Head of the Grand Junction Canal with the Small Reservoir at Braunston by J. Hassell. Steel engraving version. Click on image to enlarge it.

In 1877, Charles Kingsley suggested that urbanites should go into the countryside as a desirable escape from the city (Letters, 168), but in 1819, the artist John Hassell (1767-1825) had already suggested in his Tour of the Grand Junction that his readers could observe some excellent scenery when they escaped from ‘the populous town’ and the ‘busy hum of men’ (vii), and travelled through the countryside by boat. Hassell, who published fifteen engraving of the canal, explains:

The Grand Junction or Braunston Canal is so peculiarly distinguished, that truly it may be said, from its junction with the Thames to its termination at Braunston, to be an almost perpetual succession of variegated beauty, shaping its devious course through some of the richest vallies of Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, accompanied by a redundance of the most luxuriant scenery, and lined on its sides with a succession of rising eminences. It gradually ascends from the bed of the Thames by the means of its locks, the entire way to Marsworth a distance of nearly forty miles, by the banks of the canal [p.4]

Hassell’s image features no tourists. The figures in the water colour work: men in the fore- and middle-grounds urge their horses to pull barges and their freight along the canal, while someone drives a cart over the right-hand bridge.

Why does Hassell focus on Braunston? Simply, Braunston provided a key element in the new English canal system. Parliament had passed the Grand Junction Act in 1793, just a quarter of a century before Hassel published his book. Initially, the Oxford Canal Company and the Thames and Severn Canal Company both wanted to build a canal to connect London and Birmingham. After some discussion, the Thames and Severn paid off the Oxford and decided to build the Grand Junction between Brentford and Braunston. Brentford at this time was a town in western London that appealed to the canal builders because the rivers Brent and Thames meet there. Braunston was a village in the county of Northamptonshire. The canal alongside Braunston joined the Oxford Canal and the Grand Union Canal. I will anticipate something with which I deal later.

The two-way traffic in freight haulage between London and the East Midlands went on for around 150 years as an important part of the national transport infrastructure. But, today, Braunston features a marina, and is a busy leisure center. According to the official website:

After travelling down through Braunston’s locks, take time to explore the idyllic canal village of Braunston, a settlement steeped in history dating back to the Doomsday Book, with its Horseley iron bridges and historic canal side workshops. The canal leads to the sleepy junction between the Grand Union and Oxford Canals, once one of the busiest commercial trading points linking with London. Today its importance has not diminished as it has become a much-loved hotspot for canal leisure seekers and the marina hosts the famous Braunston Historic Boat Rally every year too.

The attraction for the tourist then is an historical process whereby ‘one of the busiest commercial trading points linking with London’ with its iron bridges and canal side workshops has become ‘an ‘idyllic canal village’, ‘a settlement steeped in history’, and a ‘hotspot for canal leisure seekers’. In this mixture of the ancient and modern, even the annual Braunston Boat Rally has to be ‘Historic’.

What made Hassell’s choice of the Grand Junction at Braunston even more important in 1819 is that the Company connected the junction in London to the termination at Braunston and so provided the canal network with a hub, ‘a cross roads where a link could be made to Oxford Canal and to Leicester to the north…and Blisworth in Northamptonshire’ (McIvoy, 46-47). When completed just 25 years before Hassell published his Tour, the Grand Union, whose builders had equipped it with 166 locks of the latest design, extended 136 miles from London to Birmingham. Braunston, which functioned as the nerve centre of this new industrial canal system, was a relatively recent addition to the landscape when Hassell wrote his tourist’s guide that remains noticeably silent on one very important matter — the Canal epitomised a popular financial craze: ‘canal-mania’, whereby, for instance, shares in the Grand Junction were being sold for 355 guineas premium not only before the Parliament had granted permission, but before ‘not a sod had been dug’! Hassell is silent on this point (Baines, 488).

