Completed in 1816, the Leeds Liverpool canal is the Britain’s longest at 128 miles long. The canal has 91 locks; at least 57 moveable bridges (of which 4 are usually left open); 8 small aqueducts or underbridges; 2 tunnels and 1 major aqueduct.
The Leeds/Liverpool canal spans England, connecting Leeds (West Yorkshire) in the East, to Liverpool (Merseyside) in the west, crossing the Pennines and raising to an impressive height of 487 ft (148m).
We think that the canal provides the most variety of scenery, travelling through some of the industrial towns of the north and across the picturesque vistas of England.
Please take the time to read some of the information in these pages; we hope they will provide some information on the canal, its history and some of the more interesting places along its length.
During the latter half of the 18h century, trade was increasing in the Yorkshire towns of Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield. Though transport links to the east were fine for Leeds, through the Aire and Calder Navigation, links to the west were poor.
Bradford traders, wanted to increase limestone supplies to make mortar, and for agriculture, and needed to ship their textiles; whilst on the west coast, traders wanted a cheap supply of coal for their shipping and manufacturing businesses; which Bradford’s collieries could supply.
In between both these cities, there was a wealth of manufacturers wanting improved transport links.
Inspired by the recently opened Bridgewater Canal (opened in 1759) a canal crossing the Pennines and linking Liverpool and Hull (by means of the Aire and Calder Navigation) would be the obvious solution and carry many trade benefits.
On 2nd July 1766, a meeting was held at the Sun Inn, Bradford, to suggest that this canal be built.
John Longbotham was engaged to survey a route and two groups were set up to promote the scheme, one Bradford based and the other Liverpool based.
Once the first route was proposed the Liverpool committee was unhappy with the route. They said that following the Ribble valley through Preston meant that it ran too far to the north, missing key towns and the Wigan coalfield.
A counter-proposal was produced by John Eyes and Richard Melling, improved by P.P. Burdett, which was summarily discarded by the Bradford committee as too expensive, because of the valley crossing at Burnley.
James Brindley was called in to settle this, and decided in favour of Longbotham’s more northerly route, though with a branch towards Wigan. This decision caused some of the Lancashire backers to withdraw their support from the project, but the route was subsequently amended over the course of development and agreed upon.
An Act was passed in May 1770 authorising construction, and Brindley was appointed chief engineer and John Longbotham clerk of works; following Brindley’s death in 1772, Longbotham carried out both roles.
5th November 1770, Halsall (north of Liverpool) saw Hon. Charles Mordaunt of Halsall Hall, cut the first sod at the commencement ceremony, and the first section of the canal being opened from Bingley to Skipton in 1773. By 1774, the canal had been completed to Shipley.
The canal already had some amazing engineer feats, such as the Bingley ‘5 rise’ locks; as series of 5 consecutive locks; the Bingley ‘3 rise’ locks and the stunning 7 arch aqueduct crossing the river Aire.
Also completed at this time was the branch to Bradford.
On the Liverpool side, construction was completed from Liverpool to Newburgh.
By 1777 the canal had joined the Aire and Calder Navigation in Leeds, and on the western side it reached Wigan by 1781, replacing the earlier and unsatisfactory Douglas Navigation.
Work stopped in 1781 when the Rufford Branch (from the River Douglas at Tarleton to Burscough) was completed because all money was exhausted.
The decisive victory in the American Civil War known as the Siege of Yorktown, by a combined force of American Continental Army troops (led by General George Washington) and French Army troops (led by the Comte de Rochambeau) over a British Army (commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis), and continuing problems in the American colonies in the aftermath, meant that no further work was possible for a further 8 years.
It’s now 1789 and fresh proposals for altering the route of the remaining canal were developed by Robert Whitworth. They proposed lowering the summit level by some 40 feet (12.2m), a more southerly route through Lancashire and a tunnel at Foulridge.
A fresh Act in 1790 and a subsequent fund-raiser meant that construction recommenced in 1791, from Gargrave to Barrowford.
A link was proposed in 1794 from outside Red Moss after an agreement was made with the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal company, but work on the competing Rochdale Canal had started and would offer a much more direct route to Liverpool (via Manchester and the Bridgewater Canal).
The revelation that coal, and not limestone as previously thought, would be the main cargo that the canal would carry and that there was trade available along the route from all the communities the canal passed through along the route, made this canal seem preferable.
In that same year an act was created that re-routed the Leeds Liverpool canal closer to that originally proposed by P.P. Burdett, stopping the link construction.
Yet again more funds were needed as the Foulridge Tunnel was proving difficult and consequently expensive to construct.
In 1796 the Foulridge Tunnel and the Barrowford Locks were completed, both engineering feats in their own right. The Foulridge Tunnel at 1,650 yards (1500m) is just under a mile long, and the Barrowford Locks is a set of seven locks leads to the highest section of the canal between Barrowford and Barnoldswick.
Once completed these two features enabled connections to Burnley where a 1,350 yard (1,234m) long embankment (cresting at 60 feet (18m)) was designed in preference to 2 locks crossing the Calder Valley. Another 559 yards (511 m) tunnel was required near Gannow, along with a huge cutting connecting the two. Again this engineering work required even more funds with the embankment costing an astronomic amount, and taking another 5 years.