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Transport in the Industrial Revolution

Over the period of the Industrial Revolutions many changes occurred, with one transport type gaining momentum before being superseded or replaced by another. In The Industrial Revolutions we look at the background, what happened and why, we are looking at the technological developments where they occurred, who developed them and when in more detail. In Technological Developments in the Industrial Revolution we look at some of the technology developments over the period. Some of the places featured are included in The European Route of Industrial Heritage covered both in an article and listed in European Route of Industrial Heritage - UK Sites. Here we are looking at the range of transport options and their development over this time.

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, inland transport was by navigable rivers and roads, with coastal vessels employed to move heavy goods by sea. Horse powered Railways or wagonways were used for conveying coal to rivers for further shipment, but canals had not yet been constructed. Animals supplied all of the motive power on land, with sails providing the motive power on the sea.

The Industrial Revolution improved Britain's transport infrastructure with a turnpike road network (toll roads), a canal, and waterway network, and a railway network. Raw materials and finished products could be moved more quickly and cheaply than before. Improved transportation also allowed new ideas to spread quickly.

Coastal sail

Sailing vessels had long been used for moving goods round the British coast. The trade transporting coal to London from Newcastle had begun in mediaeval times. The major international seaports such as London, Bristol, and Liverpool, were the means by which raw materials such as cotton might be imported and finished goods exported. Transporting goods onwards within Britain by sea was common during the whole of the Industrial Revolution and only fell away with the growth of the railways at the end of the period.

Navigable rivers

All the major rivers of the United Kingdom were navigable during the Industrial Revolution. Some were anciently navigable, notably the Severn, Thames, and Trent. Some were improved, or had navigation extended upstream, but usually in the period before the Industrial Revolution, rather than during it. The Severn, in particular, was used for the movement of goods to the Midlands which had been imported into Bristol from abroad, and for the export of goods from centres of production in Shropshire (such as iron goods from Coalbrookdale) and the Black Country. Transport was by way of trows - small sailing vessels which could pass the various shallows and bridges in the river. The trows could navigate the Bristol Channel to the South Wales ports and Somerset ports, such as Bridgwater and even as far as France.

Coalport China Museum, Shropshire


Canals began to be built in the late 18th century to link the major manufacturing centres in the Midlands and north with seaports and with London, at that time itself the largest manufacturing centre in the country. Canals were the first technology to allow bulk materials to be easily transported across country. A single canal horse could pull a load dozens of times larger than a cart at a faster pace. By the 1820s, a national network was in existence. Canal construction served as a model for the organisation and methods later used to construct the railways. They were eventually largely superseded as profitable commercial enterprises by the spread of the railways from the 1840s on.

Britain's canal network, together with its surviving mill buildings, is one of the most enduring features of the early Industrial Revolution to be seen in Britain.


Much of the original British road system was poorly maintained by thousands of local parishes, but from the 1720's (and occasionally earlier) turnpike trusts were set up to charge tolls and maintain some roads. Increasing numbers of main roads were turnpiked from the 1750's to the extent that almost every main road in England and Wales was the responsibility of some turnpike trust. New engineered roads were built by John Metcalf, Thomas Telford and John Macadam. The major turnpikes radiated from London and were the means by which the Royal Mail was able to reach the rest of the country. Heavy goods transport on these roads was by means of slow, broad wheeled carts hauled by teams of horses. Lighter goods were conveyed by smaller carts or by teams of pack horse. Stage coaches carried the rich, and the less wealthy could pay to ride on carriers carts.


Wagonways for moving coal in the mining areas had started in the 17th century and were often associated with canal or river systems for the further movement of coal. These were all horse drawn or relied on gravity, with a stationary steam engine to haul the wagons back to the top of the incline. The first applications of the steam locomotive were on wagon or plate ways (as they were then often called from the cast iron plates used). Horse-drawn public railways did not begin until the early years of the 19th century. Steam-hauled public railways began with the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830. Construction of major railways connecting the larger cities and towns began in the 1830's but only gained momentum at the very end of the first Industrial Revolution.

After many of the workers had completed the railways, they did not return to their rural lifestyles but instead remained in the cities, providing additional workers for the factories.

Railways helped Britain's trade enormously, providing a quick and easy way of transport and an easy way to transport mail and news.

This article is based partly on extracted information from Wikipedia.


By: Keith Park   Section: Heritage Section Key:
Page Ref: Industrial_revolution_transport Topic: Industrial Last Updated: 09/2009

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