Chapter 11: Canal-Mania

From the 1760s to the 1830s, Great Britain went crazy for canals. America did too. These waterways helped speed up trade and fuel industrialization in the age before trains and highways. In the process, they created all kinds of new jobs and opportunities.

Characters covered in this episode include:

  • Thomas Steers, the engineer who modernized river navigation in Lancashire

  • The Duke of Bridgewater, who built Britain’s first modern canal

  • James Brindley, who engineered the Bridgewater Canal and the Trent & Mersey Canal

  • Thomas Telford, the architect who built a huge iron aqueduct in Wales and “Neptune’s Staircase” in Scotland

  • William Weston, a British civil engineer who helped build the first canals in America

  • Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a British architect who emigrated to the U.S. and helped build the new capital

 Sources for this episode include:

Allitt, Patrick N. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Great Courses. 2014.

A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1: 1500 to 1830. Edited by Sir Alec Skempton. Thomas Telford Publishing. 2002.

Malet, Hugh. Bridgewater, the Canal Duke, 1736-1803. Manchester University Press. 1977.

Owen, David E. Canals to Manchester. Manchester University Press. 1977.

Weightman, Gavin. The Industrial Revolutionaries. Grove Press. 2007.

Full Transcript

“Let me most seriously caution all travelers who may accidentally purpose to travel this terrible country, to avoid it as they would the devil; for a thousand to one but they break their necks or their limbs by overthrows or breakings down. They will meet with ruts which I actually measured four feet deep, and floating with mud only from a wet summer; what therefore must it be after a winter.”

Those were the words of one Arthur Young, an agricultural writer, from his 1770 book, A Six Month Tour Through the North of England. The four-feet deep ruts he’s referring to were on the Wigan turnpike. The turnpikes of the time were the best roads in England, and required payment to travel on them.

So what were the shabby roads (open to all the public) like?

To be honest, it’s difficult by our modern standards to call them roads at all. They were seldom looked after. Travelers often got lost trying to follow them. The most back-country dirt roads today are significantly better to travel on than the best roads of 18th Century Great Britain.

Riding on horseback in those days probably wasn’t too difficult, but carrying wagons long distances sure would have been. And that meant there was a significant barrier to trade within the country.

But if there’s one thing the British were getting really good at, during this age of global empires, it was water-based transport. So, in a time before modern rubber and modern cement, before trains and trucks, the British used the tools and learning available to them to build an entire water-based transport infrastructure.

And in the process, they made the Industrial Revolutions possible.


This is the Industrial Revolutions

Chapter 11: Canal-Mania


Rerouting water goes back to the first large-scale irrigation projects of the Stone Age in the Fertile Crescent. Canals were built across Eurasia in the centuries to come, including some large ones in China that allowed that empire to flourish, as well as an ancient Suez Canal between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. That Ancient Suez Canal, by the way, used a system of locks designed by Greek engineers.

And locks are an important technology to understand for everything we’ll be discussing today.

Imagine you’re shipping something up a river. You’re going against the current, sure, but in some places you’re going to be going against the laws of gravity too, because rivers flow downward.

To go up in elevation on the river, you’ll pass through a lock, a series of gates that allows the height of the water to change. You pass through the first gate and it closes behind you. Then the gate in front of you opens ever so slightly. Water slowly comes in, filling the lock so your boat rises in elevation, until it is as high as the water on the other side of the second gate. Then the second gate opens, and you’re able to continue up the river.

In England, the use of locks for river navigation began hundreds of years before the first Industrial Revolution.

But it was down in southern France where the momentum for canal-transport really started to increase.

As early as 1660, the French government wanted to find a way to ship goods from north to south and vice versa without traveling around the Iberian Peninsula. The best way would be to extend the Garonne from Bordeaux to the Mediterranean. Under the approval of the sun king, Louis the 14th, and after decades of study and construction, the Canal Royal en Languedoc was completed in 1681.

More than a century later, as the monarchy was overthrown in the midst of the French Revolution, it was renamed the Canal du Midi. You can still travel on it today, although it’s not really used for shipping anymore.

The insights gained during construction of the Canal du Midi were invaluable in what was to come in England.

After winning his bid to construct new docks in Liverpool, an engineer by the name of Thomas Steers began surveying the rivers of Lancashire. He then proposed two navigation projects. One on the River Douglas, and one on the Rivers Mersey and Irwell. Parliament approved the projects in 1720, and Steers got to work.

