​​​ The Leeds-Liverpool Canal | The History of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal | Leeds-Liverpool Canal Craft
A Canal Navy | Facts and Figures


 ​The Leeds-Liverpool Canal 

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal had a major effect on the development of Blackburn.  Not only did it serve the many mills, factories and businesses in the town, but its route changed the way the town developed.  When the canal was built, it followed the high ground to the south of the town centre, with a flight of locks lowering it into the valley of the River Darwen where it crosses the river on a high embankment. The reason for this route was that the land was much cheaper than in the town centre.
Industries soon grew along the canal's banks, extending the town to the south.  Nova Scotia, possibly named after the Scottish navvies who worked on the canal, grew up after the canal opened.  It was separate from the town at first, and only became part of Blackburn as houses and mills were built, the latter encouraged by the transport services offered by the canal.  Even after the railways opened to Blackburn, the canal continued to play an important role.  Mills continued to be built on its banks.  They used the canal not just for transport, but also for cooling the exhaust steam from the mill engine which made it much more efficient.
It was only after the First World War that traffic on the canal declined. Road transport was developing, and mills were changing from steam to electric power, so they no longer need the canal.  In the 1960s, the canal was almost closed because of the cost of maintenance.  It survived, and Barbara Castle's Transport Act of 1973 ensured its survival by encouraging the leisure use of canals.  Today pleasure boats cruise through Blackburn, and the towpath is a pleasant place for a stroll where many reminders of the town's industrial past can still be found.
by Mike Clarke
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 ​​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.
By Mike Clarke
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The shape of wooden boats usually suggested their place of construction. In Lancashire, they were similar in construction to the ‘flat’, the coastal sailing vessel of the Irish Sea, those in Yorkshire developing from the ‘keel’, the sailing boat of the Humber. The bows of Lancashire built boats were much finer than those in Yorkshire, resulting in a boat which, although not capable of carrying such a large cargo, was easy to pull through the water. To increase the carrying capacity of boats in Lancashire, the square stern was used.
Besides these regional variations, there were also differences between boats for carrying merchandise and those for mineral traffics. Merchandise cargoes were protected from the weather and, if possible, theft by covering the hold with tarpaulin sheets, stretched over three lines of supports. To fix these sheets to the boat, it was necessary to provide coamings around the hold, the crew wedging the sheets against the coamings to make the hold waterproof. For mineral traffic, no protection was required and the boats were only fitted with narrow gunwhales to allow the crew to walk from bow to stern.
A square stern increased carrying capacity and was often used on coal boats where it was important to carry a good tonnage. However, they were slower through locks, as the boat had to be right into the lock chamber before the gates could be shut. Round sterns were common on merchandise boats, where speed rather than carrying capacity was important.
On horse boats, there were cabins at bow and stern. The stern cabin was the main living accommodation, and was entered through a hatch, or scuttle hole, on the left hand side of the deck, near to the hold. On all merchandise, and some coal boats, there was also a door in the rear bulkhead, below the scuttle, giving access to the hold. The headroom inside the cabin was only about four feet, though a few boats had raised decks, increasing this. All furniture was built in, the central feature being a stove fixed in the middle of the bulkhead. These cast iron stoves were about twelve inches square by three feet high, and were open fronted. A hob clipped on to the top of the firebars so that a kettle could be boiled, or food cooked. The stoves had a flat top, curving up in the middle to a circular chimney and brass ornaments decorated this flat top. Round the edge of the top, overlapping the stove by a couple of inches, would be a lace trimming.
On the right hand side of the cabin was the double bed, used by the captain and his wife, should she be accompanying him. It was separated from the rest of the cabin by a wall of six panels, three of which were hinged for access to the bed, though on some boats opening panels were not provided, and a curtain sufficed. At the rear of the cabin were three cupboards, the centre one was the largest, and it folded down to form a table. Two drawers were provided under the cupboards. There was a small shelf above the cupboards and bed panelling for ornaments. In the righthand corner, against the bulkhead, was a locker, about eighteen inches square, and the full height of the cabin, which held the horse’s provender. Finally, a bench was fitted against the bed panelling, under the table cupboard, and along the right hand side of the cabin, underneath which was stored coal, washing utensils, and other items. On some boats there was another small bed compartment on the right hand side of the cabin.
The bow cabin was similar, the main difference being that a single bed was provided on each side of the cabin. As the cabin was symetrical, access was through a scuttle hole in the centre of the deck. Sometimes the stove was smaller, as all cooking was done in the stern cabin. With the introduction of engines, the stern cabin became the engine room, and the bow cabin the main living accommodation. The layout was unchanged, as few motor boats were used regularly by families, so accommodation was only required by the captain and mate.
Water was carried in a five gallon barrel, which rested on its side in a cradle. A dipper, like the old milk measures, was used, access being through a hole cut in the top of the barrel. The inside of the barrel was well covered with pitch to stop the water from becoming tainted. Coal boats would often carry a dog kennel, and a proven tub was provided for the horse’s feed. This was filled each day from the store in the cabin. Merchandise boats were less likely to have a kennel, and their proven supply was carried in sacks, often draped over the sheets covering the rear of the hold.
The Leeds & Liverpool boats which still survive are mostly steel boats built in the 1930s, ’40s or early ’50s. There are two wooden boats preserved at The Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port, the Scorpio, a 72-feet long coal boat which worked for John Parkes, built originally as Helena for the Wigan Coal & Iron Company, and George, a 62-foot coal boat with a square transom also built for Wigan Coal & Iron Company. No other wooden boats remain floating, but there are a number of sunken boats which are slowly rotting away.
by Mike Clarke


