The Leeds & Liver­pool is cel­e­brat­ing its 200th an­niver­sary this year. Build­ing it was quite an achieve­ment, and it turned out to be­come some­thing of a bat­tle­ground

Canal Boat - - Contents - WORDS BY AN­THONY BURTON

We cel­e­brate the canal’s an­niver­sary by look­ing back to its early ‘War of the Roses’ bat­tles

When pro­mot­ers cel­e­brated the pass­ing of the Act, au­tho­ris­ing con­struc­tion of the canal in 1770, they could never have imag­ined that they would have to wait un­til 1816 for the next cel­e­bra­tion to mark the com­ple­tion of the great en­ter­prise. They would also no doubt have been shocked at the money in­volved.

When the Act was first ob­tained, the cost was es­ti­mated, at du­bi­ous ac­cu­racy, at £259,777. The fi­nal cost was never accurately as­sessed, but was roughly £1,200,000. The ob­vi­ous ques­tion is: what went so badly wrong that it took 46 years to build the canal and how could the cost­ings be so hope­lessly wrong? There was no one sin­gle cause, but there

were prob­lems right from the very start. The plan orig­i­nated with the en­gi­neer John Long­botham – in some early records the name is spelt Long­bot­tom, per­haps the al­ter­ation made it sound less anatom­i­cal – sur­veyed a pos­si­ble route and then re­ceived fi­nan­cial back­ing from Brad­ford wool mer­chant John Hun­slet to en­able him to start ral­ly­ing sup­port for an Act of Par­lia­ment.

At first, the com­mit­tee that was formed con­sisted en­tirely of men from the York­shire side of the Pen­nines, but it was soon re­alised that things would never progress un­less the western end was also rep­re­sented. But in­stead of ask­ing Lan­cashire men to join the orig­i­nal com­mit­tee, a sec­ond, sep­a­rate Lan­cashire com­mit­tee was formed.

It was per­haps op­ti­mistic to think the two would reach in­stant agree­ment, but no one ex­pected a sort of wa­ter­ways re­run of the Wars of the Roses. But that is what they got.

Long­botham’s orig­i­nal plan for the Leeds end was quite straight­for­ward. It would start at a junc­tion with the Aire & Calder Nav­i­ga­tion then fol­low the line of the Aire val­ley, grad­u­ally ris­ing un­til it reached Bin­g­ley. Faced with cross­ing the Pen­nines, the en­gi­neer tried to re­move the prob­lem by avoid­ing the hills as far as pos­si­ble, tak­ing the canal far up to the north be­fore turn­ing back to the south. The orig­i­nal idea was to swing right round down to the val­leys of the Lan­cashire Calder and the Rib­ble to

Orm­skirk, from where there was a sim­ple run in to Liver­pool.

This made sense in terms of re­duc­ing the en­gi­neer­ing works re­quired, but it made no sense at all to the po­ten­tial in­vestors of Lan­cashire. Long­botham’s route sim­ply missed the im­por­tant and rapidly grow­ing cot­ton towns, such as Blackburn and Burn­ley. The York­shire re­sponse was to say – no prob­lem, we’ll build branch lines to them. That idea was equally un­ac­cept­able. So the Lan­cashire Com­mit­tee paid for a new sur­vey of their own. The re­sult was a line that was even longer than Long­botham’s, tak­ing an equally eva­sive route around all ob­sta­cles.

With both sides con­vinced that their so­lu­tion was the best, the two schemes were put to ar­bi­tra­tion. They went to the man of the mo­ment, the busiest en­gi­neer on the canal scene, James Brind­ley. But Brind­ley was far too busy to take more than a pass­ing in­ter­est in the prob­lem and sent his as­sis­tant Robert Whit­worth to look over the Lan­cashire route.

He only got as far east as Burn­ley, by which time he had dis­cov­ered that the lev­els taken dur­ing the sur­vey were out by an as­ton­ish­ing 35ft. He promptly de­clared the Lan­cashire sur­vey­ors were hope­lessly in­com­pe­tent and pro­nounced in favour of Long­botham, which didn’t re­ally solve the prob­lem.

The Lan­cashire side had a new sur­vey done, and this time a com­pro­mise was agreed. Each com­mit­tee would be re­spon­si­ble for de­sign­ing the route for their end of the canal. It was a so­lu­tion, but not re­ally a happy one.

