Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Top 100 Sites
This page describes the various roles people play, or have played, in the constuction of navigable rivers and canals, in the maintence, working life and in the restoration and support of our UK waterways. It also explains the general categories of Engineer, Surveyor, Author, Promoter, Trader, Company Official, Shareholder, Contractor and Volunteer which are used for searching records of people held on this site. See Waterways People.
The people who built our canals and made our rivers navigable were civil and mechanical engineers although many of our navigations pre-date the use of these terms. The Institution of Civil Engineers, founded in 1818, grew out of the Smeatonian Society formed by John Smeaton (1724 -1792) who was one of the early engineers of the canal age.
The work of civil engineers was to plan the routes for canals, design the locks, aqueducts, bridges, tunnels, embankments, cuttings and other structures needed for the navigation and to oversee the work of canal building. Engineers were employed at different level within the companies that built the canals. A junior engineer might be employed to oversee a particular length of the navigation or th be in charge of the day to day work on a major engineering structure like a large aqueduct or tunnel. The Resident Engineer was the person in charge of the day to day work for the whole project and would give instuctions to his staff and to contrctors working on the navigation.
Principal or Consulting Engineers were people at the top of their profession. It was they who decided on the best route to be taken and on the methods and structures to be used to complete the navigation. They would produce a plan to be approved by the company directors and shareholders and ususally gave evidence to parliament during the passage of the Bill needed to obtain the necessary Act of Parliament. After the Act had been passed the Consulting Engineers would often take a "back seat" while the Resident Engieer was in charge of the canal construction or river improvement, however, he would usually keep an eye on progress and would be called in to give his expert opinion on any difficulties that arose.
Mechanical Engineers were concerned with the building of all types of mechanisms from paddles on locks to boat lifts and steam engines. In the early days of the canal age most of the engineers who built the waterways were both civil and mechanical engineers and the distinction between the two branches of engineering was not generally recognised. As the steam age progressed machinery became more complicated and more specialist enginners appeared.
The finding and plotting of a route for a canal and the accurate measurement of the various changes in ground level were crucial to the sucess of a navigation and it was the role of the Surveyor to produce the survey on which the project would be based. In the 18th centuary the principles of land surveying were well known and the firt theodolite was produced in 1720, replacing the earlier surveying compass which worked using the same basic method but with less accuracy.
Many canal engineers did there own surveying and those who relied on other surveyors often checked their work or called in a second opinion. It was not only the levels of each section of canal that were important to sucess but also water sources for supplying the canal and the ground conditions for each part of the route. All these things had to be taken into account when surveying the route and the possible alternative routes. Many of the earlier surveyors became canal engineers as the demand for more engineers increased in the years of canal mania.
These are the people who saw the need for a canal and who usually set up companies to build the canal and who got the necessary Act of Parliament. This was necessary to enable the company to have compulsory purchase powers for the land required for the route and (in the days before the Joint Stock Companies Act of 1862) to set up a company with shareholders liability limited to the price of the shares. Promoters were usually men of prominence in their own communities as they usually had to attract both shareholders and political support.
Some promoters did build canals without shareholders or Acts of parliament if they could build without the need for compusory purchase powers. Often these were short canals on the promoters own land but George Tennant built his eight mile long canal from Neath to Swansea in this way.
Anyone with sufficient money could become a shareholder in canal company. Promoters and local supporters were usually the main source of shareholders but in the years of canal mania speculators would chase around the country for a chance to invest in a canal scheme. Needless to say many of these schemes had no real chance of producing financial returns and some companies failed before any work had started on building the canal and others were partially completed but never opened.
A variety of company officials would be needed to build and run a navigation. First to be appointed was often the Company Clerk who ran the company office and looked after all the necessary paperwork. As building work progressed a Clerk of Works would be needed to arrange for supplies to be delivered and the various contractors to be paid. Once the navgation was trading Toll Clerks would be appointed to collect the income and Lock keepers would be needed to supervise the use of locks. There would also be Lengthsmen to inspect and maintain the various sections of the waterway and Wharfingers to look after goods on wharfs and in warehouses.
Contractors were used to supply labour and materials for canal building. The supply of bricks from local sources of clay was one of the tasks usually put out to contract as was canal cutting and tunnelling. Many contractors built up considerable expertise in their work and some went on to become engineers on canals and on the railways that followed them.
Traders on the waterways varied in size from the large companies like Pickfords and Fellows, Morton & Clayton to the "number one", who operated his own boat with his family. The boats that traders operated varied from waterway to waterway with the larger vessels on the major rivers and on the recently built or modernised canals.
Authors have written about our rivers and canals from earliest times and a book advocating a canal from the Thames to the Severn was produced more than a century before it was achieved. Since then authors from all the roles mentioned above, and from many more, have produced books about the many aspects of the waterways.
Although there have always been people who have freely volunteered their time and money for the sake of the waterways they cared about, the age of the volunteer can be said to have started in 1946 with the founding of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA). At that time the IWA was the only organisation campaigning for the preservation and restoration of our rivers and canals. This campaign was long fought over many years and continues today but it has led to major changes in public attitudes, government policies.
Today thousands of voluteers belong to the IWA and the countless waterway societies that continue the fight to preserve, improve, restore and extend our waterways. Some voulteers take a hands on approach to canal restoration and spend their time in the bottom of muddy locks or cutting trees from the channel of a disused canal.