The Canal System of England by H Gordon Thompson

A slim volume with an imposing sub title - The Growth and Present Conditions With Particular Reference to the Cheap Carriage of Goods. I suppose you have already guessed that it is not a modern volume with such a title. It smacks of Victorian ideals but it is Edwardian (just) having been written in 1902. As you might imagine from the subtitle it is not a "page-turner" and tends towards dryness but it holds some fascinating gems for the canal historian.

There is little readily available information on the author and this appears to be his only book, it is clearly a book that was not written for general consumption and it had a purpose; the improvement in the maintenance of canals (and river navigations although this isn't in the title). Why?: a clue is in the subtitle - "the economy stupid".

This is essentially an economics text with an academic pedigree. The author was a Cobden Medallist and Prizeman at the Victoria University and the book was published at the request of his medal sponsors - the Cobden Club. "Cobden" refers to the great free trade philanthropist and politician Richard Cobden who lived in Manchester. The Victoria University is nowadays known as the University of Manchester.

The title Victoria University still survives formally for the university and as recently as 2004 an Act of Parliament included that title and reference to a Cobden Chair in Economics. Indeed at one time the university's predecessor, Owens College was  housed in the former house of Richard Cobden in Quay Street.

It is revealing that Gordon Thompson made a dedication in the book; he conveys "the writer's sincere respect", to Sir John T Brunner who was Liberal MP for Northwich and  founder of Brunner Mond Company which became, many years later after mergers, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). Brunner at the turn of the twentieth century was much involved with navigation on the River Weaver.

From that pedigree one might expect a book that has at its core free trade and you would be right. It also adopts an almost evangelical approach to the subject. Although its literary style is nowhere near the same, the attitude of the writer to his subject is similar to that adopted by Robert Aickmann nearly 50 years later. He is frustrated at the condition of English Canals as he finds them and thinks that this is intolerable, particularly when compared with our European neighbours who had modernised their systems for the benefit of trade (free trade). This isn't a balanced academic approach to the subject. He firmly sets his case out for canals not being owned by railways and uses all the data at his disposal to make his case.

Because the book was written when the Manchester Ship Canal was still a new navigation (completed only eight years before the book was written) that navigation shines out as an example of how goods can be cheaply transported by water for the benefit of all, although the writer does admit that ship canals are somewhat different from other navigations. Gordon Thompson does point out, amusingly, that had the original lock free (i.e. tidal) proposal been built connecting Manchester to the sea then the depth of the canal at Manchester would be such that "only the top of a ship's masts would be level with the ground". He also, naturally given the book's dedication, good words to say about the River Weaver stating that it was "one of the most up-to-date of English Canals". It had just been extensively updated and linked to the Manchester Ship Canal.

The book begins with the usual review of the history of canals, including the development of locks, but it rapidly moves on to their present condition and the growth of the railways. The meat of the book is where are the chapters discussing Structural Condition (or size), Changes in Level, Haulage, Administration and the Costs of Freight. These chapters are packed full of facts and figures, as one would expect of an economics tome. Some, for example the average distance between locks (1 lock every 1.37 miles), are relevant today but others are of more historical interest (cost of back-pumping - 1000 gallons pumped 100 ft costs £1). In common with academic publications of the time, it contains no illustrations, but it has a copious index and column annotations to help the reader navigate to sections of interest.

The chapter on haulage is packed with facts and figures including a discussion on the cost of steam tugs and steam carrying boats. There is also a short section on "oil or compressed gas" engines  - the shape of things to come, but the most unusual feature is the discussion of electric haulage via electric locomotives. Gordon Thompson reports on some experiments carried out by Siemens and Halske on the Finnow canal in Germany. His description, in the absence of diagrams, is quite difficult to follow but below is a diagram from what I presume is the relevant US Patent. At that time Siemens and Halske were working on electric trams, and even early trolley buses, so it would appear to be a natural progression for the company to look at other areas where electric power transmission could be used for transport.

From the US Patent (1900) by Siemens and Halske

Gordon Thompson also reports on another form of electric haulage, the Thwaite-Cawley where

"In this system an aerial railway is provided at an elevation of 9 ft. or 10 ft. above the towing path, supported by cast-iron or wooden posts placed at 30 ft. intervals. Along this elevated track run a number of four-wheeled electric motors, with two of the wheels on the upper and two on the lower surface of the rail, the axles being proportioned so as to regulate the pressure of the wheels upon the track. The tow-rope is attached to a link at the back of each motor.
Two rails are provided forming an "up " and a " down " line, so that when two barges are passing in opposite directions the one connected with the motor on the upper rail steers wide and its tow-rope passing clear over the first, no stoppage is necessary."

He also reports that electric haulage experiments were carried out on the River Lee using the system of  M Leond Gerard (sic). Leon Gerard, from Belgium, published on electric traction for canals and was later (1907) granted a US Patent for a device to make this possible.

From US Patent (1906) by Leon Gerard

If, over a century on, I could criticise the approach of the author, it is his lack of appreciation of the topography of England. Wide canals with standard large lock designs are suitable for the wide landscapes of the East of England (Aire & Calder) and the lowlands of the North West (Weaver and Manchester Ship Canal), but to contemplate such developments even in 1900 for canals crossing the Pennines and  reaching the heartlands of the Midlands was wishful thinking. These developments might have made a difference to the life of what at one time was called the "commercial canals". Imagine goods in the mid-twentieth century moving to Leeds from Goole and surrounding areas under electric power.

My nice quality first edition was not cheap for a small format book with only 73 pages (£16), but the quality of the binding and paper are first rate and the content was fascinating - a long review for a short book! In the style adopted at the time, I should have subtitled this review "Book Review including the Author's short Discourse on the History of Electric Traction for Canals"