HAPPY BIRTHDAY LEEDS & LIVERPOOL
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
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.