Canal history

Piccadilly Basin, Manchester, 1880. The Waterways Trust Archive (Ellesmere Port) / The Waterways TrustPiccadilly Basin, Manchester, 1880. The Waterways Trust Archive (Ellesmere Port) / The Waterways Trust

How to build a canal

The principal engineer or a specialist surveyor would use a theodolite to find the level and measuring chains to mark the distance so that a line could be marked out for the route of the canal. Along this line, pegs or stakes would be driven in to the ground about 150 feet (46 m) apart so that their tops would indicate the intended water level. In places there would need to be embankments or cuttings to keep a level course. Locks and aqueducts need to be planned to deal with slopes or river crossings.  These are expensive to build and engineers tried to avoid building them whenever possible.

Once the route had been agreed on, the principal engineers hired local engineers with more local knowledge to supervise the actual building of the Rochdale Canal.

 The local engineers hired contractors to build sections of the canal. Each contractor employed ‘Gangers’, who each employed a gang of ‘Navigators’ – or ‘Navvies’ as they soon became known. They had a reputation for fighting and drinking, but these men worked hard and had uncomfortable lives in shanty towns that moved as they worked along the canal. Good pay and guaranteed work attracted men from all parts of the country, especially from Ireland and Scotland, or men more used to the dangers and hard work of mining.

Building the channel
Along each section of the canal course, holes would be dug to mark the width and depth of the canal. The gangs of navvies would then dig trenches to link these holes and so create a canal channel. Using hand tools and barrows to shift many thousands of tons, the section of canal from Rochdale to Sowerby Bridge was completed in only 4 years.

To make the channel waterproof, it was lined with a type of clay called ‘puddle clay’. This was packed down up to 3ft (90cm) thick along the bottom of the channel and about 1ft (30cm) up the sides. Once this was done, a layer of big stone blocks would be put on top of the channel side and a towpath created.

All of the bridges, locks and many other features of the canal landscape are built of stone masonry. Wherever possible, the stone would be quarried locally and worked on site so as to reduce the difficulty of transporting large blocks of stone. Each mason had a special mark which they would carve onto each block they had made. Once the job was finished these marks were counted up and the mason would be paid according to the number of blocks he had prepared.

Along the whole length of the Rochdale Canal there were 92 locks, each with two pairs of gates made with massive timbers of elm or oak. Carpenters made these gates and then repaired them when they were damaged or rotten. When a lock is out of action the canal would come to a standstill.

Iron was an important part of the canal – hinges and gearing for lock gates; railings; bollards, rings and gratings were all essential. Large iron bolts began to be produced and they quickly found uses along the canals. In some cases, iron parts were made by local blacksmiths but most often they would be made by travelling blacksmiths who followed the canal builders from place to place.

Water Supply

Without water there is no canal. Every time a boat goes through a lock, over 330,000 litres of water empties downstream.

The engineers of the canal spent a lot of effort ensuring a constant supply of water. A string of eight dams was built along the nearby Pennine plateau to capture rainwater as it ran off the hills. This water was stored in reservoirs then used to fill the canal. A system of channels connected the dams and streams to the canal, to make sure that the canal had enough water to keep boats moving.

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