Canal Acts

Parliament used Private Acts - so-called because they conferred powers or benefits on specific individuals or bodies rather than the public in general - in order to authorise new canal routes.

First canal Acts

The first canal Acts were those of 1759 and 1760 which enabled the Duke of Bridgwater to construct a canal linking his colliery at Worsley to Manchester.

Others followed, including major trunk canals such as the Trent and Mersey in 1766, the Forth and Clyde in 1768 and the Leeds and Liverpool in 1770.

Navigation projects

Acts for new inland navigation projects totalled 40 in 1760-89; 52 in the five years 1790-94; and 52 in 1795-1829. After that there was just one important scheme - the Manchester Ship Canal (1884).

The canal system in fact developed slowly, and individual schemes were often delayed by financial and engineering difficulties.

Growing mileage of inland waterways

The mileage of inland waterways in Great Britain grew from about 1400 in 1760 to around 4100 in 1830, and there was no connection to London until 1790.

Parliament did not ensure any sort of consistency between canals, so varying widths and other restrictions prevented the canal system from operating as a network.

Fiercely opposed

Canal Bills were often fiercely opposed by rival transport operators and landowners.

The first surviving House of Commons transcript of opposition evidence to a canal Bill is for the committee on the Cromford Canal Bill in 1789.

Transport of goods

Nevertheless, canals decisively ended the situation in which heavy materials could only be moved short distances or where navigable rivers or coastal transport happened to be available.

As one contemporary observer put it, they "converted the internal parts of our island into coasts".

Above all, they made cheap coal widely available. Inland coalfields expanded massively, as did heavy industries in inland areas, notably pottery and metalworking in the Midlands.

Industrial revolution

The use of Private Acts for canals has been credited with making Great Britain ready for an industrial revolution in advance of countries such as France, which had to rely instead on governments to build its infrastructure.

Did you know?

Inland waterways in Great Britain grew from about 1400 miles in 1760 to around 4100 in 1830

Related information

Read about the work of committees

Find out more about Private Bills and Acts

External link

The Canal and River Trust was set up in 2012.  It replaced British Waterways and cares for over 2,200 miles of Britain's historic canals and waterways.