Leeds and Liverpool Canal's birthday - as waterways charity receives a £725,000 grant

A popular Lancashire waterway enjoyed a 200-year-old-plus birthday this week.

Wednesday, 21st October 2020, 7:00 am
Johnson's Hillock at Chorley

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal's 204th anniversary on Monday saw the first barges to complete the 127-mile journey from Leeds to Liverpool get under way on Saturday, October 19, 1816. - arriving in Liverpool on Thursday, October 24..

The milestone comes as the Canal and River Trust, the national waterways and wellbeing charity, is awarded £725,600 in funding for the North West’s waterways.

The funding, which has been awarded via the Heritage Stimulus Fund, part of the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund, will help the charity’s vital work to safeguard the North West’s historic canals and rivers, so the public can enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of being by water.

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The North West projects to receive funding include vital repairs to three different locks on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Wigan and Chorley; Hunts Lock on the River Weaver Navigation, near Northwich; and Chester Dry Dock, on the Shropshire Union Canal, in Chester.

The region’s allocation represents nearly half of the national £1.6 million grant given to the Trust to fund a total of 17 projects across England and Wales.

As regards the Leeds and Liverpool,Canal, Northern trade and industry flourished in the mid-18th century, and there was great call for a canal linking the east and west of England.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal was the earliest of the trans-Pennine canals to be proposed.

It offered a gentler, less direct route than the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and the Rochdale Canal, but it still passed through important limestone and coal mining areas.

Construction took a long time and it was only completed in 1816, some 46 years after work began.

Together with the Aire and Calder Navigation, which it meets at Leeds, it offered a coast to coast route between the Irish Sea and the North Sea, though not a proper connection until the Stanley Dock branch in Liverpool opened in 1846.

The tunnel at Foulridge was opened in 1796.

A tale that has passed into local folklore tells of the cow that fell into the water and swam the whole length of Foulridge Tunnel before being pulled out at the other end and revived with brandy.

Locks on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal were for the most part built to a size of 62 feet by 14 feet (18.8m x 4.3m).

These broad locks turned out to play a key part in the long-term success of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

The local cargo craft were known as 'short boats', broad-gauge vessels capable of carrying around 45 tons.

The larger payload of the short boats - around twice that of a standard narrowboat - enabled the line to prosper for many years.

The canal’s most important cargo was coal closely followed by merchandise.

Thanks to the combination of local heavy industry and the decision to build the canal with broad locks, the Leeds and Liverpool was able to compete successfully with the railways throughout the 19th century.

It even remained open for much of the 20th century, with the last cargo of coal being carried along the Leigh Branch to Wigan Power Station in 1972.

The canal was so successful that the reservoirs built to supply the canal were never adequate, with water shortages in dry summers.

Despite this, the canal continued to carry large tonnages well into the 1950s.

The canal, like several major waterways across the country, formed part of Britain’s defense plans against foreign invasion.

Today, you can still see some remaining concrete pill boxes and blockhouses in west Lancashire.

In this area, even canalside buildings such as pubs and barns were fortified.

Traffic began to dwindle on the canal with the introduction of natural gas and subsequent closure of the canalside collieries.

In the 1950s and 1960s, waterway enthusiasts including members of the Mersey Motor Boat Club tried hard to keep the canal open and navigable using a wide variety of boats, including converted life boats.

The canal has continued to flourish in the 21st Century.

The Ribble Link, which opened in 2002, allows the canall to connect with the Lancaster Canal and opened up a number of cruising opportunities for boaters.

And following the £22 million creation of the Liverpool Canal Link, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal now extends right into the heart of Liverpool and its historic Royal Albert Dock.

Meanwhile, regarding the newly-awarded funding, Daniel Greenhalgh, Canal and River Trust North West Director, said: “The canals were built over 200 years ago and are a vital part of our industrial heritage: you can still use the locks, bridges, tunnels and aqueducts, across Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire, that were great feats of engineering in their time.

"The grant funding we are delighted to be receiving from the Culture Recovery Fund will enable us to carry out important repairs to sites of social and historical importance, much-loved by those who use them and the communities that live alongside.

“Today we recognise the wellbeing benefits of being on or by the water, with our waterways right on the doorstep of millions of people across England and Wales.

"The Canal and River Trust looks after them, promotes their benefits for the nation’s physical and mental health, and safeguards them for generations to come.

“This funding will be spent during our annual winter works programme, which is essential to ensure our canals and rivers can continue to provide a valuable resource to the public.

"As a charity, we are forecasting a reduction in income of around £20 million due to the pandemic and, while we have prioritised our spending to ensure we have a full programme, this funding will be valuable in helping us carry out all our planned works.

“The task of looking after our waterways in the North West remains a challenge: one we are committed to as we aim to keep them in good working order for the nation.

"We are delighted that the importance of our work has been recognised by the Government.”

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “As a nation it is essential that we preserve our heritage and celebrate and learn from our past. This massive support package will protect our shared heritage for future generations, save jobs and help us prepare for a cultural bounce back post Covid.”