Roads, Railways and Canals

Roads, Railways and Canals. Transport in the Industrial Revolution.

Transport changed very quickly in the period 1700-1900 as a result of an increased need for better methods of moving goods, new technologies and large scale investment in the countries infra-structure (communications network). The result of the hanges in the Industrial Revolution was a complex transport system including roads, rail, canals and the London Underground.

The changes came in several stages. First Roads were improved, then Canals were built and finally the Railway was developed. Each change had an impact upon life in the country, each shortened travel times over longer distances and each enabled industrialists to seek new markets in previously out of reach areas of the country. Likewise they enabled more raw materials and goods to be shipped to and from factories, providing further impetus to the industrial age.

Prior to the Industrial Age getting around the country was very difficult, as these images of a stage coach demonstrates.

The Turnpike Trust

Turnpike trusts were local companies that were set up to maintain roads. They were toll roads, where the user had to pay a fee (a toll) to make use of the road. These trusts were needed because the government did not finance things such as roads at the time.

Turnpike trusts would need to raise quite a lot of money to make improvements to the roads. The image below shows you what roads were like in the days before tarmac and regular repairs to roads.

As roads were often simply mud tracks they would be cut up in wet weather, leaving ruts when they dried out. This could damage vehicles using the road and make the road very hard to use.

Roads such as these were not really suitable for transporting fragile goods along. Industrialists needed flat and hard wearing roads to enable larger wagons to be able to make use of them safely. Turnpike trusts enabled this to happen. The diagram below shows what the outcome of Turnpike trusts was for roads.

Straighter, hard wearing roads would improve journey times and make travelling more comfortable. paying for using the roads allowed Turnpike trusts to employ professionals to make and improve the roads, making travel by Road a lot more effective.

Not everybody was pleased with Turnpike Trusts however. Lots of people were very angry that they had to pay money to use roads that had previously been free. In some places there were violent protests about the roads and toll houses and toll gates were the target of angry mobs. These protests were called the Rebecca Riots.

As the Industrial Revolution continued and other forms of transport, such as the Canal and the Railway systems evolved, the need for Turnpike Trusts was reduced. Eventually the government and local authorities took responsibility for making roads. Further improvements were made, by engineers such as Telford, MacAdam and Metcalfe.

These men used a range of ideas, not too dissimilar to those that the Romans had used two thousand years earlier, to make roads flatter, smoother and more hard wearing. The diagram below shows the way in which each of these engineers designed their roads, making use of a variety of types of material.

Each of these engineers realised that roads needed to be ’rounded’ so that rain water could drain from the road easily. They each used a number of different sizes of stone to provide further drainage and a firm foundation. This led to roads becoming much stronger and safer for wagons and coache to use.


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.

Canals: Lock system

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.

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.


Railways developed quickly following the early successes of the Stephenson’s and other pioneers. This new technology was the result of the invention and subsequent development of the steam engine. Steam could be used to power motors and had been used in mines to help bring coal and tin to the surface quicker. This idea was transferred to the notion of pulling wagons along rails and eventually Stephenson took the idea one stage further and built the steam engine into a wagon.

This first ‘train’ was very slow and initially scared a lot of people but soon the early railway lines between Liverpool and Manchester and Stockton and Darlington were accepted and people began to realise that Rail had a lot to offer industry and society in general.

The railways spread across the country at an amazing rate as companies were established to build and run the new lines. Many were financed by industry, eager to have quicker delivery of goods and a wider sales reach.

The impact of the railways was great. Industry benefited as goods could now be transported faster and in even greater quantities than before, reducing costs and creating bigger markets. The construction of the railway network also fueled demand for coal and steel. Ordinary people saw the benefits too. They could now get around the country much quicker and for the first time holidays out of the city were a possibility (Thomas Cook organising the first ‘package’ holiday from Leicester Station to the seaside). Communications in general improved as well. Newspapers could now be sent from London and Manchester, where most of the national dailies are printed, to towns across the country, the postage system became much quicker and movement of workers became a more realistic prospect.

One of the most noticeable consequences of the growth of the Railways was the rapid development of a number of towns. Crewe and Peterborough are both examples of towns that grew quickly due to their location on the railway network.

There were however several negative consequences of the growth of the Railways. Many people lost money from previous investments in canals, people who worked on the canals found themselves out of work.

British History – Industrial Revolution

Industrial Revolution Homepage
Before the Industrial RevolutionFamous FactoriesWomen and Children during the Industrial Revolution
MigrationInventions and InventorsThe Workhouse
HousingIndustrialists and PhilanthropistsRailways and Canals
Working ConditionsDisease in the Industrial RevolutionChartists and the Peoples Charter
LudditesSwing RiotsRebecca Riots
Protests, Riots and Conspiracies of the Industrial Age
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