Leeds & Liverpool Canal

Leeds & Liverpool Canal History

In July a meeting was held in Skipton where a proposal was put forward to create a canal link across the Pennines from the Aire & Calder Navigation in Leeds to the west coast. This would make a complete through-route from the east coast at Hull to the Irish sea.Yorkshireman John Longbotham was asked to survey a route.

Longbotham's report suggested that the best route across the Pennines from Leeds was via Skipton and Barrowford to the River Ribble near Preston. As the crow flies this is a journey of less than 50 miles but as the canal boat sails it was to be a journey of 108 miles. Longbotham had done as he was asked and had avoided most of the major towns to provide the fastest and shortest route possible. This posed no problems on the Yorkshire side but it did not go down so well on western side of the Pennines. Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen have rarely seen eye to eye and this was no exception. The Lancashire men were never happy with Longbotham's route and arguments rumbled on for months.

It had been planned that the Lancashire section should run from Barrowford to the town of Whalley and then continue west into the Ribble Valley and follow the river's course into Preston where it would end with access to the river and thus to the coast.

The committee also planned a branch line north from Preston to the River Wyre. However, many unhappy Lancashire promoters pushed for different routes - the businessmen of Liverpool wanted the canal to run all the way to their city where there was already a successful coastal dock. Bit by bit more towns were added to the route, places like Nelson, Burnley & Blackburn whose tradesmen all wanted their silk and cotton industries to be served by the waterway.

Wigan too wanted a connection to the proposed canal to serve its many coal fields.

After much argument a meeting was held at the Sun Inn at Bradford.

A route was finally agreed upon which pleased the Yorkshire men but only partly satisfied their Lancashire counterparts.

After its "direct" route across the Pennines the canal would continue to the River Ribble near Preston as originally planned but at Parbold another canal section would be created to run to Liverpool. The two sections would be connected by use of the River Ribble and the River Douglas Navigation (which had been navigable since 1742).

The committee decided they would attempt to buy the Douglas Navigation to ensure full control of the whole route and also provide access into Wigan. While this now pleased the men of Preston, Wigan and Liverpool, it did nothing to pacify the men of Nelson, Burnley or Blackburn. Longbotham surveyed the route again and it was accepted on condition that a more experienced engineer also okayed the route. It was decided that, to stop any future arguments, two separate committees should be formed and each should look after its own interests on its own side of the Pennines.

James Brindley's assistant, Robert Whitworth, re-surveyed Longbotham's route. Whitworth approved the plan and at a meeting in Burnley during August James Brindley gave a report and estimated the cost to be around £260,000. The joint committees decided it was time to seek an Act of Parliament for what was then to be known as the Yorkshire & Lancashire Canal.

A group of disgruntled Lancashire businessmen, who were still very unhappy about the "short and direct" route, decided to survey a canal route of their own. John Eyes and Richard Melling were asked to survey an alternative line between Barrowford and Liverpool but their plan was not accepted. P.P. Burdett was then asked to see what he could come up with and his report pleased the promoters no end.

Burdett proposed a line from Barrowford to Nelson, Burnley, Blackburn, Chorley and Wigan. From there it would travel west on the north bank of the River Douglas Navigation, through Parbold to meet Longbotham's line at Burscough. The Yorkshire & Lancashire Canal committee felt it would be pointless having two canals competing with each other for the exact same trade. They got together with the opposing committee and it was decided that James Brindley should be asked - rather like King Solomon - to decide which route was best.

In October Brindley reported back to the committee telling them that Longbotham's original route was £66,000 cheaper than Burdett's. The committee stuck with Longbotham's route and the disgruntled Lancashire men instantly withdrew their support and - more importantly - their subscriptions. Why should they pay for something which would not benefit them in any way? Worse still, some of them had money in Liverpool Docks and declared they would not allow the new canal to connect with them.

The Act of Parliament for John Longbotham's route was granted and work began at both ends of what was now to be called the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. James Brindley had been offered the job as chief engineer though he had declined the offer. The inexperienced John Longbotham was given the job though it would seem that the company (probably mainly the Lancashire side) were never 100% keen on him?

