Birmingham Canals

Birmingham Canals, West Midlands (c) Jason Hawkes

Britain from the Air - Birmingham Canals

Birmingham was known as the ‘workshop of the world’ and the ‘city of a thousand trades’ in its heyday during the Industrial Revolution. 

The city was one of the leading centres of manufacturing in Britain. Positioned in the middle of the country it was perfectly placed for England’s growing network of canals. From 1769, heavy raw materials were shipped in on barges from the nearby Black Country, especially coal to power factory furnaces.

Guns, jewellery and pens were among the many trades that prospered and gave their name to specialised areas of the city, like the Gun Quarter and the Jewellery Quarter.


At its peak the Birmingham Canal Navigation system was nearly 250 km long, had some 200 locks, and reached every nook and cranny of the heavily industrialised areas of the West Midlands.

By the early 1900s, the railways had grown to take most of the commercial business. Cadbury was the last to change, finally abandoning the Birmingham canals for roads in the 1960s. The canal areas became run down, the water choked and filthy, and the warehouses derelict and dangerous.

A major programme in the 1980s successfully cleared and conserved the canals. Now the Birmingham canalside is becoming fashionable.

Like the Clyde area of Glasgow and the Manchester canal side, it is part of a major city redevelopment scheme that aims to make Birmingham one of the top 20 liveable cities in the world.


Birmingham has long had an innovative, cutting edge. Early industrial pioneers such as James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood formed the Lunar Society in the late 1700s to debate, discover and innovate. The Society was a melting pot of ideas - leading, among others, to the invention of gas lighting and the mass production of steam engines.

Birmingham was also at the centre of a massive campaign for political reform in the early 1800s. Local activists held the largest political rallies ever seen, in the run up to the Great Reform Act of 1832.

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Location: Birmingham Canal Main Line, Birmingham, West Midlands B1 2LG
Grid reference: SP 05962 86813

Britain from the Air - Birmingham Canals credits

Thank you to -

 Jason Hawkes for aerial photography

Text researched and written by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

The Cadbury brothers moved their chocolate business to an area called Bournbrook, which they renamed Bourneville as French chocolate was more fashionable.