Wednesday, 31 August 2022

How mining led to the first industrial canals of England – by Susan Brownrigg

The historic county of Lancashire was the birthplace of England’s first industrial canals.

Canals were created as an alternative way to transport coal. In the 1750s coal was carried by horse and cart over poor quality roads. The canals meant coal could be taken by water, faster, easier and cheaper!

The Sankey (St Helens) Canal was approved by parliamentary act in 1757. The permission granted was to make the Sankey Brook navigable, but the engineers instead cut a separate canal alongside the river.


Eventually the canal would run 15.8 miles between St Helens and Widnes, meaning coal could be transported both locally and further afield to salt works on the river Weaver and for use in a growing number of chemical industries.

Canal locks make it possible for barges to climb up high hills and mountains.

The Sankey Canal included broad locks which would allow traditional Mersey flats – a type of sailing barge. The flats had tall masts for their sails, so swing bridges were also needed to allow the barges to pass through.

The Sankey Canal used the first staircase lock in England, called the Old Double Lock. Staircase locks are used where the gradient is very steep.

The Sankey canal closed in 1963, but the towpaths can still be enjoyed. There are plans to restore the route to water traffic again. https://www.sankeycanal.co.uk/

Nicknamed the ‘Dukes Cut,’ the Bridgewater Canal was opened in 1761. 39 miles long, it stretches between Runcorn and Leigh. It does not include any locks, as it is built on one level.

The Canal was named after the third Duke of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton.

The third Duke of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton.

The Bridgewater Canal was the first industrial canal in England that did not follow the route of an existing watercourse.

The opening of the Bridgewater Canal as depicted by artist Ford Madox Brown.
One of twelve murals in the Great Hall, Manchester Town Hall

The Duke of Bridgewater owned a mine at Worsley, but he had two problems: the mines kept flooding and he needed to find a way to make more money.

As a young man, Francis Egerton took a grand tour of Europe, and it is thought seeing the use of canals in France also inspired him to commission his own.

The solution – reached with the assistance of his steward, John Gilbert, was a specially built watercourse which would drain the water away and could be used to transport coal to market.

There would be two elements to the plan – a series of underground canals at Worsley Delph and the creation of the Bridgewater Canal.

The Duke of Bridgewater needed a canal engineer to bring the plans to life. He chose James Brindley, one of the very early canal engineers.



Mr James Brindley

James was a former Millwright apprentice, as a child he had been educated at home by his mother.
When asked by Parliament for a model of his proposed Barton Aqueduct, he dashed out and bought a huge cheese. He then returned and cut the cheese in half, then pulled a long rectangular object out of his coat and placed it across the top to represent the canal!

The Barton Aqueduct, by G F Yates

The aqueduct was the first of its kind in England. It had to be demolished in 1893 for the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal.


The Bridgewater Canal at Worsley ((Photo by Susan Brownrigg.)

At the Worlsey end of the Bridgewater Canal the water is a distinctive orange colour. The mining process meant that iron ore in the bedrock was released into the water. This iron oxide, or rust, was deposited as sludge in the passageways and then passed on into the canal water. Interestingly, the sludge used to be sold as 'ochre' pigment for artists to use in their paint!

Delph means delved or dug place. The site was originally a sandstone quarry. The artwork you can see at the Delph today is a modern interpretation of the crane which was used to lift the heavy stone onto barges.


Worsley Delph and crane as shown in Arthur Young's 1771 book
 A Six Months Tour through the North of England

The Delph is a large canal basin. There, you can also see two tunnels carved into the rock. These entrances lead to a series of underground canals. The canals are on four levels and covered 47 miles.

This subterranean system allowed ten time more coal to be transported than had been possible by road, and the price of coal halved! The underground canal was so tight that miners had to use ‘legging’ to get their narrowboats called starvationers to go through. The miners would lie on their back and use their legs to push the boat along.

The starvationer boats used in the underground canals were just four and a half foot wide.

A replica coal cart made from bronze is another vivid artwork at Worsey Delph. Carts like this were pulled by women known as 'drawers.' 

Young children also worked in the mines. The coals in the cart are engraved with stories telling what life was like for the children working underground in the dark.

The Mines Act of 1842 finally stopped children under 10 from working there.

The replica coal cart by Bronzecast (Photo by Susan Brownrigg.)

When the underground canal opened people came from far and wide to see it. Today it is still a popular tourist spot.

You can find out more about Worsley Delph over on the Time Tunnellers YouTube channel.


Author Susan Brownrigg at Worsley Delph. 
(Photo by Susan Brownrigg.)

Susan Brownrigg is a Lancashire lass and the author of three historical children's books for ages 8+ - Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest & Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower are seaside mysteries set in Blackpool. Kintana and the Captain's Curse is a pirate adventure set in Madagascar.

Susan's books are published by Uclan Publishing. They are available from bookshops and online retailers.

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