Canal stories and the future of Capitalism

Canal stories and the future of Capitalism

1 The Grand Union Canal
2 A story of canals
3 George Orwell and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal
4 And the future of Capitalism?

1 The Grand Union Canal, July 2015

As a respite from visiting dad, dying in a nearby nursing home, Wyn and I follow the windings of the River Ouse, a tern is fishing, and so far inland.

Light on the Ouse

Steep steps lead up to the Grand Union Canal, the key canal that linked London to Birmingham. Engineering features include long tunnels at Blisworth and Braunston and a huge cutting at Tring. Here, the ‘Iron Trunk’ was once a technological triumph.

The Engineer's Story

Following the failure of a previous brick-built structure, Benjamin Beavan constructed the world’s first wide canal cast iron trough aqueduct in 1811(Thomas Telford had already constructed narrow cast iron trough aqueducts). Bevan arched the floor sections for additional strength and locked arched ribs to the side plates for additional shear strength.

Ducks on Iron Trunk

Ducks are asleep, balanced on the rim. A heron watches me take his photograph as a narrow boat approaches the trough. It floats ridiculously high over the Ouse along a channel straight as a die. Engineering is just as a surreal practice as virtual reality computing.

I take a deep breath, being alive is not about suffering, suffering can’t be the first Noble Truth. Every morning is extraordinary threading moments and patterns onto another day.

At home we watched Great Canal Journeys with Timothy West and Prunella Scales, old narrow boat enthusiasts adventuring though some fine British landscape scenery as well as the centre of London. It was relaxing for mum and interesting for me, an insight into ageing with spirit.


2 A story of canals

The English landscape has been trenched, pummelled, scarred, drained and felled, scraping off the wildwood that once covered these islands. The Fens and wetlands are drained and the commons enclosed. Huge changes to physical and human geography came as transport systems developed, from tracks to roads to turnpikes, canals and the railways.

Taming the Ouse

England’s eighteenth-century industrial revolution required raw materials and manufactured goods to be transported throughout the country. Fifteen hundred years had not improved roads over the old Roman ones. Canals began this process, often through the energy of dissident Protestant tradesmen outside London (but there is no evidence for the ‘Common Interpretation of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic, that the strength of Protestantism in a country indexed the early development of industrial capitalism there, Jacques Delacroix). The first canals were Roman, connecting spurs between navigable rivers, such as the Foss Dyke. The first modern canal was opened in 1761 and constructed to transport coal from the Duke of Bridgewater’s mines to Manchester and Liverpool. By 1800, there were over 6,000 kilometres of canals in Britain.

Narrow Boats, Grand Union Canal

Technology is not neutral: “You cannot really use nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes – to dig canals and that kind of thing. You just cannot take a constructive will and harness to it a technological object with an intrinsic principle of massive destructiveness.  The object resists; either it alters your volition, you fail in your project, or you abandon it for some more nearly adequate means.” Carl Mitcham. Don Ihde points out that technology is culturally embedded, so that before we blame technology for anything we should examine how we use it, and the cultural practices surrounding it. Andrew Feenberg also warns against technological determinism because such a dualist and essentialist notion removes technology from daily life.

Ribbed Arch Iron Trunk

Technology alone (including printing and the agricultural revolution with ‘Turnip’ Townshend) does not account for the dramatic rise of capitalism in Europe. Jan DeVries has written about the ‘industrious revolution’, where consumer demand for the new wider range of goods convinced people (including women and children) to work harder. Joel Mokyr cites cognitive, cultural, and intellectual changes from the scientific revolution and economic change occurring as a result of new partnerships between engineers, inventors and investors. Others think institutional change was more important, to the banking sector and the market.