I would like to point to the irony in suggesting that people view the scenery as they boat along a newly built working canal. Hassell’s guide invites putative boaters to travel on the modern as they savour the ancient: the ‘almost perpetual succession of variegated beauty' and ‘redundance of the most luxuriant scenery' offered by the natural world on either side of the canal (p. 4). Considered in a wider context, one sees that people who enjoyed such leisure exploited a key element in the Industrial Revolution’s haulage infrastructure, and the characters at work in the water colour belong to that infrastructure. Hassell sees no irony in combining the leisurely rural and the hard-at-work industrial in his mise-en-scène (above), unlike William Blake in ‘Jerusalem’ or Anna Seward in her ‘Sonnet LXIII: Coalbrookedale’ (text)

As the tour continues, Hassell glories in the sights offered by the natural world:

Having tamed [sic — turned?] our backs upon the metropolis, we find at the commencement of the canal, emerging from the capital, a very beautiful burst of scenery, Hie Hampstead hills ranging in a picturesque curvature, crowned by wood, and ornamented with their church and villas, passing off in a north-west direction towards Kilburn and Wilsden-green; the lofty woods of Kensington on the left,lead away to Holland House, beyond which the country opens for a considerable space, forming another amphitheatre of pictorial beauty. [p. 7]

He also gives us a glimpse of a place whose owner has employed workmen in the fashionable activity of landscaping and horticultural development:

To make the most interesting tour of the Grand Junction, Paddington, a few years since, was simply a mere high road thoroughfare into Buckinghamshire, and the western parts of Hertfordshire, and was rather celebrated for the nursery and market gardener's grounds in its vicinity. The most celebrated of the former is that belonging to Mr. Jenkins, where an immense stock and tasteful variety of exotics and heaths attract repeated visits from the curious, and have rendered this spot a regular promenade for the nobility and gentry [p. 5].

The Collaboration of the Rural and the Industrial

Hassell then seamlessly turns the traveller’s attention away from the horticultural to the industrial: viz. Watford, north of London, whose ‘principal manufactory is throwing of silk’. He notes that the local paper mills employ ‘many hands’ (p.15). Throughout, Hassell makes clear his relaxed attitude to the co-existence of the rural and the industrial by providing examples of how vested rural interests and industrial innovations which might have competed actually collaborated during the Industrial Revolution. The Grand Union Canal passes through a private country estate for commercial purposes and no doubt to the owner’s financial advantage: ‘After passing the Kentish town road, the canal enters the grounds of Mr. Agar, at the back of Pancrass church and Battle bridge, where a large basin is forming as a depot for articles of consumption, such as coals, &c. which will be found highly convenient for the inhabitants’ [p. 6]. He relates a striking instance when he asks the tourist, as he boats through Berkhamstead, north west of London, to observe on the right ‘the Cow-roast, ‘famed for the richest pasturage’ and comprising a little inn and a farm, eponymously called the Cow Roast (p. 38):

The Cow Roast is a hundred yards from the canal where there are two cottages whose function offers a fascinating insight into the way in which the older landed order and the new industrial freight hauliers often acted together. The cottages were in fact Water-gauge houses in which clerks kept records of the height of water in the canal throughout the day and the times of the different boats passing though the locks. A servant of the Grand Junction Company lived in one and, in the other, one of the Duke of Northumberland’s men. [p.38]

Hassell forgets the scenery as he explains the reason for this arrangement. Originally, there had been no ‘back-water’ — a term which he uses in the technical sense used by eighteenth-century surveyors, i.e. a body of water artificially dammed back for a purpose, as in a canal lock. In this case the paper mill owners needed a back-water for water power to turn the wheels of their mills. However, there was ‘a protracted litigation between the Company and Messrs. Longman and Dickinson, who ultimately obtained damages against the Company’ [p.38].

