Sankey Canal

Sankey Canal

The Sankey Canal, which is also known as the Sankey Brook Navigation and the St Helens Canal, is a canal in Lancashire, in the northwest of England, connecting St Helens with the River Mersey. When opened in 1757, it ran along the valley of the Sankey Brook from the point where the brook joined the River Mersey, to a location to the north west of St Helens. Extensions were constructed at the Mersey end of the canal, firstly to Fiddlers Ferry and then to Widnes, while at the northern end, it was extended into what became the centre of St. Helens. The canal was gradually abandoned between 1931 and 1963, but has been the subject of a restoration attempt since 1985, when the Sankey Canal Restoration Society was formed.


Before the 1750s, navigations had, in the main, simply improved the depth of rivers, had used short artificial "cuts" to join long navigable stretches, or had connected nearby stretches of different rivers. The Sankey Brook Navigation was promoted as a continuation of that tradition, with the aim of making the Sankey Brook navigable.

However, the Brook has such a tortuous course that it is unlikely that the promoters seriously intended to make it navigable. Clauses in the Act allowed the builders to construct cuts and diversions as necessary to accomplish their aim, but instead they built a completely separate channel, away from the Brook itself. In doing so they constructed the first modern canal built in England in the Industrial Revolution, which was open from the collieries at Parr and Haydock to Sankey Bridges two years before the Act was passed for the building of the Bridgewater Canal,Jane Cumberlidge, (1998), "Inland Waterways of Great Britain", Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson, 7th Ed., ISBN 0-85288-355-2] which is often credited with that distinction, due in part to the publicity which the Duke of Bridgewater was able to obtain for his canal.Roger Squires, (2008), "Britain's Restored Canals", 2nd Ed., Landmark Publishing, ISBN 1-84306-331-X]

It has always been assumed that it was the single long artificial cut of the Sankey Brook Navigation that inspired Brindley to appreciate the potential for the Bridgewater Canal, the success of which instigated the Canal Mania of the late 18th century.


The canal was built principally to transport coal from the Lancashire Coalfield mines to the growing chemical industries of Liverpool, though iron ore and corn were also important commodities. These industries rapidly expanded, and spread back along the line of the Canal to St Helens, Earlestown, and Widnes, which were small villages until this period. The Sankey Canal was thus an important factor in the industrial growth of the region.

The line of the canal was surveyed by Henry Berry (Liverpool’s Second Dock Engineer) and William Taylor, the former being appointed Engineer for the navigation. With Thomas Steers, Liverpool’s First Dock Engineer, Berry had a part in building the earlier Newry Canal in Northern Ireland.

The Act of Parliament authorizing the construction of the navigation was passed on 20 March 1755, and was entitled "An Act for making navigable the River or Brook called Sankey Brook, and Three several Branches thereof from the River Mersey below Sankey Bridges, up to Boardman's Stone Bridge on the South Branch, to Gerrard's Bridge on the Middle Branch, and to Penny Bridge on the North Branch, all in the county palatine of Lancaster." [ Joseph Priestley, (1831), "Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, of Great Britain"] ] The canal was open and carrying coal by 1757; carriage of all goods was charged at a flat rate of 10d (ten old pence – approximately £0.042) per ton.

As the title of the Act states, in addition to the mainline between the Mersey and St Helens, there were three branches to nearby collieries: the South Branch to Boardman's Stone Bridge, near St Helens; the Middle Branch to Gerrard's Bridge; and the North Branch to Penny Bridge.

A second Act of Parliament was obtained on 8 April 1762, amending the earlier act, and was entitled, "An Act to amend and render more effectual, an Act made in the Twenty-eighth Year of the Reign of his late Majesty King George the Second, for making navigable Sankey Brook, in the county of Lancaster, and for the extending and improving the said Navigation". This authorised the extension of the navigation to Fiddler's Ferry on the River Mersey, and to take an additional toll of two-pence per ton, making the rate one shilling (£0.05) per ton. The line of this extension was surveyed by John Eyes.

An early trial of steam power took place on 16 June 1797, when, according to the "Billing's Liverpool Advertiser", dated the 26th, John Smith's "vessel heavily laden with copper slag, passed along the Sankey Canal ... by the application of steam only ... it appears, that the vessel after a course of ten miles [16 km] , returned the same evening to St Helen's whence it had set out". This boat was powered by a Newcomen engine working a paddle crankshaft through a beam and connecting rod.

