Lancaster Canal History…

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 impo

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.


Kindly sent to the Trust by member Adrian Padfield. It is dated 2nd January 1795, published by Stockdale showing the route of the canal, some sections were not yet built and neither the aqueduct or tramway built at Preston.



                                     THE LAST BOAT TO WALTON SUMMIT




                            LANCASTER CANAL WORKING BOATS

The first recorded boat, a wooden un-named earth carrying boat was launcched at Ellel 28th August 1793,  built by John Brocklbank, at Lancaster shipyard.

Other early wooden boats were Bee and Ceres in 1797, Elephant in 1798  and Cragg in 1800.  Other wooden boats were built up to the 1840s numerous boats being built for the Wigan Coal & Iron Company.

From circa 1850 boats were steel built at Preston, about 48 of them the last one in 1915. They were 72 feet long and of 14ft 6in beam and able to load up to 50 tons. The crew was normally 2  often with the man leading the horse and  his wife steerinf the boat. Most boats had a stern cabin with bunks and living accomodation, there was a small store in the bows for hay and horse harness.  A few boats were built without or with only a small cabin, they were intended as day boats for short journeys. All the above boats were buit for horse haulage, engines wer not added.  The normal haulage was a stout Welsh cob or occasionalyy two small horses or donkeys.  The boat hulls were water streamlined and when away from the bank underway and in 5 or 6 feet depth of water were not difficult to tow.  One horse could pull a fully laden boat at three and a half miles per hour and keep it up all day.

In 1920 a steam barge “Clara” was put on the canal runnung between Glasson Dock and Lancaster, it was not a success and was discontinued from  1921.   In 1917  the steam tugs “Asland”& “Cricket”were employed to tow trains of about 5   boats to Kendal, another unsuccessful experiment causing damage to the canal banks and taking hours to get through  Tewitfield locks.

The number of licensed boats working the canal.

1875  55 boats,        1907 33 boats,      1916 25 boats,       1920  21 boats,      1931 15 boats,      1942  7 boats,      1944  6 Boats.

1947 The final year,  5 boats operated by Ashctoft Canal Carriers were Kenneth, Herbert, Wasp, Benjamin and Ann.   Kenneth and Ann caried the final cargo, coal from Glasson Dock to Storey’s mill at Lancaster.  The delivery was late due to a series of heavy frosts and the boats frozen in and unable to move. After the thaw set in the boats reached Storey’s but the coal was frozen and could not be unloaded.  Storeys cancelled the contract and converted to oil.

Kenneth and Ann  were abandoned in the basin at Preston and are now burried under a development of shops and offices. Benjamin sank in the basin by the Lune Aqueduct. Herbert was towed to the Isle of Man. The end of Wasp is unknown.

One Lancaster canal boat “Pet”   had a long and varied  Career,  Built as a cargo carrier 1873 (small cabin)  later bcoming converted to  a  a spoon dredger, an ice breaker and a maintenance boat withdrawn in 1947  then stood idle for some years then sold by British Waterways. The new owner converted it into a pleasure boat and  named it “Lady Fiona”.   In 2003 rotten and leaking repair was uneconomical and the boat was abandoned in Lancaster later being moved to the dry dock.   In 2006  British waterways took interest and the boat was moved by road to the BW depot at Northwitch for restoration.  BW lost interest and once again the boat was abandoned this time bankside at Northwich. Eventually British Waterways became extinct and Canal & River Trust took intrest. The boat was moved by road to Canal & River Trust’s depot at Burnley on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Restoration is progressing with enthusiasm. Grants have been made and Ladt Fiona / Pet is now on the National Historic Ships Register.

Pet ubloading coal by Penny Street bridge Lancaster, c1898

Steam tug “Asland” hired from the Leeds & Liverpool canal towing a train of 3 boats near Bolton le Sands in 1917.  Short lived trial for 1 year.

    Drawing showing hull shape, towing mast, cabin chimny, hatch to cabin, ventilation holes each side of rudder, scrollwork stern decoration.