Hassell illustrates from King’s Langley Lock how to avoid conflict by collaborating: ‘It may seem Singular,’ he writes, ‘for what purpose the Duke of Northumberland should keep a water-gauger at this place’. But the explanation is simple and, while good news for the millers and the Duke, bad news for the lawyers. The Duke, the millers’ trustee, gets water for the mills which the Grand Union Company supplies from upriver dams and he returns an equal amount downstream. The clerks measure the volume of the water by the ‘lockful’. If the Company supplies the millers with five hundred locks of water from the reserves which they have dammed up in the back-water upstream of the mills, they get an equal amount back downstream of them. Taking advantage of the ever-improving lock systems, the water gaugers could offer fairly accurate accounts and neither party could defraud the other, so denying work to the lawyers! Hassell’s summary is almost triumphant: ‘by this means, and the excellent regulations of the Company's committee, all litigation is avoided, and the millers on the stream know to a certainty what quantity of water they are to depend upon’ (p.87). This is an outstanding example of cooperation between a traditional occupation and new industrial venture.

Almost as an afterthought, he returns to the scenery: ‘The cottages at the Cow-roast lock have a picturesque appearance, being white, slated on the roofs, and backed with a plenty of wood’ (p.38). Hassell’s tourists then arrive at one of Britain’s earliest industrial centres: Stoke, once a centre for Britain’s best-known pottery manufactories, among them Royal Doulton, Spode, and, above all, Wedgewood. Their presence explains why the Grand Trunk Canal, when in use, went through the town.

Stoke’s landmark feature are the kilns. When I first saw them in 1982, they were ‘bearded’, overgrown with moss and sprouting wild grasses. Fortunately, they have recently been restored. In his tourist guide, Hassell features this description of Spode’s manufactory which gives a comprehensive account of the key components of the Industrial Revolution:

The first pottery of consequence in this place is Mr. Spade's manufactory of china and earthenware, and is considered one of the meet complete establishments of its kind in the kingdom. Some idea may be formed of its extent from the quantity of coal consumed, which is upwards of 800 tons per week, and from the number of ovens wherein the ware is baked, amounting to eighteen large furnaces, many of which are used three times each, weekly, the whole year round. There are about 800 people, of all ages, employed in this concern. The materials used in the manufactory are brought from a considerable distance the clays from the counties of Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall, and the flint, principally from Kent. There are two steam-engines connected with the manufactory, the oldest of which has been erected nearly forty years; and the other, a most beautiful atmospheric [sic] engine of 36 horse power was put up by the Bolton and Watt, about ten years ago [p. 113].

The description contains all the elements of the Industrial Revolution: a manufactory powered by steam engines, one by the iconic Bolton and Watt, the quantity of coal consumed in eighteen large furnaces in operation all year round, the work force of 800, the raw materials used in the pottery industry brought from a considerable distance via the new canal hauliers. Hassell has provided quite an economical thumbnail sketch of the new industrial phenomena.

Like Kingsley, Hassell encouraged townsfolk to escape ‘the populous town’, and the ‘busy hum of men’, and travel through rural England (vii). However, in Hassell’s case, what begins ostensibly as an escape from urban living and therefore the industrializing areas ends encompassing them both in a comfortable relationship. Although neither Hassell nor Kingsley sought to commercialize the activities which they recommended, others had different ideas.

Perhaps the first to commercialize travelling on the canals was Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater. He combined ancient and modern: an aristocrat’s passion for horses and an entrepreneur’s fascination with canals. He took the lead in financing the construction of the Bridgewater canal. But even though it nearly bankrupted him, ultimately he was financially successful, and he did not stop there. In a move definitely motivated by profit, he introduced a post-industrial use for canal travel still in vogue today - boating trips. According to Annual Register for 1 September 1774.

The Duke of Bridgewater has just built two package-boats, which are every day towed from Manchester to Warrington; one carries six score passengers, the other eighty-eight: Each boat has a coffee-room at the head, from whence (sic) wines, &c. are sold out by the Captain’s wife. Next to this is the first cabbin (sic), which is 2s 6d, the second cabbin (sic) is 1s 6d And the third cabbin (sic) 1s for the passage or voyage on the canal.

