Ancestry: History: Georgian England: British Waterways:


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Waterways and Canals in Georgian England

The task of transporting heavy cargo has always been a bit of a challenge, even today with the many tools, machinery and equipment we have at our disposal. Go back in time to 18th century England and you can imagine how much more difficult this undertaking was. Many of the roads and street systems that we take for granted today simply did not exist during that time period and what little roads were there were quite difficult to traverse. In fact, they were often riddled with brigands and highway robbers and if the weather was in any way disagreeable, the difficulty of the task increased immensely.

It is no wonder therefore that many people who needed to transport goods, equipment and other cargo over large distances would turn to what was then the best possible alternative to the less than favourable road system, the river. As a matter of fact, up until the 18th century, river transport was the primary means of moving heavy goods from one place to another.

It's easy to see why this was a popular means of transport in those days; while a horse could typically be used to pull up to two tons of weight over land, if the cargo was on water the same horse could pull considerably more weight, up to several dozen tons! This system was a satisfactory solution to an age-old problem and it remained in use for many years.

A problem was looming on the horizon however and threatened to curtail the large strides England was making during the Industrial Revolution. By the time the Tudor era in England came around, many of the rivers used in transporting goods were beginning to be filled up with silt.

The Parliament of England was quick to address this pressing issue and several laws were passed to ensure the cleanliness and smooth running flow of these important water thoroughfares. The problem was the demands upon the river system imposed by the massive growth of the Industrial Revolution proved too much to handle and whatever measures were in place proved to be too little, too late. It was obvious that more effective measures were necessary and the establishment of canals showed the way to a long lasting solution.

One of the earliest examples of these canals was the one built by the Duke of Bridgewater with the goal of transporting coal from Worsely where his coalmines were located to their eventual destination in Manchester. This canal system was established in 1759 and the Duke's chief engineer, James Brindley who was primarily responsible for its development was beset by numerous requests from other investors who wanted to have their own canal system.

While the early canals worked with a system of pullers who pulled the barges along the water from the banks, later barges were pulled by horses that traversed the canals along a system of towpaths built primarily for this very purpose.

The establishment of the railway system gave merchants a more effective alternative to the canal system and by the late 1800s they largely fell into disuse.

Original Authors: Doods Pangburn
Edit Update Authors: RPN
Updated On: 05/04/2007

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