In 1790 Britain was in the grip of ‘Canal Mania’. Rich and poor clamoured to invest in the canals to make their fortune. In two years Parliament passed 37 Acts for the construction of canals. At their peak the 4,250 miles of navigable rivers and canals carried 30 million tonnes of freight a year.

Arteries of the world’s first industrial economy

To say that from their birth canals were controversial and exciting would be an understatement. Playing a key role in that economic ‘big bang’ we now label the Industrial Revolution, they were seen as heroes: cheaper raw materials and finished goods, making London to Birmingham a swift journey of only four or five days, and villains: built by disorderly navvies, carving an unsightly gash in a previously tranquil landscape.

Their creation was a supreme example of the mobilisation of private capital to produce national infrastructure, even if the returns often disappointed investors. ‘Canal Mania’ was at its height in the 1790s, and by 1850 there were over 4,000 miles of navigable waterways in Britain with the network transporting over 30 million tonnes of freight each year.

Many people believe that it was the railways that killed off this thriving traffic on the canals. It is true that the railways acquired many canal companies for reasons of self-interest, but freight carrying continued on the narrow canals until after the Second World War.

It was competition from the new motorways and the final blow of the terrible winter of 1962/63 that effectively killed off freight on the waterways except on the broad navigations mostly to be found in the north east of England.

In the meantime, passionate enthusiasts such as Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman began to highlight the threat to the waterways and the need to secure a future for them. Together with other stalwarts, they founded the Inland Waterways Association in 1946. It is thanks to the efforts of people like these that we have a waterway network of such value today. Their involvement saved a priceless national treasure.

The waterways after World War 2

The waterways entered public ownership in 1948 under the provisions of the 1947 Transport Act. They were an insignificant part of the huge nationalisation of transport under the British Transport Commission. So much so that one surprised civil servant is reported to have remarked ‘oh, do we get the canals too?’

Waterways declined in this period. By the late 1960s, the network had declined to 2,775 miles from a peak of over 4,000 in its heyday. Many canals were abandoned and often they were filled in. For example, the Forth & Clyde and Union canals are now restored, bringing coast to coast navigation, environmental improvement and economic regeneration to Lowland Scotland. These are the very canals that were short sightedly culverted and filled in during the 1960s because of the cost of maintaining a few bridges.

The Transport Act 1962 created the British Waterways Board and the Transport Act 1968 actually recognised the value of waterways for leisure. However, there still remained the threat to those waterways that the 1968 Act so casually labeled “The Remainder”.

Long term underfunding became a way of life for the waterways. The financial rules under which British Waterways had to operate loaded the dice heavily in favour of continued decline and closure for more of the network. However, the work of bands of hardy volunteers and some enlightened local authorities saved and restored many of the waterways we still have today.

British Waterways in the 1990s

In this period, British Waterways achieved as much as it could within its outmoded operating framework.

A new commercial approach brought greater income from property. At the same time, boaters made an important contribution to the future of the network paying an extra 30% in real terms for licences.

Perhaps the most revolutionary development in British Waterways’ finances in this period came from the huge growth in funding from outside bodies such as the Lottery, Europe and local authorities.

Much of this funding was linked to the acknowledged role that waterways could play in regeneration. British Waterways became a major and lead player in regeneration projects in all the UK’s major towns and cities including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and London.

British Waterways also found innovative ways to draw new commercial income from an old transport system. For instance, it launched a partnership with the private sector called Fibreway (now known as Easynet), which has now installed an 800-mile fibre optic cable network under the towing paths allowing canals to transport data, the fuel of the Information Technology Revolution.

Despite all this progress, the underlying financial position of the waterways continued to deteriorate through most of the 1990s. Increases in its own earned income was not enough to offset the decline in government grant. By 1996, the Board was warning publicly that there was an urgent backlog of safety-related maintenance amounting to �90 million, with a further �170 million needed to restore maintenance standards to the statutory requirement defined in the 1968 Transport Act.

Waterway users, local communities and the media all voiced considerable concern and the future for the waterways looked bleak.

Unlocking the potential …a new future for British Waterways

On coming to power in May 1997, the new government was quick to review the problems the waterways faced. This culminated in its announcement in June 2000 of a package of measures intended to make sure that the public could benefit as widely as possible from the waterways and that their future could be secured.

The package, outlined in the documents, Waterways for Tomorrow and the earlier Framework Document for British Waterways (February 1999), included:

  • confirmation that British Waterways would remain in the public sector
  • an annual 8 million up lift in annual government grant to 58 million to tackle the urgent safety-related maintenance backlog
  • new commercial freedoms and opportunities for public and private investment
  • a modern publicly available framework policy statement to guide British Waterways
  • the formation of The Waterways Trust