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Leeds & Liverpool Canal
Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire to Vauxhall, Liverpool, Merseyside, UK
associated engineer
John Longbotham
Robert Whitworth
James Fletcher
date  July 1779 - October 1816
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Canal/Navigation works  |  reference  SE299330
ICE reference number  HEW 2038
The longest canal in the UK to be built by a single company, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal joins the Aire & Calder Navigation at Leeds, enabling cross-country water travel. The link between the North Sea and the Irish Sea was completed with the Liverpool extension almost two centuries after the rest of the canal opened.
The success of the Aire & Calder Navigation, and growing cross-country trade, led to proposals for a broad canal between Leeds and Liverpool that could accommodate the vessels using the Aire & Calder. The initial surveys were done by John Longbotham, and presented to committee in January 1768, with James Brindley and his assistant Robert Whitworth providing additional surveys and advice. Brindley declined the post of engineer, which was then awarded to Longbotham at £400 (later £500) per year.
An enabling Act of Parliament was passed on 19th May 1770, which permitted raising £320,000 of funding through £100 shares. The route chosen between Leeds and Liverpool passed through Skipton, Gargrave, Colne, Whalley, Walton-le-Dale and Newburgh.
The canal is trapezoidal in section, 12.8m wide at the top and 8.2m wide at the bottom with a 1.5m depth of water. The locks are generally 4.9m wide and 21.3m long, just accommodating the canalís typical 45 tonne load 'short boats' 4.3m wide, 18.9m long and 1.1m draft with 2.75m headroom.
To aid navigation in dim light or at night, the bridge arches were whitewashed as was the centreline of the bridge hole. Canal boats were double-ended so they did not need to be turned around for the return journey.
The first length, opened in 1773, was the lock-free section between Bingley and Skipton. In 1774 the Douglas Navigation was joined into the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, which bought most of its shares in 1772 and the remainder in 1783.
The 45km section from Liverpool to Newburgh was completed in 1775 for £125,000. Longbotham left the project in June 1775, when he resigned after problems with debts and book-keeping (rather than engineering competence).
The 53.9km between Leeds and Gargrave opened on 4th June 1777 at a cost of £175,000. Funds ran out and work stopped after the canal opened between Gathurst and Wigan in 1780. Another Act of Parliament, passed on 9th June 1790, permitted £200,000 of credit and changing the route to avoid the Whalley Nab Aqueduct and pass through Burnley and Blackburn instead of Whalley and Walton-le-Dale. Robert Whitworth was appointed engineer and construction began again in 1791 at Gargrave ó 22.5km was completed to Walass Banks for £210,000.
A further Act, on 9th May 1794, enabled the canal company to raise £280,000 in shares (though it had to pay back £101,000 borrowed under the 1790 Act) and vary the route through east Lancashire. The extra money was used to build the Foulridge Tunnel and extend the canal 12.9km to Burnley in May 1796. In April 1801, 15.2km of canal was opened between Burnley and Henfield. This was increased by 12.9km to Blackburn in June 1810 under the supervision of James Fletcher.
When completed in 1816 the main canal was 204.7km long. The three branches were added later ó the 11.3km Leigh Branch (1819-20) between Wigan and the Bridgewater Canal, the 11.3km Rufford Branch from Burscough to the River Douglas and the 400m long cut at Stanley Docks in Liverpool (1846). In 2001-2 the Millennium Ribble Link joined the Rufford Branch to the Lancaster Canal.
To avoid the expense of tunnels and cuttings wherever possible, the canal follows the topography ó sometimes covering twice the as-the-crow-flies distance! Even so it has more than 1,000 culverts, 588 bridges (81 of them swing bridges), 106 locks, 56 aqueducts, seven reservoirs and four tunnels. The canalís summit at Foulridge is 148.6m above sea level.
Notable structures include the Bingley Five-Rise Locks, the 1.5km long Foulridge Tunnel, the 1.2km long Burnley Embankment and the 23 Wigan Locks that raise the canal 65.2m.
The canal was supplied with water from the River Douglas in Lancashire, Eshton Beck in Yorkshire and the purpose-built Foulridge Reservoirs. Later reservoirs were built at Rishton, Foulridge, Barrowford and Winterburn.
Originally built to transport limestone, coal was soon the main bulk cargo passing through the canal. Other goods including wool, grain, machinery, groceries, alcohol, cement and cotton were carried and the canal was busy enough to compete with (and win) trade on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.
Trade declined after World War I (1914-18) when road transport increased, and dwindled further as industry changed from steam power to electricity and demand for coal fell. Passenger traffic on the canal was another source of commerce, with packet boats operating until the 1940s and recreational journeys increasing thereafter. Regular traffic over the summit stopped in 1960 and over the main line in 1964, coal transport ceased in 1972.
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was nationalised in 1948 and was transferred to the care of the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive. In 1953 responsibility was ceded to the British Transport Waterways, and then to the British Waterways Board in 1963. Restoration of the canal near Bradford took place in 2006.
British Waterways completed the 2.2km extension of the canalís western end from the Stanley Dock Branch via the Pier Head to Liverpoolís South Docks ó and thence to the Irish Sea. The £22m scheme includes two locks, open channels, tunnels and culverts. ICE President David Orr opened it officially in February 2008, though it was not available to through traffic until April 2009.
Drought conditions that depleted the canal's supply reservoirs to around one tenth normal capacity forced the closure of 96km between Wigan and Gargrave in August 2010. Elsewhere on the canal, lock opening was restricted to conserve water levels.
Contractor (Bingley to Skipton): John Tickle
Contractor (Newburgh to Liverpool): Samuel Weston and John Lawton
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
"Speed on Canals (Includes Plate, Woodcuts and Appendix)" by F.R. Conder
ICE Proceedings, Vol.76, pp.160-177, London, January 1884
"The Shell Book of Inland Waterways" by Hugh McKnight
Book Club Association, London, 1975
"James Brindley: the First Canal Builder" by Nick Corble
Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud, 2005
reference sources   CEH NorthBDCE1

Leeds & Liverpool Canal