Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 150,662 pages of information and 235,203 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Leeds and Liverpool Canal

From Graces Guide
1965. Locks on the Rufford branch at Burscough.
1965. The junction with the Rufford branch.
1965. The Navigation Inn at Gathurst.
1965. The Burnley embankment which carries the canal at rooftop level for nearly a mile.
1965. Boathouse Bridge, near Wigan.
On the banks of the canal in Leeds.
2016. Former offices at site of Clarke's Basin - see text


The Leeds and Liverpool Canal is a canal linking the cities of Leeds and Liverpool.

Over a distance of 127 miles, it crosses the Pennines, and includes 91 locks on the main line. It has several small branches, including the Leigh Branch and the Rufford Branch. In the early 21st century a new link was constructed into the Liverpool docks system.

In the mid-18th century the growing towns of Yorkshire including Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford, were trading increasingly. While the Aire and Calder Navigation improved links to the east for Leeds, links to the west were limited and the Bradford merchants wanted to increase the supply of limestone to their coal mines and to export their textiles to the port of Liverpool.

On the west coast, traders in the busy port of Liverpool wanted a cheap supply of coal for their shipping and manufacturing businesses and to tap the output from the industrial regions of Lancashire. Inspired by the effectiveness of the wholly artificial navigation, the Bridgewater Canal opened in 1759-1760. A canal across the Pennines linking Liverpool and Hull (by means of the Aire and Calder Navigation) would have obvious trade benefits.

1766 A public meeting took place at the Sun Inn in Bradford on 2 July 1766 to promote the building of such a canal. John Longbotham was engaged to survey a route. Two groups were set up to promote the scheme, one in Liverpool and one in Bradford.

The Liverpool committee was unhappy with the route originally proposed, following the Ribble valley through Preston, considering that it ran too far to the north, missing key towns and the Wigan coalfield. A counter-proposal was produced by John Eyes and Richard Melling, improved by P. P. Burdett, which was rejected by the Bradford committee as too expensive, mainly because of the valley crossing at Burnley.

James Brindley was called in to arbitrate, and ruled in favour of Longbotham's more northerly route, though with a branch towards Wigan, a decision which caused some of the Lancashire backers to withdraw their support, and which was subsequently amended over the course of development.

1770 An Act was passed in May authorising construction, and Brindley was appointed chief engineer and John Longbotham clerk of works; following Brindley's death in 1772, Longbotham carried out both roles.

By 1774 the canal had been completed from Skipton to Shipley, including significant engineering features such as the Bingley Five Rise Locks, and the Bingley Three Rise Locks and the seven-arch aqueduct over the River Aire. Also completed was the branch to Bradford. On the western side, the section from Liverpool to Newburgh was dug.

By the following year the Yorkshire end had been extended to Gargrave.

By 1777 the canal had joined the Aire and Calder Navigation in Leeds and on the western side it reached Wigan by 1781, replacing the earlier and unsatisfactory Douglas Navigation which was acquired by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal company.

1781 The subscribed funds and further borrowing had all been spent and work stopped with the completion of the Rufford Branch from Burscough to the River Douglas at Tarleton.

In 1794 an agreement was reached with the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal company to create a link near Red Moss near Horwich. The route of the Leeds Liverpool canal was changed, and the planned canal link did not materialize. The Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal company proposed another link from Bury. This new link would have been known as the Haslingden Canal. The Peel family asked the canal company not to construct the crossing over the River Hyndburn above their textile printworks; such a crossing would have required the construction of embankments, and reduced the water supply to their factories. The Haslingden Canal was never built.

In 1789 Robert Whitworth developed fresh proposals to vary the line of the remaining part of the canal, including a tunnel at Foulridge, lowering the proposed summit level by 40 feet, and a more southerly route in Lancashire. These proposals were authorised by a fresh Act in 1790, together with further fund-raising.

In 1794 a further Act was granted authorising yet another change of route, close to that proposed by Burdett, and yet more fund-raising, as Foulridge Tunnel was proving difficult and expensive to dig.

It opened in 1796 and was 1,640 yards long. The new route took the canal south via Burnley and Blackburn, but the latter was not reached until 1810. The latest plan for the route had it running parallel to, and then crossing the isolated southern end of the Lancaster Canal, but common sense prevailed and the Leeds and Liverpool connected with the Lancaster Canal between Wigan and Johnson's Hillock.

