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The Leeds & Liverpool Canal

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal is the longest man-made waterway in Britain. Its main line stretches 127 miles from the Port of Liverpool, across Lancashire, over the Pennine Hills and on to Leeds in Yorkshire, passing through one of the most heavily populated and most industrialised areas in England (SEE MAP)

It can be argued that the Leeds & Liverpool was by far the most successful canal in Britian. Unlike other canals, whose traffic was dependent on one type of cargo, the Leeds & liverpool handled an enormous variety of goods, from wool & cotton to coal & limestone, grain and even passengers traffic.

Factories and wharfs were built along its banks and it was such an efficient means of transport that it was able to beat off competition from the railways for certian goods right up until the first decades of the 20th century.


The Rufford Branch

The Rufford Branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal near Burscough.

Click on photo to see full size


The forerunner of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was the Douglas Navigation. The river Douglas was made navigable by straightening, widening and adding locks in the early 1700's. The aim was to transport coal from the Douglas valley coal fields to the sea for later exportation to Ireland. The navigation was completed in 1742 but was never a complete success because of the tidal nature of the upper end of the river.

Building work began on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal itself in 1770 at both ends. The two were partly opened in 1773 but not finally joined into one complete canal until 1813.

The main push for the canal came originally from Yorkshire, especially the Bradford area who wanted to improve their supply of limestone and have access to the port of Liverpool in order to export their textiles

There were many differences of opinion between the Yorkshire shareholders and the Lancashire shareholders about the route due to the fact that their interests were different. For the Liverpool merchants it was important for the canal to pass through Wigan in order to give them access to the Wigan coalfield. The Yorkshire shareholders disagreed and their route was orignally accepted but adapted later to suit the Liverpool merchants. In 1772 the Leeds & lIverpool Canal Company bought the Douglas Navigation and therefore were able to guarantee the necessary water supply to the canal.

Leeds & Liverpool Canal Families

The boatmen and women who worked the Leeds & Liverpool Canal were a special breed unto their own. They lived in a very close-knit community and inter-marriages were frequent. Surnames like, Cheetham, Gibbons, Foreshaw, Ruddock, Stopforth, Halsall, Hesketh, Lamb and others are the most common. These families worked on the canal boats for generations and made their homes in the villages along the canal bank like Burscough, Lydiate, Halsall, Newburgh and Parbold.

Also see:

The British Waterways Site

National Waterways Museum


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