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Canals

Records of transport can reveal a wealth of fascinating material useful to the local or community historian, from documents relating to the landowners affected by proposed routes to records of the people who built, worked and travelled on the transport systems crossing the country.

The poor state of Britain’s rutted roads meant that for many centuries, transport by sea was the quickest method of transporting goods, although this was always at risk of bad conditions. In the 18th century, a new system of inland waterways – the canals – began to connect the major trading routes along rivers and through ports. Transport by canal was much faster and more efficient than by road and did not face the same risks as transport by sea.

The first canal in Staffordshire was built in the 1770s and the last some ninety years later. During that time, hundreds of people were involved in their construction, and hundreds more made their living working on or alongside the canals. This activity generated a considerable body of documents which may provide valuable information for the local or community historian.

A number of proposed plans for canals are held at Staffordshire Record Office, showing the routes that they would take and the land that they would cross. Many of these maps name the landowners who would be affected (and therefore compensated) in the building of these routes. They also show relevant buildings and can be useful as a source for canal-side developments.

The design of the canals fell to engineers such as James Brindley and Thomas Telford, and examples of their work – including Brindley’s order books and plans by Telford – can be found in the collections at Staffordshire Record Office.

The business side of running canals – as they were all private enterprises – is reflected in the business papers of the various large landowners who were involved, and these can be found in the family collections held at Staffordshire Record Office.

A free detailed guide to the Archive Service's holdings of canal records is available in PDF format from the Guides to Sources page on this website (Guide to Sources No. 8: Transport Records).

Additionally, an introductory booklet, Staffordshire Canals and their People, is available for purchase from the Archive Service publications webpage.

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