol vapour that had gathered in the hold.

Initially the Company decided to contest liability for the damage, but having lost a court case it was resolved that “the damage done to property be admitted and that parties claiming compensation be called upon to send in particulars for investigation with a view to settlement”.  Claims amounting to £80,000 were made, which were settled with the aid of a £40,000 loan from Praeds, the Company’s bankers.

Macclesfield Bridge ― known as ‘Blow-up Bridge’ ― on the Regent’s Canal, the site of the great explosion on 2nd October, 1874.  The great Doric iron columns are the originals.

If the Regent’s Canal explosion was not sufficient, on 21st September 1875, the boiler of the steam tug Pincher, moored at Yardley Wharf near Stony Stratford, blew up killing both engineers, badly injuring the master and wrecking the steamer, which sank.  The Pincher, on her way from London to Birmingham laden with 13 tons of potash and towing a train of five boats, had stopped at Yardley Wharf to discharge grain.  She had been lying there for about an hour when the explosion occurred ― its cause was never established.

In March 1876, the Company resolved to discontinue its carrying trade, which ceased from 1st July.  The Carrying Establishment’s assets were sold to, among others, The London and Staffordshire Carrying Company, the proceeds of this sale (£2,352) probably going towards paying off the £5,000 outstanding to Praeds, whose account was settled in October, 1877.  And so the Company withdrew from a business that they could not turn into a success, but which others did.

The London and Staffordshire Carrying Company was later absorbed into Fellows, Morton & Clayton (often referred to as FMC), which became England’s largest and best-known canal carrier.  FMC’s roots go back to 1837, when James Fellows, then an agent for a canal carrier, set up in business on his own account.  Following Fellow’s death in 1854, his widow continued the business until her son Joshua was old enough to become a partner.  By 1855 the firm was transporting 13,000 tons of iron castings annually between London and Birmingham, and by the early 1860s the fleet numbered some 50 boats.  In 1876, Joshua Fellows was joined by Frederick Morton who brought with him the capital necessary to expand the business, the company then becoming Fellows Morton & Co.

In 1889, Thomas Clayton joined the firm, which then became Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd.  As part of the deal, Clayton’s general cargo fleet [11] was taken over by FMC, whose fleet now numbered some 11 steamers and 112 butties.  The firm had their own dockyards at Saltney, Birmingham, where their steamers were built, and at Uxbridge, which specialised in wooden construction.  By 1920, the FMC fleet had grown to 21 steamers (then being phased out), 25 diesel-powered narrow boats and 162 other craft.  Following WWII, canal business declined sharply due to road and rail competition.  In 1947 the firm experienced their first ever trading loss, and in the following year the directors decided to place the firm into voluntary liquidation, [12] its assets being sold to the newly formed Docks and Inland Waterways Executive of the British Transport Commission.



The Canal Carriers Act (1845) had cleared the way for canal companies to become common carriers.  More legislation was to follow during the latter part of the nineteenth century aimed at preventing the railway companies exploiting their increasingly monopolistic position as freight carriers.  In an attempt to curtail the railway companies’ ability to damage their canal counterparts, thereby strengthening their virtual monopoly, several Acts included provisions designed to remove the obstacles to ‘through working’ across a number of different canal systems.

The Railway and Canals Traffic Act (1854) addressed mainly railway-related problems, but so far as canal carrying was concerned it aimed to check the railways’ gradual stifling of canals by placing an obligation on canal companies “to afford all reasonable facilities for the receiving and forwarding, and delivering of traffic” without delay, to and from their canals.  This provision sought to end the practice whereby a monopoly operator could deal unfairly with some customers.  It applied particularly to canal companies that were either owned or controlled by a railway company, and which owned short sections of much longer through routes over which they could charge unreasonably high tolls.  But as “reasonable” was open to interpretation, the provision was easy to avoid, thus rendering the Act (within this context) of little consequence.

