Canal Mania (Classroom Activity)

In the 18th century, Francis Egerton, the Duke of Bridgewater owned a large coal-mine at Worsley. The main market for his coal was the fast-growing town of Manchester. The roads between Worsley and Manchester were so bad that Bridgewater had to use pack-horses instead of wagons. As each horse could only carry 3 hundredweight (cwt) of coal at a time, this was a very expensive form of transportation.

In 1759, John Gilbert, one of Bridgewater's workers, suggested that a solution to this problem would be to cut a canal between Worsley Colliery and Manchester. Gilbert pointed out, that one horse could pull over 400 cwt of coal at a time when it was carried on a barge. Bridgewater liked the idea, and after gaining permission from Parliament gave instructions for the building of the Bridgewater Canal.

Bridgewater employed the talented engineer and millwright, James Brindley, to take charge of the project. It took Brindley eighteen months to build the ten-mile canal. At Worsley Colliery, Brindley constructed a network of underground waterways. Coal could now be loaded on barges at the coal face and transported direct to Manchester. With this new canal, Bridgewater was able to reduce the cost of his coal from 7d. to 4d. per cwt. When it was completed it became Britain's first industrial canal.

Bridgewater now extended his canal to the Mersey. This provided Manchester manufacturers with an alternative way of transporting their goods to the port of Liverpool. As this reduced the costs of transporting goods between these two cities from 12s to 6s a ton (20 cwt), Bridgewater had little difficulty in persuading people to use his canal.

The financial success of the Bridgewater Canal encouraged other business people to join together to build canals. Josiah Wedgwood, from Burslem, in Staffordshire, had been transporting his pottery by pack-horses. The poor state of the roads meant a great number of breakages. In 1766 Wedgwood and some of his business friends decided to recruit James Brindley to build the Trent & Mersey Canal.

The canal began within a few miles of the River Mersey, near Runcorn and finished in a junction with the River Trent in Derbyshire. It is just over ninety miles long with more than 70 locks and five tunnels. Although the canal cost £130,000 to build, it reduced the price of transporting Wedgwood's goods from £210s to 13s 4d a ton. The success of this canal resulted in Brindley being employed as the principal engineer on the Coventry Canal, the Oxford Canal, and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal.

In an attempt to increase profits canals were now built all over Britain. By 1838 there were 2,200 miles of canal and 1,800 miles of navigable river. These waterways linked almost every factory and industrial town in Britain. This system of waterways also provided a route to Britain's ports and the profitable overseas market. At the same time, goods imported from the rest of the world could be efficiently distributed throughout Britain.

Primary Sources

John Constable painted this picture of a navigable river at East Bergholt in Essex in 1817
(Source 1) John Constable painted this picture of a navigable river at East Bergholt in Essex in 1817


(Source 2) Samuel Smiles, James Brindley and the Early Engineers (1864)

The Duke of Bridgewater, more than any other single man, contributed to lay the foundations of the prosperity of Manchester and Liverpool. The cutting of the canal from Worsley to Manchester gave that town the immediate benefit of a cheap and abundant supply of coal; and when Watt's steam-engine became the great power in manufactures, such supply became absolutely essential to its existence as a manufacturing town....

It is at Worsley basin that the canal enters the bottom of the hill by a subterranean channel which extends to a great distance - connecting the different workings of the mine - so that the coals can be readily transported in boats to their place of sale ... In f3rindley's time this subterranean canal, hewn out of the rock, was only about a mile in length, but now extends to nearly forty miles underground in all directions. Where the tunnel passed through earth or coal, the arching was of brickwork; but where it passed through rock, it was simply hewn out. This tunnel acts not only as a drain and water-feeder for the canal itself, but as a means of carrying the facilities of the navigation through the very heart of the collieries; and it will readily be seen of how great a value it must have proved in the economical working of the navigation, as well as of the mines, as far as the traffic in coals was concerned.

(3) The Gloucester Journal newspaper (6 February, 1847)

On Tuesday last, John Savory, aged about 28, was drowned in the Comb Hill Canal. He was riding on a horse which was dragging a boat laden with hay, along the canal, when the horse slipped and fell into the water, and the young man was drowned.

(4) An advertisement for the Ashby de-la-Zouch Canal appeared in The Leicester Journal on 14th December, 1792. It compared the costs of transporting goods from Ashby Woulds to other places in the area.

Places Cost per ton by canal

Cost per ton by road

Snarestone 3s 4d

9s 0d

Shacklestone 4s 7d


Dadlington 8s 4d


Burton Hastings 11s 3d


(5) William Albert, The Turnpike Road System: 1663-1840 (1972)

Canals excelled in the carriage of bulky low-value goods over long distances, while the roads were more important in the transport of passengers, the mails and goods for which speed or security of delivery was essential.

(6) Thomas Pennant, The Journey from Chester to London (1779)

The cottage, instead of being half covered with miserable thatch, is now covered with a substantial covering of tiles or slates, brought from the distant hills of Wales or Cumberland. The fields, which before were barren, are now drained, and by the assistance of manure, conveyed on the canal toll-free, are clothed with a beautiful verdure. Places which rarely knew the use of coal are plentifully supplied with that essential article upon reasonable terms; and, what is of still greater public utility, the monopolizers of corn are prevented from exercising their infamous trade; for, communication being opened between Liverpool, Bristol, and Hull, and the line of Canal being through countries abundant in grain, it affords a conveyance of corn unknown in past ages.

A painting of the Regent's Canal in 1827
(Source 7) A painting of the Regent's Canal in 1827

(Source 8) Adam Smith, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)

Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of the country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighbourhood of the town. They are upon that account the greatest of all improvements. They encourage the cultivation of the remote, which must always be the most extensive circle of the country. They are advantageous to the town, by breaking down the monopoly of the country in its neighbourhood. They are advantageous even to that part of the country. Though they introduce some rival commodities into the old market, they open many new markets to its produce.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Explain why the Duke of Bridgewater arranged for a canal to be built between Worsley Colliery and Manchester.

Question 2: Study sources 1, 3 and 8. Describe how goods were transported by canals and navigable rivers.

Question 3: Study the sources in this unit. Comment on the value of these sources in helping you understand why many manufacturers in the second half of the 18th century began using canals to transport their goods.

Question 4: Explain the connection between the growth of the canal network and the increase in the amount of foreign goods being sold in Britain.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.