The canal was to be built broad throughout though not to the standard broad dimensions which became common on most canals. The locks were designed to take the 60 feet long barges (or short boats) which already worked the Aire & Calder Navigation and this meant that the 70 feet narrow boats which became common in the south could not use the route.

Yet more unhappy traders began to make themselves heard. The men of Wigan, who had previously supported and helped to promote the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, now threatened to build a route of their own between their town and Liverpool. They felt the Leeds & Liverpool line from Parbold was far too long-winded and the River Douglas Navigation was equally non-direct and often difficult to use in dry months. Alexander Leigh, the owner of the River Douglas Navigation, was hoping to cash in on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

He had been upgrading his route from Wigan to Parbold since 1753 and now he was converting it in a number of places to broad canal dimensions. He got together with the brand new Leeds & Liverpool company and they made an agreement to become partners on the Douglas Navigation. The Leeds & Liverpool company continued Leigh's upgrades while also gaining vital water supplies from the River Douglas.

The disgruntled Wigan businessmen put forward a Bill which proposed a brand new direct canal link between Wigan and Liverpool. The Bill was defeated in Parliament by the Leeds & Liverpool Canal company who continued their improvements on the River Douglas Navigation.

Meanwhile, over in Yorkshire, other Leeds & Liverpool Canal promoters were making waves on the Aire & Calder Navigation. They threatened to by-pass the river completely and put forward a Bill to construct a completely new line. This would extend the Leeds & Liverpool Canal past Leeds and on to Selby where it would join the River Ouse giving direct links to York and the Humber.

This was because they felt their coast to coast through-route was threatened by stretches of the Aire & Calder Navigation at its eastern end which were very difficult to navigate.The Aire & Calder Navigation Company countered this and defeated the Bill. They then built their own canal to Selby from the River Aire at Haddlesey which opened in 1778.

The first section of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to be opened for business was on the Yorkshire side in the middle of the route. This ran from Skipton eastwards to Bingley. The section had no locks or major structures but it only provided a very localised trade at this stage. All the same, this first income was certainly welcomed by the company.

The first section on the Lancashire side to be completed was the 28 miles stretch from Liverpool to the Douglas Navigation at Parbold, west of Wigan. Later in the year a complete canal line from Parbold to Wigan was opened, replacing the Douglas Navigation. The opening was a scene of great celebrations with the firing of guns, playing of bands and ringing of bells. However, the new line was confusingly known as the Leigh Cut (named after the owner of the Douglas Navigation) and should not be confused with the Leigh Branch which was built many years later.

In Yorkshire, a new canal opened which connected with the Leeds & Liverpool Canal (which was still under construction) at Shipley. The Bradford Canal was just 3¼ miles long, running south to the northern edge of Bradford.

The Yorkshire side of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was fully opened. It ran for 30 miles from a junction in Leeds with the Aire & Calder Navigation to Gargrave, west of Skipton. The newly opened section included a massive climb up the hillside at Bingley where two huge staircase flights of locks had been built. Thirty thousand people turned up to celebrate the opening!

The next section of the main line on the Lancashire side was opened. This ran from Burscough into the tidal River Douglas via Rufford and Tarleton. This meant that the whole of the old River Douglas Navigation between Tarleton and Wigan had been completely superseded by canal.

Construction had come to a stop, money was short, mainly due to the War of Independence being fought in America. However, the parts of the route that were open were doing a good trade despite there being no through-route. Leeds was connected to Skipton and the Bradford Canal connected the route to Bradford while the Wigan coal trade was boosting profits on the Lancashire side via the Leigh Cut.

However, there was still a very large gap between Gargrave and Preston with no sign of construction being restarted, never mind completed, in the near future. The company probably could have afforded to continued the line by making it narrow but they stuck to their plans to create a wholly broad canal throughout - even though this meant waiting a long time until enough money could be raised to continue.

The company bought out Alexander Leigh's share in the Leigh Cut giving them complete control of the River Douglas and the line from Parbold to Wigan.

After a very long lay-off, construction began again but by now the small towns of east Lancashire had grown into large industrial areas. Once again, while the canal company was eager to complete the missing links on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, local businessmen wanted to connect their towns to the waterway. After much discussion the plan to go via Preston was dropped and a line was created heading south from where construction had halted in Barrowford, towards Wigan via Nelson, Burnley, Blackburn & Chorley.

