The history of the Sankey St Helens canal


PenkfordThe few remaining watered areas are what are left of the canal today as attractive narrow lakes. This is a short section in water at the bottom of Common Road, Penkford Bridge, going in the direction of St Helens.

In the 1750s Liverpool was starting to become a town of some importance; the port was expanding, particularly with trade to the Americas and the West Indies, the stirrings of the industrial revolution were starting and there was an increasing demand for coal for heating and in developing industries. There was plenty of coal in the Lancashire coalfield around St Helens and Haydock and amongst early mine owners and developers were the Legh family, currently headed by the present Lord Newton, Richard Thomas Legh, 5th Baron Newton whose Legh Estates still have massive land holdings in and around Newton-le-Willows. An ancestor built Lyme Hall (given to the National Trust in 1946) in the 16th century, which is no doubt how one of Haydock’s collieries came to be named Lyme Pit.

img282Copyright Nick Coleman – Bradley Lock at Earlestown with the Sankey Sugar Works on the right and the Nine Arches in the distance photographed in 1968. The canal is now filled in behind this lock.   See Bradley Lock as it is today on the final photo of this article.

The problem was, however, how to get the coal to the city; road transport by horse and cart on a dreadful road system was difficult and the only really effective transport system at the time for bulk cargoes was by water. As a result, an act of parliament was passed in 1755 described as “An act for making navigable the river or brook called Sankey Brook and three branches thereof from the River Mersey below Sankey Bridges up to Boardman’s Stone Bridge on the South Branch, to Gerrard’s Bridge on the Middle Branch and to Penny Bridge on the North Branch all in the county palatine of Lancaster”.  Henry Berry, Liverpool’s second dock engineer was put in charge of the project but it soon became apparent that making the Sankey Brook navigable was impractical.

img280Copyright Nick Coleman – The Sankey Valley with the Sankey Brook on the left and the canal just below the Sugar Works on the right. Much of this area between the brook and the canal is now densely wooded

The Brook had many twists and turns, was quite shallow in parts and with the current due to the gradient, getting up the river would be well nigh impossible, particularly as sail was the proposed method of propulsion. Fortunately the Act allowed Berry to make any necessary new “cuts” and it soon became obvious that the solution would be a completely new cut, roughly parallel to the Sankey Brook but with less sharp deviations and using that wonderful invention the canal lock to take care of the gradient and produce level sections of constant depth and negligible current. The work was, of course, all done with hand labour by the navigators or “navvies” as they became known and the canal opened and was carrying coal by 1757; England’s first true canal. It is often stated  that the Bridgewater Canal, established by the Duke of Bridgewater and built by James Brindley to transport coal from the Duke’s mines at Worsley was England’s first true canal (there have been several television programmes erroneously stating this fact) but it’s incorrect: the Sankey canal opened about four years earlier.

img285Copyright Nick Coleman – Hey Lock, this stonework still exists here and the canal is still in water but a pipe now takes the water between the two levels (photo fom 1968

The boats for the canal were known as “Mersey Flats” as they had flat bottoms so they could rest in the mud without keeling over if caught out at low tide on the river and they were considerably wider than the conventional canal narrowboats which only appeared later. Why later canals used locks half the width of Berry’s, requiring narrower boats has always been something of a mystery, perhaps something to do with costs. It soon became apparent however than the access to the River Mersey at Sankey Bridges was unsatisfactory due to silting and tides and in 1762 a further Act was passed allowing the canal to be extended to enter the river at Fiddler’s Ferry. Much later, in 1830, a further, and final extension took the canal to Spike Island and the River Mersey at Widnes. The canal was subsequently a significant factor in developing St Helens, Haydock, Earlestown and Widnes which were all small villages at the time and, of course, this was well ahead of the the arrival of the railways.

img283 Copyright Nick Coleman - This section of canal between Newton Hospital and Hey Lock is the least changed since this photograph was taken in 1968

So what’s left of the canal today? Well although it’s not all in water it is possible to walk or cycle the full length of the route of the canal from the middle of St Helens to Widnes, a distance of around 15 miles, and the branch off to Blackbrook. North of Earlestown (ie from Earlestown to St Helens) the canal was abandoned in 1931 and the section around Haydock became overgrown with reeds and rushes although the Havannah Flashes, just off the route of the canal, are attractive small lakes. Closer to St Helens the original canal is still much in evidence, terminating now behind the former town centre Tesco site whilst the canal basin at Blackbrook, where there is a visitor centre, has just been restored along with some excavation works for an 18th century iron works nearby. This processed iron for nail manufacturing. A footpath extends from Blackbrook along the stream which takes the overflow from Carr Mill dam, ending up at the dam. Carr Mill is the largest area of inland water in Merseyside and the outflow was used to keep the canal topped up.

img281 Copyright Nick Coleman – Hey Lock looking towards the old Newton Cottage Hospital on the left.

The last commercial use of the canal though was for a somewhat different cargo to coal; raw cane sugar. This would arrive at Liverpool docks, be transferred to canal barges and transported to the Sankey Sugar Works at Earlestown via the River Mersey estuary and the canal. Once the regular routine of sufficient barges was set up this was a good way to transport bulk cargo away from the roads and would no doubt be classed today as a “green” transport solution. The last barges delivered their cargo in 1959 and the canal was officially abandoned as a navigable waterway in 1963. Today there are marinas with boats moored on the canal at Fiddler’s Ferry and Spike Island, Widnes. There are functioning locks at both locations to allow access to and from the canal with the River Mersey. Warrington and Halton Councils have stated it is their intention to make the canal navigable again from Sankey Bridges (Warrington) to Widnes which is quite feasible as no significant roads are crossed. Currently there are obstructions due to culverts, overgrown reedbeds and some fixed single track bridges which would need to swivel but the work involved is relatively minor.

img286Copyright Nick Coleman – George Stephenson’s Nine Arches (built in 1828- 1830) viaduct built for the world’s first passenger railway crosses England’s first canal which opened in 1757.  Or it did when this picture was taken in 1968.  Regrettably the canal was subsequently filled in here

At Earlestown the canal was used as landfill for rubbish from the bottom of Common Road, beneath the magnificent Nine Arches of Stephenson’s railway viaduct, as far as Bradley Lock, then it’s in water as far as Winwick where it was again used as landfill up to Bewsey Lock (Warrington). This was surely an act of vandalism on our historic industrial heritage which would not be allowed today. The site where the world’s first passenger railway crosses England’s first true canal and the canal’s gone! Access to the local section is found down the track near Newton Hospital and there is a large car park available. Although the canal is filled in at Winwick Quay, buildings which comprised canal workshops, displaying the date 1841 still exist there as does a dry dock.

The most visited section today though would appear to the section between Bewsey and Sankey Bridges. Today the canal (or linear park as it is sometimes now described) is a wildlife haven for water fowl and herons whilst the copious reed beds form an ideal habitat for reed buntings and summer migrants such as sedge warblers and the sometimes heard but seldom seen grasshopper warbler.

Sankey ValleySankey Valley today

Sankey Canal Present daySankey Valley today in 2013 see the same photo above taken 45 years ago in 1968.

See also the website of the Sankey Canal Restoration Society

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