Home Features Canals: The transport enabler which boosted the industrial revolution

Canals: The transport enabler which boosted the industrial revolution

Craft Art Fuji X-T10 + 23mm f/1.4

The National Waterways Museum (NWM) at Ellesmere Port, is located just six miles north of Chester and eleven miles south of Liverpool. It is recognised internationally as a vital part of the history of the industrial revolution and its first transport enabler, the canal.

The NWM with Shropshire Union Canal   Fuji X-T20 + 10-24 f/4
The NWM with Shropshire Union Canal Fuji X-T20 + 10-24 f/4

Early Canal Building

Canal building can be traced at least as far back as the fifth century BC in China perhaps earlier still. Subsequently, many other countries have constructed canals to improve communications and for a variety of economic reasons.

Josh Skinner  Fuji X - T10 + 23mm f/1.4
Josh Skinner Fuji X – T10 + 23mm f/1.4

One well-known example was in seventeenth-century France, where Jean Baptiste Colbert, under an edict from Louis XIV, built the 150 mile-long Canal du Midi between 1666 and 1681, with the aim of developing the French trade in wheat. This was then further extended by the construction of the 120-mile long Canal de Garonne which helped connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

Craft Art    Fuji X-T10 + 23mm f/1.4
Craft Art Fuji X-T10 + 23mm f/1.4

The key differentiating factor between these earlier canals in other countries and the explosive growth of Britain’s canal network in the late eighteenth century was the industrial revolution. Britain was the first country in the world to undergo such a transformation and canals played an absolutely crucial role in this.

Upper Basin at NWM   Fuji X-T20 + 10-24 f/4
Upper Basin at NWM Fuji X-T20 + 10-24 f/4

New factories required unprecedented volumes of raw materials to be brought in. Equally, the concentrated production demanded speedy and efficient despatch to markets all over the country.

From tentative beginnings as early as the late seventeenth century, the industrial revolution got underway in earnest from around 1760 and then accelerated rapidly throughout the nineteen century. It was the major factor in the emergence of Britain’s canal network.

Every completed canal created the possibility for additional industrial development so that cause and effect became intimately blended. It was an early example of development such as took place in the 1920s and 1930s when new suburban railway lines created unprecedented growth around intermediate stations. So with the canals, the areas through which they passed thrived because of the vastly improved communications they offered.

It was a take-off into a sustained period of economic growth of a kind which the world had not seen before. The canals were not limited to movements of raw materials and finished products within Britain itself but were instrumental in transporting goods in and out of ports such as Liverpool which increasingly supplied customers around the world.

Lock Scene  Fuji X - T10 + 23mm f/1.4
Lock Scene Fuji X – T10 + 23mm f/1.4

What came to be known as the golden era of canal building in Britain was ushered in by the opening of the Sankey canal, connecting the manufacturing town of St Helens to the River Mersey, in 1757. This was followed, in 1761, by the success of the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal, which carried coal cheaply from his mines Worsley directly into industrial Manchester. It was the direct cause of the price of coal falling by 75% in the town.

Manchester became a city only in 1853. The Duke of Bridgewater was, however, pursuing an even more ambitious plan to extend his canal to the Mersey river at Runcorn. Major obstacles had to be overcome before this link between Manchester and Liverpool was finally completed in 1776. In 1885, the Bridgewater Canal was acquired by the Manchester Ship Canal Company for £1.71 million. By 1850, some 4,800 miles of inland waterway had been constructed in Britain.

Ellesmere Port & the Ellesmere Canal

The town of Ellesmere Port owes its existence to the cutting of the Ellesmere Canal in the eighteenth century, which was intended by the Duke of Bridgewater and other backers to connect the rivers Mersey, Dee and Severn with Ellesmere, a market town in North Shropshire, becoming the central hub.

