It’s estimated that when Britain’s first canal, the Bridgewater Canal, was opened in 1761, the price of coal in Manchester fell by half. That’s what revolutionary technology does for you – dramatically transforming lives, and the way people do business.

Between 1761 and the 1820s, Great Britain built a network of canals that connected all of its major ports and manufacturing centres, making the transportation of bulk goods and materials at the height of the industrial revolution both practical and affordable.

Because of the amount of work involved, these early artificial waterways were only built as big as was practical – which in turn meant developing a type of craft, ten times as long as it was wide, and drawing about three feet of water when loaded, that could squeeze through the tunnels and locks of the growing canal network.

That craft was the wooden narrow boat – a revolutionary technology of the 18th century that remained in active use throughout the nineteenth century and right up to the 1950s. Wooden hulls, in oak and elm, remained in production until the 1950s, though these were increasingly replaced by iron and steel boats from the middle of the 19th century onwards.

For a century and a half, the boats were pulled by horses. A few steam driven craft were introduced in the late 19th century but it was only when reliable diesel engines arrived in the 1920s that most of the working horses were finally retired.

Motor-driven boats had one significant advantage – the power to tow a second boat, or ‘butty’. The two-person crew needed to operate one horse boat could now carry twice the tonnage – and in theory earn double the income (but probably not the boatman’s wages). The two-boat system was so efficient that it competed with road and rail transport, and continued to the middle of the 20th century.