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The Agricultural Revolution Index
The Industrial Revolution Index
The Development of Canals in Britain Index
TWO CENTURIES OF REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
The Industrial Revolution
The Development of Canals in Britain
The development of the steam engine created an increased demand for coal. However, a major factor limiting the supply of coal was the high cost of its transport from the mines. While some coal was hauled over badly made roads, in panniers on horses or donkeys, some coal was transported by river or sea. Either way, the transportation added greatly to the cost of the coal. River transport was far easier than road transport because roads were often no more than muddy tracks. The problem was that rivers did not always flow either in the direction or at the depth needed for efficient transport.
The idea was put forward that it should be possible to construct artificial waterways to go where they were needed. This would allow goods, including coal, to be transported quickly and cheaply. The man who is credited with beginning the construction of the first canal was the Duke of Bridgewater.
Transporting the coal by road, using pack horses, greatly added to the cost of the coal to be sold at Manchester. Bridgewater decided to cut an artificial waterway, a canal, from Worsley to Manchester, and he employed James Brindley to build it.
The Bridgewater canal, which was 16kms long, was built between 1759 and 1761. At one point Brindley had to take the canal over a river. He did this by building a large aqueduct so that the canal could continue over the river. The canal was so successful in cutting the cost of transport, that the Duke of Bridgewater was able to reduce the cost of his coal.
James Brindley's Barton Aqueduct carrying the Bridgewater Canal over the River Irwell
The Duke's coal mines were adit mines. These were tunnels driven into the side of a mountain. Bridgewater instructed James Brindley to extend the canal into the coal mines. This meant that the coal could be loaded directly from the coal face onto the barges for transport. The longest part of the canal was, in fact, within the tunnels of the coal mine. The Duke of Bridgewater became very rich from his mines and even richer from the canal. He was able to charge other manufacturers for using the canal to transport goods.
Research was carried out to see how efficient this form of transport was. It was found that one horse could pull a barge with 50 tonnes of coal on board. However, the same horse could only carry 150 kgs of coal on its back or between 1 and 2 tonnes when pulling a cart (depending on the road conditions). The Duke of Bridgewater had shown that, by building a canal, goods could be transported more cheaply and efficiently than by road.
Road transport was, in any case, very primitive. Roads were often little more than tracks which were either hard and dusty in summer or so wet in winter that carriages and wagons often stuck in the mud right up to their axles. A journey of about 300kms could take three weeks in bad weather. (The same distance can now be covered by T.G.V. in a little over one hour!)
The Duke of Bridgewater also proved that canals could recover their construction cost very quickly. They made good profit for their investors and provided manufacturers with better transport for their goods. Many people set up canal building companies all over Britain. Eventually Britain was covered by a large canal network of interconnected canals which linked the river system.
By 1800, there were over 6000 kilometres of canals in Britain. However, forty years later, canals were in decline in the face of a new and faster rival, the railways.
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