Everyone loves saying that Birmingham has more canals than Venice. It’s a fact of pride among Brummies, placing the second city among the European elite. But it’s not true, unfortunately. What Birmingham does have is more miles of canals than Venice. It has 35 miles of canals, in fact, compared to the Italian city’s 26-mile system – and that’s if you’re being conservative!
Because depending on where you draw the city boundaries this number skyrockets! The Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) system includes up to 100 miles of canals. (At the height of canal use, this was even higher at 160 miles – but more in that in a bit.) As one of the most intricate canal networks in the world, Birmingham’s waterways are as iconic to the city as bulls.
Still busy with boats today – although maybe the kinds they were built for – you could spend days exploring Birmingham’s canal system. But why does Birmingham have so many canals? The answer might seem obvious, but we still think it is pretty interesting. So we wanted to delve into it anyway.
Brum’s first canal was completed in 1772 after the introduction of the Birmingham Canal Navigation Act 1768. Imaginatively named the Birmingham Canal, its construction was overseen by a name that might sound familiar, the engineer James Brindley. It was his vision to link four of the biggest English rivers (the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames) using canals with Birmingham at the centre.
We’ve talked about Birmingham’s many former nicknames as the Workshop of the World, Toyshop of Europe, and City of a Thousand Trades. So we probably don’t need to delve too deeply into the second city’s past as the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution. But its ability to transport goods and materials, like coal and iron, around quickly and efficiently was key to England’s successes at the time.
The canal network greatly expanded during the 1800s, with heavy goods being brought into the city this way and finished products being taken out. By 1898, 8.5 million tonnes of goods were carried along the canals a year with over 160 miles of canals in use. Apparently, on days when numerous narrowboats descended on the Black Country at the same time every day, it even created a tidal-like effect.
However, maintaining the canal system was expensive; the use of trains and road vehicles would soon become the cheaper and quicker method of transporting goods in the 20th century. By 1980 all commercial use of the canals had stopped and they fell into ruin for a short time. Today, Birmingham’s canals are having a sort of second wind as their surroundings are improved by parks, restaurants, housing and shops. But their purpose is to provide more of a scenic backdrop than anything else.