Colourful Stern   Fuji X-T20 + 10-24 f/4
Colourful Stern Fuji X-T20 + 10-24 f/4

The plan was to create a link between the Port of Liverpool and the mineral industries of North East Wales and the manufacturing centres of the West Midlands. William Jessop and Thomas Telford were appointed to oversee the project and parliamentary approval for the project was given in 1793.

MSC Pelican   Fuji X-T10 + 23mm f/1.4
MSC Pelican Fuji X-T10 + 23mm f/1.4

Although the Severn part of the project was never completed, the Ellesmere canal connected to the Mersey in Netherpool in 1795 and the basin became known as Whitby Wharf and Locks. The area which included locks, cottages and warehouses, became known as Port of Ellesmere and, by the nineteenth century, this had changed to Ellesmere Port. The Ellesmere Canal was later renamed as the Shropshire Union Canal.

The National Waterways Museum (NWM)

The NWM is now operated by The Canal & River Trust and is situated at the Ellesmere Port docks on the Mersey. The docks were designed by Thomas Telford, and went on to become the largest inland waterway dock complex in the UK. It was still operating until the 1950s. The reason for its importance was the superb location of the docks, just across the Mersey River from Liverpool, at the point where the northern end of the Shropshire Union canal meets the Mersey. From the early twentieth century, the newly constructed Manchester Ship Canal was also connected to the docks.

Thos Clayton   Fuji X-T10 + 23mm f/1.4
Thos Clayton Fuji X-T10 + 23mm f/1.4

Ellesmere Port therefore became a strategic freight hub. Goods from all over the world were imported through Liverpool and then transferred via smaller vessels to Ellesmere docks where they were loaded onto narrowboats for distribution along the canal network. The docks were also used for outgoing British goods bound for export which were transhipped at Ellesmere from narrowboats onto larger vessels before being transported across the Mersey to Liverpool Docks and onwards to world markets.

Thanks to The Canal & River Trust with its diverse grants and donations, as well as to a host of volunteers, the docks have emerged over the last forty years as a national museum of major national and international significance.

Important Features of the NWM

I have already explained the historical importance of the ports complex. The visitor can also enjoy seeing the surviving Victorian locks, moorings, docks and warehouses in addition to a forge and stables.

The whole area around the docks is a Conservation Area with nineteen Grade II listed buildings. Of particular interest are the Porters Row Cottages which were originally built in 1833.

Porters’ Cottages  Fuji X-T20 + 10-24 f/4
Porters’ Cottages Fuji X-T20 + 10-24 f/4

Over the years, the four surviving cottages were home to shipwrights, blacksmiths, railway workers and, of course, porters and their families.

Today, the cottages are presented as real-life homes from the 1830s, 1900s, 1930s and 1950s.

The Island Warehouse was built in 1871 as a store for grain.The power hall is packed full of gleaming, beautifully maintained engines. The Pump House contains the steam-driven pumping engines that once supplied the power for hydraulic cranes and capstans throughout the dock at Ellesmere Port.The historic boat collection illustrates the many different types of craft that have used canals and rivers over the centuries.

One vessel at the NWM of particular interest to me is the MV Cuddington since it was worked by ICI, Imperial Chemical Industries, the company for which I worked for thirty-two years. The ICI roundel is still fixed to its funnel.

I understand that the vessel was built for ICI and was crewed and operated by company employees until about forty years ago. It was principally involved in the shipping of soda ash (sodium carbonate or Na2CO3) one of the main raw materials for glass manufacture. Soda ash was manufactured at ICI’s Winnington works and it was shipped by the MV Cuddington on the rivers Mersey and Weaver. It was also a suitably sized vessel for supplying 200-ton shipments of soda ash to Irish Glass Bottle Company in Dublin because of the relatively narrow dimensions of the dock there.

As the pictures illustrate, MV Cuddington has seen better days and is in need of some restoration. It will, however, have to take its turn in the queue for renovation with other boats of arguably rather greater historical importance.

