Proposed boatlifts in England after Anderton

Originally written for Eckhard Schinkel's book Schiffslift

Most of England's inland waterways were built and owned by private companies, unlike other countries, where government finance was provided. (One or two British canals, constructed at the start of the 19th century, did receive Government support, but this was more to provide employment than to create a transport system.) The British Government attitude to economic development was one of laissez faire. For canals, this meant that no national standards were established for boat or lock dimensions, resulting in a wide variation in size across the country. Goods sent across country by canal would sometimes need transhipment which increased costs, and if canals belonging to two or three companies were used, it was often impossible to obtain a single toll for the whole journey.

The difficulty of determining the cost of a long-distance journey by canal increased when railways took over some canals in the mid-nineteenth century. They increased canal tolls to their maximum where the canal was in competition with the railway, reducing railway tolls at the same time. Government tried to control this virtual railway monopoly but with little success. The result was that the private canal companies found it almost impossible to finance improvements to their waterway. Canal development in 19th century was described by the Bowes Committee (1958) as reported by the 1906 Royal Commission as: The confused and undecided action of Parliament, which, after permitting in the 1840s enough railway acquisitions of canals to introduce a hopeless chaos into the waterway system and stultify any development by private enterprise, attempted in the 1870s to remedy matters by measures powerless to cure a situation inherently vicious.

The more successful navigations, such as the Aire & Calder Navigation and the Weaver Navigation, were able to enlarge and improve their locks and to provide new facilities such as the compartment boat hoists at Goole and Anderton Lift. These developments encouraged others, and from the 1880s there were many proposals for new and enlarged waterways, mainly to link the industrial areas around Birmingham and Wolverhampton with the four main estuaries - the Mersey, Humber, Thames and Severn. Both lifts and inclined plans, the latter based on Blackhill (on the Monkland Canal) and Foxton (on the Grand Union Canal), were included in such plans over the following eighty years.

The first suggestion for an improvement of the waterways from Birmingham was made in 1883 by Samuel Lloyd. His National Canal was to be similar in size to those in France and Belgium with part of the cost being provided by the Commissioners on Depression in Trade as a way of providing employment. Definite schemes soon followed. In 1884, H. J. Marten, Engineer to the Severn Navigation, proposed an improvement of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal using enlarged locks and inclined planes for boats capable of carrying 200 tons. The following year he reported on the London to Birmingham route, initially suggesting 250 ton boats, later for 130-140 ton boats. The scheme reduced the number of locks and included lifts, though the cost, £1.25 million, was considered uneconomic. Further discussion centred on the Birmingham to the Bristol Channel route, Mr. Keeling, Engineer for the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal, suggested enlarging the Worcester & Birmingham Canal for 200-250 ton boats with locks and an incline at Tardebigge at a cost of £600,000. The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce also became involved in supporting investigation of the two routes. A Bill for The Birmingham & Humber Navigation Company was advertised in 1887, but no further action was taken.

The following year, the Royal Society of Arts held its first conference on Canals and Inland Navigation where all the schemes were discussed. Samuel Lloyd had increased the size of National Canal which was now for 600 ton boats and he anticipated using lifts, while Mr. Jebb, Engineer for the London & North Western Railway, stated that he had designed inclines, similar to Blackhill, to avoid locks on the railway-owned Birmingham Canal Navigations.

An improved canal from Birmingham to the Mersey, for 250 ton boats, was proposed in 1890 by Sir James Brunlees and Mr. McKerrow. Its route was via Wolverhampton, Penkridge, Stafford, Stone, Stoke, Tunstall, Kidsgrove, Wheelock and Winsford where it joined the Weaver Navigation. It was designed for 300-400ton boats and used hydraulic lifts. These were to link canals at the following levels: Birmingham 387 ft, two lifts (c42ft each) up to Wolverhampton 472.75ft, down four lifts (c 45ft each) to River Penk 296ft, then level for 21 miles, four lifts (c40ft each) up tot Trentham 460ft and the eight lifts (c50ft each) down to Winsford 54.5ft. The cost was estimated at £5 million.