Adding several new locks to the rivers, Steers vastly improved shipping in Lancashire, just in time for inventions like the Fly Shuttle and Spinning Jenny to transform the textile industry there. Raw cotton could make it up the River Mersey from Liverpool to Manchester. From there it could head north, up the River Irwell. And back down to Liverpool would travel the finished cotton products.

Additional projects would follow, including a 1757 effort to broaden and deepen Sankey Brook to improve the transport of coal from St. Helens to Liverpool.

But these projects wouldn’t be enough to meet the needs of the first Industrial Revolution. It was going to take a well-financed visionary to build the canals of the future. His name? Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater.


Born in 1736, Francis was elevated to the status of Duke at 12 years old, following the death of his older brother, John. As a child, Francis had been so unpromising – in terms of his health and his intellect – that his family considered disinheriting him.

Though lacking, perhaps, in familial love, Francis was an altogether failure in romantic love. In 1758, he became engaged to a young widow, the Dowager Duchess of Hamilton.

Hamilton and her older sister, the Lady Coventry, hailed from rural Ireland, but they had become famous London socialites by the early 1750s.

Her first marriage, to the Duke of Hamilton, had been love at first sight. They met at a party and fell so head-over-heals for each other they got married that very night. The ring he used came from a bed curtain. By contrast, the Duke of Bridgewater may have seemed a bit disappointing. It didn’t take long for them to break off the engagement, perhaps due to an affair her sister was having.

Bridgewater then gave up on romantic love altogether and turned his attention to his greatest love: canals.

You see, in the years before his engagement, Bridgewater had been suffering from coughing fits and chest pains so severe that people figured he wouldn’t survive in England. So, it was arranged for him to take a Grand Tour of Europe, going as far east as modern-day Turkey. Perhaps a Mediterranean climate could restore his health.

It didn’t help that the teenage aristocrat was a bit of a party animal, whose drinking probably made his health problems worse. It was also an ongoing concern to his tutor, Robert Wood, who complained the Duke would rather spend his time with bad company than reading. He had taken a mistress and used deception and rank in the process, seriously upsetting his entourage.

Wood tried reining in the duke, but allowed him one strange request. The duke was obsessed, for whatever reason, in seeing the Canal du Midi.

Bridgewater was intellectually lazy, so Wood chalked it up to a touristy interest. Yet, when the duke learned about the immense challenges of the project being overcome by new engineering techniques, he was very impressed.

So, after breaking up with the Duchess, he left London for good and returned to his estate at Worsley. Among the income-generating works on his estate was coal-mining. And with a canal down to the nearby growing city of Manchester, Bridgewater saw immense market opportunities for his coal.

It was at that time his agent, John Gilbert, introduced Bridgewater to an engineer named James Brindley.

Brindley was 20 years Bridgewater’s senior, and yet socially quite beneath him. The son of yeoman farmers in Derbyshire, he was educated at home by his mother and apprenticed to a millwright in rural Cheshire at age 17. After completing the apprenticeship, he set up his own shop and slowly grew the business. Despite his lack of formal education, he was a proficient tinkerer and solver of technical problems.

Then in 1750, he had a breakthrough. Renting a shop from the famous Josiah Wedgwood, he expanded the business to include all kinds of machinery, from textile spinning machines to steam engines.

How, in 1759, he became the best man to build England’s first modern canal, it’s hard to say. But over the next two years, Bridgewater, Gilbert, and Brindley got approval from Parliament to build the canal, they surveyed the land, developed a plan, and started digging.

For the most part, they didn’t do anything too crazy. Brindley wanted to make sure the canal followed the counters of the land as much as possible, which meant it would be quite a bit longer, but they wouldn’t need to rely on locks and earthmoving would be minimal. Canal building in those days was done by men with shovels, after all.

But the Act of Parliament that approved the canal did not allow it to join with the Mersey and Irwell Navigation. So rather than enter the River Irwell, the Bridgewater Canal actually had to cross it. To make that work, they built the most fascinating element of the canal, the Barton Aqueduct. Imagine you are looking at a bridge over a river, but with a boat traveling on that bridge. It’s weird to imagine today, and it was super-weird to see in the 18th Century.

So popular was that part of canal, that Bridgewater would open it up for tourism, taking two passenger boats on day tours along the canal, moving very slowly and offering coffee and wine on board.

As impressive as the Barton Aqueduct was, the development that was more instrumental was something Brindley thought up, called “clay puddling.” You see, if you dig a canal and let the water in, the muddy bottom would absorb much of the water and turn it into swamp. So instead, Brindley created a clay bed for the canal, making it watertight.

