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Before the Industrial Revolution, transportation in Britain was rudimentary (very basic). Roads were poorly built and maintained. Goods were transported on river barges but this was a slow and costly exercise. The railway network was nonexistent, limited to wooden tracks and carriages pulled by horses. It took several days to travel between towns.

Technological innovations made in the textile and iron industries made production of goods faster and cheaper. Advances in steam engine technology led to a number of industries adopting mechanisation. As demand for goods increased, a revolution in the transportation industry took place.

Roads were maintained by bodies of trustees. Tolls were introduced. Canals were built so that large barges could be transported, independent of rivers and waterways. Roads and canals were eventually overtaken by railways. Steam engines were used to transport large loads more quickly and cheaply than by road or canal.


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Britain was divided into a number of localities or parishes. People living in each parish were responsible for maintaining the roads. Six days every year parishioners helped repair roads. Most roads experienced heavy usage. Six days of repair a year was not enough to fix the roads adequately. There was no signposting and roads were difficult to navigate.

As textile production and iron-making were improved, the demand for more goods put pressure on the transport system.

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In the 1750s, the Turnpike trusts emerged. The Turnpike trusts were groups of people who maintained the roads full time. The Turnpike trusts had power to borrow money to repair and improve roads. There were 1700 Turnpike trusts during the 1750s.

Roads were straightened, made flatter and harder. Bridges were built.

To help pay for the money borrowed to repair the roads, Turnpike trusts set up gates on either end of their roads where tolls could be collected. When someone wanted to use the road, he or should would have to pay a small toll.

By 1800, almost all roads in Britain were controlled by Turnpike trusts. Transportation was easier. Fragile goods could be moved without damage. People could travel to other towns without spending days in difficult conditions. Public transport using stage coaches became frequent.

Turnpike trusts became less frequent as road maintenance was taken over by the government. Although travel by road continued to take place, the cheaper and faster railways became a more popular mode of transportation.


Britain has many rivers and waterways. Rivers were not always easy to navigate and did not always flow where goods were needed. Canals are man-made waterways. Canals allowed goods to be transported directly to a destination. Canals had been used in Holland and France extensively before the breakthrough occurred in Britain.

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In 1759, the Duke of Bridgewater invited James Brindley, an engineer, to improve the transportation of coal from mines in Worsley to Manchester. Brindley suggested a costly improvement - to build a canal over the river Irwell directly to Manchester. The Bridgewater Canal ran independently of the river Irwell, the first canal in Britain to do so.

After the construction of the Bridgewater Canal, canals became a popular mode of transportation. Although canals were expensive to build, the economic benefits could be seen immediately.

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Canals were reliable and economic. Barges on the canal were pulled by horses that walked on either side of the canal on tow paths. One horse could pull a 30 tonne barge. Transportation was smooth and fast. Travellers also used canals to move between towns and cities.

Between the 1770s and 1830s, a golden age of canal building took place. Canals were built at Oxford, Mersey and Trent. The application of the steam engine to railway transport saw the end of canals as a popular mode of transportation.


Early railways consisted of wooden tracks linking coal mines to rivers and canals. Carriages were pulled by horses. The railway industry developed rapidly once James Watt's steam engine technology was applied to the railway.

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The first steam engine locomotive was built by Richard Trevithick in 1804. This train ran on smooth metal rails. The next successful steam locomotives were the 'Salamanca' built by Matthew Murray in 1812 and the Puffing Billy built in 1813.

As steam engine technology was perfected in locomotives, railways became a popular and effective mode of transportation. Railways were built all over Britain. The effects were immediate and dramatic.

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The main benefit of railways was the speed at which goods could be transported. Small goods and bulky raw materials could be transported much more quickly than by road or by canal. The likelihood of damage was less than transportation by train than road or canal. Goods were able to reach a wider delivery area.

Communications were improved. Travellers used the trains to cross from one side of Britain to the other. A large number of towns grew along the railway line.  

Railways changed the pace of the Industrial Revolution. The textile and iron-making industries began the revolution, but railways added momentum.

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