The 1854 Act was followed four years later by further legislation aimed at preventing, without legislative sanction, the virtual amalgamation of canals with railways.  It addressed the situation whereby a railway company ― that was also a ‘canal company’ by virtue of having previously purchased a canal ― from acquiring control of an independent canal company under a lease, rather than by outright purchase.

In 1873 a further Railway and Canal Traffic Act created the ‘Court of the Railway and Canal Commission’ whose role was to enforce the 1854 Act, and it set out the duties of the Commissioners.  This Act gave to either party in a dispute between a railway and a canal company the right to refer the dispute to the Commissioners for a decision, and provided explanations for determining what constituted ‘reasonable’ action.  It also prohibited railway companies from making agreements with canal companies for the purpose of controlling tolls, rates or traffic on any part of a canal and, with regard to railway-controlled canals:

“Every railway company owning or having the management of any canal or part of a canal shall at all times keep and maintain such canal or part, and all the reservoirs, works, and conveniences thereto belonging, thoroughly repaired and dredged and in good working condition, and shall preserve the supplies of water to the same, so that the whole of such canal or part may be at all times kept open and navigable for the use of all persons desirous to use and navigate the same without any unnecessary hindrance, interruption, or delay.”

Although very late in coming, this potentially onerous requirement was one that canal-owning railway companies had not anticipated when they entered the canal business.

The year 1894 saw yet a further Railway and Canal Traffic Act.  This legislation further constrained railway dominance over the canal trade by making it difficult for freight charges to be increased once they had been lowered.  In effect, the Act removed a strategy employed by railway companies, which was to exploit their ability to cross-subsidize freight charges from passenger revenue and hence to undercut canal charges artificially until such time as the lower charges had destroyed a competing canal company.  The railway company could then restore rates to the previous levels.  But the Act was too late in coming, for the railways’ damage to the independent canal system was by then complete:

“No traffic can get out of the centre of England without encountering railway-owned or controlled canals, e.g. South Staffordshire Iron Traffic arises on the Birmingham Canal, and if destined for Liverpool, must pass by the Shropshire Union or Trent and Mersey Canal, whilst the Cannock Coalfield has no means of water transit but the Birmingham Canal, the North Staffordshire Pottery District and Burton-on-Trent have only the Trent and Mersey Canal, whilst traffic from the Warwickshire Coalfield is hemmed in, except to London, by the Birmingham and Trent and Mersey Canals, all railway owned or controlled.”

Digest of the Report and Recommendations of the Royal Commission on Canals (1913)

The canal companies’ attempts to attract long-distance trade can be illustrated by comparing the tolls charged by the Grand Junction and associated canals on the London to Birmingham route, as authorised in their Acts, with the amounts actually charged, which show the significant reductions in toll that the independent canal companies had made in order to attract through trade:


Grand Junction Canal (101 miles) – toll per ton:



Actually charged:


8s 4½d



14s 9½d



16s 10¾d

2s 6d

Iron: 14s 4¾d 1s 8d


Oxford Canal (7 miles) – toll per ton:



Actually charged:


4s 4d



4s 4d



4s 4d


Iron: 4s 4d 3d


Warwick & Napton Canal (15 miles) – toll per ton:



Actually charged:


1s 10½d



1s 10½d

1s 3d


1s 10½d


Iron: 1s 10½d 7½d


Warwick & Birmingham Canal (22 miles) – toll per ton:



Actually charged:


2s 9d



2s 9d

1s 3d


2s 9d


Iron: 2s 9d 7½d


Birmingham Canal – railway controlled - (allowance for 10 miles) – toll per ton:



Actually charged:


1s 2d

1s 2d


1s 2d

1s 2d


1s 2d

1s 2d

Iron: 1s 6d 1s 6d

Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Canals (1883) – Appendix 14

By comparison, the figures for the Birmingham Canal illustrate the stifling effect that this railway controlled canal was having on London-bound traffic ― indeed, on all traffic passing through Birmingham ― its tolls being significantly higher in pence per mile that those of the independent canals along the route.