Additionally, Brindley knew that the lateral pressure of the water could make the banks at risk for bursting. So, he worked out an ingenious method of isolating sections so, in the event of a breach, the entire canal wouldn’t drain away.

Also impressive, the canal would serve as drainage for Bridgewater’s coal mine. Water flooding the mine would flow out into the canal. A network of underground canals was constructed to make it possible.

After the Bridgewater Canal opened, the price of coal in Manchester was cut in half, practically overnight. And although construction nearly bankrupted Bridgewater, he was able to recoup all his expenses by 1771, and from there get insanely rich.

The Duke of Bridgewater and his canal turned heads across England. And just like that, Canal-Mania had begun.


When I say Canal-Mania, I’m not making that term up. That’s what scholars call the 40-odd years of British infrastructure history after the Bridgewater Canal opened. Imagine Beatles-mania, with the band playing the Ed Sullivan show. Except instead of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, you have canals. And instead of teenage girls screaming, it’s members of Parliament.

Over the next 15 years, 52 Acts of Parliament were passed to encourage the further building of canals, one of which allowed the Bridgewater Canal to connect to the Mersey and Irwell Navigation. But most of the acts chartered new joint-stock companies that would get exclusive rights to build and maintain canals and charge tolls. The ROI on these stocks would be much higher than government bonds, providing investors with new opportunities to build serious wealth.

The most important development of this period was the right of eminent domain. While the concept of compulsory purchase had existed for centuries, it was refined during this period. This was important not only because of the recent developments of private property rights, but also for what was to come with the railroads and other large-scale infrastructure.

Among the most important of the new canals would be the Trent and Mersey Canal. By linking those two rivers, the British could now navigate from the port of Liverpool on the Irish Sea to the port of Hull on the North Sea, without having to sail around their island. It also put the textile industry of Lancashire in closer contact with Arkwright’s mills in Derbyshire.

The bid to build the Trent and Mersey Canal was awarded to none other than James Brindley, although he would die before he could see it completed. He wouldn’t build this one like the Bridgewater Canal though. He couldn’t, due to the incredible changes in elevation.

To make it work, he needed to include 35 locks across the canal, as well as five tunnels, including the 9,000-foot long Harecastle Tunnel. That one alone took 11 years to build. Tunnel-building in the 18th Century was a dangerous job which people weren’t too experienced with. Just like with digging mines, collapses, flooding, and poisonous gasses were always serious threats.

Now, on the canals themselves, the barges would be pulled along by a horse walking on the bank of the canal, on a towpath of ash and cinders, which were in plenty supply thanks to all the coal burning going on in the first Industrial Revolution. But the tunnels were too low for the horses, which would have to go around instead. So, to get the barges through the tunnel, they’d hire these guys called “leggers” who would lay on their backs and walk upside down across the ceiling of the tunnel.

Canal-Mania climaxed in 1793 and 1794, as another 38 Acts of Parliament were passed for new canal schemes. Not everyone was a fan of what was happening though, and a war of pamphlets for and against the canals was waged.

Pro-canal voices argued that they were bringing down prices, creating the possibility of cheaper food for the masses. Also, a horse could pull 50 times as much freight by canal barge as it could by wagon. That meant that, soon, fewer horses would be needed, meaning less horse food would be needed. And I suppose, less horse crap to pick up after. Mmmmhmmm.

Anti-canal voices typically came from the landowners, who were generally peeved that some company could just set up on their land for years digging a canal, taking away acres that could be used for farming. But textile mill owners were also concerned that the new canals would divert water from their rivers, reducing the degree of water power critical to their Spinning Mules and other machines of the time.

And Canal-Mania saw Brindley succeeded by a new generation of legendary canal builders. The most famous among them was a guy named Thomas Telford.

Telford was born in the rural lowlands of Scotland in 1757. His father was a shepherd who died not long after. Young Thomas grew up in a one-room croft, raised by his single mother who struggled as the family slid into poverty.

But Thomas was able to get an apprenticeship with a stonemason at age 14. Throughout his twenties he travelled across Britain, working on construction projects in Edinburgh, London, and Portsmouth. It was during this time he met Sir William Pulteney, a wealthy landowner and politician. Pulteney was impressed by his work and helped him get appointed to the office of Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire.

As his work became more prestigious, Telford branched out into architecture and (what we today would call) civil engineering. Among other things he was renovating castles and churches and building bridges. He was especially wowed by the Iron Bridge built by Abraham Darby III and John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson, although he noted how the design was overly complicated.

By 1793, Telford was appointed "General Agent, Surveyor, Engineer, Architect, and Overlooker" to the Ellesmere Canal, which was to join the rivers Mersey, Dee, and Severn. And although he would go on to do much more than build canals, his particular canal feats stood out in the age of Canal-Mania.

