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Canals: The Making of a Nation

Programme Run: 6 x 30 minutes
Production: BBC
First Transmitted: 2015 HD available  

Liz McIvor looks at who built the nation's canal network, who funded it, those who worked on it and how they were regenerated following WWII.​ 

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Capitalism
Liz McIvor tells the story of 'canal mania'- a boom period of frenzied activity that helped develop Britain's modern financial economy, now centred in London. The canal capitalists made money by investing and speculating in the new inland waterways used to carry fuel and goods around the country. Many of the investors were part of an emerging middle class. The Grand Junction Canal - built to improve the connection between London and the Midlands - was one of the new routes, and eventually proved to be a good investment for shareholders. However, not all canals were profitable. The new investors discovered that investment capitalism was a system that created winners and losers. 

The Workers
This is the story of the men who built our canals - the navigators or 'navvies'. They represented an 'army'of hard physical men who were capable of enduring tough labour for long hours. Many 'roved' the countryside looking for work and a better deal.
They gained a reputation as troublesome outsiders, fond of drinking and living a life of ungodly debauchery. But who were they? Unreliable heathens and outcasts, or unsung heroes who used might and muscle to build canals and railways?
We focus on the Manchester Ship Canal - the swansong for the navvies and hailed as the greatest engineering feat of the Victorian Age. The navvies worked at a time of rising trade unionism. But could they organise and campaign for a better deal?

Geology
Liz McIvor discovers how carving up the landscape in order to build canals helped further our understanding of the earth below. The canal builders struggled with rocks. Without maps or geological surveys, construction often relied on guesswork. The Kennet and Avon had more than its fair share of problems. William Smith, a surveyor working on the connecting Somerset Coal Canal, discovered a way of ordering layers of rocks. He eventually created the first geological map of England and Wales - the so-called 'map that changed the world'

Engineering
Liz McIvor tells the story of the early canal builders who struggled with the rugged terrain of England's Pennine hills. Creating a network of canals in this landscape was an uphill challenge - sometimes literally! But connecting the powerhouses of Yorkshire and Lancashire was a great prize at the time of the industrial revolution. What should the engineers do? Should they build over, under, or around the hills? Who succeeded, and who struggled? 

The Boat People
Presenter Liz McIvor tells the story of the people who operated the canal boats, carrying fuel and goods around the country. Conditions were tough, days were long. Victorian society began to grow suspicious of these 'outsiders' and they gained reputations for criminality, violence and drinking. But was this reputation really deserved? Liz discovers grisly canal crimes, investigates health and welfare on-board working boats, and looks at why canal children were last on the list to be offered safeguards and formal education. The Victorians eventually championed the needs of children who were forced to labour in factories and mines, but the boat children were often ignored. Liz discovers the campaigners who set out to tackle this injustice, including George Smith of Coalville, Leicestershire, and Sister Mary Ward of Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire. 

Heritage
Liz McIvor explores the heritage of our canal network. After years of decline in the post-war period much of the network was eventually restored. Once places of labour and industry, they became places of leisure and tranquillity. The newly renovated canals were increasingly popular for boating holiday makers. Liz visits the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Wales and travels to Birmingham where canals have become catalysts for property development and urban regeneration. Canals offer so many benefits today. Perhaps, Liz suggests, it is time to construct a few more?

 

 


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