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

Victorian Canal Engineering

A canal is a man-made waterway system. Canals were used to transport goods around the country during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The canal routes were created through uneven ground and so sometimes boats need to travel uphill or downhill on the canals. Victorian engineers devised a few different solutions to this problem, many of which you can still see in operation today.


The most common solution was a canal lock. A lock was a system whereby the boats would travel over an up-hill section of a canal in a series of steps, looking like a staircase. A boat would be driven into a section, and then heavy gates would shut behind it, making the section watertight. In front of the boat, water would be let into the closed section from the top section, which made the water level, and boat, rise up to the top level of the canal. 

Once the water level inside the closed section and the top section were equal, the top gate would be released and the boat could move on. You can find out more about how locks worked using the links at the bottom of this page.

The Inclined Plane Boat Lift

There were other solutions to the problem of getting boats up and down hills, including the Inclined Plane Boat Lift. It was built at a place called Foxton, where there was already a set of locks that could let narrowboats through. It took around 45 minutes to get to the top of the hill through the locks. 

When competition started to bite from the railways, it was decided that bigger boats were needed, but these could not fit through the locks. Instead, an engineer called Gordon Cale Thomas designed the Inclined Plane Boat Lift, which could accommodate bigger boats and also took only 12 minutes.


The boat lift worked by driving a boat into a large water tank at the bottom of the hill. The tank was then shut behind the boat, and the signalman would contact the top of the hill, to ask the engines to start. The engine would then pull the water tank, with the boat in it, to the top of the hill. 

The tank was on a pulley system, so as one tank went to the top of the hill, the other one counter-balanced the weight and travelled to the bottom of the slope.


The boat lift was taken out of service in 1910, as competition from the railways meant it was no longer economical to run, and it was not being used enough.


Accommodate - make room for

Devised - came up with

Economical - gives value for money

Engineer - someone who plans or creates machines or structures

In operation - in use

Signalman - someone whose job it is to make signals

Transport - move something from one place to another

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