How a Wet Little Island Changed The World

How a Wet Little Island Changed The World

For the next three months Paula and I will be exploring the canals of England in the narrowboat Wharram Percy. We are starting out in Yorkshire, and will be crossing the Pennine Hills to Lancashire on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, and then probably back by the Rochdale Canal. These canals were built to connect the textile mills of the Pennines with the seaport of Liverpool. I’ll be posting about our travels, probably with rants about the Industrial Revolution, the Luddites, the Bronte sisters, the Wars of the Roses, and the threat posed by militant waterfowl. To start with I would like to explain how important the miserable English climate was to industrialization.

Great Britain is much farther north than many Americans think. London is father north than Calgary, and John O’Groats in Scotland is farther north than Juneau, Alaska. The only reason that the UK is not iced in for six months of the year is the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream, bringing warm water from Florida across the Atlantic. However, that warm water results in year round rain, and the British climate deteriorates very rapidly with altitude. There is no settlement above a thousand feet, and most is much lower. Winters in particular are miserable. There are limited hours of daylight and if the sun appears at all it is only fifteen or twenty degrees above the horizon. Naturally this has led to a British obsession with trying to keep warm.

“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
Shut that bloody door, it’s freezing in here!”
— First draft of Richard II by William Shakespeare

The Celtic tribes that inhabited these islands when the Romans arrived painted their bodies blue with woad, probably to cover up the fact that they were blue with cold. Their disregard for thermodynamics, and indeed the advantages of wearing more than a thin layer of dye in battle, resulted in them being pushed back by European immigrants to regions such as Wales, Ireland, and Scotland which were even less fit for human habitation than England. It turns out that wool is a much better covering than woad for the English climate, and by medieval times the English economy was based on cloth and clothing. The Speaker of the House of Lords still sits on a sack of wool as a reminder that the British system of government has failed to come to terms with anything more recent than the introduction of the printing press.

A large part of the compensation of servants in medieval times is that they were provided with clothing or livery which both kept them warm and identified them as belonging to a particular lord. When you come across old ballads referring to, “a young man dress├ęd all in leather” that is not some medieval biker guy or leather daddy. That’s someone wearing cheap clothes because he was too independent to accept service to a master who would provide him with a wool suit, and without the skills to be able to afford anything better on his own. London tradesmen who became wealthy banded together into guilds and dressed in the same style to show that then were independent. These guilds are still referred to as Livery Companies.

For hundreds of years the looms used for weaving were powered by human muscle, which limited speed and capacity, but in 1785 the first loom with an external power source, a water wheel, was built by Edmund Cartwright. It was a commercial failure, but his design was improved by various inventors over the next generation, until factories powered by water and steam replaced the old hand looms. The similarity of water powered weaving to water powered corn grinding meant that the new cloth factories were called ‘mills’. The rainswept hills of Northern England were ideal for water power, so they became the center of the new industrial weaving industry. That rainy climate powered the mills.

However, there is more to staying warm than wearing clothes. A nice fire in the fireplace helps, too. England was once heavily wooded, but this was cleared for grazing, timber, and fuel. The British Navy and commercial shipping consumed a lot of woodland. A ship of the line in the Napoleonic wars was said to have required a hundred acres of old growth oak forest to construct. I can remember being appalled when I first came to California and saw oak being sold as firewood. Oak trees are far too precious in England these days to burn. With most of the woods gone, the English went over to burning coal. However, the coal is not always where you want it – even when you dig it out from underground, I mean. It has to be transported from the coalfield to the city, and to do this the first English canal was dug.

The canals went on to prime the industrial revolution, providing cheap transport for coal, limestone, china clay, grain, and manufactured goods. They connected the seaports of Liverpool, Bristol, and London, with manufacturing in the Midlands and the North. They led to advances in finance, engineering, and geology. And they required a lot of rain.

As I mentioned earlier, we are going to be climbing hills by canal boat. To do this we have to go up through locks, and that means that there has to be a supply of water at the highest point of the canal to fill the locks. Once again, that rainy English climate provided both the motivation and the motive power for the Industrial Revolution.

5 thoughts on “How a Wet Little Island Changed The World

  1. Did you know we have had the driest winter fo 20 years !! With only about 40% of average rainfall. Must be something to do with global warming ! ( most things are)Glad to see you both back. I guess we get to see the boat in future blogs. Ant ( in a hot Tenerife)

  2. So looking forward to seeing photos of your boat. I hope you are pleased with it. You will enjoy making iit your home for the next 3 months, Paula. Will you be getting your paint brushes out? You did some beautiful designs on your last boat. Lots of love to you both. Xx

    1. We’re very happy with the boat. We’re just settling in and getting organized. Unlike Peggoty, Wharram Percy has a microwave, toaster, washer/dryer, and vacuum cleaner, along with the power to run them.

    2. PS. Photos of the inside of the boat as soon as we finish settling in, photos of the outside of the boat when we get some sunshine in a pretty mooring.

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