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A Brief History

With a main line of 127.25 miles, the Leeds and Liverpool is the longest canal in Britain. It links the seaport of Liverpool with the Aire and Calder Navigation at Leeds, forming a through route between the Irish Sea and the North Sea. Vessels 60 feet long, 14 feet wide and 3.5 feet deep can pass through it's 92 locks (91 if you use the deep lock at Appley Bridge instead of the two shallow ones), reaching a height of 487.5 feet above sea level on the summit at Foulridge. At 72 feet in length, the locks between Liverpool and Wigan are longer, as are the 2 on the branch to Leigh, where the junction with the Bridgewater Canal allows boats to reach the narrow canals of central and southern England. A second branch links the canal at Burscough with the River Ribble via the small port of Tarleton. The 7 locks here are the same size as between Wigan and Leeds, though wider boats can pass through the tidal lock at Tarleton.

In the middle of the 1700's, Yorkshire was a well established woollen manufacturing area, while Lancashire's industries were still in their infancy. Consequently it was in Yorkshire that the canal was first proposed. In the 1760's the merchants there were keen to improve the supply of lime and limestone from the Craven district. This they used to improve the fertilisation of agricultural land and to provide a mortar which allowed them to increase the size and height of buildings used for weaving. They also hoped to expand the market for their cloth by gaining access, via Liverpool, to the growing colonial markets in Africa and America. The route they chose was up the Aire valley to Gargrave, then through Padiham, Whalley and Leyland to Liverpool. They would thus have a fairly direct route to Liverpool as well as reaching the limestone country around Craven.

When the Yorkshiremen sought support in Lancashire they found that Liverpool merchants were more interested in acquiring a good supply of coal for the town from Wigan. They suggested a different route, through Wigan, Chorley, Blackburn and Burnley, joining the Yorkshiremen's line at Foulridge. The two groups fell out over this, though they eventually agreed to a compromise. The Yorkshire line was to be followed, but there was to be a link to Wigan, with work starting at each end simultaneously.

By 1777, when the canal was open from Liverpool to Wigan and from Leeds to Gargrave, the company ran out of money. Construction ceased until 1790 when the economy improved and more finance was available. By then East Lancashire was rapidly developing as an industrial area and the canal proprietors realised that there was a greater opportunity for trade around Blackburn and Burnley. The proposed line of canal was altered and when it opened throughout, in 1816, it had been constructed along the route first suggested by the Liverpool merchants. Actually, the canal was never really completed as between Johnson's Hillock and Wigan it uses the Lancaster Canal's southern section. Control of this length was assumed by the Leeds and Liverpool from 1864.

 

Canal Workers - large numbers of people worked on the canal but many are hard for family historians to trace. Some basic advice is available here...

 

Freight Traffic - although limestone had been envisaged as the canal's major traffic, it was soon obvious that the demand for coal was far greater than had been anticipated. During much of the nineteenth century in excess of one million tons were carried annually compared to about fifty thousand tons of limestone. However the toll payable on these traffics was low, and the canal made just as much money from carrying merchandise. Many types of goods were carried, wool to Yorkshire, grain from Liverpool and Birkenhead docks to East Lancashire flour mills, machinery, groceries, beer and spirits, cement, the list is endless. Cotton was also moved, though as East Lancashire became predominately a weaving area, the tonnage carried was never high during the twentieth century.

Competition - the canal was a very successful and efficient carrier, well able to survive railway competition. In fact the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway had to lay men off at Burnley in the 1880's as the canal, due to improvements, was taking so much traffic away from them. It was only when road transport developed after the First World War that the canal's trade really declined. Coal remained the main cargo, but demand declined as industry changed over from steam to electric power. Canalside collieries closed or coal quality declined, and the last regular traffic, from Plank Lane colliery to Wigan power station, ceased in 1972.

Water Supply - originally water for the canal came from the River Douglas, in Lancashire, and from Eshton Beck, in Yorkshire. Reservoirs were opened around Foulridge when the summit level was being built. Over the years, as traffic increased, more reservoirs were opened, at Rishton, Foulridge, Barrowford and finally Winterburn. The water from the reservoirs has always been of a high quality, though there have been problems from other sources. The supply from the River Douglas used to be heavily polluted, but a new sewage works has improved this dramatically. Farmers washing their sheep in the canal was, for a time, another problem. However, in the main, pollution is the result of the canal's major role in land drainage, and damage is caused by accidents on land alongside the canal.

Passenger Traffic - passengers travelled along the canal virtually from its opening. Packet boats worked between Liverpool and Wigan, with the service extended to Manchester after the Leigh branch opened in 1821. They also operated in Yorkshire, but the number of locks there made the service slow, and it did not last for long. Blackburn and Burnley were also served, but the packet boats could not compete with railways and they stopped during the 1840's. By then people had begun to travel the canal for leisure, with coal boats sometimes used for outings during the summer months. By the end of the 19th century there were a few pleasure boats kept on the canal, though it was not until after the Second World War that recreational use expanded.

Promotion - the Inland Waterway Association was formed in 1946 and has successfully protected Britain's canals from subsequent closure proposals. Their enthusiastic promotion has increased public awareness of canals and today more and more people are using them, not only for pleasure boating, but also for walking, cycling, fishing and other leisure activities.

Hopefully this guide will help you to become one of the many who enjoy visiting the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and its surroundings every year.