Below is a Chronological list of historic events concerning the creation of man made navigation’s and inland waterways. The list does not cover every event, but it attempts to give a flavour of what happened, and when. Part 1 deals with world canal history in general but also includes more in-depth information on British waterways.

Canals and Waterways History I

Chronology Part 1 Timeline 4000BC – 1689

c4000bc
King Menes built a canal in Upper Egypt.

c2200bc
Mesopotamia’s Shatt-el-hai Canal was built. It linked the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

1700bc
A second canal was built in Egypt (near Wadi Haifa). This was built to extend navigation on the River Nile.

600bc
In China, the 260 mile Wild Goose Canal was built to link the Yellow River to the Huai River.

c400bc
The Han-kou (or Han Ditch) was built to connect China’s Huai River to the Yangtze. Another canal was built south of the Yangtze towards Soochow and Hangchow.

103bc
The Romans built a canal connecting Arelate (Arles in France) to the Mediterranean.

102bc
A canal was built by Marius from the lower Rhône River to the Mediterranean.

66bc
Nero attempted to build a canal through Greece’s Isthmus of Corinth. The idea was abandoned.

120ad
In Britain, the Romans built Foss Dyke, connecting Lincoln with the River Trent near what is now Torksey.

600ad
Work began on the Grand Canal in China.

605ad
The Yung-Chi Canal in China was completed by the Sui rulers.

609ad
The Pien section of the Grand Canal in China was built.

610ad
China’s Grand Canal was completed.

938ad
The first ever lock chamber was built by Chhaio Wei-yo on the Grand Canal in China.

1065
In Holland, the first canals with single locks were built.

1116
The first canals in Belgium were begun.

1121
In England, during the reign of Henry I, Bishop Atwater upgraded the Roman Foss Dyke.

1198
Italy started to build canals with single locks.

1293
In China, the mathematician Kuo Chou-king began a new Grand Canal from Chambuluc to the Huang River. This was a complete rebuild along a new route.

1300
The rebuilding and re-routing of the Grand Canal in China was completed.

1373
In Holland the first (and rather primitive) double lock was created on the River Lek at Vreeswijk.

1391
In Germany, work began on the Stecknitz Navigation which was to connect Lake Molln to the River Elbe. It was completed seven years later.

1396
In Belgium, the first true double lock was completed at Dammes.

1439
In Italy, engineer Alberti built the first Italian locks, near Bologna.

1485
In Italy, the Duke of Milan’s engineer, Bertola da Novato, built the Bereguardo Canal which contained the first “modern” locks.

1507
In Italy, the remains of a canal built by Emperor Nero were discovered. The waterway originally ran from Rome to Naples.

1564
On the south coast of England, John True began building a bypass around the upper two miles of the River Exe Navigation, thus creating the Exeter Ship Canal. It was opened two years later.

1576
The first pound locks to be built in England appeared on the River Trent and River Lea (Lee).

1601
The first mention of a canal across central America was reported when Samuel de Champlain published a text describing his voyage to the West Indies. In it he proposed a canal across Panama.

1604
In France, during the reign of Henry IV, work began on the Briare Canal which was to link the River Briare with the River Seine. It took 38 years to complete, opening in 1642 during the reign of Louis XIII.

1606
In England, the River Nene was made navigable upstream of its natural head of navigation. Also around this time locks were built on the River Thames and the navigable channel was made wider and deeper.
In Sweden, a canal was built from Lake Malaren to Eskilstona.

1634
In England, a number of improvements were made to navigable rivers. Over the next few years many more navigation’s were upgraded. For instance, Thomas Skipworth of Cotes gained a grant from Charles I to make the river Soar in Leicestershire “portable for barges and boats” (though the scheme was not completed). Other alterations in this period included improvements to the Great Ouse, Lark, Tone, Suffolk Stour, Wey, Warwickshire Avon and the Thames (which had more locks added).

