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Canals: The Making of a Nation

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 The Second World War.

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Liz McIvor sitting next to Manchester Ship Canal Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: © BBC Liz McIvor travels across the UK’s extensive canal network to tell the story of how our waterways changed our lives – and how that legacy lives on. The ‘golden age’ of canals opened up trade and acted as a catalyst to the industrial revolution from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. But on a bigger scale, the canals became instrumental in shaping the nation we live in today.

Canals gave us modern financial capitalism with its speculators, monopolies and scandals; they also encouraged us to re-think our attitudes towards the rights of workers, migrants, family life and children. They helped further the new science of geology, giving us a more informed view on how landscapes were created over periods of time. The canals were present at the start of the new discipline of civil engineering, building on advances in scientific understanding and technology. Dr Deborah Bunton from the Open University's History Department, and Professor Emma Griffin at the University of East Anglia, join Liz to investigate the heritage and legacy that the canals have left us, as well as what their future holds. 

Here on OpenLearn, you can dive deeper into the subject:

Canals: The Making of a Nation first airs on BBC One on Friday 28th August 2015 at 9.30pm, with locally-focused episodes broadcast throughout the regions. The series will be repeated on BBC Four later in the year. Full broadcast details and watch again where available can be found on

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Liz McIvor on a traditionally painted canal boat named Katherine Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: © BBC 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, the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain, now a Grade I Listed Building and a World Heritage Site. 

The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal takes us to Birmingham, a city shaped by the arrival of the canals. With toll houses and industrial warehouses, there’s more canal architecture here than any other British city – and with 35 miles of canals, that’s more than even Venice! It’s the hub of the canal network and Gas Street Basin in Birmingham’s city centre shows how the canals have become catalysts for property development, repurposed warehouses and aspirational urban regeneration.

Canals still offer so many benefits today. Perhaps, Liz suggests, it is time to construct a few more?

This episode first broadcasts in BBC West Midlands.

Episodes in this series

Episode Description
Engineering Episode 6 of 6 looks at the rise of civil engineering and the feats of technology behind the Leeds-Liverpool canal. Read more
The Boat People Episode 5 of 6 tells the story of the people who operated the canal boats. Read more
The Workers Episode 4 of 6 tells the story of the men who built the Manchester Ship Canal. Read more
Capitalism Episode 3 of 6 looks at the Grand Junction Canal and explores how 'canal mania' transformed Britain's financial systems. Read more
Geology Episode 2 of 6 discovers how building canals in Kennet and Avon helped further our understanding of geology. Read more
Heritage Episode 1 of 6 investigates the heritage of our canal network and how the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal is still... Read more


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