Britain’s economy and population grew rapidly during the eighteenth century, accelerating as the century progressed. There was a tendency both for population and industry to become clustered in specific locations; firstly around suitable supplies of water for waterpower, then close to coalfields as steam engines began to take over.
All this put a tremendous strain on a transport system that was already inadequate. Eighteenth-century roads were notoriously bad and goods could take many days, or even weeks, to reach their destination. Carrying heavy items by road was next to impossible, especially when those items had to be shifted in considerable bulk: such as coal, lime, bricks, marl, grain and similar substances.
Transport by Water
Transporting heavy goods by water was nothing new. Many parts of Britain are convenient to the coast and there was a flourishing traffic of small sailing ships everywhere that a suitable harbour could be found. Certainly inland rivers were also suitable for the carrying of goods, such as the Thames, the Trent, the Severn, the Mersey, the Forth and the Clyde. Smaller rivers too shared in the traffic — at least where they were navigable over a sufficient distance.
By the seventeenth century, drawing on the expertise of the Dutch, there were several instances where already navigable rivers were made still more suitable for the carriage of goods by the use of cuts, locks and even inclined planes. In 1600, there were perhaps around 600 to 700 miles of navigable waterways in England. Daniel Defoe, journeying around the country in the 1720s, found this had already increased to nearly 1200 miles.
Navigations vs Canals
The distinction between a navigation and a canal is straightforward. A canal is a completely artificial waterway, like the canal the Duke of Bridgwater had constructed in 1759 to carry coal from his mines in Worsley to Manchester. The peak of canal building was not reached until the 1780s and 1790s and continued until the start of the railway age in the 1830s. Navigations tend to be earlier than this.
A navigation denotes a natural waterway, usually a river, which has been improved to make it easier for use by boats of a size sufficient to make it economic. This improvement usually included dredging, building locks to help ensure a constant depth of water (especially where watermills used the existing flow) and constructing ‘cuts’ to allow the boats to bypass especially tight curves or meandering stretches in the natural river.
The Norfolk Navigations
A great deal of the county of Norfolk lies within fairly easy reach of the coast, so that coastal shipping bore the brunt of the need to transport heavy cargoes. In the west of the county, the river Great Ouse drains a good deal of the fen country and runs into the sea at King’s Lynn. There had already been a good deal of straightening of the course of this river and its tributaries, as well as building artificial waterways, in order to facilitate drainage of the land. It did not take much extra work to allow boats to travel inland via Wisbech and Ely, eventually as far as Thetford and Bedford. In this way, the port of King’s Lynn grew to be a major interchange between goods coming in by sea, such as coal and timber, and goods for transfer to the coastal trade, especially grain.
The river Yare, running inland from Great Yarmouth, helped bring agricultural produce to that port and carry coal inland. The centre of Norwich itself could be reached via the river Wensum, which is a tributary of the Yare. The Norfolk wherry, a shallow-draught barge-like boat with a large sail, was developed specifically to carry goods inland from the ports. It had excellent cargo-carrying capacity and could be sailed by one man, should the need arise.
To the north of Norwich, the river Bure ran from beyond Aylsham down to Coltishall on the Broads and from there to Great Yarmouth. A navigation to improve this river for the carrying of goods was approved by act of Parliament in 1773, though it took until 1779 for the work to be completed, thanks to continual problems with financing and unsatisfactory contractors. The Aylsham navigation began at a purpose-built series of staithes (wharves) on the edge of the town and ran to Coltishall, where the river Bure becomes tidal. From there, access was available to many of the villages on the northern Broads – each with its own staithe — and thence to Great Yarmouth itself. It would be nice to report that it was a great financial success, but that was not the case. The profits were always meagre, mostly due to the need for constant dredging and repairs to the locks. Still, the navigation staggered on, surviving the railways, until 1912, when a huge flood on the river altered its course and wrecked several of the locks.
To the south of Norwich, the Waveney navigation linked Beccles, Bungay and Lowestoft along the border with Suffolk. Eventually, in 1832, the Haddiscoe New Cut linked the Yare and Waveney navigations, allowing direct access by water between Norwich and Lowestoft.
A Unique Topography
A cursory glance at a map of Norfolk shows how all these navigations (as well as the county’s single canal joining North Walsham to the Bure) exist entirely separately, each constructed purely to carry goods between specific inland areas and a suitable coastal port. Unlike the network of canals that grew up in the Midlands and the North of England, these Norfolk waterways served agriculture, not the growing factory towns of the Industrial Revolution. Coal might be carried inland, but it was East Anglian barley, malt and wheat that was carried down to the coast for transportation to London and markets across the North Sea which generated most wealth.
In time, of course, the railways took over this trade, but a great number of fine Georgian buildings in towns like King’s Lynn, Aylsham and Norwich itself still bear witness to the prosperity that the eighteenth century brought to the county, much of it by water. The cloth industry moved northwards to Yorkshire and abundant local supplies of coal, but agriculture remained — as it does to this day — to provide an underlying foundation for the area’s economy.