Shropshire Union Canal

Shropshire Union Canal History

The Shropshire Union Canal is not one single waterway but an amalgamation of half a dozen separate companies. The Roots of the constituent canals prior to amalgamation in 1846 are on the following pages:

(The holiday route that is called the Shropshire Union Canal today is in fact the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, the Chester Canal and the Wirral line of the Ellesmere Canal).

The Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Company was created at a time when railway mania was beginning to take over from the canal age. The company probably added the word "railway" to their name to attract extra business and interest from real railway companies. In fact, The London and North Western Railway soon became a major shareholder in the company and were quite happy to allow the canal to continue in business because it went right into GWR territory, something L&NWR would not have been able to do themselves. When eventually the railway company took over for real they found that the Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Act of Parliament wasn't transferable and they couldn't build tracks on the canal routes! Many years of legal wrangles ensued but none of the Shropshire Union network was ever used by trains.

While the actual canals were now run by L&NWR, the Shropshire Union Canal Company still existed and concentrated on freight haulage. Because they had good relations with their railway owners they continued to expand when most other canal companies and carriers were running into financial problems due to rivalry with railways.

The SUCCC (Shropshire Union Canal Carrying Company!) owned 213 narrow boats and this number was growing all the time.

Not all parts of the Shropshire Union Canal network were prospering however and L&NWR made numerous attempts to close down the Weston Branch of the Ellesmere Canal (which saw very little use after this period).

They also tried unsuccessfully to close both the Western Branch and Eastern Branch of the Montgomeryshire Canal.

SUCCC now owned 395 boats and was still expanding many years after a lot of other canal companies had closed down. Meanwhile, the L&NWR tried an experiment to see if locomotion could be put to use on the waterways. The Middlewich arm was used for a bizarre experiment in which boats were pulled by steam tractors! Needless to say, the idea did not succeed.

The Manchester Ship Canal opened and at Ellesmere Port it crossed the Shropshire Union's path where the latter entered the River Mersey. L&NWR quickly saw the potential for greater profits and built new quays and warehouses to accommodate the extra trade which came from the new ship canal.

Once again the railway company threatened to close a number of the Shropshire Union canals due to low profitability, but a profit is a profit and no canals were closed. At this point SUCCC was running 450 boats!

From the start of WW1 things began to go downhill fast, all canal routes were suffering and SUCCC never recovered from the losses made during the war.

The Weston Branch of the Ellesmere Canal suffered a breach just ¾ of a mile into the route. It was never repaired and the line was left disused.

The Shropshire Union Canal gave up its carrying company and sold its massive fleet to private operators. Locks were now only opened Monday to Friday and general standards of maintenance began to slip.

The Humber Arm of the Newport Branch became disused when its wharf at Lubstree was closed by its owner, the Duke of Sutherland. Later in the same year, the Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Company, run by London & North Western Railways, was swallowed up as part of the huge London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company. Where as the L&NWR may have kept the canals going, LMS were certainly only interested in letting them run into dereliction. Immediately they closed down numerous canal properties including Shrewsbury basin.

A breach occurred on the Montgomeryshire line just 1 mile into the route (south of Frankton Junction). LMS started to repair the damage but then decided not to do so. There was no other way out of the Montgomeryshire Canal into the main system so the canal soon fell into disuse.

At the start of WW2 traffic ceased on the Newport Branch between Newport and its junction with the Shrewsbury Canal at Wappenshall. After the war, this section was never re-used which meant there was no access between the East Shropshire Network and the main line.

During the war LMS sought permission to close 175 miles of the waterways under its control. Only the main line was kept open, this includes the original Birmingham and Liverpool Junction, the old Chester main line and the Wirral line from Chester to the Mersey. The link to Middlewich was also kept open. The part of the Ellesmere canal from Hurleston to Llantisilio was never abandoned because it was an important water feeder from Horseshoe falls. Because of this, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct survived.

The group which became the Shropshire Union Canal Society (SUCS) was formed. The first aim was to restore the Shrewsbury Canal and Newport Branch. At this stage there was little to stop the canal from being re-opened. The only major blockage being the A442 close to Longdon-on-Tern. However, the government and local councils were determined not to allow the canal to re-open and SUCS turned their attentions on more important matters - such as saving the Montgomeryshire Canal from threatened road widening schemes. (See The Montgomeryshire Canal for full details).

While the SUCS had their backs turned, the Newport Branch was systematically destroyed to such an extent that re-opening was made impossible. Meanwhile a fire destroyed a number of Telford's warehouses at Ellesmere Port on the Wirral Line. Some people wondered if this was also done deliberately. The site of the warehouses is now a very popular canal boat museum.

