The Grand Junction Canal in Northamptonshire was the last of the major canals to be built. It transformed the Northamptonshire villages it passed through, bringing new trade and prosperity.
People in Britain have always used waterways for trade. However, before the canal system was built, water transport was difficult and dangerous. The alternative, by mud road, was not much better. In the 1750s, coal from Warwickshire increased more than six times in price by the time it reached Northamptonshire because transport was so difficult.
As Britain developed, new industries needed better transport for their materials and goods. Many sites were not close to natural rivers, so new waterways were created. In the late 18th century, a national canal network was built.
The Grand Junction Canal was approved in 1793 and was the last of the major canals to be built. Connecting Braunston to the Thames, it replaced the southern half of the Oxford Canal as a wider and more direct route from the Midlands to London. Whereas the Oxford Canal was 154 miles from Braunston to Brentford, the Grand Junction Canal reduced this distance to 70 miles. A Northampton Arm was later added.
However, this new direct route went through a ridge between Blisworth and Stoke Bruerne, causing difficulties. The engineers had not fully understood the geology of the hill, routing the tunnel through waterlogged ground. The site flooded, costs mounted, and the construction had to be stopped.
The Grand Junction Canal was finished in 1800, except for a 3½ mile stretch at the ridge. At Blisworth, cargo was unloaded and transported on railway wagons pulled by horses. A new route through the hill was found in 1802. Builders dug the tunnel by hand, using only picks and shovels. When the first boat came through in 1805, a crowd of 5,000 people greeted it.
Early on, boats were pulled by horses or men from the towpath. But as there is no towpath in the Blisworth Tunnel, boats could not be towed. Before steam boats were introduced in 1871, ‘legging’ was used to get boats through the tunnel. Legging (pictured below) was where a person lay on a board on top of the boat and pushed it along by walking along the walls of the tunnel. By 1827, the Grand Junction Canal Company employed official leggers.
Listen to Ralph Moulds talk about wide boats going through the tunnel:
The Grand Junction Canal became one of the busiest canals in the country. It transformed the Northamptonshire villages it passed through, bringing new trade and prosperity.
Labour for canal-building was mostly local and the good wages attracted farm workers. Many continued to work on the waterways afterwards. The canal companies employed people for varied jobs, including lock-keepers, toll clerks, and blacksmiths, as well as the boat crews. The canals also encouraged local industries. Brickyards, quarries, ironworks, and boatyards for building and repairing boats opened along the canals.
Listen to Ralph Moulds describe the difficulties working on the canals in winter:
Originally, the men and boys who worked on the boats travelling around the country went home frequently. However, as the canal network expanded and the distances travelled got longer, they came home less often. By the late 1840s, whole families lived on boats in furnished cabins.
Families also began to decorate their boats and belongings in the distinctive canal style known as 'Roses and Castles'. Boatyards specialised in the painting style sprung up across the country. Apprentices to the painters would have their own flairs, but followed the style of their masters, creating styles that were recognisable as being from a certain dock. Braunston was well-known for its decorations.
The golden age of canals ended with the construction of the railways. Many canals continued to thrive in the 19th century as train companies concentrated on passengers rather than freight. However, slowly, railways replaced canals as the main transport for goods and materials.
In 1923, there was a strike at Braunston dock that lasted seventeen weeks. Canal transport company Fellows, Morton & Clayton (FMC) cut wages to keep their rates competitive with the railway companies. In response, the union called a strike. Boats were ordered to stop at the first depot and only perishable goods were to be unloaded. At Braunston, 50-60 boats (with 300 people on board) moored during the first two days. Many stayed for the whole strike and the local school had to add another class for children of striking families. The strikers successfully blocked all attempts to unload cargo, but only won a moderate deal. It was the last serious strike on the canals.
As profits dwindled on canals, companies were bought up. The Grand Junction Canal merged with other canals in 1929 to become the Grand Union Canal (as it is known today). By 1970, there was no long-distance transport on the canal.
However, canals are still alive and well today. After the government nationalised the waterways in 1948, organisations fought to preserve the canals for leisure and recreation. The
Canal and River Trust look after the waterways today, maintaining 2,000 miles of canals and rivers, and caring for the network of bridges and towpaths. The Grand Union Canal in Northamptonshire is now home to pleasure boaters, walkers, and cyclists enjoying the heritage and nature of the canal.