Further developments were proposed at a conference on Inland Navigation held by the Institute of Mining Engineers in 1895. Amongst the speakers was J. A. Saner from the Weaver Navigation who preferred lifts to inclines because of the amount of land needed and because of surging in the caissons on inclines. Mr. Salt responded that he though locks were cheaper, even when including the cost of back-pumping water. Of the proposed improvements, the one from Birmingham to the Severn was considered easiest as it was the shortest and only one canal company was involved. However, at the time this route was only used by a small percentage of trade to and from Birmingham. The most important route was to the Mersey, and this also passed through Stoke-on-Trent which would supply more traffic. The problem was that at least four canal companies would be involved, two of them railway owned. Lyonel Clark (the son of Edwin Clark) had worked on the scheme which was for 400 ton boats. The route was set out so that the canal was away from mining areas as subsidence would cause problems for the lifts. Only those at Wolverhampton were likely to be affected. The cost of a 50 foot double caisson hydraulic lift was estimated at £30.000.

1897 saw yet another proposal, for an improvement of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal from the Severn to Aldersley, near Wolverhampton. An extension to Wolverhampton was considered too expensive as it was around 200 feet higher than Aldersley. The canal was designed for the 250 ton boats then using the Severn and seven inclined planes were to be built similar to that at Foxton.

In 1904 the Royal Society of Arts published a paper on The British Canal Problem. Discussion centred around how to finance canal improvement, with public trusts, ownership by local authorities or nationalisation all being suggested. A Royal Commission was set up by Parliament to look at the condition of British inland waterways. It lasted from 1906-1910 and examined all aspects of canals. With regard to improved canals, 300 ton boats were regarded as the minimum size. A scheme by J. A. Saner to link Birmingham to the four estuaries was considered. A cheaper version, mainly using existing waterways enlarge for 100 ton boats was also costed, but no action was taken by the Government. Saner also presented his ideas to the Institute of Civil Engineers where the discussion was of interest. Mr. Thomas, designer of the Foxton incline, highlighted the benefit of lifts or inclines on the approaches to summit levels. Because of them, the majority of water needed for a canal could be supplied from a lower level, solving one of the main problems for new canals in England where water supplies were always at a premium.

Little further planning was undertaken until after the First World War. In 1920, an interim report (though no final report) was produced for the Ministry of Transport. It suggested the improvement of the River Trent to Nottingham, a scheme carried out by the local authority and the Trent Navigation Company using grant aid from the Government. A second interim report suggested dividing the canal system into regions owned by public Trusts which could later be amalgamated, reflecting to some extent what had been decided for the railways, though nothing was done regarding canals.

In 1923, a Special Canals Committee was set up by Birmingham Corporation, the City Engineer and J. A. Saner reporting to them in 1925. The route chosen was via the BCN to Horsley Fields, a new canal to Autherley, the Staffs & Worcs Canal to Baswich (Stafford), a new canal to Aston Lock, the Trent & Mersey Canal to Middlewich, and finally a new canal to the Weaver. It was designed for 100 ton barges, 80ft x 14ft x 5ft, with counter-balanced lifts like Anderton, the caissons for the lifts being 82ft x 15ft x 5.5ft. They were to be located at: Tipton (20ft), Wolverhampton (100 ft possibly with tunnel at lower end), Aldersley (30ft), Gailey (45.5ft), Penkridge(27ft), (then three locks to Stafford) Stafford (27ft), Meaford (71.5ft), (a lock at Trentham) Stoke (50ft), Lawton Upper (50.75ft), Lawton Lower (61ft), Tetton (37.75ft), Moulton (77ft possibly with tunnel at lower end). The total length of the new canal was 82 miles with 24 lifts or locks. The time for operation of each lift was assumed to be 12 mins so that 12,000tons could be handled daily - perhaps 6,720,000tons per year. The cost was estimated at £6.6 million. In the following year, Saner obtained the institute of Transport's Gold Medal for his paper on Overcoming Differences of Level in Canals. In this he noted, In the case of a lift, however, it may even be necessary to construct an aqueduct for the upper approach, and there is almost certain to be deep cutting below....In good ground, and where a considerable difference in level exists, an alternative is to place the lift in a well or shaft and make the lower approach in tunnel, as is proposed for one or two lifts in the contemplated improvement of the Birmingham-Mersey route in England. He considered locks and inclines to be better for river basin areas, while vertical lifts were better when traversing a ridge between two river basins. Electricity was best for operating lifts where available, though hydraulics, where there was no electric power, was cheaper than generating electricity. Lifts were better than locks for a difference in level of over 30ft for boats up to 400 tons.

