The Canal Age

History of transport


Early in the 18th century, most of Britain's wealth was in agriculture. However, workers were beginning to move away from the land to the growing textile and iron smelting industries. After 1780's, steam was replacing wind and water as a source of power, and coal was used in large amounts. Because of the need to move heavy goods quickly and cheaply, efforts were made to improve water transport.

The Bridgewater canal was the first of its kind. The Duke of Bridgewater built it so that large quantities of coal could be transported from his mines in Worsley, Lancashire, to Manchester, seven miles away (11km). His engineer, James Brindley, designed a waterway that went to the very coalface of the mines and included an aqueduct across the River Irwell. The canal was so successful that on its opening, the price of coal in Manchester halved.

As factory and mine owners realised the value of water transport, the great canal age began. Between 1760 and 1840 nearly 4,000 miles (6,400km) of canal were built. These canals were vital to the new industries because they carried materials for building factories, for making cotton, iron or pottery goods, and then took these goods away to be sold once they were made.

Pickfords uses narrowboats to transport goods

Pickfords entered canal transport in the 1780's with a number of narrow boats. In 1790, a writer commented on the flow of goods by canal from the north of England to Coventry "from whence they are taken to London by Mr Pickford's wagons, who has large warehouses on the wharf to store goods." We also know that in 1794 Pickfords' boats were departing daily from Castle Quay for Coventry.

The result was that Pickfords grew into a business handling road and waterborne traffic throughout most of the country. In 1795, the company had 10 boats registered. By 1838, it had 116 boats plus 398 horses to haul them. To feed the horses, hay was hung from bridges on the way.

The early 19th century has also been called the 'golden age of coaching'. Telford and his colleagues built many miles of better, springy road making travel safer and more enjoyable, though still expensive and uncomfortable in winter. Before 1830, a thousand well-built coaches left London every morning for destinations all over the country.

The finest vehicle on the road was the Mail-coach and was built specially to carry letters as well as passengers. The first Royal Mail ran from Bath to London in 1784, completing the 160 miles (170km) in a record 16 hours.

Steam engines were now used in ships; first in river paddle-boats and in 1819 an American sail and steamship crossed the Atlantic. In the air, two Frenchmen made the first successful balloon flight in 1783, in a hot-air balloon made by the Montgolfier Brothers.

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