Thursday 26 June 2014

Canal Cuttings (28)

This is just one of a series of around fifty old newspaper articles that I have been reading. I have been researching from old newspapers and magazines. Covering the last 200 years or so of life on the inland waterways. With particular interest in the major issues of the day that were effecting the canals. The most active periods for evaluation and change, has always been just prior, during and shortly after the two world wars. It should be remembered that between the wars the ownership of some of the canals changed hands as the railway companies bought up the waterways to get reduce competition. What is not clear is the effect this early form of asset stripping had on the viability of the inland waterways. Its good to take a look back at what people were saying and doing in the past. Most surprising of all are some of the problems that beset the canals back then - are still prevalent today. Reading old newspapers can throw up some rather interesting stories. Here is what we would call today a public interest story.

Caveat: Some of the articles are difficult to read and even using modern electronic  scanning and text conversion methods. The odd punctuation, word or character may have been transcribed in error. 

The Times
30th September 1958

Britain's Canals Pose Problem

By Derek Moon
Mr. Harold Watkinson is a brisk, efficient, even ruthless, business man. He is also Britain's Minister for Transport. From Whitehall, he watches over everything that moves, from the latest Comet airliner to the rustiest canal barges. However it is the barges that are worrying him now. They have been worrying someone or other since just after the Battle of Waterloo. At that time, Britain had about 3,000 miles of canal, no railways and no lorries. The canals carried all the heavy freight. When the railway came, four main canal systems continued to thrive. These linked great inland centres of industry to the ports of the Thames, Wash, Humber, Mersey and Bristol Channel.

Soon, however, the vast inland network connecting London with Birmingham and the North' began to lose trade to the railways. It has gone on losing it ever since. Mr. Watkinson is not the first to have looked into the canals' position. Select committees studied them in 1841, 1872, 1881 and 1883. The chief result of their labours was a law designed to stop railway companies, owning bits of canal, from closing them to traffic and destroying canal competition. This law is so confused that It, is virtually impossible to this day to close any canal by legal means.

In 1909, a Royal Commission under Lord Shuttleworth reported on Britain's canals. They sensibly wanted the main sections improved and unified, the rest allowed to die out. Nothing was done. In 1920, Mr. Neville Chamberlain had another go. He did not even get as far as a final report, and no action was taken on an interim report, again advising unification. Then came Sir Arthur Griffith Boscawen in 1928. He reported that lorries were helping to take traffic from the canals. The main canals should be unified. Nothing happened.

At last unification came in 1947, when most canals were handed over with the railways to the British Transport Commission. However, the Commission, in its turn, appointed a Board of Survey to see what it should do with the waterways. The board reported in 1954 that the sea-going canals were still paying and should be preserved, a second group might be made to pay if improved, and a third group "should be scrapped. However, then Mr. Watkinson thought of some thing else transport was not the only use to which canals were being put. In 1956, he appointed a committee of inquiry to report on the future of the canals as a means of transport and also as a useful institution in other ways. The committee has  reported. Again they say the main group, which pays, should be kept going, purely for the barges.

Other uses.

f However, they want the second group given a new lease of life both for transport and other jobs which have become almost' more important, such as reser voirs, drains and providers of sport to canoes and fishermen. Although this group is bound to make a loss, the position is not as bad as it looks. "The presence of weed on the surface, overgrown towpaths, leaking lock gates, rotting hulks of sunken craft, deserted premises and the absence of traffic can make a waterway appear more decayed than it really is, say the committee. The rest of the canals, they say, should be closed to traffic and either "eliminated" or "redeveloped" as plain sewers, waterworks or fish-ponds. As canals they are finished. This seems like sound sense. Why, then, is Mr. Watkinson worried


There is one snag. The committee of eight are agreed on what should be done, but they are split evenly on the question of who should do it. Four say the reprieved canals stay with the British Transport Commission and that a new "Waterway Redevelopment Board" should be set up to deal with the rest. The other four maintain that British Transport is too big to have charge of the canals. They should all be handed over to another new body, an Inland Waterways Corporation. This would both run the good canals and dispose of the bad. Both sides make it clear that "redeveloping" a canal will be fraught with al most insuperable difficulties. So Mr. Watkinson can either set up yet another committee to decide which of the two sides is right, or be the first Minister for 150 years to cut through their verbiage and show how ruthless, efficient and brisk he really is.

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