The new route was much longer than the original one and there was a certain amount of risk in building the line through so many towns.Other more direct cross-Pennine routes (namely the Rochdale Canal and Huddersfield Narrow Canal) were being proposed by now but the company felt that any losses suffered from a longer route would be regained by passing through large trading areas. Ironically the change of plans meant that Burdett's route through Nelson, Burnley & Blackburn that had caused so much argument over 20 years earlier was now to be the route that the canal would take. The growing cotton trade from the towns of Lancashire were now more important than the original "fast" through-route, the original Lancashire promoters from over ¼ of a century earlier must have raised a broad smile!

Work recommenced from Gargrave with Robert Whitworth (a former assistant of James Brindley) now in charge. This was much to the dismay of John Longbotham who felt slighted when the company did not re-employ him after the long lay-off. However, this was probably because the Lancashire men held sway over the route which was coming to their towns and they'd clearly always disliked Longbotham for adamantly avoiding them all those years before.

When the traders of Preston heard that their town was no longer to be part of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal's route they were (not surprisingly) a little angry. Two decades they had waited, only to find they'd been waiting in vain. They joined support for a canal that the businessmen of Lancaster had been promoting which would link the Lake District, Lancaster and now Preston to Wigan.

From there they would connect with Manchester - an important link which the Leeds & Liverpool company had not yet even thought about. Moreover, the newly proposed Lancaster Canal would block the path of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal when it eventually reached the south side of Blackburn, the Lancaster promoters must have had a fair idea that they could cash in if the Leeds & Liverpool company wanted to reach Wigan from the north.

The Leeds & Liverpool company's worries over what to do about the Lancaster Canal when their paths met was partly helped when the Lancaster company started to have problems agreeing with the other canal's it had hoped to connect with. Both the Bridgewater and the Manchester, Bolton & Bury canals had not agreed to allow the Lancaster Canal to connect with them. Talks began between the Lancaster and Leeds & Liverpool companies though nothing was settled at this point.

The first section of the Lancaster Canal opened. Not too surprisingly this was a stretch from Bark Hill, near Wigan, heading north across part of the route already planned by the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

The only major tunnel on the Leeds & Liverpool route, the 1,640 yards long Foulridge Tunnel, was completed. An even bigger structure was under construction to the south in Burnley where an embankment across the town was being built 40 feet high and nearly one mile long.This was a big money eater, work was halted during construction of the embankment until more cash could be raised.

The Lancaster Canal was opened from Bark Hill towards Preston. The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was still miles from reaching this area and there was now no way through to Wigan for it without an agreement being settled allowing it to cross the Lancaster Canal's route at some point. Nothing was done at this stage as the Leeds & Liverpool Canal had a lot more barriers to cross before getting anywhere near Wigan.

After a number of years of little progress Burnley embankment and the whole section of canal to the north was opened, connecting with the already open Yorkshire side of the route. South of Burnley turnpike roads were used to transport goods to and from Blackburn while the canal was being completed to that town.

The Napoleonic Wars in Europe were crippling Britain's wealth and this brought financial troubles to the canal, construction was halted yet again.

Work recommenced (again), heading south from Burnley. However, it is thought that the company probably didn't care whether a through-route was completed or not by this stage. The Rochdale and Huddersfield canals were well under way and would provide much shorter cross-Pennine through-routes than the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, besides, the company were already doing very well out of local trade along their line so completion was not essential.

After 5 years the route reached Blackburn but south of the town the company had the problem of crossing the Lancaster Canal which ran across the Leeds & Liverpool Canal's proposed route. Numerous plans and negotiations were begun but nothing was agreed at this time.

The Lancaster Canal problem was solved when the Lancaster Canal company (at considerable cost to the Leeds & Liverpool company) agreed to allow the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to share the southern most part of its route. A junction would be created at the bottom of Johnson's Hillock, north of Chorley, and another junction would be made at Bark Hill where the Lancaster Canal ended.