MV Cuddington - Seen better days Fuji X-T20 with 10 - 24 f4
MV Cuddington – Seen better days Fuji X-T20 with 10 – 24 f4

The Concrete Barge

This vessel sounds about as much use as a chocolate teapot. It tells however a tale of WWII steel shortage and something about British “making do”.

The Concrete Barge from WWII Fuji X-T20 + 10 - 24 f4
The Concrete Barge from WWII Fuji X-T20 + 10 – 24 f4

The concrete barge was built in 1944 by Messrs Wates of Barrow-in-Furness at a time of shortage of steel and shortage of skilled shipbuilders. The Government sought a solution by turning to the building trade to make vessels out of concrete. To make an all-steel barge capable of carrying 200 tons of cargo required 56 tons of steel, whereas a concrete barge of the same capacity used a mere 18 tons of steel.

Although useful in wartime, these concrete barges were very heavy and difficult to steer. They were also easy to damage due to the brittle nature of concrete, despite heavy timber fenders along their sides. Concrete barges were mainly used around major ports and rivers and for local journeys, as this one was, on the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey.

Boat Restoration

The NWM is engaged in extensive restoration work on the vessels under their care. One example is shown in the picture below:

Friends  Fuji X-T20 + 10 - 24 f/4
Friends Fuji X-T20 + 10 – 24 f/4

Find more details of the National Waterways Museum here. If you are in the area it is well worth a visit.

Related articles

Floating through the locks on the watery road to Wigan Pier

Did you know?

David Suchet, actor and lifelong Leica enthusiast, is also a canals and waterways fan? You can read about his interests, and how he and his wife lived on a canal longboat for several years, in his new book, Behind the Lens – My Life.

Read more features by David Bailey here


  1. A fascinating history and a great selection of pictures. This should be a book! The use of perspective in the first shot is very good and the boat art is especially interesting. Thank you for this, I enjoyed it immensely.

    • Glad you enjoyed this, Richard. It is encouraging our canals are enjoying a renaisseance but I worry that the teaching of history at present is in a bad way. There’s too much re-writing of history for political advantage. I suppose ‘twas ever so!

      • Hi David,
        I think most countries that developed during the 18th and 19th centuries have their canal systems. Eastern Canada has the Rideau Canal and the Trent-Severn waterway, both popular boating venues today. Both have interesting histories, originally started as military projects.

  2. Terrific article and photos, here in Rome NY we have the ErieCanal which crosses NYS from Albany (top of Hudson River) to Buffalo and the Great Lskes. It was the main route in the North to open up the Way West.

    • I’ve read about the Erie Canal but never gone into detail. Is it a narrow canal such as those David is talking about, designed for narrow boats, or something on a bigger scale (such as the Manchester Ship Canal…)?

      • The boats on the Erie Canal were wider than narrow boats, but not as broad as ships on the Manchester Ship Canal. You can find an excellent museum dedicated to the Erie Canal in Syracuse, NY which explains everything from why it was needed to how it was dug, the boats that sailed on it (one is part of the museum) and how it was funded.

        My wife and I drove from Chicago to Quebec City a few years ago and stopped in Syracuse. I probably have pictures somewhere but not sure how I could add them to this string.

        • It isn’t possible to add photos to a comments discussion but you could add a link if you wish to upload them to a photo site.

    • Thanks John. Ashamed to say I knew nothing of the Erie Canal. I am impressed to learn that when it was completed in 1825 it was the second longest canal in the world after the Grand Canal in China, 363 miles in length. The Wikipedia article also mentioned that the canal much enhanced the economic development of New York State and New York which of course closely parallels what our canals in the UK did for us.

  3. A wonderful article and excellent pictures. We have a canal running from le Havre to Tancarville to travel the Seine river without having to worry with the tides. Many canals down here are not used as they used to anymore. Does the same apply to English canals? Some of the boat art reminds me of Portugese boats paintings, especially in the use and combination of colours. You make your fuji camera shine. I truly enjoyed the article. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you, Jean. Our canals are also little used for original purpose of shipping raw materials and finished goods. There is however a considerable upsurge in leisure use which is leading to canal re-furbishment, even re-opening of some canals, which leads to investment in canal side pubs, walks and so on. Much depends on volunteers but also investment by the Canal and River Trust and also the National Lottery. It’s going in the right direction. Hope the same happening in France?