Today the Shropshire Union Canal from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port is a very important part of the pleasure boat network. The Hurleston to Llantisilio line of the Ellesmere Canal (now known as the Llangollen Canal) is the most popular canal in Britain. The Middlewich Branch is also still open and used by holiday makers. The first 4 miles of the Montgomeryshire Canal has been restored and re-opened in the past couple of years. Restoration on the rest of the Montgomeryshire is well under way.

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Shropshire Union Canal Routes

This page deals with the route of the current day Shropshire Union Canal. This comprises the former Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, the Chester Canal, the Wirral Line of the Ellesmere Canal and the Middlewich Branch.

The other canals which were formerly part of the Shropshire Union Canal system are covered elsewhere. Because this creates something of a muddle, I have created the table below to make finding various SUC canals a little easier(?)...



The Shropshire Union Canal
Autherley to Nantwich

Birmingham & Liverpool Junction


Nantwich to Chester



Chester to Ellesmere Port

Ellesmere, Wirral Line


Middlewich Branch



Newport Branch Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Unnavigable
Llangollen & Montgomery Canals    
Llangollen (Hurleston to Llantisilio) Ellesmere Navigable
Montgomery (Frankton to Llanymynech) Ellesmere, Carreghofa Branch Partially Navigable
Montgomery (Llanymynech to Newtown) Montgomeryshire Partially Restored
Weston Branch Ellesmere Unnavigable
Shropshire Tub Boat Canals
Shrewsbury Canal Shrewsbury Unnavigable
Shropshire Canal Private Unnavigable
Ketley Canal Private Unnavigable
Donnington Wood Canal Lord Gower Unnavigable
Wombridge Canal Private Unnavigable

The Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal Route

The Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal begins its broad course at Autherley Junction, north of Wolverhampton, where it leaves the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal (through which it linked into the Birmingham Canal Navigations).

Travelling north west the canal passes Brewood (pronounced "brood" or "brewed") where there is a boat yard and linear marina. Brewood is also well known for its strange story regarding "Window Tax". At one point in the past the government of the day easily out-did Mrs. Thatcher's Poll Tax by charging people according to how many windows they had! Apparently, Brewood's answer to this was to build houses with no windows at all. To keep things looking right they then painted false windows complete with curtains and flower boxes on the front of each house.

North of Brewood the B&LJ crosses the Roman Watling Street (now the A5) on a short but highly acclaimed Aqueduct near Stretton. Just past here, Thomas Telford was forced to deviate from his intended straight line when a prominent land owner refused to allow the canal through his estate. A curve was needed and a rare lock was built.

Between Gnosall (pronounced "noze-el") and Norbury there was a flat valley of differing levels, all below that of the canal. The mighty Shelmore Embankment was started though this gave Telford more headaches than virtually anything he'd ever built before. Many times it slipped while being built and even after it was finished a slide occurred and a number of years passed before it was fully rebuilt. By then the great engineer had died of old age.

Just a few hundred yards north of Shelmore, near Norbury, a basin was created. On the west side of the basin is a humped bridge which crosses an arm that is now just a few hundred yards long. This arm heads straight into a dead end and is now used for moorings but in 1835 it was the first few hundred yards of the Newport Branch which headed south west towards the Shrewsbury Canal and the East Shropshire (tub-boat) Network (See the table at the top of this page for links to these waterways). The settlement around Norbury Junction became very busy and today it is a popular spot with a canal shop, cafe, pub, hire boat base and B.W. boat yard.

A few miles north of Norbury the B&LJ comes near a village named Woodseaves though confusingly this is not the Woodseaves of Woodseaves Cutting which comes further north. The cutting near here is called Grub Street and it cuts deeply through high rocks making a totally artificial canyon that today looks so natural with dense, jungle-like cliff sides that it is hard to believe it was man made. The road bridges here are high and slim and according to one canal book were known as "Rocket Bridges" to working boatmen. However, how a man in the mid 1800's knew what a rocket looked like is something of a mystery to me. One of these "Rocket Bridges" now has a double arch and strangely, on top of the lower arch, there is the top half of a telegraph pole!

Telford used the earth which was removed from the 2 mile cutting at Grub Street to build the 2 mile long Shelmore Embankment. The same was done just to the north where Shebdon Bank was built with earth & rock from Woodseaves Cutting. Just north of the tiny settlement of Woodseaves (on the A529) is the Four Alls pub. A lane directly opposite leads east to the canal cutting and to the Tyrley Flight, the first locks for nearly 20 miles. The flight must be one of the most picturesque in Britain as it was built in the deep cutting which is now overhung by colourful trees and other plant life. Here, the navvies who built the canal had to blast through solid rock. Gun powder marks can still be traced on the rock face.