At Bark Hill the Leeds & Liverpool Canal would have to connect the Lancaster Canal to its own canal in Wigan town centre. To do this it would have to create a flight of over 20 locks. This new plan left part of the original main line, from Burscough to Tarleton, as a branch line connecting the canal to the tidal River Douglas. The Leigh Cut would now form part of a new main line from the bottom of the Wigan flight to Burscough.

Finally, on October 19th the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was fully opened - 50 years after the first meeting had been held in Skipton. It had not only taken longer than expected but also cost many times the amount originally raised. It had also grown considerably in length, to over 127 miles.

There was still one strange omission in the canal route however, for some strange reason nobody had bothered to build a link into the Mersey at Liverpool. The canal ended in the centre of the city just ¼ of a mile from the river. An arm with locks would be needed to lower the canal down to the river but at this time it was decided that trans-shipment up and down between the two waterways was acceptable.

Now that Leeds, Bradford, Wigan and Liverpool had been reached, a new line was begun to connect the canal to another major industrial area of the north - Manchester. The easiest way to do this was to connect a branch from Wigan to the western end of the Bridgewater Canal at Leigh. The route was accepted and work began.

Meanwhile, the canal's Superintendent, Joseph Priestley, died after working for the company since construction had first begun. He was buried with honour and in Bradford Cathedral there is a memorial bearing canal images which is dedicated to him. In 1831 another Joseph Priestley (possibly his son) published the best contemporary account of canals and navigations in Britain. (Neither should be confused with Joseph Priestley the preacher and politician who discovered Oxygen and died in 1804).

The Leigh Branch opened allowing a through-route from Manchester to Liverpool without the River Mersey having to be used - an idea that was first put forward some 60 years earlier by the Duke of Bridgewater. It also, of course, connected the towns of Burnley, Blackburn and Wigan to what was fast becoming the "capital of the north".

The Leigh Branch also created access to the rest of the canal network - the Peak District, the Potteries, the Midlands and North Wales could now be accessed if desired without having to travel on any rivers. However, there was a problem; the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, although broad, was still only capable of taking short boats of 60 feet or less. Normal narrow boats wishing to access Liverpool from the rest of the network were unable to do so.

The Leeds & Liverpool company lengthened all the locks between Leigh and Liverpool but left the route across the Pennines as it was. They felt it would be far too expensive to convert the whole trans-Pennine route when most traffic was very localised. However, we shall never know if this would have changed because by leaving the locks at 60 feet it meant the Pennine route was stuck with just local traffic whether it liked it or not.

Although the cost of building the whole route was many times that of Brindley's original estimate, it is important to note that the canal was an instant success once fully opened - in fact it had been for many years before it was fully opened - and its income was also many times the amount that Brindley had predicted.

While things were going from strength to strength for the Leeds & Liverpool company, there was disturbing news on the horizon. There was talk of a railway being built from Manchester to Liverpool, one of the first in the world. Several Bills were put through Parliament but each was successfully opposed by the canals and river navigations in the area. However, a different railway, from Bolton to Leigh, was authorised.

A partial collapse at Foulridge Tunnel caused the canal's through-route to be closed. It took 18 months to repair the damage.Other non-enforced improvements were also made during the 1820's. These included widening and deepening stretches of the route.

The Bolton & Leigh Railway opened causing the Leeds & Liverpool Canal no end of worry. The company were ready to lower tolls to compete but this turned out to be unnecessary when it became obvious that this very early railway was struggling to get going.

After many attempts, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway finally got its authorisation.

Next came the Liverpool & Leeds Railway which sought an Act of Parliament which would have seen it running right alongside the canal through the important Wigan coal fields. The railway's first attempt to gain authorisation was defeated.

The canal agreed toll terms with the Bolton & Leigh Railway in order to save the railway from bankruptcy - a charitable move considering how many canals were put out of business by successful railway companies.

During the 1830's the company constructed a number of reservoirs. Initially all water had been supplied by streams and rivers but the short summit level and the 91 huge locks were simply too thirsty. Eventually the company owned 7 reservoirs but even then it was not enough to cater for long dry summers.

The Manchester & Leeds Railway successfully gained the right to construct a track which would be in direct competition with the canal. Worse still, the Act also allowed the railway to extend its line to Liverpool.

