Elementary, my dear

Which city was known as ‘Copperopolis’, and who exactly is the ‘Salt King’? Find out how minerals and materials were integral to the history of our waterways


Like the clownfish and coral, there’s a symbiotic relationship between canals and minerals. It goes right back to the pioneering Bridgewater Canal, which was built to bring coal from the Duke of Bridgewater’s mine in Worsley to the industries of Manchester. Then there’s the Trent & Mersey, built to deliver clay to the doors of Josiah Wedgewood’s factory and carry away fragile pottery.

These canals proved to be faster, more reliable and, in the case of the pottery, a much smoother ride than the roads of the time. Plus boats could carry heavier loads. The potential of this new form of transport was embraced by industrialists, who needed coal to fuel their mills and furnaces and could then send boats in the other direction filled with rare minerals and finished products. On this principle, the British canal system was born. Read on to delve into the stories of the minerals and materials that made our network.

Chalk, Basingstoke Canal
Chalk is used in construction and was a principal cargo of the Basingstoke Canal, which travelled from the chalky hills of Hampshire to the Thames. The canal also transported grain and wood, making it one of the first of the agrarian canals bringing agricultural products to London. A 32-mile section of the canal is still navigable.

Clay, Trent & Mersey Canal
Josiah Wedgewood cut the first lump of sod from the ground at Middleport for the Trent & Mersey Canal, demonstrating the importance of the canal to the pottery magnate. He was closely involved in the canal’s development and the finished waterway brought clay to the door of Etruria, Wedgewood’s factory, while also allowing fragile pots to be transported more smoothly than by road.

Coal, Dudley Canal
Demand for coal was insatiable. It fuelled the Industrial Revolution and was the primary driver for much canal construction. The Dudley Canal is one example of a canal built primarily to transport coal – the layer beneath Dudley was the thickest seam in Europe. The number of mines caused problems with subsidence, but meant coal from Tipton Mines could be delivered throughout the Midlands.

Copper, Swansea Canal
Swansea was once known as ‘Copperopolis’ because so much copper-smelting took place here – 90% of all the UK’s production. The Swansea Canal provided the coal to fuel the region’s metallurgical industries, which brought copper ore to the port at Swansea from all over the world. The canal was eventually filled in, but five restored miles are managed by the Canal & River Trust.

Cotton, Manchester Ship Canal
The Bridgewater Canal had already halved the cost of importing raw cotton when the Manchester Ship Canal was constructed. This brought cotton from North America to the mills of Manchester, aka ‘Cottonopolis’, where the damp climate stopped cotton fibres from splitting. The huge canal also made it easier to get the finished product straight out to sea, and it is still in use today.

Gunpowder, Powdermill Cut and the Lee Navigation
Powdermill Cut was dug in 1806 to provide the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey in Essex with a connection to the Lee Navigation and thence on to the Royal Arsenal. The cut enabled barges to deliver gunpowder from the Grand Magazine all the way to the arsenals at Woolwich and Purfleet.

Ironstone, Shropshire Tub Canals
This tangled network of short, narrow canals around Telford was used to bring ironstone – along with coal and limestone – from local mines and quarries to furnaces where it was used to make pig iron. The canals were characterised by the use of tub boats, which could be chained together like mine carts, and inclined planes to negotiate changes in level. Only traces of these canals now remain.

Limestone, Lancaster Canal
The Lancaster Canal was constructed to take coal to Cumbria and return with limestone, which was used in construction and as a fertiliser. Because of its cargo, the canal was nicknamed the Black and White Canal and it’s a great example of the two-way nature of a canal – with coal going in one direction and a valuable regional product coming back. However, the limestone was also problematic – it’s very porous, which meant the Lancaster Canal lost water easily, hastening its decline.

Peat, Thorne and Hatfield Moors Peat Canals
A series of canals in Lincolnshire that transported cut peat from the moors. This was originally used as an alternative domestic fuel to coal and later as bedding for working horses. Little now remains.

Salt, Droitwich Canals
The brine springs around Droitwich meant the area had been the centre of salt production for centuries. In the 19th century this was intensified by John Corbett, the Salt King, whose father owned a boat yard in the Midlands and ran a canal boat business. As salt production increased, two canals were constructed to connect Droitwich to the River Severn and the Birmingham Canal Navigations.

Sand, Bude Canal
The sand around Bude, Cornwall, is rich in lime and can be used as a fertiliser, and a canal was deemed to be the best method of bringing the sand inland for local farmers. The canal was unusual in that it used wheeled tub boats and had six inclined planes. While much is derelict, the first two miles of the canal have been restored.

Martina Scott