      • Some of the canals are used again with canal cruise boats. You don’t need a licence to steer these small boats. I’d like to try for a week or two.

  4. Thanks David for this very interesting article and colourful pictures! They remind me of holidays on narrow boats years ago.

    • Such memories! I remember a week I spent on a canal boat with my (male) cousin in the early 1960’s. Our main aim was to moor each late afternoon within easy stroll of a canal side pub! After some food and many pints we would walk unsteadily back to our boat. I also remember that several ducks were likely to spend the night on the roof and you could hear them waddling round and quacking!

  5. Very fascinating bit of history and I agree it should be printed as a book(let). Much less important than the substance of the article is a little question I have: What determined the choice of camera, or was it just happenstance on any given day? I noted quite a lot of X-T20 (which I have but have never bonded with) and X-T10, and also the X-T2.

    • Good question, John, as ever. I have made three or four trips to the Museum in as many years. For the first trip, I only had the X-T10 as I had just sold my Canon FF gear so the best camera was the X-T10 I had with me.Then I acquired the X-T2 but sold the X-T10 for the newly released X – T20. However, a further complication was that some of the shots I wanted to take had to await my purchase of the 10-24mm f4 zoom. I’m sure you wish you hadn’t asked!
      Just for completeness, I plan to sell the X-T20 in 2020 to get the X-T4 (with IBIS hopefully) and keep the X-T2 as my second camera.

  6. .
    eeh this takes me back..

    At big school (..was I eleven or twelve?..) my first project was to write about Canals ..but that was in Manchester, so I was pretty much immersed in them ..metaphorically. I began my thesis saying “If it is true that the Romans built the Caerdyke, the artificial cut from the Nene at Peterborough to the Witham at Lincoln, then they were the first people to build canals in Britain.”

    {That initial “If..” brings on memories of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ on TV, with each sequence ending in “If doctors can..”, “If scientists can..” and then would lead to an optimistic summary of what might be achieved in the next five or ten years!)

    I remember reading in Manchester’s Local History library that Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (..which, of course, is in Somerset!..) chose James Brindley, who could supposedly neither read nor write – or wasn’t very good at either – to build his canal, and packed him off to the Low Countries (Holland) to see how to actually build them, and then Brindley came back to Worsley and really did it!

    I personally don’t like boating on canals, as the water’s ‘dead’ ..there’s no current, and that makes it difficult – for me, anyway – to manoeuvre ..I like, or love, the ‘living’ water of rivers and the sea.

    But many thanks for the memories, and all the evocation, David!

    • Thanks David, glad you enjoyed the stroll down memory lane.
      Quite right, the canal builders were extraordinary people of native ingenuity, willingness to learn and boundless confidence. How we could do with more of them around today!

  7. First of all, I grew up near the canals in New York and Michigan around the great lakes over to the Hudson River in the U.S. so I have always had an interest in the canals from when my father first took me to one when I was 5. So the article interested me. And I kept being grabbed by the photos, the clarity, the color. Perhaps it is just my particular eye and at first I did not even read what camera it was, but this is the second time in a couple of years that you have published an essay with the Fuji X-T10 and Fuji X-T20. I am a Leica guy but I can’t take it anymore, I’m getting me some Fuji. Thanks for being so ecumenical in your cameras and articles presented. A joy. Bravo. Phil

    • Thanks your very kind comments. As I commented above, I now know a little of the extraordinary Erie Canal. I must do more research on your canals.
      It is indeed good to hear that you may add a Fuji camera to your Leica. An honour for it to move in such exalted camera circles. Leica cameras and lenses are undeniably excellent but Fuji know a thing or two, particularly in lens design and colour science from their illustrious history in the film era. I hope to hear how you get on with your Fuji in due course.

