Our 30’ narrowboat is a familiar sight as she cruises the West Lancashire stretch of the canal but
how much do we really know about the Leeds Liverpool canal ?
The canal was originally proposed in the 1760’s with Yorkshire stone and coal barons keen to find
a way of getting their products to the thriving port of Liverpool. An Act was passed in 1770 to
raise funds and work started at Halsall. The original budget was £260,000 which would now be
£35m ! The canals saw the birth of the civil engineer and their engineering skills and
entrepreneurial talents played a major role in overcoming the huge challenges. Thomas Telford is
probably the best known of the engineers with his bridge over the River Menai another of his
The canal was dug entirely by manual labour and was back breaking work. The standard
dimensions were 40’ width at the surface and 26’ at the bottom of the 5’ depth. There are 91
locks which were build with the intention of allowing wide beam boats to transport heavier loads.
These were known as ‘broad boats’ and could carry 45 tons of coal or limestone. The craft were
towed by canal horses, led by one of the barge’s crew. The district of Lathom became famous for
supplying most of the horses used by the British Army in WW 1. Due to budgetary constraints the
canal was only completed in 1816 when it became possible to make the full 127 mile journey
through the Yorkshire Dales, Pennines and arrive in Liverpool. A ten day journey including 91
The canal was a huge success commercially, competing with railways even as they grew in
prominence. Barges would queue to pass through locks and would pay a toll to land owners who
had lost land to the canal. Water supply was an issue, especially in summer. The bargees lived on
their boats, often several generations sleeping in a single cabin. The horses were usually better
fed than the crew ! The decline of commercial traffic started in the 1960s with the closure of canal
side collieries particularly devastating. Most of the UK canals fell into disrepair with stretches
becoming unnavigable due to collapses and debris.
In the 1980s a major funding drive by British Waterways (now Canal and River Trust) restored
many of the canals and saw a huge increase in the popularity of leisure boating, now the main
activity on the UK canals. A journey to London is possible via canals or you access The Lancaster
Canal via The Ribble Link. If you wish you can travel coast to coast. Liverpool to Goole via Leeds.
The waterways are home to a wide variety of wildlife. Graceful swans, flitting kingfishers,
cantankerous coots and mad moorhens all brighten up the canals.
So, the next time you walk, cycle, bird watch or boat along the Leeds Liverpool canal, take a look around and
appreciate the incredible task of building them and how they helped fuel and build the Industrial
Revolution. The barge families took great pride in their onerous trade and you will occasionally
see a modern narrowboat decorated in the traditional scrollwork. Water buckets painted with
flowers and bird designs in the original style.
At Lancashire Canal Cruises, our skippers are also your guides and will point out unique features
along the journey. Locally quarried sandstone bridges, ‘stop plank’ emergency dams and hidden
pill boxes from WW 2 are just a sample of a heritage treasure trove including the little known
secret about the distance markings on the milestones.