Lessons from our canal history teach us our activist roots and inspire us to rise up again, argues Anita de Klerk

BargeTo understand why we need a People’s Flotilla we must look back at the history of the canals – at how and why they were created and the enormous outburst of activism that saved them from total destruction. The history of the canals and the people who saved them offers a lesson for today about how we can organise to fight the privatisation and decimation that the newly formed Canal and River Trust (CaRT) is imposing on the people who live, work and play on the canal and river system.

The backbone of the industrial revolution

The development of the 2000 miles of the British inland water network of canals was a defining factor in the advance of the industrial revolution in the 18th century. It was the backbone of the transport system that supplied raw materials and fuel to the engineering factories in the north and the agricultural industries in the south-east. During the industrialisation of Britain the demand for cheap and reliable energy increased and the overpopulated areas around coal mines and factories became saturated. The canal boats and the people who operated them were the driving force behind the success and development of British business.

In Britain, the construction of the canals was financed by industrialists. In contrast, the European canals were built by the aristocracy, which aimed to show social standing and exert political power, rather than make money. The British industrialists realised that to maximise profit they had to invest in transport to deliver their goods and supply raw materials to their factories. During the latter years of construction, Irish immigrants were employed to bolster the workforce and to maximise construction capabilities. The industrialists realised that the profit they could make from transportation was less important than the profit they could make from delivering their products to the market. The financial success of the 18th century canals fed the growing profits made from commerce and industry.


The inland canal transport network was constructed between 1700 and 1835. Although it brought vast short-term wealth, it created several problems that affected Britain’s long-term prosperity and contributed to its eventual abandonment as England’s main transport system. The lack of financial support from the British government, the inconsistent canal and lock gate dimensions and the early inability to plan for demand meant that the canal transport system was obsolete almost as soon as it was completed. The national railway network, a faster and cheaper method of transportation, replaced the canal system, and placed enormous pressure on the industrialists who owned their stretches of the canal as individual transport routes. To recover their costs they were forced to sell their canals to the railway companies, which charged extortionate fees to discourage waterway traffic. The inland waterway network was left largely abandoned and in disrepair.

The remaining water transport industry was adversely affected by the decline in the traditional industries following the first world war. However, as the socio-economic results of industrialisation were being protested, the men and women who worked on the English canals hung on to their traditions and continued to haul 25 tonne, horse-drawn narrowboat loads along the towpath until the last horse was retired in the mid-1970s.

BargeThe Inland Waterway Association

In 1944, the influential book “Narrow Boat”, arguably the first ethnographic study of canal life, was published. Its author, L.T.C. Rolt, was a nostalgic reactionary who was forced to turn to direct action to save the canals he loved. The canals provided a respite and distraction from the austerity and rationing of the second world war; they were an ideal location for peace, leisure and recreation. That image remains to this day.

In 1946, in response to the government’s plan to close some disused canals due to the increasing cost of maintaining the canal system, Rolt and other canal enthusiasts formed the Inland Waterway Association (IWA). Together with canalside communities, the general public and the people who lived and worked on the canal, the IWA actively campaigned and lobbied parliament against every planned canal closure. It became the voice of the canal communities. It was at the forefront of the opposition to the Transport Act 1962, which would have allowed the government to close a majority of the smaller canals by deeming them economically unviable. As a result of the IWA’s pressure and the growing public interest in the canals, the government amended the act and created British Waterways, a publicly funded company whose sole responsibility was the maintenance and restoration of the canal system and a portfolio of canalside properties and areas designated of special historical interest.

Industrial developments following the second world war created additional leisure time. The virtually unaltered canal system, with its undisturbed towpaths, offered isolated stretches of peaceful countryside that were ideal for pleasure boats. Town planners began to appreciate canal as an asset to town improvement designs, and the previously held public perception that canals were an eyesore began to be overturned.

The People’s Flotilla

Today, the canal system is home to hundreds of boat dwellers who not only live and work on the canals but hold the traditions and history of the canals close to their hearts. These traditions are now under threat from CaRT, which does not value the people of the canal. It uses discriminatory language, calling us “scum” and suggesting that “people should own their own homes before they should be allowed to own a boat”.

Resistance is in our history, and the canals run like veins up and down the country. We need to carry the activist methods from the past to all parts of the country to defend the nationalisation that the early activists won. The People’s Flotilla offers a co-ordinated and united front – a mutiny, if you will – similar to the IWA of old, to rise up and challenge the discrimination and hostility we face from CaRT and the coalition government that put it in place. That is why the People’s Flotilla was formed. Together we will rise up again to defend everyone who uses and lives on the canal system.

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Anita de Klerk

Anita de Klerk is a lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice Policy, Marxist activist and founder of the People's Flotilla Against Austerity.