The most impressive feat of the project would be 120-foot high iron aqueduct over the River Dee in North Wales. Carrying water from the Llangollen Canal, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a thousand feet long. You can still sail a boat on it, if you’re not too afraid of heights. You can also walk on it where the horses used to.

Originally, the plan was for a series of locks on both sides of the River Dee valley, with a low stone aqueduct in the middle. But getting up and down locks takes a long time. Telford knew it would be better for the canal’s eventual customers if it was a straight shot. So, he managed to convince investors to let him build this huge iron structure.

It took 10 years to build, but when it finally opened in 1805, it opened to wild fanfare. Brass bands played, cannons were fired, and a procession of barges crossed the aqueduct like a parade.

Another great Telford project was the Caledonian Canal. Linking a series of Scottish lochs across the Great Glen of the rugged Highlands, the Caledonian Canal eliminated the need for shipping around the stormy seas north of Scotland. To complete it, he needed to build a lot of locks, including – at one point – a series of eight successive locks nicknamed “Neptune’s Staircase”. One poet-friend of Telford’s (Telford was a great fan of poetry) saw Neptune’s Staircase and said it was more impressive than the pyramids.

Yes, canals were going up everywhere in Great Britain. Among the most significant were the Forth and Clyde Canals (which linked Glasgow to Edinburgh) the Leeds and Liverpool Canal (which linked industrial Yorkshire to the great port of northern England and had the distinction of going over the Pennine hills – a masterful feat of engineering), and the Kennet and Avon Canal (which linked Bristol to London).

In fact, probably too many went up. By the 1790s, plans were being drawn up for canals that could never really be profitable. And the surge in demand for construction this period led to huge increases in wage expectations and the prices of supplies. This was on top of the broader inflation taking place during the Napoleonic Wars.

Making matters worse, the acts of Parliament that chartered these endeavors usually limited the amount of money the companies could raise. And in this age before widespread understanding of economics, the canal companies’ investors often suspected corruption or negligence. Why else would they be running out of money?

Another problem: As the canals got bigger and crossed higher and higher grounds, it became more and more difficult to keep them full of water. It required the British to build dams across high streams, building up a water supply over the course of a year so it could be fed into the canals to keep them going.

The construction of canals had some other key effects during the first Industrial Revolution. They created economic stimulus – including in some remote, poor regions of the kingdom – and an array of new jobs.

In addition to the leggers, there were the navvies, an abbreviated word for “Navigators”. They didn’t navigate the boats going up and down the canals, they dug out the canals from the ground – the “navigations.” Originally, canal builders would hire local subcontractors, who in turn hired seasonal laborers to do the digging. But as Canal-Mania intensified, it became a full-time profession. In time, “navvy” became a general British slang word for any worker who uses a pick and/or shovel.

Then there were the bargemen, the guys who travelled with the barges up and down the rivers and canals. Now, compared to most of the new unskilled labor opportunities of the First Industrial Revolution, the job of the bargeman was pretty darn good. You got to work outdoors, get a tan, get good exercise, work with horses, see great views, and you could look cool by decorating your barge and painting it with bright colors. You weren’t cooped up in a mill, breathing in cotton debris, or puddling hot iron, or working in a gas-filled, flooded, poorly lit coal mine that might collapse at any moment.

On the other hand, not many people liked the bargemen. Maybe they were just jealous. But often times, it was because they suspected the bargemen of being thieves. This was at a time when, if you grew up in a rural community, you almost never saw people you didn’t personally know. “I mean, who is this random guy passing through our town? How can we trust him?” The bargemen were regularly accused of petty theft by the residents of the towns and villages they passed through. And because of their nomadic profession, some folks thought they were gypsies. And from their they piled on all the normal prejudices associated with the Romani people and other traveler communities.

And for what it’s worth, barging was more than a job. It was a way of life. By the early 20th Century, it was a way of life passed down in some families for over 100 years.

Then there were the lockkeepers. Their job was to open and close the gates of a lock, make sure the embankments were watertight, and of course, collect the tolls. They worked out of little lockkeeper cottages, many of which still stand today.

But all of these jobs would peter out, starting in the 1830s, as canal shipping was gradually replaced by rail shipping. But they would still be used well into the 20th Century. And although they’re not really used for commercial shipping anymore, they are still in use today by tourists and local slow-boating enthusiasts. It’s a good way to enjoy rural Great Britain in a tranquil, slow-moving manner. Which is ironic, because, they were very much designed for speedier transport to fuel industrialization.