To counter competition from the new railways, a further extension of the canal was planned from Fiddler's Ferry across Cuerdley and Widnes Salt Marshes to Widnes Wharf, on the west bank of the River Mersey near Runcorn Gap, thus creating an additional connection to the Mersey with another basin. This was authorised by a third Act of Parliament, granted on 29 May 1830, entitled "An Act to consolidate and amend the Acts relating to the Sankey Brook Navigation, in the county of Lancaster; and to make a New Canal from the said Navigation at Fidler's Ferry, to communicate with the River Mersey at Widness Wharf, near West Bank, in the township of Widness, in the said county,' repeals the former acts of the 28th George II. and 2nd George III. and incorporates the proprietors under the title of "The Company of Proprietors of the Sankey Brook Navigation." Francis Giles was appointed Engineer for this extension, which opened in 1833. In 1825 Giles, who was a pupil of John Rennie and involved in many canal projects of the period, had proposed a link from the Sankey, via an aqueduct across the Mersey, to the Bridgewater Canal and the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, but this was never implemented.

The Sankey was built for Mersey Flats, the common sailing craft of the local rivers; they were used on the River Mersey, the River Irwell, and the River Weaver and along the Lancashire and North Wales coasts. To allow for the masts of the flats, swing bridges were constructed for the roads which crossed the canal. When the railways were built, they too had to cross in similar fashion. The exception was at Earlestown, where Stephenson erected the Sankey Viaduct for the country’s first passenger railway from Liverpool to Manchester, leaving convert|70|ft|m|sing=on headroom for the flats’ sails. It is unclear exactly how the flats' masts were accommodated at Great Sankey, where the Liverpool-Warrington-Manchester line built by the Cheshire Lines Committee in 1873 crosses the Sankey on a 12-arch viaduct less than twenty foot above the water level of the canal.


A staircase (double) lock was built on the Sankey Canal and a second staircase was built later when the Ravenhead Branch was constructed in 1775. They are known respectively as the Old Double Lock and the New Double Lock. The latter was restored by St. Helens Borough Council in 1992, although it has no navigable waterway either above or below it.


Built primarily to take coal from Haydock and Parr down to the Mersey and so on to the saltfields of Cheshire and Liverpool, the final traffic on the Sankey was very different, and in the opposite direction, consisting of raw sugar for the Sankey Sugar Works at Earlestown, Newton-le-Willows, from Liverpool.

The Sankey’s immediate commercial success, followed soon after by that of the Bridgewater Canal, led to a mania of canal building, and for further extension schemes to be proposed for the Sankey. Francis Giles' proposal to link the canal to the Bridgwater Canal was not implemented, and neither was a plan to link the canal to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal near Leigh, to the North-East. Apart from the early extension to Fiddlers Ferry, which provided better access to the River Mersey, and the 1775 extension to St Helens, the only major change came with the extension to Widnes in the 1830s.

In 1845 the St Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway Company and the then more prosperous Canal Company merged to form the St Helens Canal and Railway Company. Its commonly used name changed to the St Helens Canal over time. The Sankey Canal Restoration Society, which was formed in 1985, has been attempting to rehabilitate its earlier title, and British Waterways currently uses the old title.


The ending of the sugar traffic in 1959 led to the closure of the Canal in 1963. North of the Sugar Works, closure had taken place in 1931, and fixed bridges quickly replaced the old wooden swing bridges. The Canal, however, remains largely in water right up into the centre of St Helens, although its terminus had been truncated in 1898, when Canal Street was built over it.


Most of the Canal is still in water and much has been restored to navigable standard, with short sections at Fiddlers Ferry, Warrington, and Spike Island, Widnes having locks into the Mersey which allow craft access to the canal for mooring. However, fixed bridges which replaced the original wooden swing bridges and other obstructions isolate the sections from one another. The route of the canal passes through the Sankey Valley Park. There are plans to restore the canal, and to extend it to join the main canal system via the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The total cost of this would be in excess of £100m and it is therefore a long-term project. There are, however, plans to dig out an infilled section in the centre of St. Helens as part of the town's Eastside Development, and the Widnes Waterfront development and the proposed new Mersey crossing between Widnes and Runcorn are expected to lead to further restoration at Widnes.

The section of the Sankey Canal running from St.Helens to Earlestown is expected to be the most difficult to restore, and is likely to involve the laying of a complete new canal bed. Work on the new canal is due to begin in 2009.


External links

* [ Sankey Canal Restoration Society]

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