Again nothing was done, and it was not until 1933 that a further scheme was proposed. In that year John F. Pownall published his first book Transport Reform in Great Britain. In this he suggested that a canal, used for both water supply and transport, could be built along the 310ft contour which connected many of the industrial centres of Britain. The canal, 1,300 miles in length and of European dimensions, was to link Cornwall to Edinburgh and Wales to East Anglia. Eighteen lifts were included to link the canal to ports and rivers. Over the next thirty he published many articles on what became known as The Grand Contour Canal with many detail variations: in 1935 there were five lifts; in 1942 thirty-three, some to other canals and some to sea level. The main ones, with their height, were: Hertford (190ft), Bristol (310ft), Southampton (220ft), Donnington (210ft), Leicester (200ft?), Birmingham BCN (143ft in tunnel), Birmingham Tame Valley (98ft), Kidderminster (two lifts to the Severn), Stone (?), Wrexham (250ft?), Alsager (two lifts to the Weaver), a further lift up to Stoke-on-Trent, Preston (310ft), other small lifts to existing canals in Lancashire and Cheshire, Wakefield (260ft), Hartlepool (310ft), Newcastle (310ft).The main disadvantage of the scheme was that it was based on moving goods around Britain rather than to and from ports so it was never really considered economically viable. There were also problems over mixing water supply and transport which would have required some form of lock, details of which were very vague. The idea survived into the 1960s, the Inland Waterways Association published a booklet advocating investment in inland waterways which included a section of the Grand Contour Canal around 600 miles in length.

Towards the end of the Second World War planning was begun for peace-time improvements. In 1943, J. A. Saner came out of retirement to produce a report for the Ministry of War Transport on Provision of a Waterway between the River Mersey, via the Weaver to Wolverhampton with branches to Newcastle and Stone. It was designed for 100 ton barges, 100ft x 14ft x 5ft, with four lifts, similar in design to Niederfinow, with caissons 105ft x 25ft x 6.6ft for one 100 ton boat or 3 narrow boats. They were to be situated at Church Minshull (45.7ft), then lift 2 (80.3ft) after 7.5 miles, then lift 3 (80.3ft) after 2.5 miles, then lift 4 (80.4ft) after 2 miles. The route was a new line midway between the Shropshire Union Canal and the Trent & Mersey Canal, passing to the west of Stafford and then running near the Staffs & Worcs Canal to Autherley. Goods were then to be carried to and from Wolverhampton area by lorry.

A second Report on A Waterway from the Weaver to Wolverhampton was produced by Saner's successor as the Weaver's Engineer, C. M. Marsh. Designed for 100ton barges, 93ft x 14.66ft x 5.33ft, with lift caissons 110ft x 17ft x 7.5ft. There were to be two caissons per lift acting independently. The route continued up the Weaver from its current head of navigation at Winsford, eventually meeting the Shropshire Union Canal near Audlem and then following the canal to Aldersley. There were to be four lifts: no.1 Audlem Town (58ft), no.2 Audlem Hillside (52ft), no.3 Adderley (52.8ft), no.4 Tyrley (38.2ft). In effect the lifts replaced the existing locks on the Shropshire Union Canal. Once again, nothing was done, though the scheme was mentioned once more in the 1958 Report of Committee of Inquiry into Inland Waterways.

The history of Britain's proposed new waterways reflects its earlier history. There was a lack of Government interest in transport and developing a co-ordinated system. The proposals themselves were varied, with many different sizes being suggested for the boats to operate on the canal, and there was always uncertainty over which route created the best economic advantage.


Pdf of 1920s article about Anderton

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last revised: 31 August 2015