​​​A Canal Navy 

Before the introduction of cheap railway travel in the middle of the nineteenth century it was unusual for people to move around the country. Consequently, all those coming to live in a place where they were unknown were treated with suspicion. Men working on the construction of canals, who often came from distant places, also had problems with local people. When the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was being built, the canal committee minutes for January 1771 noted:
The labourers for cutting the canal are much imposed on by extravagant charges of the inn keepers. The committee are desired to consider if any scheme can be come into for the convenience of such labourers by erecting tents, booths etc. and providing them with meat and drink at a more easy expense.
Three of the committee members were asked to look into the problem and they purchased a house for the accommodation of the canal diggers.
Twenty five years later the problem continued. In December 1796 there were 297 men employed on building the canal. The following February this had risen to 468 and then to 518 in March. Such factors as weather and harvest time affected the numbers of men available for work on building the canal. Those working on the canal were a mixture of locals and professional navvies, many of the latter being Scotsmen who had previously worked with Robert Whitworth, the canal’s engineer, on the Forth & Clyde Canal.
The locals were very antagonistic to the Scotsmen and this resulted in a riot which was reported thus in the canal company’s minutes:-
1792 Dec 4.
It having been reported that on Monday seven night a riot of a very serious nature happened amongst the workmen employed upon the canal at Marsden and Barrowford and many of them most violently assaulted and wounded and that in the discovery of the offenders and bringing them to justice Captain Clayton one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace had taken an active part.
Resolved unanimously that the thanks of this meeting be given to Captain Clayton and that Major Clayton be requested to transmit the same.
Ordered that the prosecution of the offenders concerned in the above riot be carried on at the company's expence.
Ordered that the advertisement prepared by Mr.Hardy and now read and which was as follows…
Breaches of the Peace
Whereas most violent and outrageous riots assaults and other breaches of the peace have been lately committed by several persons employed upon the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in or near to Barrowford and which it is apprehended has been countenanced and encouraged particularly against the North Britains employed upon the said canal by persons resident near to the works of the said canal.
Notice is hereby given that the proprietors of the said canal are resolved to use their utmost endeavours to preserve the peace amongst and procure protection for the workmen who are or shall be employed in the said works and for that purpose will at their own expence prosecute the aggressor and protect the injured of whatever county they may happen to be who have been concerned in or injured by the above outrages or who hereafter shall be guilty of or suffering by any riots assaults or other breaches of the peace which shall be committed by or upon any such aforesaid workmen. Dec 1st 1792.
…be printed and 500 copies thereof distributed upon the works of the canal.
Alexander MacKenzie was one of the navvies who followed Robert Whitworth from Scotland. In 1793 he was staying at the Chapel Inn, Little Marsden. On 11th March 1793 he married Mary Roberts, one of the landlord’s two daughters. Their first son was born at the Inn and baptised at the Chapel. They returned to have their subsequent children baptised as well. From their entries in the Register of Colne Parish Church, it is possible to trace progress of the canal through East Lancashire.
Place of Residence
William 20 March 1794
Little Marsden
Alexander 10 February 1796
Sarah 12 December 1797
Little Marsden
Daniel 23 December 1799
Margaret 5 April 1802
John 1 November 1804
David 7 March 1808
Thomas 25 December 1808
The family finally settled in Blackburn. By this time Alexander had become a contractor, and he was responsible for several sections of the canal built between 1801 and 1816 when he lived in Byrom Street, Blackburn. He went on to work on other civil engineering projects around the country. On his death in 1836, his eldest son, William, carried on the business. He eventually became the Senior Partner in the firm of MacKenzie and Brassey who were England’s most successful railway contractors. In the middle of the 19th century they were to build many railways, both in England and abroad, the total value of the works being £17 million, around £850 million at today's prices. In 1844, William erected a memorial obelisk to his mother and father in the Independent Chapel, in Chapel Street. William died seven years later leaving about £500,000.


​​​Facts and Figures 

In 1890, 172,801 tons of manure and nightsoil were carried an average distance of 8.78 miles on the canal.
In 1865, 1,879,721 tons of coal were carried on the canal.
In 1770, one mile of canal was estimated to cost £5048 exclusive of locks. (Around £275,000 today)
The total cost of the canal was around £1,250,000 in 1820. (Around £50 million today)
On April 12, 1918, a German air raid (probably a Zeppelin) caused the canal to leak at Springs Bridge, Wigan.
Wooden lock gates used to last 40-50 years.
An average lock requires 80,000 gallons of water every time it is used.
The canal's reservoirs hold 14,600 locks full of water.
The summit level is 487.5 feet above sea level.
Halfpenny Day - every year (early 20th century) anyone using the towpath was charged a halfpenny to prevent it from becoming a public right of way.
When the canal was built it was thought that ten times more limestone would be carried than coal. It was actually exactly the reverse.
Limestone was used for fertiliser, mortar for buildings, for painting and by industry.
A hundred years ago there were over one thousand boats working on the canal, and between Wigan and Liverpool a loaded boat would pass about every five minutes.
In 1903, the canal company employed 1,234 people including 464 boatmen, 43 lock keepers and 243 bankrangers. Many more boatmen were employed by other businesses owning boats on the canal.
The canal company owned stables for 371 horses. They were not just for boat horses as the company also operated delivery services from many of their warehouses. There were many other stables along the canal at pubs and private wharfs.

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