The main line of the canal was completed in 1816.

1818 There had been various unsuccessful negotiations to connect the canal to the Bridgewater Canal at Leigh but agreement was finally reached in 1818 and the connection was opened in 1820, thus giving access to Manchester and the rest of the canal network.

1822 The Bridgewater Canal, like most of Brindley's designs was for narrow boats of 72 feet length, whereas the Leeds and Liverpool had been designed for broad boats of 62 feet length. There was naturally a desire by the narrow boats to reach Liverpool and the locks of the westerly end of the canal were extended to 72 feet in 1822.

The canal took almost 40 years to complete, in crossing the Pennines the Leeds and Liverpool had been beaten by the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and the Rochdale Canal.

The most important cargo was always coal (over a million tons per year were delivered to Liverpool in the 1860s) with smaller amounts exported via the old Douglas Navigation. Even in Yorkshire, more coal was carried than limestone. Once the canal was fully open, receipts for carrying merchandise matched those of coal. The heavy industry along its route, together with the decision to build the canal with broad locks, ensured that (unlike the other two trans-Pennine canals) the Leeds and Liverpool competed successfully with the railways throughout the 19th century and remained open through the 20th century.

The canal suffered some damage during World War II. It was breached by a German mine in Bootle and the headquarters at Pall Mall were damaged. The canal in west Lancashire was part of Britain's defensive plans against invasion. Along the canal there were tank traps, bunkers and blockhouses. Some buildings such as barns and pubs along the canal were fortified. There are still some remaining concrete pillboxes and brick built blockhouses.

Trade continued on the canal until as late as the 1980s. Coal was shipped to the power station in Wigan until 1972 and corn to Ainscoughs mill in Burscough until 1960. The last horse drawn barge was 'Parbold' (1960).

In the 1960s the Pall Mall terminus basin was filled in up to Chisenhale Street Bridge (Bridge A). In the 1980s the Eldonian Village housing estate was built for the community which was disrupted by the building of the Mersey Tunnel and the demolition of the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery. This meant the canal was filled in between Chisenhale Street Bridge and just north of Burlington Street Bridge.

The summit level is at 487 feet. The canal was built with locks 60 ft long and 14 ft 3 in wide to accommodate the Yorkshire Keel barges already in use on the Rivers Aire and Humber. The locks on the Leigh Branch and the mainline between Wigan and Liverpool (and Rufford Branch), were extended to a length of 72 feet to accommodate the longer boats trading on the rest of the canal network following the building of the Leigh Branch.

The original Liverpool terminus was at Clarke's Basin in present-day Old Hall Street. This later moved to Pall Mall when land was sold to a railway company. A direct connection to the docks via Stanley Dock was built in 1846. See 2016 photo of 'cottages' in Liverpool's Old Hall Street, which were once offices at the entrance to Clarke's Basin. The site was once occupied by the Wigan Coal and Iron Co. Later the building was part of St Paul's Eye Hospital, but was abandoned in the 1990s. Thanks to strenuous efforts, part of the building was restored, and is now home to 'The White Bar'.[1]

From Liverpool to Appley Locks, the canal runs for 27 miles without locks, across the West Lancashire Coastal Plain.

The two main side-branches both connect to other waterways. The Rufford Branch links into the River Douglas and, via the Ribble Link and the River Ribble to the previously isolated Lancaster Canal. The Leigh Branch from Wigan leads to the Bridgewater Canal and thus to Manchester and the Midlands.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal is said to be the longest single canal in England constructed by one company, but it is shorter than the Grand Union Canal which was made up of many smaller canals merged together. The Leeds Liverpool Canal includes the southern part of the Lancaster Canal between Johnsons Hillock and Wigan Top Lock.

A famous part of the canal is at Aintree where it passes close to the racecourse and gives the name to the course's Canal Turn. It has one of the country's most photographed canal features - the Bingley Five Rise Locks at Bingley. Bingley Five Rise and the Burnley Embankment are two of the original Seven Wonders of the canal world chosen by Robert Aickman.

2009 The new Liverpool Canal Link was opened on 25 March. It reconnects the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to Liverpool's South Docks via Stanley Dock, allowing boats to travel into the Albert Dock.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. [1] Website with c.2001 photos and 1803 map relating to the now-saved buildings at the former Clarke's Basin