Charles Dickens, in a Preface to The Christmas Carol

“I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly.......” Charles Dickens, in a Preface to A Christmas Carol

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Repeat of Feb. 25, 2011 Blog: "Dept 56 Dickens Village 'Abington Canal Series'"

Dept 56, Dickens Village,
"Royal Stock Exchange," 56.58480

This blog entitled "Dept 56 Dickens Village 'Abington Canal Series," was originally published on Feb. 25, 2011, and has been one of my most popular historical blogs.  I am republishing it again in order to  make it easier for readers to reference as they read the April 26, 2011 blog describing the subcultures of workers who built the canals and railroads, called "navvies."

A large venture fund floats shares of a new business.  It cites proven and significant industrial needs that the business can meet.  The fund manager attracts investors with visions of substantial gain, with little risk, using a proven, yet enhanced, technology.  Speculators rush onboard, even though the new company shows no profit yet.  It doesn't matter, because the investors buy and resell the stocks, churning for immediate appreciation.

Let's translate here:  *Goldman Sachs, *1990's, *Silicon Valley, *High Tech.
Right?  Well, yes, but remember, this is a blog about Dickens Village, not Manhattan or Menlo Park.  So wrong people, place, century, and industry.
Try this:  *Various Schemers, *1790's, *England, *Canal Construction

Abington Canal Series  Between the 1770's and the 1830's England created a network of canals throughout much of the interior of the country that served to ignite the industrial revolution, create a whole new sub-culture of boat people and canal workers, and give 21st century hot-wire manufacturers a new lease on life.

Abington Canal Display, by Barry Brideau
The Abington Canal Series, introduced by Department 56 in 2000, serves to remind us of this Golden Age of canals.

Abingdon, Oxfordshire  Abingdon is a small historic market town, one of several villages that claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in England.  It is located about 6 miles south of Oxford, at the confluence of the Thames and Ock Rivers.  In the late middle ages, it was a flourishing agricultural center, specializing in wool production and weaving, in addition to having a charter for its lively market.

For the economic forces to come, Abingdon was beautifully positioned.  To the north lay Birmingham and the Black Country, named after the surface coal throughout the area.  To the south-east along the Thames lay London, with a port for national and international trade and a population that needed products.  To the south and east were Reading and Bristol.

Dept 56, Dickens Village,
"Abington Canal," 56.58535
Abington's lock was contructed in 1790.
Dept 56, Dickens Village,
"Abington Locks,"56.58521
It was built to ease river navigation, and also to provide a connection with the proposed Wilts and Berks Canal, which was to link the town to another canal system far to the south, that ran east/west from Bristol to Reading.  As the industrial revolution swelled, then, Abingdon was important as a link between the Thames River system and the Wilts and Berks Canal.  You must click on this link for  fascinating interactive map of the entire canal system in England.

Why Were Canals Built?  In the mid-1700's, the economy of Britain, and ultimately the western world, was being transformed.  Local cottage industries were giving way to factories, where goods could be produced faster, with greater standardization, less supervision, and less cost.  There was one bottleneck in the path to  industrialization: a way to transport raw materials to the factories, and then distribute the manufactured goods.

Dept 56, Dickens Village
C. Bradford, Wheelwright & Son, 56.58181
Along the coasts, large ships could be used to transport among port cities.  In the interior, however, where coal and other resources lay, there were too few navigable rivers, and the roads were terrible. Horses could haul 1-2 tons of goods on wagons, but roads were muddy in winter, and rutted in summer. Wagon wheels frequently  became mired in mud or broke.  The resultant scarcity of raw materials lead to low production and high costs.  Dept. 56 Dickens Village C. Bradford, Wheelwright & Son

Locks on Caen Hill,
Building canals was part of the solution, but England is hilly, and water can't flow uphill.  Tunneling a canal through hills was dangerous, time-consuming, and expensive.  The use of locks solved the problem.  A lock is an chamber in the canal, in which gates are used, at either end, to raise and lower water levels, floating a boat either up or down.  To climb steep elevations, a series of locks are used.  To the left is a picture of 16 locks in a row at Caen Hill in Devizes.  An additional 13 are elsewhere, all within a 2-mile canal.

Dept 56, Dickens Village,
Royal Staffordshire Porcelains, 56.58481
Age of Canals  Between 1770 and 1840, the Golden Age, over 4000 miles (6500km) of canals were built throughout England and Scotland, bringing virtually every part of England within 15 miles of a waterway.  Industry boomed.  One company that benefited was Royal Staffordshire Porcelain, which had struggled to find economical and safe transport for heavy clay and fragile wares.  By 1880, with the advent of canal transportation, Staffordshire had become the most important pottery center in the world. Royal Staffordshire Porcelains  

Dept 56, Dickens Village
"Lock Keeper," 56.58547
No centralized authority existed for planning a canal system, however, so they were built to meet specific local or business needs, without regard to an overall plan for the country.  The more glaring example of inefficiency was Worcester Bar in Birmingham.  At this one spot, two separate canals were only 7 feet apart, and could easily have been connected.  Due to a dispute over tolls, however, the two canal companies refused to cooperate.  For years, goods traveling through the city had to be unloaded from a boat in one canal, transported to a wagon, unloaded, and reloaded onto a boat the other canal!

Dept 56, Dickens Village,
"Scrooge and Marley Counting House,"
The Golden Age tipped into "Canal Mania."  People from all over the country invested their savings in canal schemes, and some lost it all.  Of the many canals built, few made a profit, because they were built in agricultural areas, rather than in areas that linked industries, materials, and markets.  Some canals barely paid off construction costs.  Some were not maintained, and by the middle of the 19th century, could not compete with new railroads.  Frequently, the only people to make money were the promoters.Department 56 North Pole Scrooge McDuck and Marley's Counting House

Dept 56, Dickens Village
"Abington Canal Boat," 56.58522
Narrow Boats and Horses  Raw materials and manufactured goods were transported on "narrow boats," working craft no more than 7 feet wide (2.13 m), so they could fit through most locks in the canal system.  A boat would be pulled by one horse, who plodded along a towpath on the side of the canal.  As opposed to the 1-2 tons on a wagon, a horse could draw 30 tons through a canal. The economics were clear.  After the Bridgewater Canal opened in Manchester, coal prices fell 75% due to decreased transportation costs.  I wonder if oil could be transported from the Middle East in canals.

Dept 56, Dickens Village
"Butter Tub Barn,"  56.58338
"Packets" and "Fly Boats"  "Fly boats" were narrow boats that traveled non-stop, day and night, to deliver perishable goods, like cheeses.  "Packets" were narrow boats that carried passengers, letters, and parcels.  It would take a packet about 5-7 days to travel on canals from London to Birmingham, so passengers would need inns to stay in each night.  Of course, boatmen would also need stables for feeding and lodging their horses.  Thus, stores, inns, pubs, and stables grew up around the canal locks.  Department 56 Dickens Village_Butter Tub Barn

Upcoming Blogs on the Abington Canal Series  In my next blog I am going to discuss the  the "navvies," who built the canal, and the horses that worked pulling the boats.  In the third, and final, blog on the Abington Canal Series I will describe life aboard a narrowboat.


ascencion rana said...

I'll keep these in mind for next Halloween.

Wooden Duck Shoppe

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