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Canals and Waterways History

Below is a Chronological list of historic events concerning the creation of man made navigation's and inland waterways. The list does not cover every event, but it attempts to give a flavour of what happened, and when. Part 1 deals with world canal history in general but also includes more in-depth information on British waterways.

Waterways History I

Chronology Part 1 Timeline 4000BC - 1689

King Menes built a canal in Upper Egypt.

Mesopotamia's Shatt-el-hai Canal was built. It linked the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

A second canal was built in Egypt (near Wadi Haifa). This was built to extend navigation on the River Nile.

In China, the 260 mile Wild Goose Canal was built to link the Yellow River to the Huai River.

The Han-kou (or Han Ditch) was built to connect China's Huai River to the Yangtze. Another canal was built south of the Yangtze towards Soochow and Hangchow.

The Romans built a canal connecting Arelate (Arles in France) to the Mediterranean.

A canal was built by Marius from the lower Rhône River to the Mediterranean.

Nero attempted to build a canal through Greece's Isthmus of Corinth. The idea was abandoned.

In Britain, the Romans built Foss Dyke, connecting Lincoln with the River Trent near what is now Torksey.

Work began on the Grand Canal in China.

The Yung-Chi Canal in China was completed by the Sui rulers.

The Pien section of the Grand Canal in China was built.

China's Grand Canal was completed.

The first ever lock chamber was built by Chhaio Wei-yo on the Grand Canal in China.

In Holland, the first canals with single locks were built.

The first canals in Belgium were begun.

In England, during the reign of Henry I, Bishop Atwater upgraded the Roman Foss Dyke.

Italy started to build canals with single locks.

In China, the mathematician Kuo Chou-king began a new Grand Canal from Chambuluc to the Huang River. This was a complete rebuild along a new route.

The rebuilding and re-routing of the Grand Canal in China was completed.

In Holland the first (and rather primitive) double lock was created on the River Lek at Vreeswijk.

In Germany, work began on the Stecknitz Navigation which was to connect Lake Molln to the River Elbe. It was completed seven years later.

In Belgium, the first true double lock was completed at Dammes.

In Italy, engineer Alberti built the first Italian locks, near Bologna.

In Italy, the Duke of Milan's engineer, Bertola da Novato, built the Bereguardo Canal which contained the first "modern" locks.

In Italy, the remains of a canal built by Emperor Nero were discovered. The waterway originally ran from Rome to Naples.

On the south coast of England, John True began building a bypass around the upper two miles of the River Exe Navigation, thus creating the Exeter Ship Canal. It was opened two years later.

The first pound locks to be built in England appeared on the River Trent and River Lea (Lee).

The first mention of a canal across central America was reported when Samuel de Champlain published a text describing his voyage to the West Indies. In it he proposed a canal across Panama.

In France, during the reign of Henry IV, work began on the Briare Canal which was to link the River Briare with the River Seine. It took 38 years to complete, opening in 1642 during the reign of Louis XIII.

In England, the River Nene was made navigable upstream of its natural head of navigation. Also around this time locks were built on the River Thames and the navigable channel was made wider and deeper.
In Sweden, a canal was built from Lake Malaren to Eskilstona.

In England, a number of improvements were made to navigable rivers. Over the next few years many more navigation's were upgraded. For instance, Thomas Skipworth of Cotes gained a grant from Charles I to make the river Soar in Leicestershire "portable for barges and boats" (though the scheme was not completed). Other alterations in this period included improvements to the Great Ouse, Lark, Tone, Suffolk Stour, Wey, Warwickshire Avon and the Thames (which had more locks added).

In France, the Canal de Bergues was built, linking Dunkerque to Berguest.

In England the navigable waterways now included the Tyne (to Newcastle), the Humber, the Ouse (to York), the Trent (to Nottingham), the Nene (to Peterborough), the Great Ouse (to Bedford), the Cam (to Cambridge), the Little Ouse (to Thetford), the Yare (to Norwich), the Lea/Lee (to Hertford), the Thames (to Oxford), the Wey (to Guildford), the Medway (to Maidstone), the Kent Stour (to Fordwick), the Ex/Exe including the Exeter Canal (to Exeter), the Parret (to Bridgwater), the Somerset Avon (to Bristol), the Warwickshire Avon (to Stratford), the Severn (to Shrewsbury) and the Dee (to Chester).

During the 1660's there was a rapid increase in river transport in England. Further improvements took place on the Mersey, Weaver, Suffolk Stour, Salwarp, Wey, Lugg, Medway, Welland, Wiltshire Avon, Itchen, Great Ouse and Mole among many others.

Rivers were not the only form of transport in Britain during this era. Road use was growing rapidly and Parliament passed the first Act allowing the building of a Turnpike (toll) road. The first such road was already a well trodden route as it was built by the Romans over a thousand years earlier.

This was the Great North Road where it passed through Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. The Romans had called this road Ermine Street though today we call it the A1! Although the new turnpike was a success it was not until 1696 that a second toll road opened.

Note: Although people tend to call these toll roads "Turnpike Roads", the actual turnpike is not the road but a barrier or gate which prevented passage until a payment (or toll) was made. The word "turnpike" went out of fashion in the 1800's and has now been replaced by the word "turnstile". Here endith today's olde English lesson.

In France, the Languedoc Canal was begun under the guidance of Pierre-Paul Riquet. This was the first part of what became the Canal Du Midi, cutting across the south of the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean.

In the English Midlands, the River Stour was made navigable from the Severn to Stourbridge. However, the route was soon destroyed by floods.

British canal engineer Thomas Steers was born. He became Britain's first civil engineer, creating Liverpool's first dock in 1715 and becoming Mayor of the town in 1739. He made numerous rivers navigable and built a number of canals in Ireland long before any canals were built in Britain.

His works included the Mersey & Irwell Navigation, the Weaver Navigation, Douglas Navigation (c1720), Newry Canal in Eire (1736) and Salthouse Dock, Liverpool (1738). Steers died in 1750 (aged 78). Significantly, one of his pupils was Henry Berry who went on to build Britain's first true canal, the Sankey Brook Navigation (completed 1761).

The first mention of canals was made in what we now know as the USA. Father Louis Joliet spoke about the advantages of a waterway from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River.

In France, the Canal du Midi was completed. It linked the Atlantic to the Med via the Languedoc Canal, the Canal Royale and the Canal des Deux Mers.

In America, the clearly adamant Father Joliet, suggested a canal should be built from the Chicago River to the Illinois River. This would connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. Over the next few decades a number of canal schemes were promoted in America.

In Wales, Sir Humphrey Mackworth built a short navigable cut from the River Neath to Melyn Lead & Copper Works.

Also in this year the second turnpike road opened in England, 34 years after the first. This one was on the London to Colchester route (which we now know as the A12).

The third turnpike road to be granted an Act of Parliament opened in Gloucestershire between Birdlip and Cricklade. Like the first toll road, this was originally a Roman road, Ermin Way, now known as the A417 and A419. (In the 1990's this same road, in it's newest incarnation, was to play a major role, or hindrance, in the restoration of the Thames & Severn Canal).


As the 17th century came to an end many rivers in Britain were being converted or upgraded to take large vessels and the first "proper" roads to be built since the days of the Romans were under construction. Over the next hundred years Britain would change dramatically and lead the world into a new age...

Part II: 1700 - 1789 » See Next page...

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