Another measure of the decline of long distance traffic on the Grand Junction Canal was the amount of coal shipped into London from the Midlands and North of England by canal and railway respectively.  The tonnages for the period between 1852 and 1882 show that the Grand Junction’s share of this trade fell dramatically, which is especially significant, for coal originally comprised a large percentage of all canal traffic:




By canal

33,000 tons

7,900 tons

By railway

317,000 tons

6,546,000 tons

From the Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Canals (1883)

When the Royal Commission on Canals sat in 1906, the figures they were presented with for the weight of coal being shipped into London were, by rail 7,137,473 tons (45.6%); by sea 8,494,234 tons (54.3%); by canal 18,681 tons (0.119%); and overall for the period 1880 to 1905, 0.1% of the coal shipped to London came by canal (rail and sea sharing almost equal proportions of the balance).




Interior of a narrow boat’s cabin, from the door.

In 1878 and in 1884, legislation appeared aimed not at regulating the commercial aspects of the canal carrying trade, as had earlier Acts, but the lives of those who manned the boats and for whom they were their home.  The person whose name is linked indelibly with the Canal Boats Acts is the Wesleyan social reformer George Smith.

“During the whole of my enquiries among the boaters I only remember in one instance being subjected to anything like an insult from the boaters themselves, and that was at Moira one Saturday, some three years since, by a woman who was almost big enough to fill the cabin herself; notwithstanding this, she managed to pack somehow and somewhere a big husband, a poor little cripple and three other children in the cabin, so as to be able to dine at a small cupboard door 2 feet 6 inches by 2 feet, and to sleep in a place not large enough for a cottager’s hen-roost.  She found fault with me for saying that they were dirty, and wore dirty linen and washed in and drank out of the dirty ‘cut.’  It was then four o’clock, and raining very heavily, and she was washing the clothing for the Sunday, and the children partly dressed camping round a fire on the path. I asked her how she was going to dry the clothes.  Her answer was, that she was ‘going to light a fire in the middle of the hut to dry some of them, and the rest I shall hang before the cabin fire, to dry while we are asleep.’  I pointed out to her what the colour of the clothes would be after they had been ‘smoked,’ and the danger she was running with reference to their health by drying the clothes in the cabin while they were asleep in bed.  Hinting these and a few other things to her in a kindly spirit, and a few pence given to the children, easily made us friends, and we have been friends ever since.”

Our Canal Population, George Smith (1875)


Interior of a narrow boat’s cabin, from the bed.

Smith was born Tunstall, Staffordshire, on 16th February 1831.  The son of a brick-maker, it was while working as a child labourer in the appalling conditions of the brickyards that fired Smith’s social conscience.  Self-educated, he campaigned tirelessly for conditions to be improved, eventually succeeding in 1871 with the passage in the Factories and Workshops Act, [13] which required brickyards to be inspected and which regulated the employment of juvenile and female labour.  By then Smith had risen to the position of colliery manager, but his refusal to relinquish social campaigning cost him his job, and years of poverty were to follow.

Despite this misfortune, Smith next turned his attention to living conditions on canal boats.  Families had lived on the canals from their earliest years, particularly on the larger boats and where trade involved journeys that usually took many days to complete, but the pay was good and boatmen’s families mostly lived ashore.  Living afloat became more common following the Napoleonic Wars and the advent of the railways, both events leading to a fall in earnings.  Economies could be made if the family moved into the narrow boat’s rear cabin (10 ft. long by 6 ft. 10 ins. wide) and helped to run it.  And so entire families came to exist in the inadequate confines of a canal boat cabin, with limited toilet and washing facilities, and with a nomadic lifestyle cut off from the developing influences of the outside world, particularly those of health and education:

“Some of the canal cabins are models of neatness and a man and two youths might pass a few nights in such very comfortably.  Others are the most filthy holes imaginable, what with bugs and other vermin creeping up the sides, stinking mud finding its way through the leaky joints at the end to the bottom of the cabin and being heated by a hot stove, stenches arise therefrom to make a dog sick.  In these cabins fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers sleep in the same bed at the same time.  In these places girls of 17 give birth to children, fathers of which are members of their own family.”

