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
(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
They also tried unsuccessfully to close both the Western Branch and Eastern Branch of the
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
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
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
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.
Back to top
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 Birmingham & Liverpool Junction
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 &
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
Back to top