A Potted History of the Cut


  1. In the beginning, there was the horse and cart.
  2. And the manufacturer saw the cart, and was not pleased.
  3. And he said to the carrier, "Get me a faster means of transport that does not damage my goods".
  4. And a canal system was born, which covered the Earth.

Well, not quite! - River Navigations (rivers which had been widened and deepened) had been used since the Middle Ages for transporting goods further inland. Indeed, the Fossdyke & Witham (used by the Danes to invade England, and by the Normans to carry stone for Lincoln Cathedral) and the Lee & Stort (which claims the first mitred gates in a lock) can trace their origins back to Roman times. In 1600, there were 700 miles of navigable river, rising to 1300 miles by the dawn of the canal era in 1760.

With the industrial revolution came a demand for direct connections to the manufacturing centres; the roads could not cope and the railways had not yet come of age.

"The Duke's Cut"

Entrance to the mines at Worsley Frances Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, wanted to get his coal from the mines at Worsley Delph to Manchester cheaply.

He commissioned James Brindley and John Gilbert to cut (the boatmen's name for the canal system is 'the Cut' for this reason) a waterway through to Stretford, and in 1759 the Act was passed to carry out the work. Brindley took up the challenge, including 42 miles of waterway underground so that the boats could go direct to the coalface. To make his canals watertight, Brindley pioneered the use of puddle-clay which is still used today.

Looking along the Barton Swing Aqueduct Brindley preferred to take the level route, following the contours of the land rather than creating locks and tunnels, but he came to a problem with the valley of the River Irwell at Barton. He thus became the first to cross a valley with a stone aqueduct.

In 1765, stage 1 of "The Duke's Cut" as boatmen know it was completed. Subsequently, in 1893, the traffic on the new Manchester Ship Canal forced Brindley's aqueduct to be replaced, and a second revolutionary concept in the form of a swinging aqueduct to be built.

The Manchester Ship Canal, viewed from the aqueduct Bridgewater extended his canal to the tideway at Runcorn, and to the new "Grand Trunk Canal" at Preston Brook by 1776, forming a link between Liverpool and Manchester. He further extended in 1795, to connect to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Leigh. He finally recouped his large debts to die in 1803 a rich man!

At one point, the Duke was concerned that, although his workers were usually very punctual, they were often late at lunchtime. On enquiring why, he was told that, although they could hear the 12 struck, they could not hear the single bell at 1pm. He had it strike 13 and had no further problems!

From the Trent to the Mersey . . . . .

Earl Gower of Trentham Hall had been talking to Josiah Wedgwood about the problem of getting raw materials to his potteries in Staffordshire, and the goods safely to the markets. He also commissioned Brindley to investigate a waterway connecting Liverpool, Hull and Bristol. The Act for this canal was passed in 1766, just after Bridgewater completed his 1st stage. The canal was to join the River Trent with the River Mersey, but Brindley had the vision of a "Grand Trunk", which came to fruition with the subsequent building of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal connecting it to the River Severn, and the Coventry Canal connecting it to the Oxford Canal and the Thames.

Anderton Boat Lift Near the north end of the canal is Middlewich. That area also had cargo to shift - this time from the open-pan salt-works 500ft down onto the River Weaver. This was achieved with the construction of the spectacular Boat Lift at Anderton in 1857 by Leader Williams (who engineered the Manchester Ship Canal). Initially it was counter-balanced with water-pressure, but corrosion meant that in 1908 it needed large repairs, electricity replaced the steam pumps and weights were installed for counter-balance. It remained that way until the mid-1980's when it was closed as unsafe. Millennium funding and a large subscription campaign paid dividends in 2001 when the lift reopened after restoration to its original specification.

He also had the problem of getting through the Pennines at Kidsgrove, where he eventually cut a long tunnel at Harecastle. Completed in 1777, and taking 11 years to build, it had no towpath and boats had to be 'legged' through (boatmen lay on their backs on planks and literally walked along the tunnel sides!). This was slow and in 1822, the company called in Thomas Telford to build a second tunnel - only three years in the building. An electric tug was introduced in 1914. Subsidence is now causing concern as to its future, but the loss of the tunnel will cut the country in half!

. . . . . and the Severn

A narrow lock Immediately after the start was made to the "Grand Trunk Canal", or Trent & Mersey Canal as it became known, Brindley commenced work on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. Connecting to the Trent & Mersey at Great Haywood and running 46 miles to the River Severn at Stourport, it was completed in 1772 and was an immediate success. It was subsequently connected to the Birmingham canal system providing a route for manufactured goods northwards through the Black Country to the Potteries. Competition eventually grew with the opening of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in 1815 giving a direct route from Birmingham to the River Severn at Worcester and a battle ensued with opening hours being extended on both sides to attract custom. Although the route using the W&B was more direct and more modern, it was considerably harder for the boatmen due to the flight of 30 locks at Tardebigge.

