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Canals are man made waterways. They were built during the Industrial Revolution to allow industrialists to move large quantities of raw materials and goods to and from their factories.

A canal has several big advantages over using roads. (Remember that roads at the time were not as good as they are nowadays).

Firstly a boat, or barge, on a canal is not going to have a bumpy journey so fragile goods are much less likely to smash on route. Secondly a canal barge is much larger than a horse drawn wagon and so it can be used to carry much more than wagons on Turnpike roads could be expected to. The third major advantage of canals is that, once they are built, they are very cheap to use. If a barge can carry 50 tonnes of coal and it only takes two men to look after the barge consider how much has been saved in wages if the largest wagon on the road could only carry 2 tonnes. There's also less breakage so the factory has more goods to sell.

Industrialists soon realised that Canals were a very good idea and invested heavily in the construction of this new form of transport. By the end of 'canal mania' it was just about possible to use inland waterways to get goods from most cities to any of the major ports.

The engineers who designed Canals were very capable men. One of the basic problems with using water for transport purposes is that water doesn't go up and down hills in the way that roads can. Britain, particularly the north of England where much of the industrialisation was happening, isn't a very flat place. A solution had to be found, how can you go up and down hills on a canal? The answer was to use locks.

Locks were used to go up and down hills on a canal. This digram shows how a barge could safely be taken uphill.

Using a system of gates on a hill the canal builder could create a system where-by the people working the barge could open and shut gates in the order demonstrated above to move the barge uphill. Locks such as these can still be seen today and are a feature of all British canals. The most famous example of locks in Britain being the 'Five Rise locks' in Bingley, West Yorkshire. here there are 5 locks in quick succession to allow a barge to make a steep climb up a hill. (There is also a smaller 3 rise lock not so far away from this engineering masterpiece, showing how 'hilly' the area is).

Barges were powered initially by horses. A tow path can be found on one side of all canals. This was for the horses who dragged the barges up and down the canals. In tunnels however their was no tow path, the horse would be walked over the hill to the other side. To get through a tunnel the men working the barge would have to lay on top of the barge and use their feet of the side of the tunnel to 'walk' the barge through the tunnel. this process, illustrated below, was called legging.

By laying on the barge and walking along the tunnel walks the men working a barge could 'leg' the barge through a tunnel. The Horse would be walked over the hill that the tunnel went through and meet up with the barge on the other side.

Canal building stopped with the invention and development of the steam engine. Most of the canals of the industrial age are still navigable (boats can use them) and are used by thousands of people each year for barging holidays. Some canals are being redeveloped and reopened to recognise the importance that canals have in our heritage and to promote tourism in some areas. (Most barges now have engines as well, so you'd not HAVE to leg through tunnels: although some people still do it this way!)


Select a form of transport from the list below to find out more about changes in the way we moved around the country.


The images used on this page have been provided by a third party. Should my use of them be a breech of copyright please e-mail me and I will make the necessary amendments to this page.