Heron, Grand Union Canal1

Gregory Clark, an economic historian believes the revolution worked in Britain because of a change in social and personal behaviours, an appreciation of leisure, of working hard and saving. The canal, a key to the industrial revolution, is a technology now used for leisure. Leisure and working are dynamically entwined. In 1776 Josiah Wedgewood complained: “Our men have been at play four days this week it being Burslem Wakes. I have rough’d, & smooth’d them over, & promis’d them a long X’mas, but I know it’s all in vain for Wakes must be observed though the world was to end with them.”

Narrow boat on trunk Grand Union Canal

Homo economicus or Homo otiumus is not a complete answer. Factors include the availability of iron and coal, the nation not at war; a stable and powerful government; the most well-developed and advanced financial sector in the world; successful international trading; sucking raw materials and wealth from the Empire, particularly India; the steam engine and cotton mill increasingproductivity; and the growth of urban areas. London grew from 50,000 inhabitants in 1500 to 200,000 in 1600 and half a million by 1700.

Despite all this chat, we shouldn’t forget the work of canal building was hard labour. Using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows the navvies (navigators) dug the channel in all weathers then lined it with ‘puddle’ (compressed wet clay) to make it watertight and packed it down by driving sheep and cattle down it. Death and injury were common, but I can’t find any figures. Many were farm labourers hired when the canal neared them. It is a myth that most were Irish.

The Boatman's Story

Our work is hard and dangers are always near

And lucky are we if safely through life we steer;

But still the life of a navvy with its many changes of scene,

With a dear old wife, is just the life,

That suits old Nobby Green.

from Sir Bosdin Leech, History of the Ship Canal Vol 2, 1907

Narrow tunnel under Iron Trunk

Most all of the manufacturing methods and industrial chemicals in common use today were invented at a time when little or no attention was paid to their negative impacts on the planet or people. In 1936, because of the continuing subsidence from coal mines and pollution from the vast Shelton Steelworks the Wedgwood family moved their factory to the village of Barlaston where my father grew up. We don’t care much about industrial pollution, third world conditions or child labour, we are well off consumers happy to leave modes of capitalist production unchanged.

Ducks River Ouse from Iron Trunk

After factory tour in 1807 in which he saw child labour, Robert Southey, hardly a radical, noted: “if Dante had peopled one of his hells with children, here was a scene worthy to have supplied him with new images of torment.” At the same time William Blake wrote Jerusalem, comparing the industrial revolution to the devil: “And was Jerusalem builded here /Among these dark Satanic mills?” A few years later Lord Byron railed against the ‘unparalleled distress’ the factory age caused in readings of Bills in the House of Lords. Artists reacted with nostalgia for wild nature and simpler times with village communities, craft, embodied skill. Half a century later, John Ruskin created a school for workmen and labourers to learn to draw, and taught them to see the world in a different way. He supported the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who reacted against the industrial world by celebrating medieval life and the natural world.

River Ouse from Iron Trunk

“Because heat drove the mine machinery, propelled the locomotives, animated the propeller-driven or paddlewheel boats . . . heat destroyed the agrarian, cool society of water mills and windmills. It created a new and burning society. . . . We will not be surprised, then, to contemplate dangerous fires in Turner . . . But he rarely paints the landscapes of traditional England, like Gainsborough or Constable — its fields, meadows, and gardens still plunged in the old society of the 18th century and its agrarian, aristocratic world. Rather, he makes us see the novelties of a country in the throes of a complete scientific, technological, and social renewal.” Michel Serres

“To try to speak the truth about Turner’s canvasses, I should therefore travel the world, from the Sunda Islands to Greenland, before returning to the London fog. I should also move from geology to glaciology, before returning to sociology, economics, the history of science and the history of art. I must cross borders and seas, on Earth as much as in the country of Encyclopaedia. . .  Just as the passion for belonging often engenders violence, and in fact human misery in general, so belonging to a single branch of knowledge engenders corporatism.’ Michel Serres

