Accrington's Canal Links

As the Leeds and Liverpool Canal winds its tortuous way through East Lancashire it seems to carefully avoid Accrington. In fact, the town was the largest hereabouts not be served by the canal. This was never the intention. When the canal’s route through East Lancashire was decided in 1793, it was planned to continue up the valley of the Hydburn, crossing it at a point close to the old Grammar School on Blackburn Road. The proposed Haslingden Canal was to join it here, creating a water link with Bury and Manchester. Had this happened there would have been a wharf near the junction where goods to and from the town could have been handled.

Instead the route was altered. The Peel family asked the canal company to avoid crossing the Hyndburn above their printing works at Peel Bank. At that time it was one of the largest factories in the world and used the clear waters of the Hyndburn (How things changed later!) for washing the cloth during the printing process. Building the embankment necessary for the canal to cross the Hyndburn would have interrupted this supply and caused production problems. A short branch along the original line did serve the factory, but the main line was built downstream, rejoining the original line at a right angle junction at Church. Much of the land for the canal deviation had to be purchased from the Petre family of Dunkenhalgh. Although they were quite happy for the canal to be built, they requested that the towpath was made on the side of the canal away from their house and lands. They hoped that this would prevent poachers from gaining easy access to their estate!

Accrington's lack of a canal was seen as a major disadvantage, and a branch canal was proposed on two occasions, in 1875 and 1882. The small branch built for the Peels would have been extended along the northern side of the Hyndburn, ending in a circular canal just below the railway viaduct. Besides providing condensing water for mill steam engines, the branch would have been used to bring coal to the gasworks and grain to the corn mill. A rather less savoury cargo would have been refuse and nightsoil. After collection from the bin 'oyls and closets in the back entries of local terraced houses, it would have been delivered by boat to West Lancashire for spreading on farm fields as manure. The sewage works at Church certainly provided such cargoes into the 1940s. Unfortunately, the branch would have been expensive to build and unlikely to pay for itself and was never built.

Up until the early 1960s, when carrying on the canal ceased, Accrington had to rely upon the wharves at Enfield and Church for its canal service. The former, opened in 1801, was built near to the junction of two turnpike roads which enabled goods to be carried to and from Bury and Clitheroe besides serving Accrington. The warehouses still stand partly derelict. Several factories were served by the canal at Enfield; of particular note are Royal Mill, the last to be built in Clayton, which opened in 1912, and Enfield Corn Mill, used for many years by Joseph Appleby, who had his own fleet of boats carrying grain on the canal. This mill was subsequently occupied by the East Lancashire Soap Company who used the canal for shipping their famous floating soap. Presumably, it must have been carried by boat!

The history of the canal at Church is, perhaps, more interesting. The turnpike from Blackburn to Accrington was opened after the canal and the canal embankment across Tinker Brook was enlarged to carry the road as well. The first canalside warehouse was opened in 1836, a few years afterwards. This was built by the Hargreaves brothers of Broad Oak. A proper wharf was erected seven years later, the canal company draining the canal for just twenty four hours to allow the foundations to be built. The canal company later took over the warehouse, enlarging and improving the facilities in 1890. It probably ceased to be used by the canal company around 1921, and today is in a derelict condition, despite being listed.

The canal company also opened a wharf at the end of Bradley Street in 1891. Built on the site of the Church Lane Chemical Works, it was used for the storage of timber and machinery. Because they had little space at their factory, Howard and Bulloughs were one of the main users of this wharf. The canal company would then deliver their export textile machinery right to the ship’s side in the docks at Liverpool, Birkenhead or even Hull.

Thomas Crawshaw, a local coal merchant, also provided a collection and delivery service from the wharf. He cannot have been too reliable as the canal company took over this part of his business in 1901, paying £700 for his stable, horses and lurries. The canal company had further problems at Church in that year as J. W. Varley, their agent there, was dismissed because of irregularities in his accounts. Things had improved by 1913 when an electric crane was installed to help with loading and unloading.

Four years later, the routine operation of the canal was upset once again. To supply the munitions industry, Lance Blythe had set up the Coteholme and Kirk Chemical Companies which made picric acid and high explosives. On the 27th April 1917 a fire started at the works. James Hardacre, a policeman at Church, was killed while attempting to ensure that everyone had left the site. He was awarded the King's Police Medal posthumously. There was large scale damage throughout Church. The houses in Bradley Street and Canal Street bore the brunt of the explosion, while Church Kirk was closed until the following August.

The canal also suffered as four boats, towed by a tug, were passing at the time. The explosion blew the tarpaulin covers off the cargoes and the boatmen must have been shocked. The wharf, which was directly opposite the factory, was also damaged, the company reporting:

The electric and steam derrick cranes were slightly damaged, cases of the machinery belonging to Messrs. Howard and Bullough protected by the waterproof cover were set on fire, the electric switch house and stabling consisting of 19 stalls with lofts over them, 3 loose boxes, cart shed and harness room were more or less demolished. The horses were got out uninjured. Owing to war conditions only nine horses are now employed whereas in normal conditions the stabling is fully occupied.

There was also an eight-horse stable, but this only had its roof blown off and it was quickly repaired. Due to wartime restrictions, little about the explosion was made public. The wharf was rebuilt and continued in operation for many years. New warehouses were erected in the 1950s and 60s, with road transport using them after carrying on the canal finished. The wharf ceased being used in 1985 when a fire burnt out one of the new warehouses.

Mike Clarke

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