The British Canal system, allowing transport by water at a time when roads were only just emerging from the medieval pathways of mud and fallen trees became the only means of "mass" transit of raw materials and finished products. For this reason, some of the first canal promoters were the influential pottery companies based in Staffordshire. Certainly, Josiah Wedgwood saw the benefits to his business and inspired the building of the Trent & Mersey Canal. The UK became the first country to acquire a nationwide canal network, driven by the Industrial Revolution and the need for a reliable method of goods distribution in large quantities.
The building of canals began apace and the canal system grew rapidly to become an almost completely-connected network covering the industrial heartlands of England and Wales and connecting these to the major domestic markets and sea ports. There were canals in Scotland though these were neither connected to the network further south nor generally to each other. As building techniques improved and experience developed, the older canals were improved by straightening, cuttings, tunnels, embankments aqueducts, inclined planes (see restoration at Foxton Locks on Leicester Ring) , and even boat lifts, which combined to cut down many miles and eliminate many locks and thus many hours and cost from journeys.
The Industrial Revolution (which began in Britain during the mid-18th century) drove a frenzy of canal building and it is worth remembering that these navigations were not built using machinery, they were shaped ‘by hand’ in difficult and dangerous conditions. Many lives were lost along the way.
The 19th century saw some major new canals such as the Manchester Ship Canal as the industrial powerhouse in NW England continued its fierce competition with Liverpool. By the second half of the 19th century, many canals were increasingly becoming owned by newly emerging railway companies or competing with the railways. Many moved into decline and with decreases in mile-ton charges in order to try and remain competitive, many soon failed, especially those with narrow locks (only allowing a single boat to pass through rather than two at any one time). Standing up against the railway system which was faster, bigger and opened up the new ,market of passenger transport was an impossible task and investment was diverted away from the ‘cut’.
The 20th century brought major road building and therefore competition from the evolving road-haulage industry. Only the strongest canals survived until the Second World War. After this, the decline of trade on all the remaining canals was quick. By the mid 1960s traffic was almost non-existent, even on the widest and most industrial waterways
In the 1960s the embryonic canal leisure industry was only just sufficient to prevent the closure of those canals that remained open. However, the pressure to maintain canals for leisure purposes began to increase. From the 1970s an increasing number of closed and derelict canals were restored by enthusiastic volunteers. This process has continued to this day in the guise of amongst others, the Waterways Recovery Group. The success of these projects and awareness created has led to the funding and use of contractors to complete large restoration and complex civil engineering projects such as the restoration of the Victorian Anderton Boat Lift and the new Falkirk Wheel rotating lift. There are even plans afoot to create new canals such as the Milton Keyes Link, joining the GU Canal with the River Great Ouse. However, in the current economic climate, it would be a brave person who would predict a starting date for this project. However, that aside, there are now more boats on the canals than at the height of the canal revolution when the waterways were built.