North of Tyrely is the pleasant town of Market Drayton followed by the 5 Adderley locks (accessed down a minor road off the A529 at Adderley) and then comes the 15 Audlem locks bunched closely together over a 2 mile spread. This was typical of Telford, he built long straight stretches of canal on one level, followed by a cluster of locks close together over as short a distance as possible, rather than the working boatman's nightmare of lock after lock over many miles with only a hundred yards between each lock. The "nightmare" style of lock flight was common on Brindley canals where distances between locks were often too short for the boatman to have a rest on board between locks but too long for him to walk them all in one go. (A good example of this is "Heartbreak Hill", the Weelock to Red Bull flight on Brindley's Trent & Mersey Canal). Telford was eager to avoid this kind of problem wherever possible.

The long Audlum flight is a pretty one and the village itself is well worth a visit - not least for its endowment of pubs. In the village the canal passes right alongside the Shroppie Fly where guzzling gongoozlers sit outside at tables watching boats pass through the adjacent lock. The pub was once a warehouse and its old crane still stands outside. Nearby is a gift shop which was formerly a mill.

From Audlem it is just 5 more miles to Nantwich but on arriving at the town Telford was again frustrated by land owners who forced him to build an embankment to by-pass their land. Near the end of the embankment the canal crosses the A534 on a fine cast iron aqueduct and then makes a junction with the former Chester Canal alongside Nantwich Basin. The basin is now home to a number of hire base companies. There are numerous historic canal buildings, all of which are still used as part of boat yards, dry docks, a shop and a cafe.

Chester Canal Route

Unlike the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, the Chester Canal is a broad waterway. It begins at Nantwich Basin, high up on an embankment above the level of the town. Leaving the basin (now a busy boatyard and hire base) the route passes by a white humped accommodation bridge and arrives at a Y-shaped junction. Hard round to the south is the B&LJ while straight on is the route to Chester.

Hurleston Junction is reached within just a couple of miles, to the west the Llangollen Canal heads off on its winding route to Wales via Whitchurch, Ellesmere & Llangollen. Hurleston Locks can be seen just a few yards up from the junction.

The Chester Canal continues north from Hurleston, reaching another junction within another 2 miles. At Barbridge the Middlewich Arm heads north east towards the Trent & Mersey Canal. Barbridge Junction is sandwiched between 2 roads. The noisy one on the west side is the "new" A51 while the quiet one which crosses the Middlewich Arm is the original main road. Just before the junction are some nice moorings beside the Jolly Tar pub and immediately before the junction is a short narrow stretch where a building once straddled the canal.

North west of Barbridge there are a number of features to look out for on the canal. At Bunbury Wharf a number of old stables still stand alongside a staircase of locks. An old building, now a boat yard office, still has its "Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Co." legend painted on one of the outside walls.

At Tilstone Lock there is a pretty group of houses and an old mill. On the lockside is a lock keepers "lobby" - a tiny round building of kiosk proportions which the lock keeper used as a shelter, resting place and office.

Further north west is Beeston iron lock which was constructed by Telford during modernization which took place at the time of the building of the Middlewich Arm. The idea of iron locks did not take off and maybe it is just as well because the lock (which is still in use) has warped quite a bit while much older stone locks are still in perfect condition.

Another feature of the Chester Canal comes into view shortly after Beeston lock and can be seen over to the west. Standing very high up on a rocky outcrop is the ruined Beeston Castle. This can be seen best from the slightly isolated Wharton Lock. Access to the castle can be gained from the bridge at the delightful little settlement at Bate's Mill but BE WARNED - although the edge of Beeston Castle cliff is only 1200 yards away it is a further walk of about a mile to reach the castle entrance. Even after entering the grounds there is a VERY steep climb up a grassy path stretching about half a mile. The castle is run by English Heritage who were constructing steps when I was here in June 1998, even these will put you in collapse mode if you are not fit! At the top is a wonderful view of Cheshire - including a good deal of the Chester Canal.

