Life on the Canal: The Rise and Fall of Victorian Canals

Life on the Canal

During the Victorian times, the Industrial Revolution meant that heavy, bulky goods such as coal, needed to be moved around the country to run the new industries springing up around the country. Goods could be taken by horse and cart but there was a limit to how big a load they could carry at one time, and the roads were not in good shape.


Because of this, the Victorians felt that the solution to their transport problems was with the building of a network of man-made waterways, known as canals. Boats known as narrowboats could carry large, heavy loads and transport them between towns and cities far more efficiently than ever before. Initially, the narrowboats were towed by horses, which walked alongside the canal on a towpath, pulling the boat behind them.


But there was change ahead. The development of the railways in the 1840s meant that now there was a new, faster way of transporting goods. The Victorians invested heavily in building more railways and canals went into decline.


Life on the canal

In the first days of the canal, teams of men would work on the boats. It was well-paid, important work and it paid better than working in the factories. However, when the railways took off, boatmen's wages were cut, and families were forced to live on the boats to save money. Because most of the boat was needed for transporting goods, the family only had a space of about 3-4 metres to live in.


Children lived with their parents on the canal boats and were expected to work on the boats, carrying out duties such as leading the horse and opening locks. Because they were always travelling, children found it difficult to go to school regularly.


Boatman - someone in charge of a boat or narrowboat

Bulky - Takes up a lot of space

Decline - when something gets worse or weaker

Initially - at first

Invest - put money or resources into something

Lock - part of a canal where the water level can be changed to let boats move to a higher or lower part of the waterway

Towed - pulled by

Transporting - moving something from one place to another

Waterways - 'roads' for boats on water


View other relevant My Learning resources or see the teachers' notes page for discussion and activity ideas.

Scroll down for a list of links and resources on this topic.

Document icon Learning article provided by: Foxton Canal Museum | 
This content is licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA

Accessibility Statement | Terms of Use | Site Map

Copyright © My Learning 2018. All Rights Reserved

Website by: Grapple