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Lancaster Canal
Kendal, Cumbria to Westhoughton, near Wigan, Lancashire, UK
associated engineer
Robert Whitworth
John Rennie snr
William Crosley Jnr
William Cartwright
date  1792 - 22nd November 1797, 1797 - 1819, 1823 - 1826
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Canal/Navigation works  |  reference  SD475611
ICE reference number  HEW 395
The 66km long Lancaster Canal was constructed in two sections, linked by a tramway. It was isolated from the rest of Britain's canal network until the Millennium Ribble Link was completed in 2002. There are only eight locks (now derelict), making it ideal for leisure use. Parts of the canal were infilled to allow construction of the M6 and M61 motorways.
From the late 18th century, increasing industry in Lancashire created the need for better transport links between Lancaster and Preston, Manchester and Liverpool. The Lancaster Canal — known as 'the black and white canal' because it carried coal from the south and limestone from the north — was enabled by an Act of Parliament on 11th June 1792, which permitted £414,100 of funding to be raised in £100 shares.
Robert Whitworth completed the original surveys in 1772, with subsequent efforts by various canal engineers of the day. In 1792 John Rennie Snr surveyed the route between Kendal and Westhoughton, and was appointed engineer for the project. He chose to follow the topography so that only eight locks would be needed, and intended that aqueducts should convey the canal over all the rivers.
The initial task was to construct the impressive masonry aqueduct over the River Lune at Lancaster. It has five semi-circular arches of 21.3m span and is more than 183m long. Imported Italian pozzolana was used in the concrete pier foundations and double-shift working enabled the structure to be completed in only two years (1794-96), supervised by William Cartwright.
The broad canal has a trapezoidal section and is lined with puddled clay. It was designed to accommodate boats 4.3m wide and up to 22.9m long and 2.4m tall. At its peak, the canal carried 467,000 tonnes of freight a year.
The first two canal sections to be completed were at the southern end — 26.1km from Preston to Garstang on 22nd November 1797, followed two years later by the 20.9km stretch from Walton Summit to Haigh, where the canal joined the western arm of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal near Wigan Top Lock. Henry Eastman was resident engineer for these works.
Lack of funds dictated that the River Ribble was crossed by a tramway carried on a timber trestle bridge instead of the stone aqueduct proposed by Rennie and William Jessop. Another Parliamentary Act was passed on 20th June 1800, to raise a further £200,000 to continue with the works. The 8km long tramway included the first powered incline in Britain, and extended to Walton Summit where the canal resumed the route to Westhoughton. It was designed by Cartwright and opened in 1803, but closed in 1859.
In 1810 it was agreed that the Leeds & Liverpool Canal could use the Lancaster Canal south of Johnson’s Hillock (SD591207), and the two joined there in 1816.
The northern section, from Tewitfield to Kendal opened in 1819 and is 44.1m above sea level. Resident engineer Archibald Millar had to dispense with the contractors in September 1795, which resulted in Whitworth arbitrating, and re-letting the contracts. The engineer for this section was William Crosley Jnr, who took over from Rennie to supervise the whole canal from 1820 to 1826.
Notable structures along this stretch include the Tewitfield Locks, which raise the canal by 23.2m over 1.2km, the Sedgwick Aqueduct (Grade II listed and Scheduled Ancient Monument) and the Hindcaster Tunnel. The 347.5m long Hindcaster Tunnel is the only tunnel on the canal. It passed close to Sedgwick Gunpowder Works and was built without a towpath — the pulling horses walked over the tunnel along a horse path that is now a listed structure, while the boatmen ‘legged’ barges through it.
The canal’s main water supply comes from Killington Reservoir, completed in 1819. Its embankment has been raised twice since then to impound more water and it can now hold up to 3.5 million cubic metres. A maximum of 77,300 cubic metres of water per day is fed into the Lancaster Canal near Crooklands Aqueduct, 8km from the reservoir.
A 4.4km long branch from Lancaster to Glasson was built between 1823 and 1826, giving access to the sea via six locks. Glasson became a busy port, but its docks were later eclipsed by those at Preston.
A packet boat service between Preston and Lancaster began in 1798, continuing to Kendal in 1819. Until the railways brought fast and reliable journeys, these were seen as a better alternative to road travel. They only managed 7.3km per hour, taking 14 hours to cover the length of the canal. Faster iron-hulled water boats operated from April 1833 and by July they had cut the journey time in half. The packet boats stopped operating on 21st September 1846 — the day the railway reached Kendal.
In 1864 the southern section of the Lancaster Canal was let in perpetuity to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The northern section was sold to the London & North Western Railway in 1885. The last cargo travelled the canal in 1947. It was nationalised in 1948 and was transferred to the British Transport Commission, who deemed that it had "insufficient commercial prospects to justify its retention". Ownership passed to the British Waterways Board in 1963.
When the M6 was built in 1968, the locks at Tewitfield were closed and the canal severed in three places. In the same year, the branch between Walton Summit and Johnson’s Hillock was closed for construction of the M61.
In early 1998, the Millness Cutting north of the M6 at Kendal began to lose 1,200 cubic metres of water a day through cracks in its clay lining. The northern reaches supply water to the southern reaches to maintain levels. The solution was to drain a section of canal, remove the clay, place a layer of compacted fill, lay a 5m wide bituminous membrane 4mm thick and top it all with a 100mm thick layer of mass concrete.
The canal south of Kendal to Natland is filled in, though the towpath remains as a public right of way. The canal is in water south of Stainton Bridge. At the southern end, the canal has now been cut back by 1.5km to a terminus at Ashton Basin instead of its former terminus near Preston.
There are plans to re-open 23km of the canal’s northern reaches, co-ordinated by the Northern Reaches Restoration Group — a consortium of nine partners. It would mean three motorway crossings, four main road crossings and working around 52 historically important listed structures. In 2002 the cost was estimated at £30m.
Research: ECPK
"Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, of Great Britain" by Joseph Priestley, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, London and Richard Nichols, Wakefield, 1831, p385-397
"Lancaster Canal: My Local Canal, Our National Treasure" booklet, British Waterways, 2010, available at www.waterscape.com
reference sources   CEH NorthBDCE1

Lancaster Canal