Our Canal Population, George Smith (1875)

Bearing in mind the nature of some of the cargoes carried ― such as manure, night soil [14] and council rubbish ― vermin infestation was hardly surprising.  Such conditions alone led to disease, added to which boat people washed in, cooked with and often drank canal water polluted with excrement dumped from the boats and other sources.  Smith, motivated by his strong Methodist ideals, wanted children ― boys under 13, girls under 18 — removed from the over-crowded and sometimes insanitary canal boat cabins.  He also wanted each canal boat to be registered for the number, age and gender of the occupants it could accommodate and for children to reach a certain standard of education before being allowed to enter the canal carrying trade.  His persistent campaigning eventually bore fruit, and on 1st January 1878, the first Canal Boats Act [15] became law.

The Act required every canal boat that was to be used as a dwelling to be registered “with some registration authority having a district abutting on the canal on which the boat is accustomed or intended to ply”.  The registration certificates issued under the Act contained various details about the boat, how it should be marked as being registered, and “the number, age and sex of the persons allowed to dwell in the boat”.  In determining the latter, account was taken of “the cubic space, ventilation, provision for the separation of the sexes, general healthiness, and convenience of accommodation of the boat”.  And so the Act attempted to address moral issues as well as those concerning hygiene and the spread of infectious disease:

“During the past four weeks two registered canal boats have been conveying smallpox to different parts of the country.  In one case a boatwoman with two children were left at Leighton suffering from this terrible disease, and the boatman continued his course to this district, when another child, suffering from the same malady, was ‘put off’ and sent to Leicester.  A few days later the doctor pronounced another child that was in the cabin ill of the same complaint, but the boat moved on.  In the case of the other boat, two children were left at Berkhamsted ill of small-pox, and the boat, with two children in the cabin, moved forward to Staffordshire.  If the time should ever come when the Canal Boat Act Amendment Bill I am humbly promoting, and which has been before Parliament during the last two sessions, becomes law, such cases as the above will be impossible; and the 60,000 canals and gipsy children of school age growing up in black midnight ignorance will have been put upon a step that leads from darkness to light, and from hell to heaven, with but little cost or inconvenience to either boatmen or boat owners.  Shall it be so?”

George Smith, of Coalville, 28th March 1883

The Act also attempted to ensure some degree of education by bringing children under the provisions of the various Education Acts then in force, but as canal families were a nomadic population its educational aspirations could not be implemented effectively in practice.  The Act was flawed in other ways.  It contained nothing to regulate the use of child labour and its implementation was left to local authorities who did so with varying degrees of enthusiasm.


In 1884, an amendment Act passed into law that attempted to address these problems.  It provided for canal boats to be inspected by sanitary authorities under a centrally appointed Chief Canal Boat Inspector, allowed for penalties to be imposed for violations of the Act, and gave regulation-making powers to the Education Department.  The Local Government Board accepted responsibility for the Canal Boat Acts, but with extreme reluctance.

While failing to satisfy Smith’s objectives, the Acts went some way to reducing overcrowding and setting a minimum standard of accommodation and sanitation that was enforced by fairly regular inspection.  It undoubtedly resulted in some improvement in the social condition of canal boat families, although at the expense of breaking up larger family groups, for to bring the number of occupants on a boat within registration limits, ‘surplus’ children had to be farmed out to other canal boat families who had spare living space.

Three establishments were set up on the Grand Junction Canal where some education was provided.  The first was set up at Brentford in 1904 by a religious organisation, the London City Mission:

“For many water families, the Boatmen‘s Institute on the Grand Union Canal‘s west London terminus at Brentford was a beacon, where the children could be left for weeks at a time to get the rudiments of an education as the parents took loads to Birmingham and back.  The place even had lying-in rooms where women could give birth in relative dignity.  For one old boatman, it was ‘the happiest, blessedest place in Brentford’.”

The Independent, 12th May, 2004

The Mission also administered a further school at Paddington . . . .