The Destruction and Preservation of British Canals

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the railways and freight haulage companies took away the canal companies’ business and the canals fell into disuse. But, after the Second War, the British Government took charge of the remaining canals and since then, fortunately, Conservationist groups have developed boating on the renovated canals as a leisure activity and where people once worked, they now play. By contrast, so-called progressive local and national governmental authorities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have destroyed some magnificent Victorian edifices, such as the Euston Arch, in 1961. The vandalism has been shameful. Of course, you cannot blame anyone for the destruction of the Crystal Palace destroyed by fire, but whereas the Victorians may have built museums preserving others’ heritage (the Elgin Marbles, for instance, in the British Museum), they were not too particular about preserving English heritage. Most notably, they demolished the seventeenth-century 23, Great Winchester Street in 1882, the East India House which lasted from 1729 to 1861,and the London Colosseum which survived from 1827 to 1874. For Dickens aficionados it is a matter of regret that in the late eighteen-seventies they demolished the originally thirteenth-century Barnard’s Inn. This of course is where Pip sets up house in London with Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations.

Some canals have met the same fate but enterprising commercial companies as I noted above, probably unconsciously following Egerton’s lead, have taken over the renovated canals for waterborne celebrating: weddings, proms, graduations, birthdays, or just simply parties for the sheer fun of it. If the mood takes you, you can travel on the Sir Edward Elgar through the Cotswolds Severn Vale. Typical of the English to memorialise a leading composer and spend their leisure boating along a river which was once a major thoroughfare for commerce in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution.

You might do as a special correspondent for ‘The Star Tribune’ did:

It was early autumn. My wife, Barb, and I, with two Scottish friends, were cruising Britain’s Llangollen Canal in rural England and Wales. We had rented a classic narrowboat, which was providing both transportation and housing for the week. Now we were steering our boat through a thousand-foot water channel, crossing high above the Dee River valley on the largest aqueduct in the United Kingdom. Behind us spread the rolling farmlands of Shropshire; ahead rose the Welsh mountains. And far, far below us a flock of sheep was ignoring our nautical passage overhead [July 2014].

This account recalls the passage from Hassell with which I started the article. The quartet are observing exclusively ‘rural England and Wales’ with their ‘rolling farmlands’, ‘the Welsh mountains’ and ‘a flock of sheep’. Although he used his 42 mile long canal primarily for industrial purposes - to ship coal direct to the river Mersey - I can’t help feeling that Francis Egerton would have been delighted!

I will conclude with a footnote. Boating on the canals is not the only part of the English heritage. In the twentieth century the middle classes rambled into a revived walking business. In 1931 various walking groups formed the National Council of Ramblers' Federations. Today, however, when people go walking for exercise, leisure or the enjoyment of natural scenery in the Derbyshire Peak District or in William Wordsworth and John Ruskin’s beloved Lake District, this is a very demotic affair. Kingsley is forgotten and people who would not dream of going to an Art Gallery for the sake of their aesthetic health or walk the land observing the flora and the mineral evidence like Kingsley’s natural scientist in class="book">Glaucus, will now willingly ramble through the hills and dales for the sake of their physical health.

Related material


Baines, Thomas. History of the Commerce and Town of Liverpool And of the Rise of the Manufacturing industry in the Adjoining Counties: Volume 1. Oxford: Longman, Brown, Green, 1852.

Hassell, John. Tour of the Grand Junction London: John Murray, 1859.

Kingsley, Charles. His Letters and Memoirs of His Life: edited by his wife. London: Henry S. King & Co, 1877.

McIvor, Liz. Canals: The Making of a Nation: A Journey into the Heart of Industrial Britain. London: BBC Books, 2015.

Seward, Anna, with extracts from her literary correspondence. 3 vols. Edinburgh: John Ballantyne & Co., 1810.

Ware, Michael. Canals and Waterways. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2003.

Yorke, Stan. English Canals Explained. Newbury, Berkshire: Countryside Books, 2017.

class="book">The Star Tribune London: July, 2014.

The Annual Register London: James and Robert Dodsley, 1st September 1774.

Created 19 October 2018