Infrastructural Edgelands:
Ruination and regeneration on the Rochdale Canal

Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins

Aberystwyth University


What happens when a form of infrastructure becomes defunct? Britain's early industrial-era canals were engineering feats. But, they were soon eclipsed by the bigger, faster feats of rail development. While railways became an industrial archetype, integral to the modern experience of space-time compression, canals, by contrast, became spaces of 'folkification'. Into the twentieth century, the increasing marginality of canals often led to disuse and closure. More recently, canals have been regenerated, becoming spaces of leisure and pleasure. In this paper, I offer a case study of the Rochdale Canal, Northern England, which opened in 1804, closed in 1952, and reopened in 2002. Using the concept of 'Edgelands', I explore how, as defunct infrastructure, canals have served as spaces for both decay and (re)creation.

Scene one

A summer's day. A walking group meet up by the bridge over the canal in a small Northern English former textile town. Two group leaders, two local retirees, one Antipodean anthropologist. All tote sandwiches and drinks, waterproofs just in case, and a fare for the bus home again. The walk is four miles along the canal towpath, to the next town in this South Pennine valley. We stroll cheerfully, pointing out ducklings, greeting fellow wanderers, admiring painted narrowboats and spills of potted flowers. How pleasant it is, we agree, to take a peaceful walk, with the sounds of water sloshing gently, the ring of an occasional bike, the honk of a goose.

England and Wales have some two thousand miles of operable canals and inland navigations, held under the stewardship of the Canal & River Trust, which describes them as "a world away from every day". The earliest canals date to the latter half of the eighteenth century, to the cusp of the industrial revolution that would change the world and every day. The canals as a network moving people and freight existed before the word 'infrastructure' migrated from French railway engineering to English usage (Carse, 2017). Canals had become the defunct artefacts of past progress before infrastructure acquired the post-war discursive weight of development, economy, the state. These infrastructures before there was infrastructure are good to think with - not only because the railways that gave us the word 'infrastructure' sounded the end for canal freight, but because canals as hefty materialities did not disappear. Rather, as I want to argue through today, canals shifted from the arterial transport map into what Marion Shoard (2000) and others have termed an edgeland, in this case, a parallel geography of defunct infrastructure space, sometimes peopled, sometimes perilous, sometimes peaceful. A world away from every day.

When I began this paper, with an abstract admittedly more a provocation to my own thought than the promise of a neat report on research done and dusted, I intended to think about infrastructure specifically along the Rochdale Canal, which passes through the district where my 2011 to 12 field research was based. During that research, I did not observe the canal from the door of my tent, nor live aboard a narrowboat, but recalling an observation of Penny Harvey's - that you can learn a lot along a road - I recently dug forensically back into my fieldnotes, located my Antipodean library's British canal collection in off-campus storage, and indulged in the digital humanities aka google. I was soon reminded that, while the Rochdale Canal carries its own collected stories, studying infrastructure, as Brian Larkin (2013) has urged, asks anthropologists to step back from our classic 'in this place' approaches. We might take a cue here from geography, not least the late, great Doreen Massey (e.g. 1995), who reminds us that a place is not a point but a process. Not the Rochdale Canal, then, but canals as material and mobile, as what Nikhil Anand, writing on Mumbai's water pipes, describes as "flaky accretions of sociomaterial processes" (2017:13).

Scene two

Former textile workers Lottie and Clogger McGinty bundle me into their car. With all my questions about the past, they want to show me some capital H history. After a several miles' drive, we arrive at Bingley Five Rise Locks, a 60-foot boat staircase on the Leeds and Liverpool canal. Lottie and I amble arm-in-arm for a closer look, while eighty-year old Clogger, lungs heavy with half a lifetime's industrial inhalation, waves and wheezes from a park bench. Later, over cups of tea in the canal-side cafe, he proudly schools me on the locks as an eighteenth-century engineering marvel. "Now you have had," he declares on the way home, "a right educational day out."

Opened in 1774, the Bingley locks presaged what has been dubbed the heroic phase of canal construction - spectacularly charging through, rather than routing around, topography. Britain's 'canal age' itself dates to the 1760s, when the Duke of Bridgewater's rather madcap experiment floated coal right from within the mine into a Manchester soon to be industrially transformed (Nevell & Wyke, 2012). The canal's freight capacity cut the time and cost of transporting coal, creating the freight infrastructure of a fossil economy to come, and the gamble paid off so well that, by the 1790s, 'canal mania' flowed with finance capital. In the course of eighty years, thousands of miles of canals were built in Britain, notably for my post-industrial research interests, stitching the coalfields and emergent manufacturing centres of the then industrialising North. Canal historian Charles Hadfield has written that, "the arteries that served the industrial heart of the nation were filled with water" (1968:32).

Yet, a brimming mix of ventures and goals, competition, construction, environmental and political constraints, made canals a disjointed network. Differently sized canals required differently designed boats. And design made constraint, too - an increase in freight capacity couldn't be accommodated by simply building bigger boats, because the lock system would also need to be rescaled. It even took some time for on-board engines to replace towpath horsepower because engines took up freight space. And with most profits paid out to eager investors, there was scant capital left for re-engineering, especially so once railways became serious competition.

