The Bridgewater Canal was Britain’s first true canal.
Opened in 1761, it demonstrated the feasibility of using a
man-made waterway to move heavy loads comparatively quickly over
distance. A transport revolution then followed during
which the many canals built to exploit this new load moving
ability were to become both cause and effect of the rapid
industrialisation of the Midlands and the north of England.
Improved transport communications made centralised industrial
manufacture viable and was thus an important factor in bringing
about the transition from cottage industry to the factory
Completion of the Oxford Canal in 1790 provided a link between
our growing canal network and London. However, the route
was unsatisfactory; not only was it over-long, but the section
that relied on the River Thames below Oxford was difficult to
navigate. The need for a more direct and reliable waterway
to link the Capital with the Midlands and the north of England
led to the construction of the Grand Junction Canal.
its northern end, the Canal forms a junction with the Oxford
Canal at Braunston in Northamptonshire (just to the right of
point ‘4’ on the sketch map). The waterway then follows a
south-easterly course via Wolverton, Leighton, Tring and
Uxbridge to reach the River Thames at Brentford, with an
important branch from Hayes to Paddington — this was later
extended by the Regent’s Canal to make a further connection to
the Thames at Limehouse (point ‘1’ on the sketch map.
A sketch map of the Grand Union Canal in 1938, the Grand
Junction Canal having by then been
absorbed into this larger network (the branch to Buckingham had
Construction commenced in 1793. By 1800, the Canal was substantially
complete, a short gap remaining between Stoke Bruerne and Blisworth where civil
engineering problems with the long Blisworth Tunnel delayed final completion
until 1805. For some years thereafter the Canal was very profitable, but
from the 1840s onwards it fell into commercial decline as the mainline railways
― principally the London & Birmingham Railway ― gradually captured its long
distance trade. Throughout the canal industry this second transport
revolution forced companies to reduce their tariffs to barely economic levels to
retain what business they could in the face of this new and voracious
competition ― many went to the wall.
In 1894, the Grand Junction Canal Company bought two of the
Leicestershire canals, their owners being on the verge of insolvency, thereby
extending its domain to Leicester. Then, in 1929, the Company amalgamated
with the Regent’s and Warwick canals to form the Grand Union Canal Company and
bring under single ownership the waterway from Brentford and Limehouse on the
Thames, to Birmingham. Further canal purchases in 1932 extended the
network from Leicester to the River Trent and onwards to the
Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. But despite a greater mileage of canals
being brought under unified control and heavy investment in improvements, rail
and increasingly road continued to dominate the transport industry. A
growing shortage of boatmen prepared to accept the rigors of canal life added to
the Company’s difficulties.
By the mid-1950s only the section of the Canal below Uxbridge remained
commercially viable. A decade later, trade had diminished to negligible
proportions, but by then canal carrying was being superseded by leisure
cruising, a fact recognised in the 1968 Transport Act, which gave British
Waterways a remit to develop our canals for leisure use. Today the Grand
Union Canal (as it now is) carries more leisure traffic during the summer season
than its predecessor did commercial traffic during its heyday as a major
The following account deals with these events in more detail ― we hope you
find it interesting.
FOREWORD . . . .