“A scheme for the extension of the existing facilities for the education of canal-boat children, who come to London by barge from many parts of the country, has this week been finally approved by the committee responsible for the conduct of the Boatman‘s Institute.  For the past nine years a school has been carried on at the Institute in South Wharf-road, Paddington, but the building is now to be demolished to make room for a new medical school in connection with St. Mary‘s Hospital.  Suitable and more commodious premises have been secured for the purpose in Irongate Wharf-road.  There are 90 children at present on the school‘s roll, but when the new accommodation is available it is expected that that number will be quadrupled.

The problem of the education of barge children is of long standing.  The conditions of barge life have made the children the despair of the attendance officer.  The progress made by children attending the present school has, however, been remarkable.  When it was first opened it was rare to find a child, or even a grown-up person, the canal community who could read or write.  Now, especially among the older children, illiteracy is rarely found.”

The Times, 20th December, 1929

To these were added the barge-based school, the Elsdale, at Bull’s Bridge.  But isolation ― perhaps alleviated to some extent by the later arrival of wireless ― and a high incidence of illiteracy among canal families only disappeared with the end of canal carrying.



Evidence given before a committee of the House of Lords
sitting on the first London and Birmingham Railway Bill,
June 1832.

Appendix to Railway Practice, by S. C. Brees (1839)

Canal Carrier of Thirty four Years Experience.

I have been engaged 20 years in trading between Birmingham and London, (and from Birmingham, Worcester, Shrewsbury, and Bristol).

There are three Routes by Canal to London, one by Worcester and Birmingham, one by Stratford and Worcester, and another round by Coventry.  The Fly Boats go the shortest route, and are three days and nights on the journey; the Slow Boats are six or seven days, and they seldom travel at night.

The shortest route to London is taking the whole line of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, which goes into the Warwick and Knapton, and only seven miles on the Oxford; the Heavy Boats generally go by the Fazeley, which is the longest route, as the Birmingham Canal Company allow them to pass on to Fazeley, to a certain place where the Oxford Canal charges the same for going 40 miles as the others do for going seven, which makes it cheap.

The number of Fly Boats which start from Birmingham every week is 25, and the average tonnage of each boat is about 15 tons up and 8 tons down; they sometimes carry from 18 to 19 tons.  The number of Slow Boats that start from Birmingham weekly is about 30, an the average number of tons conveyed by them is 23 up and 5 down.

The Cargoes conveyed to London, consist of all the Manufactured Goods of the neighbourhood, as Nails, Vices, Anvils, Chains, Agricultural Implements.  These are charged 40s. a Ton which is a lower Rate of Tonnage and Freight than the other part of the Cargo, which consists of Locks, Coach Pins, Screws, Sadlery, Ironmonger's and Drysaltery Goods, Copper Furniture and Nails, Wire, and Wire manufactured Goods, Iron and Paper Trays, Fenders, Fire Irons, Guns, Swords, and Army Stores, Glass Lamps, Bronze Goods, Steel and other Ornaments, Ivory and Bone Toys, Plated Goods, Carpets, &c.  The Freight of these light Goods is 55s.  The heavy goods are put at the bottom of the Boat, and the light goods on the top.

The Cargoes from London to Birmingham consist principally of Wines and Spirits, Grocery, Saltpetre, Tallow, and Mercery Goods, and the principal portion of it is Colonial Produce. The average price of the above is 40s. per Ton (the steerage is generally calculated on the back carriage).

The Slow Boats convey from Birmingham to London Iron Work, Water and Gas Pipes, Grain, at an average Rate of 22s. 6d per Ton.  The Cargoes brought from London to Birmingham consist of Timber, Grain, and Foreign Iron for the manufacture of Steel; the average Freight of which is 26s. 6d.

Goods are likewise conveyed by Canal conveyed by from the intermediate places, and large supplies of Coals are thrown on the Canal, some at Warwick and Fazeley, on the different routes, and some at Branston (sic.). By these routes there is an immense quantity of Hardware Goods, Earthenware, and Pottery Goods conveyed; also, Salt from the Cheshire Salt Works, Cheese out of Cheshire and Derbyshire; also, Manchester and Yorkshire Goods.