I've only signalled them here but there are intricate arguments for why rail successfully overtook canal freight, becoming emblematic of industrial space-time compression while canals became outdated. By about 1840, coinciding with the notorious rape and murder of a boat passenger by the crew, canals were less heroic than spaces increasingly parallel to emergent infrastructural forms. I want to emphasise 'parallel' here, because this is not an evolutionary narrative in which one modality simply replaces another. Canals were monumental materialities, carrying economic and structural accretions from work to warehousing, and entangled in fluvial and hydraulic systems like land drainage. They could not be switched off, and their becoming 'defunct' as infrastructure meant rather shifting patchy patterns of use and disuse. Already in 1840, that turning point amidst the speed of rail and the shadows of murder, Charles Dickens could disappear his fictional fugitives Little Nell and her grandfather by writing them onto a canal (Grossman, 2012).

Scene three

The nineteen sixties. Lottie McGinty slips from the textile mill office where she works as a typist, and wanders onto the nearby canal towpath for some furtive respite. The disused canal is brackish, not brimful, and it's a long way down inside the lock, where she looks at the floating rubbish. At first, she thinks she sees a bundle of discarded clothes down there. Then she's not so sure. Then she's afraid. She runs, into the mill, into a managers' meeting, breathlessly stammering, "Come quickly, I think there could be a body in the canal." One of the men takes a big stick, she leads, she points, he pokes the stick down into the discards, and he says, "Don't look now, love" and she knows it really is a body.

The police thought the dead man had stumbled along the towpath late at night and tumbled in. Too dark to see. Too deep to get out. Too drunk not to drown.

This isn't a tale Lottie tells at Bingley, where the canal is heroic and historic. She tells it at home, while Clogger coughs upstairs, troubled by his industrial lungs, and she weaves memories of a town troubled by industrial decline.

Lottie found the body in an infrastructure space that had leaked into liminality. The sort of ruinous space where someone might slip from notice or slip to an unnoticed death. A defunct infrastructural edgeland jumbling detritus and derive, the canal network was another map.

When the canals were nationalised in 1948, the state inherited this map of artefacts and arteries. Far from a progressive project available for political puffery the canals were a material conundrum. It took nearly twenty years for the state to figure out what to do with them. The 1965 Facts About the Waterways report categorised the leaking network into 300 miles of still existing commercial carriage, 1100 with potential recreational potential, and 600 curtly termed 'remainder'. Estimating a six hundred-thousand pound total annual maintenance bill, the report recommended keeping open only those canals that could be purposed for recreation, often those with scenic value.

Re-creation offered the state a solution to the leaky, littered problem of infrastructural edgelands. It was a solution originally advocated from outside the state. Tom Rolt's 1944 travelogue Narrowboat had popularly made the case for rescuing the canals for recreation. Rolt did something else interesting, too: with little evidence other than paint, he put about the myth that the working boatmen of the canals' infrastructural age had originated from gypsy stock. A not dissimilar folkification of canal life appeared in artist Barbara Jones' 1951 book The Unsophisticated Arts, a compendium of working class aesthetics from tattoo to taxidermy. If Rolt separated the canals through scenery and ethnicity, Jones suspended them in time, writing of the boats, "A hundred years ago all was as it is today." These are, of course, highly debunkable narratives for anthropologists and historians alike (e.g. Hanson, 1975), but they do suggest two things. First, that canal dwellers had become all the more distinctive as their occupation became more economically disjointed. Second, that an infrastructural past was being rendered timeless. A world away from every day.

If this spatio-temporal dislocation now evocatively undergirds canals' recreational appeal, it is predicated on what might be called the very modern processes of non-modernising. Indeed, I would argue that recreation's world away temporality and placid splashing scenery have re-mapped a once industrial infrastructure into its socio-spatial opposite: recreational canals have shifted through ruin to become rural. Let me pause here and reach for the term 'rurality' - a key interrogative concept in my work and one which suggests not so much a definite and stable spatial type, but a bundle of particular ways of thinking about particular forms of space and the things that could or should be found there. In tracing the city and the country through English literature, Raymond Williams (1973) classically observed that, as a trope of contrast, rurality does imaginative, cultural and political work. The tropes grew denser when in the nineteenth century rurality came to contrast with industry, settling into the modern dichotomy we still reproduce: rurality is that which industry is not. So while the rural form is ostensibly spatial, what it carries is also temporal and cultural: rurality is a different space, a different time, its inhabitants a different people - a folk. So perhaps when today's canal visitor stops into a local souvenir shop to buy a brush with folk authenticity in the shape of a painted spoon, they are consuming a very particular re-creational remembrance.

The architectural theorist Keller Easterling (2014) describes infrastructure as prone to shifting dispositions. "Not the object form," she explains (2014:21), "but the active form". In two hundred and fifty years, British canals, an infrastructure before infrastructure, have boomed, leaked, crumbled, accrued, become re-created, become re-membered. Canals, as I have suggested, are good to think with, and I think they are striking especially in their origins as industry-enabling, intimately bound into emergent economies of fossil and finance, through their passage into the patchy ruination of infrastructural edgelands, their temporal and spatial slippage from the modernity that made them, and into their contemporary world away detachment. A heroically modern materiality has become dispositionally non-modern. Infrastructure to interstice, artery to off-the-map, industry to folk, ruin to rural, spectacle to sedate sloshing.


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