With the construction of the Staffs&Worcs Canal to the same dimensions as the T&M Canal, Brindley effectively set the standard for the remainder of the central canal network. He chose a narrow canal with locks 72ft7in by 7ft6in (partly for economy, partly because he understood the problems of water supply). This prompted the development of a special vessel with a payload of around 30ton - the 'narrowboat'.

To the Thames via Oxford

Brindley was asked to engineer the remaining branch from his "Grand Trunk"; this time heading for the Thames at Oxford. He again chose the narrow contoured canal, but it soon began to look out-dated an inefficient. The Coventry Canal started at the Coventry end and the coal trade around the Bedworth area, which for many years had already had its own independent system, produced a thiving traffic. With the capital for the whole project used up by the time they reached Atherstone, Brindley was sacked. He was by this time, however, also working for the Oxford Canal Company and there was an interminable wrangle as the two canals were supposed to connect to provide the through-route foreseen by Brindley. The Coventry Canal had only reached Fazeley by 1790 and the new Birmingham & Fazeley Canal started to build south to complete the northbound connection to the T&M.

Brindley continued with the Oxford until his death in 1772, when work was entrusted to Samuel Simcock who completed the link to Oxford in 1790. The profits on the Coventry Canal rose sharply, then rose higher still when the Grand Junction Canal shortened the route to London.

The Grand Union

A wide lock The Grand Union Canal Company only came into existence in 1929 as an amalgamation of eight separate canals.

The first (and still the most important) was the Grand Junction Canal, designed to provide a (competitive) shortcut from the Oxford Canal at Braunston to Brentford on the Thames, where cargo would be trans-shipped into lighters to continue to London. It was built as a broad canal (14ft wide) and numerous branches connected important towns to the system. The idea of the broad locks was a brave attempt to get the neighbouring companies (Oxford, Coventry and T&M) to widen theirs.

Foxton flight - note the sideponds Other independent canals were also built linking it with Warwick, Birmingham, Market Harborough, Leicester, and via the canalised River Soar to the River Trent at Nottingham. In 1812, the Regent's Canal Company provided a loop round London to Limehouse Docks, and the Hertford Canal continued that to the River Lee. Some of these again used the narrow locks such as at Foxton on the Leicester Arm.

With Government money, the Grand Union Company set out on a mission of modernisation, widening the locks to Birmingham. The Coventry Canal, who had done so well with the profits from the traffic from the Oxford and Grand Junction, were dismayed with this turn of events, but the higher tolls and numerous locks meant a lot of traffic continued to use the old route. The grant eventually ran out and widebeam boats never became common on the GU and the attempt to break loose from narrowboat-carrying had failed.

The Pennine Way

Seagoing boats on the Aire & Calder While the Duke of Bridgewater was constructing his canal, promoters in Yorkshire and Lancashire were arguing over the route of a canal to connect Liverpool to the Rivers Aire and Calder which had been canalised as early as 1700. Construction began in 1770 and the first section from Bingley to Shipton was completed within 3 years, and the end sections (Wigan to Liverpool and Leeds to Gargrave) were in use by 1777. New money was needed, however, to complete the project and an Act of 1790 gave new impetus. The war with France, however, tightened purse-strings and the waterway was only completed in 1816. A branch was made in 1820 to connect to the Bridgewater at Leigh, and a cut to Liverpool docks in 1846.

Connections to Chester and Wales

Chester basin - link to River Dee Although some of the last canals to be cut, the story of the Welsh and Chester canal system is the most complicated, with most failing to meet their original targets.

Work on the T&M caused great concern in Chester as it saw a threat to its position as an alternative to Liverpool. An Act was passed in 1772 to cut a wide canal from Chester to join the T&M at Middlewich with a branch to Nantwich. Engineering and financial problems meant that the plans were changed and a route from Chester to Nantwich was completed in 1779. The planned line (now branch) to Middlewich was not completed before the company collapsed.

Pontcysyllte aqueduct Meanwhile, in 1791, a plan was drawn up to link the Mersey with the Severn, and the Ellesmere Canal Company was formed. William Jessop started with the section from Chester to Netherpool (now known as Ellesmere Port - a port for the town of Ellesmere further south on the canal), then a section from Hurleston Junction (near Nantwich on the Chester Canal) towards Trevor (including the spectacular aqueducts at Chirk and Pontcysyllte built by Thomas Telford), and branches to Ellesmere, Prees and Whitchurch, and including a navigable feeder from Llangollen. It failed, however, to complete the sections to the Severn and from Whitchurch to Chester (effectively leaving the Ellesmere Port section cut off!).