At first the railways failed to make any inroads into the canals trade because most of the industries that the canal served were right on the canal's banks - the railway simply couldn't get near enough. Bit by bit new industries were built along the railway routes and some canal side businesses also moved nearer to the tracks but this was a relatively slow transformation.

Throughout this period the canal continued to grow, the industrial revolution was still bringing more and more industry to the towns and even when the railways were thriving there was still more than enough left over for the canal to annually exceed its previous income.

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal company began talks with a view to taking over the Lancaster Canal's part of the route between Johnson's Hillock and Bark Hill, near Wigan. The Lancaster company had no real use for this portion of their canal and were eager to sell it off. However, no agreement was made at this stage.

Over the years many improvements had been made at the western terminus of the canal and now a link into the River Mersey was finally begun. It was to be less than ½ a mile long as the canal terminus was already very close to the river. Four locks were to take the Leeds & Liverpool Canal down into the newly built Stanley Dock.

The 91 massive locks which carried the canal across the Pennines were causing immense water supply problems despite the building of several reservoirs during the previous decade. The cross-Pennine route was often completely dry in summer and could be closed for months on end.

Expensive pumps were installed by the company but even this did little to help the problem. Through-traffic became very rare in summer with most trade being localised on either side of the Pennines. There was often no through-traffic in winter either, with freezing weatherpreventing passage across the hills.

After approximately 80 years the company finally paid off all outstanding debts. This was the company's peak year though the railways were beginning to take more and more trade on the Lancashire side. The canal company began its own carrying company in an effort to boost profits and compete with the railways.

The short arm from the Liverpool terminus into Stanley Dock was opened. Meanwhile, income went down for the first time. This was due to the lowering of tolls rather than a loss in tonnage. In fact, tonnage was equal to previous years but the bigger and bigger threat of the railways meant tolls had to keep coming down. However, even the railways were not exactly thriving because they too had to cut tolls in the battle to compete against each other. Because of this a number of companies met to discuss their financial futures. It became a lengthy debate which took 2 years to settle.

A deal was finalised with the Lancaster Canal allowing the Leeds & Liverpool company to take control of the Wigan section of their route on a lease of £4,335 per year for 21 years. The Leeds & Liverpool company also took on the Walton Summit Branch, a former part of the Lancaster Canal main line, which connected Johnson's Hillock to a tramway which ran into Preston - though the northern half of the tramway, Walton Summit to Bamber Bridge, had already fallen into decline.

In a year of "friendship" and "co-operation" a deal was finally struck between the numerous Lancashire railways and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. It was agreed that the railways would lease all the canal's merchandise cargoes (things like foodstuffs, flax and cast iron) for £41,000 a year until 1874. They also bought out the canal's short lived carrying company for £13,800. The company must have been laughing themselves silly when the deal was finalised.

If the agreement hadn't been settled they'd have probably lost the merchandise cargoes anyway within a few years. Now they would make money without having any outlay. Moreover, they had been paid to get rid of the carrying business which they had never wanted to run in the first place. All in all, a very satisfying year. Over the next decade and a half the canal continued to see good profits despite the loss of its merchandise cargoes. Its coal carrying however was positively booming and things were going from strength to strength.

Due to water supply problems and the general horrid state of the Bradford Canal (which joined the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Shipley) its owners closed the top ¼ of a mile in Bradford and offered the remaining 3 miles on lease to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The Leeds & Liverpool company weren't the slightest bit interested in running Britain's dirtiest waterway and flatly refused the offer. They knew they could not afford to provide an adequate water supply and weren't prepared to build the new wharves and basins which the Bradford Canal desperately needed to keep business growing.

The Bradford Canal company closed the whole of their waterway and drained it. As well as being a great loss to local industries in Bradford, it was also a loss of income to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. However, the canal was enjoying unknown prosperity elsewhere on the route, carrying coal and being paid by the railways NOT to carry merchandise. They used the money well by improving the route and installing steam tugs which could pull many times the amount that a single towpath horse could manage.

Talks were held between the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, the Aire & Calder Navigation and businessmen from Bradford with a view to re-opening the Bradford Canal. Although the Leeds & Liverpool Canal did not officially agree to do anything to help, it is almost certain that they worked behind the scenes to help re-open the beleaguered route.After all, a successful Bradford Canal meant more income for the Leeds & Liverpool Canal whose junction at Shipley was the Bradford Canal's only outlet.

