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The Waterways Which Shaped Our Fortunes

LIVERPOOL’S status as ‘second city of the Empire’ was to some extent dependent on the ability of the Corporation and the city merchants to maintain, improve and expand dock facilities. Improving transport links between Liverpool and other cities like Leeds, Manchester and London was also very important. Coastal shipping was of course important and continued to provide an excellent service well into the 20th century. Initially, many of the developments in inland transport were in order to gain economic advantage. The first road out of Liverpool to be turnpiked, in 1729, led to collieries around Prescot, but also enabled the booming business of refining salt from Cheshire. Turnpike trusts were set up by individual acts of Parliament, with powers to collect road tolls for maintaining the principal roads in Britain from the 17th century but especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. Similarly, the early 18th-century improvement of the rivers Irwell and Weaver, and the opening in 1757 of the first section of the Sanlcey Navigation, gave Liverpool local and regional advantages, much of it based on improving access to coal. But long-haul traffic into the interior was slower and inadequate.

Bygone byways - Canning Dock, around 1840, was a hive for profitable shipping
Bygone byways – Canning Dock, around 1840, was a hive for profitable shipping

Almost all goods traffic in the early 18th century was horse drawn and, as late as 1750, the road to Warrington was unfit for coaches. In 1753, packhorses between Liverpool and London took nine days at an average of 23 miles per day. Even in the city itself roads were bad. An act of 1786 gave the Corporation powers to widen its streets at a time when there was not one wide or well-constructed street in Liverpool. The Corporation spent the then astonishing sum of £150,000 on improvements under the powers of the act.

Meanwhile, the growth of a nationwide canal network allowed Liverpool’s increasingly advantageous location for trade with Ireland and North America to be exploited to the full. Canals provided reliable inland transport for goods and it was recognised that the use of a canal system would provide immense prosperity for the city and docks. With the movement of coal providing the initial stimulus, it led the Duke of Bridgewater to promote the canal that was to bear his name, opening in 1761 initially to take coal from his pits into Manchester, and later also to Runcorn and the Mersey tideway.

The Trent and Mersey Canal was also given the go ahead in the 1760s, to run from the River Trent at Shardlow to the Runcorn Gap, and a junction with an extension of the Bridgewater. When it was opened in 1777 represented the first step in connecting Liverpool to a national inland transport network that was both economical and reliable, also providing an opportunity for trade with the industrial heartlands of the Midlands. From its earliest days it was also known as the Grand Trunk Canal and it was hoped that other waterways would soon attach themselves to it like branches to a tree. Significantly, its chief advocate (besides the Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood) was the Liverpool merchant Thomas Bentley, anticipating the widespread use of Liverpool capital to build the links on which the city’s growth depended.

Bridgewater Canal 3 top locks, Runcorn 1905
Bridgewater Canal, 3 top locks, Runcorn

Despite all of this, Liverpool still lacked a route into the industrial areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and to the North Sea. Therefore, in 1770, plans were authorised for what was to become the Leeds and Liverpool (L and L) Canal. A commencement ceremony was held at Halsall, north of Liverpool on 5 November 1770, with the first sod being dug by the Hon. Charles Mordaunt of Halsall Hall. The first section of the canal opened from Bingley to Skipton in 1773. By 1774 the canal had been completed from Skipton to Shipley, including significant engineering features such as the Bingley Five Rise Locks, Bingley Three Rise Locks and the seven-arch aqueduct over the River Aire. Also completed was the branch to Bradford, but the section from Liverpool to Wigan only completed in 1777. The main line through to Leeds took until 1816, with a branch to join the Bridgewater at Leigh opening in 1820. The Liverpool end, the Leeds and Liverpool canal was later spanned by several road and rail bridges. The Burlington Street bridge over the Canal was near to Tate and Lyles sugar refinery, and as part of the sugar making process hot water was discharged into the canal at this point, often causing the water to steam. So warm was the water here that local children used it to take a dip. The section of the canal at this point was known locally as ‘the hotties’.

The Burlington Street Bridge
The Burlington Street Bridge

Due to the decline in canal traffic and changes in transportation of goods the Pall Mall terminus basin was filled in up to Chisenhale Street Bridge in the 1960s. 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. As part of the development a new bridge was built, Vauxhall Bridge, which was opened in 1994 by Cilla Black.

By 2000 there were several new canal projects such as the renovation of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, the Ribble Link and Rochdale Canal. The Waterways Regeneration Task Force, part of British Waterways took over the South Docks from English Partnerships. The Task Force approached the Liverpool City Council’s Liverpool City Vision with the suggestion of linking the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to the South Docks by building a new waterway across Pier Head.

The route of the Leeds Liverpool Canal
The route of the Leeds Liverpool Canal

Four routes were proposed and after public consultation in 2001 a route was chosen. The winning route was across the front of the Three Graces at the Pier Head. Feasibility work was funded by the North West Regional Development Agency, British Waterways Regeneration Task Force and a detailed proposal drawn up during 2003. The Liverpool Canal Link involved the extension of the canal through to the South Docks passing the famous Pier Head and Liver Building. The original canal terminus in Liverpool was filled in by the 1960’s. The Stanley Dock branch gave access to the northern dock system but plans were put forward in the early 2000’s for the extension past the landmark Liverpool waterfront into the South Docks. This involved a mile and a half of new canal with two new locks and tunnels. The flagship project was opened in 2008 at a cost of £22m.

You can find more information on how to use and enjoy the canal on the Canal and River Trust website





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