The early canals, such as this one, that were con­nected to ex­ist­ing river nav­i­ga­tions, were gen­er­ally de­signed to take the craft al­ready in use on the older routes. At the Lan­cashire end, this meant tak­ing Mersey barges and at the York­shire end, craft from the Aire & Calder.

Un­for­tu­nately, they were not the same size. As a re­sult, the Lan­cashire fac­tion, eager to reach the great coal­field around Wi­gan, set to work, build­ing locks that were able to take ves­sels up to 72ft long and 14ft wide. At the same time, the York­shire­men built locks that were the same width, but only able to take ves­sels up to 62ft long.

The lat­ter, which came to be known as Leeds & Liver­pool short boats, could travel the whole route, while the for­mer could only go as far as Wi­gan. This could have worked well enough in prac­tice, but what no one had taken into ac­count was the grow­ing net­work of nar­row canals stretch­ing across the rest of the coun­try. The now fa­mil­iar nar­row boats could never get past Wi­gan.

Other prob­lems soon ap­peared. The orig­i­nal plans called for an aqueduct to cross the Douglas Nav­i­ga­tion, but when the Douglas author­i­ties looked at them, they pointed out that it was far too low to al­low their ves­sels to pass un­der­neath. The Leeds & Liver­pool then

‘Each com­mit­tee would be re­spon­si­ble for de­sign­ing their end of the canal. But, un­for­tu­nately, they were not the same size...’

pro­posed a deep side cut­ting be­side the Douglas, with locks for ac­cess at ei­ther end. The canal boats would then be able to cross the river on the level. This bizarre scheme was never put into prac­tice.

The net re­sult of all this bick­er­ing and changes was that in­vestors, not sur­pris­ingly, be­gan to lose con­fi­dence in the whole scheme so that when money started to run out, no one wanted to dig any deeper into their pock­ets.

Long­botham’s work at the Leeds end did make progress, and it was a bold ven­ture. The canal grad­u­ally rises up the val­ley, at first by sin­gle locks, then dou­ble, then three-lock stair­cases and the whole as­cent cul­mi­nates in the fa­mous five-lock stair­case at Bin­g­ley. After that there came the long pound, 17 miles of lock-free travel to Gar­grave.

Progress, how­ever, was des­per­ately slow and in 1775 Long­botham was forced to re­sign: he was the scape­goat. It was a sad blow for him and it left him so badly off that in June 1800 he was forced to write a beg­ging let­ter to his old em­ploy­ers. He was able to point with some pride to his ac­com­plish­ments: that in the five years he had worked for them he had com­pleted 60 miles of canal at a com­par­a­tively mod­est cost of around £160,000. Now, in his old age, he was pen­ni­less and with no means of sup­port. He begged them to let him have a small amount as a stipend. The Com­mit­tee agreed to think things over. It was the fol­low­ing spring be­fore any­one was sent to see the old en­gi­neer: he had died in the win­ter in ab­ject poverty. It was a sad end for a man who gave us one of the most re­mark­able en­gi­neer­ing works of the age: the Bin­g­ley Five.

A new en­gi­neer, Richard Owen, was ap­pointed, but by 1782 all work ground to a halt: the com­pany had run out of money. Work lan­guished for eight years be­fore Robert Whit­worth was called in to pre­pare a new es­ti­mate for fin­ish­ing the canal. He resur­veyed the route and para­dox­i­cally, given that it was he who had ear­lier de­nounced the Lan­cashire sur­vey­ors’ line, de­cided that the best route would be through Burn­ley and

The canal brought in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment to Skip­ton. Above in­set: Mil­i­tary train­ing in boat han­dling in the First World War

An early rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Bin­g­ley locks drawn shortly after their con­struc­tion

Bin­g­ley Five Rise to­day

The route went north to avoid the hills

A pair of Leeds & Liver­pool short boats be­ing loaded with stone around 1910

Historic short boat Ken­net at Skip­ton

Skip­ton was a small market town be­fore the canal ar­rived

Re­cent fun at Blackburn

The mill at Sal­taire

Plea­sure boat­ing: a hand­some steam launch at Bank New­ton in the 1890s.

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