The Bradford Canal re-opened and quickly brought renewed traffic to its waters and to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

The railway merchandise lease came to an end in August after 24 years. This was not a great loss to the canal as it had done very well during the lease years and was now in such a good financial position that it could compete with the railways. This was helped by the railway system itself which was steadily becoming very inefficient. The canal company immediately started up its own merchandise carrying company once again and took advantage of the railway's poor efficiency.

The people who had restored the Bradford Canal had clearly never intended to run it for long. As soon as it was up and running they sold out to a joint committee of Aire & Calder Navigation and Leeds & Liverpool Canal owners. The Bradford Canal continued to be a success until WW1.

The Leeds & Liverpool Company (always keen to improve) started running a steam powered cargo fly boat service which could pull 3 unpowered boats at once. Running on a very efficient timetable, similar to passenger services, the fly boats attracted much of the merchandise cargoes which the canal had previously given up to the railways. It was said that the canal's warehouses were better than the railway's and short journeys were much faster, as well as more reliable.

The Government created the Railway and Canal Act which was designed to ensure that both charged equal tolls. In many cases across the country this helped canals who were struggling to compete against good railway services but it hit the Leeds & Liverpool Canal badly as they were actually in a better state than the railways. The Act forced them to cut their tolls by nearly half.

A dramatic decline in income hit the canal and it saw its dividends drop from £15 to just £4 in one year. The Government Act of 1888 was partly to blame but so was the canal company itself who obtained an Act of its own authorising it to raise money for improvements. They wanted to upgrade the canal to carry much larger boats and the Act also allowed them to restructure the company and its finances. However, events over the next few years caused the company to wish they'd never sought the Act at all.

A very bad winter caused the canal to be closed for two months, before the company had recovered it was hit by a long dry summer with another one following the year after. Plans to improve the canal were scaled down dramatically though trade remained constant - when the canal was open.

The canal sold its old terminus basin in Liverpool to the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway for £185,000. As usual the money they earned was well spent. The company made improvements to their newer terminus at Stanley Dock.

The steady fall of dividends paid to shareholders continued until the turn of the century when there was finally no pay out at all.

During WW1 the government took control of the canal.Although the government paid the company compensation it was not enough to allow the company to maintain its income. The already low usage of the route due to the war was now virtually wiped out all together under government control. Even when the war ended the government kept control of the waterway, only handing it back to the company in 1920. By that time trade was hopelessly lost forever and the canal's own carrying company was flat broke.

The company gave up its carrying service because it was unable to find the money to employ boat crews. Profits were so low that wages had been severely cut and nobody wanted to do the job. All the carrying vessels were sold.

The Bradford Canal (which was partly owned by the Leeds & Liverpool company) was completely shut down after many years of very low usage. Over the next two decades the Leeds & Liverpool Canal slowly declined and numerous warehouses, boat yards, basins and wharves were closed down and sold off.

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was nationalised along with most of the country's waterways. Unlike most others however, it was deemed to be worthy of retention as commercial traffic was still using the route, albeit at a lower and lower amount every year. By now the canal was declining rapidly, some bridges and locks were in a serious state of decay and the whole route was suffering from lack of proper maintenance.

However, its new governors, the British Transport Commission, did make moves to keep the canal in business. They took over the running the carrying companies on the canal and even made innovative changes such as the building of new barges made of high-tensile steel which was lighter, stronger and allowed carrying capacity to be increased. Warehouses were also extended to take more cargo in Liverpool but while these helped the government to run a business, it did next to nothing to increase canal traffic.

After the harshest winter on record, with the canal frozen and unusable for months, the small amount of carriers who had stuck with the canal finally gave up.The canal's governors, now theBritish Waterways Board, also gave up when Parliament decided that small canals and barges were no longer economical - large craft and large waterways were the only way to go. They sold off their fleet of barges on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal leaving what little trade there was to small independent carriers, most of these being at the eastern end near the Aire & Calder Navigation.

