The British Industrial Canal

Reading the Waterways from the Eighteenth Century to the Anthropocene

Author(s) Jodie Matthews

Language: English

Genre(s): Literary Criticism, Science

Series: Intersections in Literature and Science

  • June 2023 · 264 pages ·216x138mm

  • · Hardback - 9781837720033
  • · eBook - pdf - 9781837720040
  • · eBook - epub - 9781837720057

About The Book

Thousands of literary, popular, non-fiction and archival texts since the eighteenth century document the human experience of the British industrial canal. This book traces networks of literary canal texts across four centuries to understand our relationships with water, with place, and with the past. In our era of climate crisis, this reading calls for a rethinking of the waterways of literature not simply as an antique transport system, but as a coal-fired energy system with implications for the present. This book demonstrates how waterways literature has always been profoundly interested in the things we dig out of the ground, and the uses to which they are put. The industrial canal never just connected parts of Britain: via its literature we read the ways in which we are in touch with previous centuries and epochs, how canals linked inland Britain to Empire, how they connected forms of labour, and people to water.


‘Jodie Matthews writes with a beautifully polyphonic voice … aptly reflecting the multidimensional nature of the canal as a place where the ghosts of our imperial, industrial past co-exist with our restless present and the prospect of a catastrophically different future. With all the rigor of academic enquiry and the clarity and lyricism of the very element Matthews writes about, this wonderful book exposes the porosity of the past and the edges of our natures.’

J. L. M. Morton, poet

‘A meticulously researched work. This is a much needed counterpoint to the current tendency of clothing the world of the waterways in a cloud of nostalgia – or, more recently, “living the dream” – mythologising both the environment and the people of the canals.’

Kate Saffin, writer and modern working boatwoman

‘In a book by turns scholarly, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking, Matthews uses the literature of the canal to interrogate history, culture and the politics of nostalgia. Our waterways, cutting through the landscape and fulfilling the role of both industry and nature, tend to be both overlooked and taken for granted … The British Industrial Canal explores how they have impacted our society and continue to have relevance into the future.’

Sarah Jasmon, author of The Summer of Secrets (2015) and You Never Told Me (2020)


Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: Practical Arts of the Waterways
Chapter Three: Colonizing Canal-Land
Chapter Four: Women, War, and the Waterways
Chapter Five: Waters of Life and Death
Chapter Six: The Basin, or Conclusion

About the Author(s)

Author(s): Jodie Matthews

Jodie Matthews is Professor of Literature at the University of Huddersfield, Yorkshire. She is currently Head of Department for Communication and Humanities.

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