By 1830, there were at least 3,900 miles of canals in the United Kingdom. And they weren’t the only ones. Another country saw the benefits of canals and had its own moment of Canal-Mania: The United States.


Among the many complaints of the British colonists in North America was the state of the roads and waterways. Sure, infrastructure wasn’t as sexy as taxation without representation, but in colonies that existed pretty much for the express purpose of producing raw materials to send back to the mother country, it was lost on nobody that transporting those raw materials was a pain in the ass.

Parliament was passing new taxes on its American colonies, but not passing any acts to dig canals. In 1772, Benjamin Franklin was visiting London and wrote about how he wished the colonies could poach some of Britain’s canal builders and put their skills to work across the pond.

Following independence, American officials practically fell over themselves in the rush to modernize the new nation’s transport infrastructure.

In particular, canal projects were proposed for several routes through New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Not only were they excited to start building, they had some money to work with. What they didn’t have was any engineers who knew how to build a canal.

So, in 1791, a group of merchants in Pennsylvania formed the Society for the Improvement of Roads and Inland Navigation, led by the state’s new senator, Robert Morris, a personal friend of George Washington’s and widely known as the “Financier of the Revolution.” The Society laid out plans to build canals across the state and they put out urgent RFPs to British engineers.

Seeing as their King viewed Americans as traitors, these British engineers were probably more than a little weary of going over there, and it took a while to find someone. But finally, they managed to talk somebody into it.

His name was William Weston, a 29-year-old native of the Oxford area. We don’t know a whole lot about him, but he may have been a student of James Brindley. He first came to prominence in 1787 when he engineered and managed construction of the Trent Bridge at Gainsborough, a wide and impressive bridge for its time. It was also the only thing he was known for before he came to America.

In 1792, he sailed to Philadelphia with his new wife and took up residence with Senator Morris, to begin a five-year commitment with the Schuylkill & Susquehanna Navigation Company of Pennsylvania.

Weston got to work immediately and was loved for it. His salary was soon doubled and he was treated like a celebrity. The company he was contracted with like immediately went insolvent, but Weston remained a hot commodity. Among other things, he engineered or consulted on six canals along the eastern seaboard, a turnpike road, and a fresh water supply scheme for New York City. He finally headed back to England in 1801.

In his place came another British engineer: Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Born near Leeds, his father was the pastor of a Moravian church who sent him to Moravian schools, which emphasized subjects we would now call STEM subjects. During his early career, Latrobe probably worked under canal engineer William Jessop, a frequent collaborator of Telford’s.

In the 1790s, he twice presented a proposal to Parliament to improve the Blackwater and Chalmer Navigation. But both proposals were rejected and the deflated Latrobe decided to do something that would soon become common for ambitious Europeans – he emigrated to the United States.

First arriving in Norfolk, Virginia, Latrobe moved around the United States working on tons of projects in need of an engineer. He built a new Bank of Pennsylvania building in a Greek Revival style – which would become the architectural style of American institutions – and helped the federal government survey and build up the new City of Washington on the Potomac River.

Latrobe consulted on several canal projects, but they almost all fell through due to shaky financing in the new country. He had more luck with a water supply scheme for Philadelphia, which led him to get hired by the City of New Orleans, where he would head in 1820. He had an idea to use a steam engine to pump fresh water for the city. But almost immediately upon arriving in New Orleans he contracted yellow fever and died.

The legacy of Weston and Latrobe in the United States wasn’t that they completed all the projects they meant to. In fact, most of the projects they started failed. But they did manage to train a generation of civil engineers in the United States who built the new nation from the ground up – literally.

Among Weston’s pupils were Colonel Loammi Baldwin (the so-called Father of American Civil Engineering, who built the Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts, and inventor of the Baldwin apple) AND Benjamin Wright, the Chief Engineer of the Erie Canal – the most famous and hugely important canal running from the Hudson River across New York State to the Great Lakes. Still in contact with his American disciple, Weston consulted by mail with the Erie Canal Commission.

Latrobe’s disciples included his son, Benjamin Henry Jr., and William Strickland, both of whom would use their skills to help build America’s railroads.

But rail transport was for the next generation of American industrialists. The Weston/Latrobe generation of Americans was all about those canals. And one of them, a guy by the name of Robert Fulton, was so inspired by the canals he saw in Britain, that he got to thinking. What can we do to improve canal transportation? What if we got rid of the horses? What if we got rid of the sails?

The age of the steamboat was coming – next week on the Industrial Revolutions.


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Dave Broker