Heron, Grand Union Canal3

To try and speak the truth of Constable I think of his cloud studies and canal locks, in the 1820s his favourite subject. I was drawn to the materiality of the wooden lock gates, not the trees but that old weathered wood, hand hammered into place speaks of rural labour and past economies. I forget which particular image haunted me, I suspect it was ‘The Lock’ (1824) that was in Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

We think of Constable as conservative, because of competition with his contemporary Turner, yet the French thought of him as a great experimenter with his exuberant colours and impressionistic brush strokes. In 1824 three of his paintings were shown in Paris, and in a letter to his friend Archdeacon John Fisher, Constable described French paintings of nature, “They know as little of nature as a hackney-coach horse does of a pasture.” It connects to Constantin Brancusi’s notion of ‘truth to materials’. The artists should reveal in their techniques the quality and personality of that material, wood to show its grain, metal tensile strength, stone texture, and of course in painting that led to abstract art, the flat plane. Yet Constable wanted truth in paint, his cloud studies remind us of this.


3 George Orwell and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal was the first Trans-Pennine canals to be started and the last to be completed and at five times the original budget. Its complexity meant it took 46 years to build, 23 locks lowers the canal by over 200 feet, 127 miles from the heart of the Yorkshire industrial belt, across the Pennines and down into Liverpool. By the time it was completed (1837) the railways were arriving to overtake the waterways.

Goods had to be portaged between canals, but the roads being in such poor condition, short horse-drawn rail links connected canals borrowed the tramways used in mines. At a slow walk, a horse could pull almost thirty tons through a canal but only seven tons on a railway, any faster and water resistance became too great, but not on  rails. The first modern steam engine was built in 1705 by Thomas Newcomen to improve pumping out seepage from tin and copper mines. A century later, (in 1804) the Cornishman Richard Trevithick built the first steam locomotive in 1804, and constructed a demonstration track in London four years later.

‘The story goes that a train bound for Southport a century ago stopped in fog 15 miles from the coast. Peering out, the passengers could make out the shape of what was in fact an elevated railway gantry, which led to a small jetty from which trucks tipped coal into barges on the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The land beneath the gantry was flooded, as it often was. In the swirling mist it resembled one of the piers that were then newly fashionable in seaside resorts.

“Are we at Southport?” a passenger enquired of a man in a signal box.

“Nay lad,” replied the railwayman. “That’s Wigan Pier tha’ cun see.”’ Paul Vallely

George Formby Senior who lived a mile from the gantry using the gag in his music-hall act so the name Wigan Pier became famous throughout England. In 1936 Eric Blair (George Orwell) was walking along the Leeds and Liverpool canal searching for Wigan Pier, a wharf and noted in his diary: “Terribly cold. Frightful landscape of slagheaps and belching chimneys. A few rats running through the snow, very tame, presumably weak with hunger.” The canal was beautifully constructed and still works. Mike Evans notes that the Cale Lane bridge was built in 1816 to carry horse-drawn wagons weighing up to four tons. 200 years later it carries 32-tonne trucks to a nearby recycling plant with no problem.

The Old Etonian was exploring the north south divide for nearly two months. Jack Hilton, a working-class socialist writer told him to head for Wigan, at the heart of industrial poverty. His account, The Road to Wigan Pier, was his first best-seller. It was commissioned by the leftist publisher Victor Gollancz who to save the former colonial officer’s family from embarrassment, gave Blair the pseudonym George Orwell when he published Down and Out in Paris and London.

He read the local papers in the library but didn’t visit the pubs (was carried into one pub after collapsing as he emerged from a mine), or go to see a rugby league game at Central Park. So he depicted the squalor fiercely but not the social life, the fun that was to be had. Orwell noted: “Alas! Wigan Pier has been demolished, and even the spot where it used to stand is no longer certain.”

‘The surrounding “Wigan Pier Experience” – a couple of museums and associated tourist attractions – has since won no fewer than 23 national awards, including the Oscar of tourism, the British Tourist Authority’s “Come to Britain” award. Here schoolchildren fulfil national curriculum requirements, families have “fun days”, OAPs reminisce and sing old songs, and corporate entertainment managers hire rooms with conversation-stimulating backdrops.

