Two things caught my eye during my recent rail journey from London to Stoke-on-Trent.
First, the presence of spring lambs in the green fields of middle England. In the 11 years that I have been in America, I have yet to see a single sheep in a field let alone a lamb. I obviously need to travel more extensively within the United States.
Second, for much of the journey the railway line ran parallel to its mass transport predecessor — the canal.
Trent & Mersey Canal, Stoke-on-Trent, England. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.
The pace of Britain’s Industrial Revolution and the growth of the canal network went hand in hand. A system of transport was needed for the safe and large scale movement of goods and raw materials and canals provided the answer.
The pottery manufacturers of Stoke-on-Trent were in the vanguard of the move to building canals. Transporting a fragile commodity such as pottery by pack horse had the inevitable consequences with such a fragile product.
Trent & Mersey Canal runs by the former Dolby Pottery works, Stoke-on-Trent England. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.
The success of the Bridgewater Canal in transporting coal from Worsley to Manchester, and also cutting the cost of coal to consumers by two-thirds, was taken up by the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood saw canals as the ideal way of transporting clay, particularly the china clay from St Austell in Cornwall, to his factory via the port of Liverpool and also as a means of getting his finished goods to the domestic markets of Manchester, Birmingham and London, as well as markets overseas, particularly North America.
Wedgwood was a driving force behind the construction of the Trent & Mersey Canal and shared engineer James Brindley’s vision of a canal network linking the four major rivers of England — the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames.
The Act of Parliament allowing the construction of the Trent & Mersey Canal was passed in 1766. In 1777, the 93.5-mile canal, including more than 70 locks and five tunnels, was completed.
Narrowboat on the Trent & Mersey Canal, Stoke-on-Trent, England. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.
At the peak of canal transport, the canal system extended for 4,000 miles before it was eclipsed by the advent of the railways, which from 1840 onwards could carry greater loads and at a faster pace.
The growth of road transport in the 20th Century also spelled the death knell for canals and many of them fell into sad decline after the Second World War.
It was largely thanks to canal trusts and an army of volunteers that the waterways have been preserved not only as part of England’s industrial heritage but also as a valuable recreational amenity.
Glebe Street Bridge and the Trent & Mersey Canal, Stoke-on-Trent, England, ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.
In urban areas, such as Manchester and Birmingham, the old canal basins have seen a rejuvenation in the past 30 years, with the development of Salford Quays and Gas Street Basin, respectively, as entertainment and upmarket residential areas.
Canals, with their narrowboats, locks, bridges, tunnels, warehouses and wharves, also provide a great subject for photography.
Growing up in the Potteries, the canal was always referred to as the “cut” as in, “Ast bin dine cut?” In Queen’s English it translates to, “Have you been down to the canal?”
The construction of the canals by men known as navigationalists, usually Irish in origin, led to the word navvy, to describe a general labourer, passing into the English language.