1638
In France, the Canal de Bergues was built, linking Dunkerque to Berguest.

1660
In England the navigable waterways now included the Tyne (to Newcastle), the Humber, the Ouse (to York), the Trent (to Nottingham), the Nene (to Peterborough), the Great Ouse (to Bedford), the Cam (to Cambridge), the Little Ouse (to Thetford), the Yare (to Norwich), the Lea/Lee (to Hertford), the Thames (to Oxford), the Wey (to Guildford), the Medway (to Maidstone), the Kent Stour (to Fordwick), the Ex/Exe including the Exeter Canal (to Exeter), the Parret (to Bridgwater), the Somerset Avon (to Bristol), the Warwickshire Avon (to Stratford), the Severn (to Shrewsbury) and the Dee (to Chester).

During the 1660’s there was a rapid increase in river transport in England. Further improvements took place on the Mersey, Weaver, Suffolk Stour, Salwarp, Wey, Lugg, Medway, Welland, Wiltshire Avon, Itchen, Great Ouse and Mole among many others.

1662
Rivers were not the only form of transport in Britain during this era. Road use was growing rapidly and Parliament passed the first Act allowing the building of a Turnpike (toll) road. The first such road was already a well trodden route as it was built by the Romans over a thousand years earlier.

This was the Great North Road where it passed through Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. The Romans had called this road Ermine Street though today we call it the A1! Although the new turnpike was a success it was not until 1696 that a second toll road opened.

Note: Although people tend to call these toll roads “Turnpike Roads”, the actual turnpike is not the road but a barrier or gate which prevented passage until a payment (or toll) was made. The word “turnpike” went out of fashion in the 1800’s and has now been replaced by the word “turnstile”. Here endith today’s olde English lesson.

1666
In France, the Languedoc Canal was begun under the guidance of Pierre-Paul Riquet. This was the first part of what became the Canal Du Midi, cutting across the south of the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean.

1667
In the English Midlands, the River Stour was made navigable from the Severn to Stourbridge. However, the route was soon destroyed by floods.

1672
British canal engineer Thomas Steers was born. He became Britain’s first civil engineer, creating Liverpool’s first dock in 1715 and becoming Mayor of the town in 1739. He made numerous rivers navigable and built a number of canals in Ireland long before any canals were built in Britain.

His works included the Mersey & Irwell Navigation, the Weaver Navigation, Douglas Navigation (c1720), Newry Canal in Eire (1736) and Salthouse Dock, Liverpool (1738). Steers died in 1750 (aged 78). Significantly, one of his pupils was Henry Berry who went on to build Britain’s first true canal, the Sankey Brook Navigation (completed 1761).

1674
The first mention of canals was made in what we now know as the USA. Father Louis Joliet spoke about the advantages of a waterway from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River.

1681
In France, the Canal du Midi was completed. It linked the Atlantic to the Med via the Languedoc Canal, the Canal Royale and the Canal des Deux Mers.

1683
In America, the clearly adamant Father Joliet, suggested a canal should be built from the Chicago River to the Illinois River. This would connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. Over the next few decades a number of canal schemes were promoted in America.

1696
In Wales, Sir Humphrey Mackworth built a short navigable cut from the River Neath to Melyn Lead & Copper Works.

Also in this year the second turnpike road opened in England, 34 years after the first. This one was on the London to Colchester route (which we now know as the A12).

1698
The third turnpike road to be granted an Act of Parliament opened in Gloucestershire between Birdlip and Cricklade. Like the first toll road, this was originally a Roman road, Ermin Way, now known as the A417 and A419. (In the 1990’s this same road, in it’s newest incarnation, was to play a major role, or hindrance, in the restoration of the Thames & Severn Canal).

END OF PART ONE

As the 17th century came to an end many rivers in Britain were being converted or upgraded to take large vessels and the first “proper” roads to be built since the days of the Romans were under construction. Over the next hundred years Britain would change dramatically and lead the world into a new age… onto part two.