In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, Lancaster was a prosperous town and port. Ideally situated on the west coast, it was the main route between the old and the new worlds. Manufactured goods from the industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire left the country through Lancaster for the developing Americas. Ships returning from this rich new territory brought in produce, which formed the basis for much of Lancaster’s industry and prosperity, whilst a few miles to the north at Kendal, snuff and tobacco curing established itself. But there were ominous signs on the horizon! As ships grew in size, so did the difficulties of navigating the notorious estuary of the River Lune, thus threatening the prosperity of Lancaster (and the smaller port of Milnthorpe), whilst to the south Liverpool was growing in importance.
In an effort to save Lancaster, the merchants proposed building a canal starting at Kendal and running almost due south through Lancaster to Preston, from where it would run southwestwards, passing through Leyland and the village of Parbold to join the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, thus providing a direct link between Lancaster and the port of Liverpool. The famous canal engineer James Brindley, responsible for the construction of much of England’s early canal network, was asked to make a survey, though it is more likely that his pupil Robert Whitworth undertook the work.
The scheme did not attract much support in the town. An alternative idea of building a new port at Glasson at the mouth of the Lune found favour and the idea of a canal was dropped. However, there remained a group who extolled the virtues of having Lancaster on the canal map and in the 1790s John Rennie was asked to re-survey the canal. Rennie’s proposal followed much of Whitworth’s original route to Preston, but here Rennie’s line crossed the Ribble then struck out south-eastwards towards Chorley, thence east of Wigan to Westhoughton, for Rennie was basing his canal, not on trade with America, but on coal from the South Lancashire coalfield and limestone from quarries around Kendal and Milnthorpe. Rennie knew from what had happened on the Bridgewater Canal just how valuable a cargo of coal could be, fuelling industry and home alike, as well as how difficult its carriage on land could be. Limestone was important not only for building purposes, but also as a soil conditioner and would be in demand in the agricultural belt of West Lancashire. The fact that Rennie proposed that the canal should be capable of taking broad beam craft, up to seventy-two feet in length, is an indication that he had designs on linking the canal to the Bridgewater Canal, and thus the main canal system. In the event this did not happen.
Rennie’s proposals found favour throughout Lancashire and south Westmorland (as this part of Cumbria was then known). An Act of Parliament was obtained and construction began in 1792. The company was dogged by financial problems from the start and by the end of the century only the section from Wigan to Walton Summit, five miles south of Preston, and the section northwards from Preston to Tewitfield had been completed, the two sections being linked by a temporary tramway. Eventually, in 1819 the canal was opened through to Kendal and by 1826 a branch to Glasson Dock had been built. The northern and southern sections were never linked by water and the tramway was to be permanent. The southern section became part of the Leeds & Liverpool canal from Johnson’s Hillock to Wigan, having been first leased, and then sold, to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Company. Despite not being linked to the main network, the canal flourished, carrying not only coal and limestone, but all manner of goods, until the coming of the railways.
At first the railways did not pose a threat, for by the mid Nineteenth Century the spread of metals from the Midlands had only reached Preston. The canal company had introduced passenger carrying boats and these provided the most comfortable means of transport then available for travellers in North Lancashire, the ‘packet’ boats completing the trip from Kendal to Preston (and vice versa) in around eight hours. Even the building of the Lancaster and Preston Railway did not pose a threat; upon its opening the canal company immediately halved its tolls on goods carried on the canal and withdrew the packet boat service south of Lancaster. The effect was to force the railway to rely on a small amount of passenger traffic, something it could not afford to do; this set the scene for something almost unique in waterways history, that of a canal company taking over a railway, and for a time the railway and canal operated alongside one another.
The proposal to build a railway between Carlisle and Lancaster was another matter, since this would take the tracks not only into the area served by the canal, but beyond! The proposal was vigorously opposed by the canal company, but to no avail. Matters were further complicated because the act authorising the railway’s construction conferred powers to link into the track of the Lancaster and Preston Railway and also to run through trains to Preston and the South. The canal company tried to fight back by providing as much hindrance as possible to through traffic on the railway, but the final nail in the coffin came when an accident occurred at Bay Horse, south of Lancaster. An express from Carlisle ran into the rear of a local train from Lancaster, with a resultant loss of life. After this the canal company was instructed not to resist the passage of trains from the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway and the canal became unable to compete. Eventually, the canal was leased by the then London & North Western Railway Company and later bought outright, a special medal being struck to commemorate the event. In 1885 the Lancaster Canal Company ceased to exist and this chapter in the history of the canal closed.
Despite this, the railway continued to operate the canal, finding it to be an excellent supply of water for depots at Preston, Lancaster and Carnforth, but now the railways were facing competition – this time from the roads. Canal traffic through to Kendal ceased in 1944 and the final commercial load carried on the canal was a consignment of coal from Barrow, via Glasson Dock to Storey’s at Lancaster in 1947. From Kendal to Stainton the canal was progressively dewatered, having suffered great losses of water through seepage into the porous limestone over which the canal is built. In the 1960’s, the Ministry of Transport proposed culverting the canal north of Carnforth in six places, thus denying access to this lovely section of canal. Despite vigorous opposition the Ministry’s plans went ahead as the M6 motorway was extended northwards, leaving only forty-two of the original fifty-seven miles of canal north of Preston open to traffic.
Following the transfer of ownership to the London & North Western Railway Company, the grouping of railways in 1923 led to a further transfer to the London, Midland & Scottish Railway. With railway nationalisation in 1948, control passed to the British Transport Commission, and subsequently by the 1962 Transport Act to the British Waterways Board. The latest in this series of major changes was the transfer to the charity sector in 2012 with the establishment of the Canal & River Trust.
What remains of the tramway today is in the control of Lancashire County Council and is a public right of way, providing an interesting route for a walk or cycle ride, south from Avenham Park in Preston to Bamber Bridge. Further south, the site of the transfer basin from the tramway to the Southern Section of the Lancaster Canal is now lost in a housing estate at Clayton Brook, but the line of the canal can be found at Whittle-le-Woods (bridge and tunnel) before the remaindered arm of the Lancaster canal can be seen at its junction with the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Johnson’s Hillock.