The men who constructed Britain’s canals

The Canal Builders by Anthony Burton

2016-07-27 14_37_07-Canal Builders_ Anthony Burton_ 9781473843721_ Books


Reviewer: Robert Davies

ANTHONY Burton is an author and broadcaster who has specialised mainly in industrial and transport history. The Canal Builders was his first book within this sphere and was first published in 1972. It has been in print ever since, and is now republished in a new fifth edition.

Overall he has written some 70 books on canals, railways, shipping and various other industries as well as biographies of some of the key figures – Josiah Wedgwood, Thomas Telford and Richard Trevithick.

This book has been meticulously researched, a painstaking task in the pre-internet ‘70s. It begins in the middle of the 18th century, continuing through to the early 19th century when we witnessed the beginning of the railway age. The original text has been revised and improved utilising new archival material.

The 16 chapters of the book are divided into three parts. Part 1: Promoters and Financiers, covering the very beginning of canals, chapter 2 of this part is dedicated to the Duke of Bridgewater, described as the ‘Father of Canals’. The following four chapters deal with the promoters such as Josiah Wedgwood and the opposition, which emanated mainly from the river navigations. This opposition extended into the chapter on Parliament when the necessary Bill received a somewhat stormy passage. This part concludes with the essential ingredient – raising the money.

Part 2: Engineers and Administrators, moves on to describe the building of a canal. James Brindley, the first canal engineer, deservedly has his own chapter, as does Thomas Telford. Another chapter is devoted to the role of the chief engineer who drew up the plans and specifications for a canal and also a chapter on the role of the resident engineer, who was responsible for bringing the plans to fruition. The final chapter of this part explains how the canal was managed, with a committee keeping an overview and a ‘secretary’ and his staff administering the day-to-day handling of affairs.

Part 3: The Workers, tells us about the navvy, a remarkable man considering all he had to work with was a pick, shovel and a wheelbarrow. Initially, on the Bridgewater, the navvies were part-time untrained labourers, who had no notion of becoming long-term canal builders. Also featured are the contractors who formed a link between the company and the workers. They hired, paid and fired them. They sourced the skilled workers – bricklayers, masons, carpenters etc. and the canal cutters (navvies). Men at Work details the methods and specifics of the actual construction work.

The author concludes with a chapter that takes a brief look through the eyes of a variety of gongoozlers. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were very little different from today’s breed. Curiosity dictated that when a group of men were found at work, another group of curious spectators could be found standing and watching. Nowadays large city construction projects contain ‘windows’ in the hoarding to facilitate public viewing!

This book is a definitive work covering the subject of canal builders in great detail, supplemented with a number of illustrations – pen and ink sketches, drawings and black and white photographs. It is hardback and extends to 196 pages. It is probably not a book for the casual observer but a very useful reference book for serious canal historians.

The Canal Builders by Anthony Burton is published by and available from Pen & Sword Books Ltd, £19.99 plus £4 p&p but currently reduced to £15.99,
ISBN: 978-1-47384-372-1