As for the poor, the public now flock in to play them. In the museum’s Victorian schoolroom, stern mistresses, wielding canes, bark and bully visitors through a lesson from the pre-Orwell era. Writing is on slates. Learning is by rote. Tourists from the 21st century, wearing their JJB designer sports-gear, queue and wait to be summoned back to a more orderly and repressive past in which selected individuals are publicly humiliated before their peers.’ Paul Vallely (2003).

‘The Pier “experience”-cum-heritage centre was Wigan’s revenge, cashing in on the one-sided portrait painted by Orwell. But the Way We Were museum, featuring a Victorian schoolroom and colliery, closed in 2007 and has stood empty ever since.’ David Sharrock.


4 And the future of capitalism?

Capitalism has managed to adapt by turning us into ever more eager consumers, but the world has shrunk. The globalisation of financial markets and leap of information has greatly increased the mobility of capital. The financial meltdown and Great Recession changed nothing. Inequality is staggering within first world countries and between the first and the third world. Social justice, healthcare and education will be demanded and hopefully environmental safeguards insisted on, but the impact of computing advances and new technologies on our daily lives and the health of the planet is unknown.

“Competitive capitalism is not really compatible with sustainable agriculture, as Marx already knew from his studies of Leibig. At the time, artificial fertilizer appeared as a fix, but it is temporary. The phosphorus and nitrogen extracted from the soil in agriculture still ends up in the shit and piss of the urban proletariat, which still mostly drains off into the sea, to the point where the metabolic rift in the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles starts to become a serious constraint and one of the marks of the Anthropocene.” McKenzie Wark.

Back in 1964 Herbert Marcuse wrote: “By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian.” Technology is a game changer and many thinkers have concerns. Ivan Illich argues we are threatened by industrial and technological development and Donna Haraway has noted a change: ‘Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible . . . Miniaturisation has turned out to be about power; small is not so much beautiful as pre-eminently dangerous, as in cruise missiles.’

So many people want action to change both the world and ourselves for better, a noble wish, but it is clear, there is no perfect system. Totalitarianism is the result of utopian thinking, from the French terror to Pol Pot’s Year Zero, from the left to the right. You can’t pile all the blame on individuals like Hitler or Lenin. Trotsky “refused to admit that in the terrible Kronstadt episode of 1921 the responsibilities of the Bolshevik central committee had been simply enormous, that the subsequent repression had been needlessly barbarous, and that the establishment of the Cheka (later the GPU) with its techniques of secret inquisition had been a grievous error on the part of the revolutionary leadership, and one incompatible with any socialist philosophy”. (Victor Serge)

The world is untidy, people unruly, politics unruly, the only straight and narrow course is the canal.



Jacques Delacroix and François Nielsen, ‘The Beloved Myth: Protestantism and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Social Forces – Vol80:2, 2001.

Carl Mitcham, Types of Technology, Research in Philosophy & Technology, Vol. 1, 1978, 229-294.

Don Ihde, Philosophy of Technology: an Introduction. New York: Paragon House, 1993.

Andrew Feenberg, ‘Summary Remarks on My Approach to the Philosophical Study of Technology’, 1996, conference paper.

Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850, Yale University Press, 2009.

Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, 2007.

Josiah Wedgewood, The Historical Journal 1v,1 1961.

Michel Serres, ‘Science and the Humanities: The Case of Turner’ from ii: the Journal of the International Institute, Vol4:2.

Mike Evans,

Paul Vallely, On the road again, Independent, 30 April 2003.

David Sharrock, ‘The road to Wigan Pier 75 years on’, The Observer, 20 February 2011.

McKenzie Wark, Marx and Nature, January 21st, 2015
Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 1964.

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p47-8.
Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York; Routledge, 1991, p154.

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary: 1901-1941, Oxford, 1963.

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