The plans for the Ellesmere Canal prompted the Chester Canal Company to have another go and the canal was repaired. The two companies eventually merged in 1813 forming a line from Ellesmere Port into Wales.

BW Ellesmere yard The Ellesmere Canal plans also prompted the formation of the Montgomery Canal Company to serve central Wales, connecting at Carreghofa to the section coming from Frankton.

The future prosperity of the two companies was obviously limited as there was no connection to the outside world, so the company was cheered when the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal Company received permission in 1825 to make a cut from Nantwich to join the Staffs&Worcs Canal at Autherley. The Ellesmere & Chester company completed the 'branch' to Middlewich just before the B&LJ completed their line.

Both companies worked together to preserve the profits, and in 1845 they merged, then shortly after were reformed into the Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Company. Initially intended to promote the railways, slow development in Wales meant the plan was abandoned and the canals survived.

Nowadays, the whole of the length from "Cut End" at Autherley Junction to Ellesmere Port, including the Middlewich Branch is considered to be the Shropshire Union Canal, whilst the section from Hurleston Junction to Llangollen is termed the Llangollen (or Welsh) Canal.

Decline and Fall

A working pair lying idle The above period (to the mid-1800's) saw the height of canal-mania with a network of waterways slicing through the countryside to serve the new towns which were growing up with the Industrial Revolution. Most impressive was the network that grew up in Birmingham and the Black Country, which although started by Brindley was continued by Thomas Telford (who actually designed and built Wick on the Moray Firth). There are more miles of waterway in the Birmingham Canal Navigations than in Venice!

The canals became so successful that they actually precipitated their own demise. The volumes of traffic using them (particularly in the Birmingham area) meant that water was frequently short, with pumping engines being installed to recycle water. The advent of the railways also caused a downturn, but not as much as is generally stated, as traffic continued on the canals well into the 20th century. During WW2, women were taught to work the boats when menfolk went to war, and successfully made their mark in the very close community of the boatpeople. The inefficent methods and lack of investment given to the canals in the second quarter of the century eventually took its toll and by early 1950's the bottom had dropped out of the market and the canals became derelict and almost forgotten.

The Phoenix arises

Modern use for old buildings Late in the decade, a few people, such as LTC (Tommy) Rolt and Robert Aickman, saw that unless something was done, a part of our industrial heretage was being lost. Considerable campaigning eventually resulted in the formation of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) to promote the saving of the canals. Other associations followed but in the beginning it was a hard slog!

residential boat with'garden' By the end of the century, a booming leisure industry has taken the place of the old working boats, with holiday (including timeshare) and residential boats being built and used in their hundreds. Canal restoration groups have (and continue to) clean up and refurbish the waterways; Millennium money has meant that larger projects such as the restoration of the Anderton Boat Lift and the projected rebuilding of the Foxton Inclined Plane could be tackled; new marvels matching the engineering skills of the canals' creators have been built where the old cut has been irrevocably filled - the Falkirk Wheel - and even new canals are in the making with the Ribble Link and the projected connection between Milton Keynes and Bedford. Industry has also embraced the re-birth by finding new uses for the interiors behind the cleaned frontages of the old buildings such as warehouses - canalside real-estate is now hot property!

Life on the Cut

A boatman's life was a hard life. Their 'home' consisted of a small cabin only 7ft square! This housed the boatman and his wife (the children as well if there was only a single boat!). If there was a butty (towed, unpowered boat) there would be a second cabin there.

Normally, they would be up before dawn and on the move after a cup of tea. Meals, including breakfast, were taken on the move where locking permitted. A working-pair would be run by the skipper (a 'number one' if he owned the boat), and his wife or son would steer the butty. Locking was done usually by the women, cycling ahead to make the next lock ready (lock-wheeling). Narrow locks caused a problem here since the butty then had to be manually pulled through after the motor (bow-hauled) - boatmen obviously preferred the wide locks! The day would usually end about dusk, often at a favourite inn, but relaxation was only possible after the boat was thoroughly cleaned down and the brasses polished!

Although most were illiterate, they were a proud community which kept to themselves. Their boats were always immaculate, and they adhered to a strict code of conduct. Courtship was difficult with boy and girl on different boats, and lasted several years. They rarely married outside their community. Babies were born on the boats, often without help. Boatpeople would go miles to Stoke Bruerne to get a 'doctor' (in the form of a nursing sister called Sister Mary) whom they felt they could trust!

The last of the old-school is now gone, and their memories must be preserved along with the canal itself

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