The government's Transport Act demoted the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to a cruising waterway. This meant it was no longer thought worthy of maintaining to commercial standards but should be kept open for pleasure use. However, at this stage there were still a small number commercial carriers using the route. These were now mostly on the Lancashire side where they carried coal to power stations.

The last recorded commercial delivery was a cargo of coal from Plank Lane Colliery on the Leigh Branch to Wigan power station.

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal is one of only a few never to have been closed down. Unlike its trans-Pennine rivals, the Rochdale and Huddersfield canals, it stayed in use, was never bought by a railway and was ready and willing to take the pleasure boat onslaught of the late twentieth century. At the time of writing, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal provides the only cross-country canal through-route north of the Midlands.

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Leeds & Liverpool Canal Route

Having never closed, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal is fully described in all canal guides. However, it is worth mentioning some of the route's most interesting features...

The area around the junction with the Aire & Calder Navigation in Leeds has been redeveloped in recent years. Rather than being the back end of beyond the junction area is now open to the public. There are two locks and a former canal office near the junction. There is also a wharf and the strange new shopping area within the "Dark Arches". Access can be gained via Victoria Bridge.

Heading west towards Bingley the canal continuously climbs through dozens of locks. Some of these are single or in flights but there are also staircases of two and three. Among the nicer areas are Kirkstall, Newlay, Rodley, Apperley Bridge and Dowley Gap. At Shipley the canal passes the former entrance of the Bradford Canal.

To the west of here is Saltaire, a village constructed by Sir Titus Salt, a local businessman who so deplored the working standards in nearby Bradford that he created mills and houses which were almost luxurious in comparison. His huge mills still line the canal and his terraced cottages, shops, institute and school are nearby, all built in the same light and ornamental Renaissance style. He also built a park on the banks of the River Aire and an Italianate church though the one thing he would not provide for his workers was a pub! Saltaire is now an excellent place to visit. It looks like a typical open air (or open Aire!) museum though its houses and businesses are still in use today.

On the canal there are trip boats, by the river there is a park over looking a weir with the large mills alongside. Nearby there is the historic Glen Railway, a tram line which carries passengers up a wooded hillside to a small fun fair. Access to Saltaire can be gained via Victoria Road off the A657 just west of Shipley.

At Bingley there is a 3-rise staircase near the town centre just past a brand new section of canal built to allow room for a new road bypass. The road now stands on what was originally the canal bed. The 3-rise lifts the canal by nearly 30 feet but just 200 yards further on is the mighty Five Rise - noted as one of the "Wonders Of The Waterways", this huge staircase lifts the canal another 60 feet. Access by car should be gained via Beck Lane on the north side of the canal and not via Canal Road on the south.

At the top of the flight is a newly opened canal shop, a swing bridge and a house which is not quite what it seems. It was once a canal building of a different sort in a completely different location. Its stone was re-used to build the house at Bingley and for many years the letters which had once said "Leeds & Liverpool Canal Company" could be seen on the side of the house. However, these had not been put back in their original order and the letters appeared at odd places all around the house! Barry, the long-serving lock keeping, told me the letters were removed during sand blasting a few years ago.

Past Bingley the canal overlooks the Aire valley and villages become fewer while heavy swing bridges begin to arrive with great regularity.At Skipton the route travels right through the centre of town. At the wharf a small branch heads north and curls around the walls of the castle. This is the Springs Branch which continues just past the castle to the site of a former quarry. Skipton was one of the most important places on the canal, the original company had its carrying fleet here and the British Waterways Board also had a boat yard here.

West of Skipton the canal travels through the village of Gargrave and then up through the Bank Newton locks which are one of my favourite locations on any canal. Six locks within a mile as the route twists around in search of the easiest way up the hills away from the River Aire.

Over the next few miles the canal twists and turns literally in every direction as it fights to stay on one level. At East Marston the Pennine Way shares the towpath for a while and the canal passes under a curiously built arched bridge which has a second arch on top of a lower one, almost as if the builders mistakenly built the bridge but then forgot they had done so, so they built another one on top!!

