Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Previous section

Canals and Waterways

In the 18th Century canals were built to transport materials, by water, from one place to another. Unlike rivers which were a natural phenomenon, a canal could be built where it was most needed and was safer to navigate because the water flow and depth could be controlled. Canals allowed large quantities of heavy goods, like coal, to be carried across long distances, and the UK was the first country to create a canal network.

Roads in the 18th Century were poorly built and transportation by horse and cart could not compete with the efficiency of the new canal network. 

At its peak, between 1770 and 1830, the UK canal network was over 4,000 miles long and transported raw materials like wool, salt and coal to mills and factories across the country. 


A black and white image of a horse and man walking down a  canal path with a canal boat on the water and bridge behind. Houses and smoke coming out of small chimneys can be seen on the left of the image. Trees can be seen on both side of the image
Canal at Redcote

The UK canal network rapidly grew in the latter half of the 18th Century and this period is often described as the “Canal Age”. During this time many mill and factory owners profited greatly from the free flow of goods and materials that allowed them to produce and sell their products on a grand scale. Global imports of raw materials like sugar, indigo, cotton and tobacco also meant that new products could be produced, and this was an important driver in the success of the canal network. From the 1760’s merchants and factory owners invested heavily in canals and waterways to transport their goods and materials.

It is important to understand the origins of the materials that were transported to Britain that helped to create this new industrial wealth. A significant amount of imported goods that arrived in British ports were forcibly produced by enslaved people, often on plantations in the Southern colonies of America.

Imported goods from other places in the world were commonly acquired through financial exploitation. The prosperity enjoyed by investors and beneficiaries of the British canal network was at the expense of people thousands of miles away.

John Smeaton And Canals

John Smeaton’s only documented trip abroad was in 1754 where he spent several months in Holland and Belgium (sometimes described as  “The Lowlands” because… they were countries at sea level which frequently experienced flooding). He used this time to observe engineering approaches to river navigation, canal construction and flood defences in these sea level environments. The knowledge he acquired on this trip stood him in good stead for his future work on the waterways of Britain where he built an impeccable reputation as a consulting engineer.


A black and white image of a large building with hundreds of window. Sailboats in the foreground. Large chimneys with smoke billow out in the background
Aire Calder

John was asked to consult on a number of canal and river projects throughout his career. These include the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland, Ripon Canal, Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and Aire Calder Navigation in Leeds. The Aire Calder Navigation, like many canals, was largely paid for by business shareholders as they could see how improved connectivity would make them money. A blue plaque can be found next to the Aire Calder Navigation at Leeds Dock commemorating John Smeaton’s work as a Civil Engineer. 

Wlliam Jessop, who was mentored by John Smeaton during the building of the Eddystone Lighthouse, assisted John Smeaton on many of these projects. William Jessop later went on to become a leading light in the next generation of canal engineers.

John was also responsible for design work on several harbours from St Ives in Cornwall, to Aberdeen in Scotland. In 1790 he designed a small harbour at Charlestown to facilitate the export of copper, tin and china clay from the local mines. The Charlestown Harbour is featured in TV Series Poldark.


A colour photograph of a small harbour with what trickling down a small lock. People walk around. Boat masts are present to the left of the image and a row of houses are on the right.
Charlestown Harbour