Further on, now curving north west, the canal runs through some pretty areas, I especially like the area at Egg Mill Bridge in Waverton (the mill is now re-developed as housing) and Christleton where the drop down to Chester begins. Five locks spread over 2 miles take the route west into the heart of the city. Egg Mill can be reached on the minor road running north east off the A41 in Waverton while the A41 runs right alongside the canal in Christleton (look out for the Old Trooper pub which backs onto the towpath). The canal runs west through Chester, along the base of a cliff on which stands the ancient city wall. In fact, the canal closely resembles a moat. At the north western corner of the wall are the set of 3 broad Northgate Locks. These were built in a staircase cut from the natural solid rock. Overhead roads and railways cross over while at the bottom of the locks is a 90 degree bend to the north. After passing under a bridge the canal opens wide with a grassy bank on one side and a Telford warehouse on the other. In summer lots of people will be milling around and there are always lots of boats moored.

This large basin is known as Tower Wharf. The Wirral Line of the Ellesmere Canal leaves to the north while the River Dee can be accessed via an older arm which doubles back on the main line, dropping through 2 locks. This link to the river is seldom used by boats and needs special permission from BW (and the correct tides) before passage can be attempted. The scene at the Wharf is one to enjoy with locks, a boat yard and a historic dry dock all to be seen. Horse drawn trip boats run during school holidays.

Ellesmere Canal - Wirral Line

The Wirral Line begins at Tower Wharf in Chester where it leaves the Chester Canal. To be honest the route north is not greatly inspiring and its best bits are at either end with the historic city of Chester in the south and Ellesmere Port in the North. In between there is little to see though the route does cross open countryside.

The canal originally ended at a junction into the River Mersey at the tiny village of Netherpool. The village soon became the busy town of Ellesmere Port and later the canal was joined here by the Manchester Ship Canal. Ellesmere Port (the actual port) now houses a major waterways museum on the site of the original Telford canal warehouses. A visit to the museum is an absolute MUST. It has a mixture of indoor exhibits, dozens of historic boats and an "open air" aspect containing a "village", numerous canal buildings and (of course) the canal itself. Two narrow locks (with broad duplicates) run through the museum, two more drop the canal into the Manchester Ship Canal which at this point runs right alongside.

If you do not wish to pay to go into the museum it is a short walk around the outside to rejoin the canal at the bottom locks. Because the museum is not hidden by high fences there is plenty to see even from outside its boundaries. In fact, much of the redeveloped port lies outside of the museum anyway. I am unsure if walkers can demand a right of passage along the towpath inside the museum through boats can pass through without charge.

Newport Branch

The Newport Branch ran from Norbury junction to Wappenshall where it joined the Shrewsbury Canal. It was 10½ miles long with 23 narrow locks. It headed out of Norbury Junction in a south westerly direction. Today it is unnavigable and (in parts) quite derelict.

On its first 3½ miles down towards Newport the canal encountered 17 locks, my reference book (written in 1971) said these were still in good condition though the top gates had been removed and the bottom gates were rotting. The first lock is now used as a covered dry dock and can be seen at Norbury Junction but a lot of the rest are on private property so it is not easy to determine what condition they are in. Not all have survived as some parts of the flight were purposely obliterated by the government in the late 1970's when a canal restoration group were making themselves known. It is thought that many of the canal's structures were purposely destroyed to prevent any hope of re-opening the branch.

At the first road bridge west of Norbury Junction, on a minor road near Lower Oulton, there is a canal bridge (Maltshovel) and the 5th lock on the flight. This can be reached on foot though it is heavily overgrown, making exploration very difficult. West of Lower Oulton a number of bridges are intact and a couple of locks have survived but the canal bed has been filled in.

Oulton Bridge is the next road crossing, it had the 7th lock beside it. Further west is Blacklane Bridge and Staff Bridge. These also used to have locks beside them.

Quarry Bridge had no adjacent lock and all you see today here is ploughed fields where the canal once ran. However, the bridge arches still have the tell tail rope markings from towing lines.

The next road bridge west is at Foreton (about 1½ miles north east of Newport) but just before the canal reaches the bridge, it crosses the small river Meese on an aqueduct. The road from Foreton to Meretown also crosses the river Meese at the very same point. On the road side you wouldn't even know there was a canal or an aqueduct here but if you climb up onto the canal and then across it's dry bed you will see the far side of the aqueduct has 3 small arches. It's a picturesque sight! The skew bridge just a few yards futher on (also on the Foreton to Meretown road) is a fantastic example of such a bridge. From the canal bed it looks huge and oh so strong!

Another two road bridges follow to the south west though these are now on dead-end roads, severed by the new A41. The canal line is likewise severed but it can be accessed on the left side of the A41 south of the A519 roundabout. However, this is a very busy road and this site is probably best approached from the Newport end.

