Celebrating the bicentenary of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal

A photo taken at Wheelton
A photo taken at Wheelton
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The Leeds and Liverpool Canal could have ended up going through Leyland instead of Chorley, as this brief history by MIKE CLARKE describes:

Canal technology developed over many centuries. The lock, with gates at either end of a chamber, was perfected in 15th-century Italy, with the first true canals, with locks, aqueducts, tunnels and an independent water supply, being built in seventeenth century France.

Chorley Whittle Springs Brewery

Chorley Whittle Springs Brewery

Britain was a bit of a backwater until the eighteenth century, but then the towns of Leeds and Liverpool became the centres for the development of new inland waterways that were to change the world.

Leeds was first with the Aire and Calder Navigation, opened in 1700, the first inland waterway to be built by merchants rather than the crown or landed gentry.

Liverpool quickly followed suit, with local merchants building the Mersey and Irwell, Weaver and Douglas Navigations, all of which were in use by 1741.

These new waterways marked the start of the industrial revolution; for the first time economic change was brought about by local people rather than government or aristocracy.

The two groups argued, and eventually it was decided to use the Yorkshire men’s route, with construction starting at each end simultaneously

The Douglas Navigation was built to supply Liverpool with coal from the Wigan coalfield, and in 1772 was to become part of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

The canal was initially promoted by woollen merchants in Bradford who wanted a better supply of limestone from Craven and a route for their products to the growing port of Liverpool.

The canal was too big a project for them to finance alone, so they sought partners from other areas, especially Liverpool. The merchants in Liverpool were more concerned to have a good supply of coal as the town was perhaps the largest industrial centre in Lancashire at that time.

Each group suggested a route for the canal. The Yorkshire men proposed following the Aire Valley and then crossing into Lancashire at Foulridge, the canal then passing through Padiham, Whalley, Leyland and Parbold before crossing the West Lancashire lowlands to Liverpool.

A group of boatmen

A group of boatmen

The Lancashire men suggested a different route through East Lancashire, passing Burnley, Blackburn, Chorley and Wigan before rejoining the Yorkshire men’s route at Parbold.

The two groups argued, and eventually it was decided to use the Yorkshire men’s route, with construction starting at each end simultaneously.

The Douglas navigation was purchased to give access to the Wigan coalfield, a branch canal from Parbold joining the old navigation at Gathurst.

Construction began in 1770, and by 1777 the canal was open from Leeds to Gargrave, and from Liverpool to Parbold, together with the link to the Douglas Navigation.

Then money ran out and, apart from minor improvements, work ceased until 1790. Over that decade, East Lancashire had become a much more important industrial area, and in 1794 the route was altered to serve the growing towns of Burnley and Blackburn.

Unfortunately, there was a problem between Johnsons Hillock and Wigan. The Lancaster Canal had obtained its Act in 1793, allowing it to build a canal on the best line through the Douglas valley from Chorley to Wigan.

Because of this, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal proposed to use a different route from Johnsons Hillock, passing near Horwich and then down a flight of 30 locks from Aspull to Wigan.

By 1801 the southern section of the Lancaster Canal was open from Aspull, passing Johnsons Hillock and on to Walton Summit, from where a tramroad to Preston connected it with the canal’s northern section from Preston to 
Lancaster.

In the same year the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was extended from Burnley to Clayton-le-Moors, with Blackburn being reached in 1810. All that remained was to join Blackburn with Wigan to complete the through route across the Pennines.

Money for canal construction was limited, and as a temporary measure the Leeds and Liverpool Canal suggested a junction with the Lancaster Canal at Johnsons Hillock, and then a flight of twenty-three locks down to Wigan from the Aspull end of that canal.

This was agreed, much to the annoyance of the Manchester Bolton and Bury Canal who had hoped to build a branch to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal near Horwich.

Following this agreement, the Lancaster Canal built the Johnsons Hillock Locks and the Leeds and Liverpool built the Wigan Locks, thus completing their through route between Lancashire and Yorkshire in 1816.

The canal’s Leigh Branch was built to the Bridgewater Canal in 1821, forming a link with the canal system in the Midlands. Finally, in 1846, the Stanley Dock Branch opened in 1846, giving canal boats access to Liverpool Docks and the River Mersey.

It had taken 76 years for the canal finally to link the Irish Sea with the North Sea.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal continued to operate successfully until the First World War, and was well able to compete with railways.

However, after the war road traffic increased and traditional canalside industries declined, and by the end of the Second World War there was much less traffic on the canal.

Along with most other canals, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was nationalised in 1948, and today it is still a public asset.

Freight continued to use the canal until the early 1960s. Coal for mills, wool for Yorkshire, and sugar from Tate and Lyle’s in Liverpool were the main cargoes.

There were even a few trial loads in the 1970s, when enthusiasts tried to resurrect traffic on the canal, but the hard winter of 1963/4 had effectively brought an end to trade.

The canal might have closed at that time, but it survived, its future secured by Barbara Castle when she was Minister of Transport in the early 1970s.