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Canal history


The history of canals starts with the opening of the Sankey Canal in 1757 and the Bridgewater Canal in 1761. A period of 'canal mania' was triggered in Britain and between 1760 and 1820 over one hundred canals were built. This growing inland waterway network helped make Britain the first industrialised nation in the world.

Canals were used to transport food, produce and raw materials across the country cheaply and efficiently. The Bridgewater Canal alone halved the price of coal in Liverpool and Manchester.

The fortunes of cities such as Manchester and Birmingham, as well as smaller rural towns such as Stroud in Gloucestershire and Droitwich in Worcestershire were made on the back of this unique transport system.

The late 1800s saw the birth of the ‘steam age’ and railways. This new faster method of transport sounded the death-knell for canals and especially from the 1930s, many went into a decline through lack of use and neglect. Some were even filled in or built over. Canals seemed to be becoming part of our history and not of our present.

The long campaign to save Britain's canals began in 1946 with the formation of the Inland Waterways Association. In the 1990s, the pace quickened as Government, British Waterways and private investors began to see the potential of waterways to help regenerate urban areas.

Today waterways provide attractive and interesting places to work, live and relax. They are havens for wildlife that are rich in canal history.   And with over ten million visits made to waterways each year, they are also well-loved in their local communities.


Click here for information about The Waterways Trust, the national charity which works with others to promote greater public enjoyment of our canals and rivers. As part of this work the Trust manages three museums to help keep canal history alive.

Find out more about canal history at



Rural canal scene.

Narrow boat Adamant leaving the Blisworth Tunnel near Stoke Bruerne.

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