A Fly Boat occupies about three minutes in passing a Lock; there are many Locks on this line of Canal.  The Canals are generally stopped about 14 Days, in the Winter and about a Week or 10 Days for Repairs at Whitsuntide.

Taking the average of light Goods only by Fly Boats, I make it amount to £68,250 up, and to £29,121 down, making altogether £97,370.  I think that the whole of the Goods that go by Fly Boats will go by the Railway, and the heavy Goods, such as Pig and Bar Iron, Timber, &c. will go by the Canal as they do now; so that the Canal would lose £97,000 entirely.


of Birmingham.

There are three Lines of Canal between London and Birmingham, viz. the Coventry Canal, by the way of Fazeley, which is 177 miles long; the Oxford Canal, by Warwick and Knapton, which is 152 miles long, and the Grand Junction Canal, by the Worcester and Stratford Canal, which is about 155 miles long.

The number of Locks on the Fazeley Line are 150, on the Warwick 173, and on the Stratford 161.  A Fly Boat occupies minutes in passing the Boat Locks, and five minutes the Barge Locks, and Slow Boats pass in five minutes; so that 11½ hours are occupied by the Fly Boats, and 14 hours by the Slow Boats, in passing all the Locks the Fazeley Line. There are six Tunnels on the Fazeley Line, a distance of four miles; on the Worcester there are six making, making 4¼ miles.  The Fly Boats making are occasionally delayed in passing the Tunnels, owing to the heavy Boats getting in before them.

Canals are generally stopped 14 Days upon an average during the Winter; (persons who trade in heavy articles, such as Coals and Iron, are obliged to provide against the same by laying in a large stock) they are also frequently stopped during the Summer Months, from Saturday Night until Monday Morning or Night.

Fly Boats complete the Journey in about three Days and three Nights, and Slow Boats in about six or seven Days.  The Tonnage on heavy Goods, Coals and Iron, is 1d per Ton, and on general Goods 1½d per Ton per Mile; in general per addition to which they charge 8d. per Ton for passing the Blisworth Cutting, also 4d for going over the Grass Road Valley, and 10s. for Permission to pass a Pair of Boats at Night, and 10s. is charged for the same upon the Grand Junction at Branston (sic.), where they also charge 1s 6d for dragging the Boats through the Tunnel, which is done by two people, and 2s. is charged for the same at Blisworth.

On the Warwick and Knapton Canal there is 17½ Miles of the Junction to Oxford, for which they pay extra; the Grand Junction charge 18s. for passing a single Boat from Branston (sic.) to Paddington, and 21s. to the Thames at Brentford.  I can judge from the draught of water what weight a Boat carries.



Hardwares generally, in Casks or Cases


3s. 0d. per cwt



2s. 9d.      »



2s. 9d.      »



2s. 9d.      »

Frying Pans


2s. 9d.      »

Iron Hollow Wares


2s. 9d.      »

Smith's Bellows


2s. 9d.      »

Muskets, in Cases


2s. 9d.      »

Swords, in Ditto


2s. 9d.      »

Matchets, in Ditto


2s. 9d.      »

Nails, in Casks or Bags


2s. 6d.      »

Heavy manufactured Goods, generally

2s. 6d. to 

2s. 9d.      »

Ale per Barrel of Thirty six Gallons

2s. 3d. to

2s. 6d.

N.B. Goods may be reckoned generally 3s. per Cent. cheaper from thence to London.


Wines, in Cases or Hampers


2s. 9d. per cwt

Spirits in Ditto


2s. 9d.      »



2s. 9d.      »

Coffee and Grocery, generally


2s. 6d.      »



2s. 3d.      »



2s. 3d.      »

Drugs generally

2s. 3d. to

2s. 6d.      »

Oils, Resin, &c. &c.


