Building England’s northern network of canals in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was no mean feat for engineers and their armies of tough, hard-working navvies.
Waterway construction in this corner of the country was handicapped by an unforgiving terrain and the extremes of British weather. There were formidable challenges to overcome and yet three canals were successfully built across the Pennines to link the North West coast with the North East coast.
In Northern Canals Through Time, a beautifully illustrated and informative book, canal historian Ray Shill focuses on Lancaster, Ulverston, Carlisle and the Pennine Waterways from west to east, including from Nelson to Leeds on the Leeds & Liverpool, the canal from Rochdale to Sowerby Bridge on the Rochdale and the Huddersfield (Narrow) from Ashton to Huddersfield.
Using a fascinating ‘then and now’ study, Shill explores the construction and technical developments of the canals and their social and economic contributions to the towns and cities they passed through, as well as the architecture they spawned and their lasting legacy.
One of the greatest challenges for these early engineers was the Lancaster Canal which united the coal mines near Wigan with Preston, Lancaster and Kendal. The canal wound its way northwards towards Tewitfield near Carnforth before eight locks were needed to raise the waterway for the level section to Kendal.
The Pennine canals, meanwhile, provided essential navigation for the cotton and wool spinning industries with water supplies for the canals stored in groups of reservoirs high up near river watersheds.
The Lancaster Canal was a canal of two halves, separated by a tramway link across the River Ribble. It united the coal fields near Wigan with Preston and Lancaster, but it was never completed to the authorised terminus of Westhoughton.
Building the canal north from Preston was accomplished as far as Tewitfield by November 1797 but the extension to Kendal, with all its locks, did not begin until May 1817 and was finally completed in 1819.
A branch to Glasson Dock on the Lune estuary was opened in 1825 and all locks on the branch were 72ft long and over 14ft wide, allowing coastal craft such as sloops and flats access to the canal. It also enabled goods to be moved between Preston, Liverpool and Manchester.
Water supply was improved for the northern section by taking water from the River Keer at Capernwray near Carnforth through a feeder into the canal. At Preston, a tunnel was built through rock during 1806 to join up with the Ribble and water was pumped from the river by using a steam engine.
During the late 1830s and early 1840s, the Ribble Navigation Company undertook work to deepen the river, new wharves and warehouses were created and Preston was established as a port.
By the 1880s, the Ribble had been diverted to allow for the building of a new, larger dock, the Albert Edward Dock, which was completed in 1892 although it would be several more years before the warehouses were bustling and the railway system running at full steam.
Shill’s collection of photographs old and new provide an enthralling and nostalgic journey back through time as well as allowing us to see the many changes that have taken place to the region over the decades.
(Amberley, paperback, £14.99)