Beside the A41 you can see where Meretown Lock was situated and to the west of it the line of the canal can still be seen although at first it is completely overgrown. Fairly quickly though, as you walk west, it becomes a real canal again! At the eastern end of the watered section was Fishers Lock. Today you can sit on a seat and look directly down the line of the canal. But if you look very closely around the seat you will spot bits of lock metal poking up through the ground. It's still in there - buried but not lost!

In Newport, the wharf was on the north side of town. In 1971 the canal bed was being filled in but there were still some canal buildings standing around it. However, since then the canal has been cosmetically restored through the town. A lock chamber has been infilled right beside the main road bridge but it is intact. The main road bridge is also still intact although I have a feeling some of the stones have been dismatled and put back in a different order at some stage!

Martin Ludgate, editor of Waterways Recovery Group magazine "Navvies" (who provided some of my information for the Newport Branch) tells me 'Restoration of the Newport Branch from Norbury to Newport would be quite straight forward, much more so than many other canal restorations, and would provide an attractive (but slightly energetic) excursion for boat crews from the Shroppie (B&LJ). Almost all the bridges, and many of the locks are still there. The main problems seem to be the short obliterated sections (including some locks) immediately after Norbury and the Newport bypass (A41). If the first of these can be dealt with, the second might not be terribly urgent as a temporary terminus could be created east of it, with the towpath giving access on foot from there into Newport - about ¾ of a mile away'.

On the west side of town there is a nice grassy walk along the canalside. Tickethouse Lock is at the end of this short stretch and there is a lock cottage beside it - though the cottage is well hidden behind high hedges. I got the feeling the owner didn't like the canal much! It's a shame as it appeared to be a genuine Thomas Telford (style) cottage.

Edgmond is about 1 mile west of Newport, the canal ran to the south of the village but it is now dry by the time it gets there. There was a lock here but in 1971 only the top of the chamber was visible. Next the branch headed south west towards Hinck's Plantation and from here on in, in 1971 the canal still held water but today it is dry. Nearby was Duke's Drive Aqueduct with its iron trough and railings but this has long since been demolished. It used to cross a drive between Hinck's Plantation and Kynnersley (to the west).

Directly south of the aqueduct and due east of Preston Upon The Wealds Moors was a junction where an arm was built heading east to Lubstree Wharf where a road and (later) a rail connection was made, bringing coal from Lilleshall. This was known as the Humber Arm, the basin at its junction can still be traced beside a cottage and a warehouse which is still used for storage. Lubstree Wharf was owned by the Duke of Sutherland, son of Lord Gower who had built the Donnington Wood Canal and other branches in the Lilleshall area around 1770. The arm and wharf was described in a 1996 canal article as "picturesque and environmentally rich"!

Three quarters of a mile further on the canal passed Preston Upon The Wealds Moors and finally it travelled south west for almost 2 more miles to Wappenshall and its junction with the Shrewsbury Canal. Wappenshall is on the road between Preston UTWM and the new northern ring road around Telford. There is an attractive group of buildings near a bridge which used to take the road over the Shrewsbury Canal, there is a culvert under the bridge today.

The Newport Branch arrived to the north of the road under a substantial roving bridge which is now a listed structure. The junction is accessible - by permission - through the yard of a small road haulage firm. Beside the junction is a well preserved warehouse under which boats once moored to be loaded. The warehouse is empty apart from the loading hoists, nearby is a toll house and canal cottage.

The Shrewsbury Canal headed west towards Shrewsbury and south-east towards Trench where it linked into the east Shropshire tub boat network.

Also see the Shrewsbury & Newport Canals Trust website for maps and lots more information.

The Middlewich Arm

The Middlewich Arm is still a busy cruising route, it heads north east from Barbridge Junction on the Chester Canal to Middlewich on the Trent & Mersey Canal.

Barbridge Junction is one of the busiest in the country as it is an important part of the Four Counties Ring and it is also the link between the Trent & Mersey and the popular Llangollen Canal.

The Middlewich Arm is a narrow waterway running through pretty countryside. After about a mile it drops through a lock near Cholmondeston and then passes the Venetian Village, a massive marina and hire boat centre. There is only one other village near the arm, Church Minshull, and only one more lock before the arm reaches Wardle Lock in the centre of Middlewich. Here the arm drops down into the Trent & Mersey Canal.

At this north eastern end there is actually a canal within a canal because the last few yards of the arm are traditionally known as the Wardle Canal. An excellent lock cottage stands beside Wardle Lock, the lady lock keeper has worked on the canal system all her life, as did her father before her. The lock is one of the busiest in the country but if she can spare a moment for a chat with you I promise that you will be well pleased she did so.

Many thanks to Martin Ludgate & Tony Clayton for additional information on the Newport Branch.

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