Two hundred years of the Leeds and Liverpool canal
Celebrations are taking place this week to mark 200 years of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Jade Taylorson looks back at the origins on an engineering project which changed the face of the north of England forever
A canal equivalent of the M62 linking Lancashire with Yorkshire, was first mooted in the mid-18th century. This was to satisfy an important need for a transport facility to aid industrial growth on both sides of the Pennines. During earlier centuries, pack horses and horses and carts were the only means of carrying goods between the two areas.Yorkshire’s trade had been assisted in 1704 with the opening of the Aire and Calder Navigation to Leeds. But Yorkshire industrialists also required links in the west with Liverpool and ultimately passages to British colonies in the Americas through the city’s docks. In turn, the increasing growth of manufacturing and shipping at Liverpool required links with Lancashire’s growing industrial areas, particularly those mining coal.Colliery owner and Lord of Thornton and Horsforth manors John Stanhope set the Leeds and Liverpool canal scheme in motion during 1766. He engaged engineer John Longbottom to survey a possible route which was initially envisaged from Leeds to Preston but later changed to Liverpool in 1767.To coordinate developments and collect share subscriptions, east of the Pennines, a Yorkshire canal committee was formed in January 1768. A Lancashire committee was established in August of the same year. Initially, the two committees could not agree on a route. The Lancashire committee was opposed to the route Longbottom originally proposed, winding through the Ribble Valley. They argued that it ran too far to the north, missing key towns and the Wigan coalfield. Their proposal was rejected by the Yorkshire committee as being too expensive.Acclaimed canal engineer James Brindley arbitrated, and finally decided on the original Longbottom proposal, although with a number of amendments. It was also agreed that works should begin at both the Liverpool and Leeds ends simultaneously. Brindley was offered the post of chief engineer for the project at a salary of Â£400 per annum but eventually declined and John Longbottom took his place.The first Leeds and Liverpool Canal Act was passed on May 19 1770, authorising a line via Skipton, Gargrave, Colne, Whalley, Walton-le-Dale and Parbold. The first turf was dug at Halsall, north of Liverpool, on November 5 1770, by the Hon. Charles Mordaunt of Halsall Hall.All materials used for construction were transported by horse drawn wagons along the poor quality 18th century roads.Large teams of unskilled workers called navvies were used to dig out canals and do much of the manual labour. The work was done by hand with very basic tools such as shovels and sledge hammers. Health and Safety was not a necessity in the workplace as it is today and so the men would be left without safety gear to protect them from serious injuries. Few details of canal workers survive today, as the canal company was a private business with no need to retain records. The first section of the waterway to be opened was the Skipton to Bingley length on April 8 1773. As the year progressed, about 31 miles of the canal were finished in Lancashire and 23 in YorkshireWork on the aqueduct across the valley at Whalley Nab closely followed. Money for canal construction was limited and work on the aqueduct was soon postponed in 1777. By the early 1790s, work had finally restarted and it soon became evident that the canal must serve East Lancashire towns and other routes initially dismissed in the original plans. The region had become a much more important industrial area, and in 1794 the route was altered to serve the growing towns of Burnley and Blackburn. In 1796, the tunnel at Foulridge was opened. A tale has since passed into folklore that a cow fell into the canal and swam the full length of the Foulridge Tunnel before being pulled out at the other and revived with brandy. In total the Leeds and Liverpool Canal boasts 14 sets of staircase locks and 93 locks, enabling the waterway to climb more than 400ft up and down the Pennines.Eventually stretching 127 and a quarter miles, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was not completely opened, owing to lack of capital, until 1816. The final section to be completed along the southern part of the Lancaster Canal was between Wigan flight Top Lock, at Aspull, and Johnson’s Hillock, near Chorley.The total cost, including the construction of a branch to Tarleton, Lancashire, and the acquisition of the Douglas Navigation, amounted to Â£887,616. Besides providing a main transport link, it generated much development in many villages, towns and cities along the route. Throughout its existence the canal carried coal far in excess of anything else with more than 1m tons per year being delivered to Liverpool in the 1860s.The heavy industry along its route, together with the decision to build the canal with broad locks, ensured the canal competed successfully with the arrival of the railways throughout the 19th century.During the Second World War the stretch in West Lancashire was part of Britain’s defensive plans against invasion. Along the banks tank traps, bunkers and blockhouses were built while some existing buildings, such as barns and pubs, along the canal were fortified. There are still some remaining concrete pillboxes and brick built blockhouses.But as a trade link it had almost ceased to be used commercially when the 1968 Transport Act designated it as a pleasure cruising waterway.And the last regular commercial use for the canal ceased in the 1980s.On 25 March 2009 a project to reconnect the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to Liverpool’s South Dockwas completed. The extension allows leasiure boats to travel pass the world famous Three Graces on Liverpool’s waterfront and cruise into the Albert Dock.Two hundred years on, the canal is still cherished for its thriving wildlife, rural walks, noteworthy heritage and peaceful boating.