2s. 3d.      »

Dry Saltery, generally

2s. 0d. to

2s. 3d.      »



2s. 3d.      »



2s. 6d.      »



2s. 6d.      »

Candles, in Cases


2s. 6d.      »



2s. 6d.      »

Nuts, Oranges, &c.


2s. 6d.      »

Tobacco and Snuff


2s. 6d.      »

Drapery, generally


2s. 6d.      »



2s. 6d.      »



2s. 9d.      »

Pearl, Shell, in Casks, &c.

2s. 0d. to

2s. 3d.      »



2s. 0d.      »

Grain from Brentford, for Boat Loads

1s. 0d. to

1s. 3d.      »

of Daintry.

I was employed upon the Grand Junction Canal at Brunston (sic.) for 14 Days, from six in the morning until six at night; the Number of Fly Boats that passed during that time was 209, (the average Weight of a Fly Boat is 10 or 11 Tons) and 80 Slow Boats, (some are of 28 and some 30 Tons Burden) also 138 Coal Boats.

The Branston (sic.) Pound is a part of the Grand Junction Canal where several other Canals meet, viz. the Oxford, the Warwick and Knapton, the Warwick and Birmingham, and the Paisley and Coventry.  I merely took those that came from Oxford, and entered the Junction right up the Line from Coventry, Wolverhampton, and so on; I took all those that went towards London, whether they came from Coventry, the Oxford, or elsewhere.

[Chapter XIII.]




This, despite an increase in the weight carried from 224,267 to 299,608 tons.


. . . . as well as to charge tolls for use of their waterways.


Pickford & Co.’s rail freight business was short-lived.  The arrangement whereby they carried their own goods on the London & Birmingham Railway ― in similar manner to that which had operated on the canals ― disappeared when the merged railway companies decided to act as common carriers.  Despite a legal ruling in Pickford’s favour (Pickford et al vs. The Grand Junction Railway Co. [1844]), the London and North Western Railway and the Midland Railway drove the private carriers from their lines, seeing more profit in carrying freight themselves, a practice that became the standard for British railways thereafter.  Pickfords then diversified into collecting and delivering to and from railway stations, leaving the intermediate stage to the railway companies, and as a carter the firm continued to prosper.


George Carr Glyn, 1st Baron Wolverton (1797-1873) was a banker with railway interests and a partner in the family banking firm of Glyn, Mills & Co.  Whitehead was a member of the London Stock Exchange and a published author on investing.  His obituarist in The Economist wrote that he was “energetic, sagacious, affable, intelligent, [and] an almost unerring judge of character”.


Although much of the tonnage had been taken by the railways, coal was to become the GJC’s staple long distance freight, shipments from the Warwickshire coal fields continuing to almost the end of its carrying days.


 . . . . perhaps as a result of a motion proposed by Grahame (GJCC Chairman) in August 1850, at an acrimonious meeting of the Lancaster Canal Navigation, of which he was a director, that “every paid officer of the company should devote his entire time to the business of the company”.  Gregson was an employee of both.


London and Birmingham Railway and Birmingham Canal Arrangement Act (1846).


Whether Ericsson invented the marine propeller is a matter of controversy, for there are other claimants.


This was decided in 1845 in the famous tug-of-war between the warships Rattler and Alecto.


Grand Junction Canal Company Minute Book.


Clayton‘s specialist tanker fleet ― designed to carry tar and gas water (rich in ammonia) ― remained independent, eventually becoming Thomas Clayton (Oldbury Ltd), remaining in the bulk liquid transport business until 1966.


London Gazette, 5th November, 1948.


34 & 35 Vict. cap. 104


Human excrement collected at night from cesspools, privies, etc. used as fertiliser. During the preparation of this text, the authors interviewed Miss Catherine Bushell, whose father was a partner in Bushell Bros., owners of the Tring Dockyard.  She recalled that whenever a canal boat came in for repair, it was fumigated before any work took place.


An Act to provide for the Registration and Regulation of Canal Boats used as Dwellings (40 & 41 Vict., RA 14th August 1877).