At Greenberfield, now on the Lancashire side and high up in the Pennines, are the 3 locks that take the canal up to its inadequately short summit level which, although being 6 miles long, gets no where near to storing enough water to feed the 91 locks on either side. Water shortage was even worse in the early days of the canal as the locks at Greenberfield used to be in a staircase similar to those further down the route. The site of the staircase has long since been filled in but the line of the original canal can still be seen beside the current Greenberfield Locks. The climb down the western side takes the canal through ever increasingly urban and industrial towns such as Barnoldswick, Nelson, Burnley and Blackburn.

Between the towns there is still plenty of greenery and the Pennines are always close by to the east. There are tunnels at Foulridge and Burnley, the former being the location of a famous story about a cow that fell through a hole near the southern end of the tunnel but swam the whole mile to the northern portal where it was dragged out and given a drink. Some reports say it was given whisky, others say brandy and one even says it was a "pint of best".Whichever it was, the story is told in words and pictures at the pub close to the wharf in Foulridge near the B6251 just off the A56. Before the tunnel at Burnley, the canal travels on the opposite extreme - a tall embankment known as the Burnley mile.

It was built high above the town, looking down on the rows of terraced houses from above their roof tops on one side and onto the town centre on the other side. The canal snakes through Burnley and passes a number of regenerated buildings and warehouses as well as some derelict ones. One warehouse (beside Manchester Road) is now a museum known as the "Weaver's Triangle". It has a covered loading bay on the canal with an old canal crane on the wharf.

Blackburn has a similar covered wharf and has similar views looking down on the town. It also has an embankment though slightly shorter than that at Burnley. Just as Burnley embankment overlooks the town's football ground, Turf Moor, Blackburn embankment overlooks the slightly more splendid Ewood Park. Blackburn also has its derelict warehouses though many more have been removed. New housing lines the canal as it approaches the 6 Ewood Locks. Today these are close to houses, a college and a major road but when they were built they were as remote as many of the other Pennine lock flights.

South of Blackburn is Johnson's Hillock, a pretty flight of locks dropping down the steep hillside to reach the junction of the former Lancaster Canal main line. From here the canal continues south westerly to Wigan and reaches the top of Wigan flight via a T-junction. The Lancaster Canal was supposed to go straight on but it never did. The Leeds & Liverpool Canal turns west and heads down through more than 20 locks into the centre of Wigan.

The walk down the Wigan Flight affords excellent views of Wigan and beyond. From the top of a former slag heap one can get excellent views of the lock flight as well as much longer views of Merseyside as far as Fiddlers Ferry on the banks of the St. Helens Canal.

At the bottom of the flight the canal passes what is probably the most famous canal wharf in the world - Wigan Pier. The towpath down the lock flight is in keeping with the seaside theme - its called "the Promenade"! It was recently re-paved - much to the disgust of some local canal enthusiasts.

The building now known as Wigan Pier is another warehouse with a covered wharf, the building is now a museum and exhibition centre. However, the real Wigan Pier was actually opposite this building, of course it wasn't a pier at all, just an ordinary coal staithe. West of Wigan the Leeds & Liverpool Canal travels back out into the country and passes only a few villages. The best of these is Parbold with its numerous pubs and pretty sail-less windmill right on the canal bank.

At Burscough is another pretty settlement on the junction with the Rufford Branch which was once intended to be the main line. It drops down through ½ a dozen locks to the River Douglas.

The main line begins to loop around as it heads generally south west to Liverpool. The last pretty places on the route are Lydiate and Maghull and the last major feature is probably the most famous of them all - Aintree Racecourse, where the "Canal Turn" is only yards from the canal bank but sadly hidden behind a tall fence making it impossible to see the races from the towpath. In years gone by boat crews were able to watch the "Grand National" by standing on the roof of their boat. The route ends in the centre of Liverpool with a short arm dropping the canal down into Stanley Dock on the River Mersey. The journey into Liverpool was said to be dull and probably best to be avoided until very recently. In the last couple years much of this section has been redeveloped in the hope of encouraging boats and walkers to the much ignored western terminus.

There is a new web site presently being tried out by the L&LCS. It is aimed at encouraging support for this important east-west link and telling more people about events that are linked with the canal. Content is limited at present - being a trial - but if the site proves to be of interest or value then there is scope for it to be developed much further. 

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