The History of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal
Originally the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was not going to serve the larger towns of East Lancashire. It was planned to follow a route through Padiham, to the north of the River Calder, crossing into the Ribble Valley over an aqueduct at Whalley Nab. Limestone was thought to be the canal’s most important traffic, and this route would have enabled the quarries at Clitheroe to be served by a branch. In the 1760s, when the canal was being planned, people in the Pennines had just realised that by using lime as a fertiliser on their farm land they could increase production. The textile industry was also expanding and needed places where weavers could work on their handlooms. Until then, most workers had lived in single storey houses, but now an additional storey was needed as a workshop. To build a two storey house you need a good mortar, and at that time they used a lime mortar. The workshops also had to be painted to make them light enough for the weavers to see what they were making, so the walls were lime-washed. With all these demands, it is no surprise that the canal’s promoters expected to carry vast amounts of limestone. This had to be burnt to make it into a useful product, and lime kilns were built at many places along the canal.
The canal was expensive to build, and only the sections from Leeds to Gargrave and from Liverpool to Wigan were opened by 1777 when money ran out. Because of the American War of Independence, it was another thirteen years before money for further work could be raised. By that time the canal company had discovered that coal had become a more important cargo than lime. The builders of the canal now wanted to serve the growing industrial towns of East Lancashire and the local coalfield, so the route of the canal was altered to pass through Burnley and Blackburn. The canal reached Burnley in 1796 and was extended to Enfield Wharf, near Accrington, in 1801, some 31 years after construction of the canal had been begun.
As the Leeds and Liverpool Canal winds its tortuous way through East Lancashire it seems to carefully avoid Accrington. However, when the canal’s route through East Lancashire was planned in 1793, it was to continue up the valley of the Hydburn, crossing it at a point close to the old Grammar School on Blackburn Road. The proposed Haslingden Canal was to join it here, creating a waterway link with Bury and Manchester. Had this happened there would have been a wharf near the junction where goods to and from the town could have been handled.
Instead the route was altered. The Peel family asked the canal company to avoid crossing the Hyndburn above their textile print works at Peel Bank. At that time it was one of the largest factories in the world and used the river's waters during the printing process. Building the embankment for the canal to cross the Hyndburn would have interrupted this supply and caused production problems. Instead, the canal was built downstream, rejoining the original line at a right angle junction at Church. Much of the land for the canal deviation had to be purchased from the Petre family of Dunkenhalgh. Although they were quite happy for the canal to be built, they requested that the towpath was made on the side of the canal away from their house and lands. They hoped that this would prevent poachers from gaining easy access to their estate!
A further nine years were to pass before the canal opened to Blackburn as there were difficulties in crossing the many rivers and streams around Church, and the deep cutting at Sidebeet also took time to complete. The canal finally reached Blackburn in 1810, forty years after the construction of the canal had begun. Seven boats were reported as sailing in procession from Enfield to Blackburn on the occasion of the opening; two children and three men fell into the water, and one man seriously injured his hand whilst firing a small cannon as the boats arrived at Eanam Wharf. For several months afterwards the Blackburn Mail reported the arrival of boats, just as if Blackburn was a great sea-port. Amongst the items imported were yarns for the local textile industry. They either came from West Yorkshire, where Keighley was an important cotton spinning centre at this time, or from areas like Saxony on the European mainland.
There are several large canal embankments in East Lancashire, and they all caused problems in construction. Because one crossing the Darwen had not been completed on time in 1811, a boat was moved from Blackburn by road to the newly opened canal beyond. It must have been quite an occasion, and a detailed report appeared in the Blackburn Mail. 'On Monday morning last, the Craven Company’s barge ‘Speedy’, 35 tons burden, was drawn through this town on its way to Radburn Wharf. It was fixed upon 4 timber carriages and drawn by 16 horses. A great concourse of people assembled on this occasion. When it reached Moulden Water Brow, 5 additional horses were yoked to it, but these would have been insufficient, had not a great number of men assisted. It arrived safe at Radburn, a distance of 8 miles, at half past four, having been about seven hours on the road'. The through route by water between Liverpool and Leeds was eventually completed in 1816.
It may have taken a long time to build, but the canal soon became an important factor in the growth of industry in East Lancashire. The cheap and reliable transport it provided allowed not just general goods but also bulk cargoes to be carried easily. Raw materials for the rapidly expanding textile trades came from both Liverpool and Hull, and from West Yorkshire, while stone flags, limestone and coal were carried to and from wharves all along the canal. Coal mines at Whitebirk expanded after the canal opened, as it allowed the coal to reach new markets. Grain was another important cargo, imported for local mills through Liverpool and Birkenhead. In fact, the canal carried as much grain as cotton. By the second half of the nineteenth century, Blackburn was becoming a predominantly weaving area, with few spinning mills which needed raw cotton. Once it was spun or woven, it was much more likely to go by railway which was more suitable for such small high-value packages.
Until the railway opened to Burnley, a packet boat, carrying passengers and small packets up to 56lbs in weight, operated daily between Blackburn and Burnley. It called at several places along the way, one of them being Altham Barn Bridge, where it served local miners, agricultural and other workers. Among them were several boatmen and their families whose boats delivered coal from Altham to wharves along the canal in East Lancashire. With a cargo of forty tons or more, the barges carried enough to ensure that the boatmen and their families had a good standard of living. They usually lived in a house, and though one son would often help his father on the boat, any other children usually worked in local industries.
Over the years, a number of boatyards were opened on the canal in East Lancashire. Burnley was probably the most important centre, with four boatyards operating around the town. In the second half of the nineteenth century, a small boatyard was situated at Church, close to the swing bridge there, but this seems to have closed in the 1870s. There was also a boatyard at Riley Green which continued to build wooden boats into the 1950s. Blackburn had two boatyards. One was at Whitebirk, the other at the drydock close to Paradise Bridge, now known as Eden Street, and from which Dock Street probably received its name.