  8. Yes the canal is both wide and narrow, there are many off shoots , here we have Black River canal that ran north from Erie Canal to what is now Boonville and this was main transit canal for timber from current Adirondack Park land. These were smaller canal with mules or horses used to move vessels from the shore. One of my best friends growing up, his elder brother, Dr. Daniel Larkin, while alive, was the authority on the canal, wrote quite a few books and articles. Today the canal is mostly tourists people taking their yachts from Great Lakes across ny down the Hudson at Albany then out to eastern seaboard and then usually south in Atlantic. There used to be tremendous trade goods, but trucking industry killed that. Interesting the interstate highway parallels the waterway. John B. Jervis a civil engineer designed this canal and many others and railroads. His home is our public library. antebellum mansion. As an aside I got together a Banker, an attorney, a man who owns an Ace Hardware franchise, and the business agent of the local masons, for a project for the library, to redo the porch that stands 20 feet above ground and four massive stone and brick pillars holding up the porch roof. 110 ft tall from porch floor to roof. Library need help and as not really supported by tax dollars, they needed help. I got the Banker to cough up the money, the Attorney covered us any liability, the hardware owner supplied concrete brick and wood, and the local arson labor business agent, got us experts in antebellum construction to come here from Washington. The originAl architect plans showed us all that was needed, except two things, 1. Which was the keystone supporting each individual pillar and 2. Did not show us how far they dug down to start building the base of these pillars. To make a long story short we had city close down street in front of library, and we stood across street while the expert mason pulled from each pillar the key stone, so they could be shored up. We were across street because if he pulled wrong stone all those pillars and the roof would have landed in middle of street, we did it at 6 AM and celebrated with Irish coffee. These pillars would need three of us to hug and touch hands that’s the circumference. Again back to canal quickly besides pleasure some colleges along it path use it for practice for their crews,an d other non perishables are some times shipped.


  9. A very interesting journey in to the canal waterways. Once many years ago I had a family holiday on the Leeds Liverpool canal, but have never been near them since.

    I also found the ICI part of this very interesting. I grew up around Middlesbrough which for many years had a large part of ICI’s large chemical plant, more or less wrapped around the town. I am sure it was where the majority of the people were employed at that time. I recall driving past parts of the chemical plant to the strongest smells of sulphur and rotten eggs. Which explains when the talk that they had chemically engineered Quorn in the local plant started to emerge that I opted not to eat it, and still won’t (randomly amusing to Liz).


    • Like you, I’ve only actually spent one holiday on the canals starting from Stone in Staffordshire for one week in my youth. Have fond memories as recounted above.

      Interested in your ICI memories. When I joined the company in 1966, it employed about 100,000 people in the North West in Runcorn and surrounding areas AND another approx 100,000 people in the Heavy Organic Chemicals division around Middlesborough! During my working life I sold chemicals manufactured in both centres. I can recall bringing many customers to Middlesborough for factory visits and meetings. It could be very cold and the saying was that East of Middlesborough the next high ground is the Urals! (This may not be strictly true but you get the point)
      Sympathise on Quorn as I don’t eat it. It was however NOT a chemically produced food but a mycoprotein based food, originating in a fungus and produced via a fermentation process. It started as a joint venture between ICI and Rank Hovis Mcdougall.

      • In all fairness David, the North East was bitterly cold, and my childhood memories are of winter snows (every winter), and blazing hot summers (all of the 70’s summers were hot, not just 76). I also remember the sun being blotted out for three whole days when the dulux paint factory at seal sands went up in smoke – quite literally. I think that happened in 76 too.

        ICI was the main local employer for most of my childhood and many of my class mates went on to Apprenticeships with ICI when we all left.

        ICI and heavy steel industry are the reason we are know as Smoggies in the boro – lol.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.