Sailing Barges on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal

D of B.jpgHow many canal enthusiasts have looked at the illustration of the Duke of Bridgewater pointing at Barton Aqueduct and been perplexed at the barges pictured sailing along the canal. It is all too easy to dismiss such drawings as artistic licence. However, sailing barges did, in fact, cross the aqueduct. It is easy to forget that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sailing craft little larger than a canal barge traded regularly across the Atlantic. The smaller vessels employed in coastal trade certainly used the wide canals of northern England, even venturing onto the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. One of the original aims of the canal had been to carry goods between the ports of Hull and Liverpool. By the time the canal was completed, in 1816, the Rochdale Canal had opened and provided a quicker route across the Pennines. Instead the Leeds & Liverpool was used to transport goods from the ports to the growing industrial areas of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

The original impetus for the canal came from Bradford, those in control there authorising the construction of locks suitable for the keels (the sailing barges of Yorkshire) already using the Aire & Calder Navigation. The Leeds & Liverpool was actually built deeper than the old navigation which was forced to match these developments to combat the threat of the proposed Leeds & Selby Canal.

In Lancashire, where the canal was controlled from Liverpool, the locks were constructed to take flats (the local sailing barges) and so were built just over seventy feet long. (Small coasting vessels on both sides of the Pennines were around fourteen feet in beam so the width of locks was the same.) Narrow boats, built to carry materials during the construction of the canal, were used by the first carriers between Liverpool and Wigan. They were soon superseded by wide boats capable of using the old Douglas Navigation. When that navigation was bypassed in 1780 and 1781, the upper section was built by the Liverpool committee and so had seventy foot locks. However, the Bradford committee were responsible for the lower section which was built with their standard sixty two foot locks. It seems that differences which emerged between the two groups during the promotion of the canal had still not been satisfactorily resolved.

As the Lancashire and Yorkshire sections of the canal remained isolated from each other until 1816, the type of boats used developed separately. In Yorkshire goods were carried by keels. They were of clinker construction (the planks overlapping and clenched together with rivets to form a water tight joint) and had full lines which increased carrying capacity. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century cargo was often advertised as carried between West Yorkshire and the ports of Selby and Hull "in one bottom". This meant that only one boat was used for the trip so the goods did not have to be transhipped with a consequent reduction in the chance of damage. As steam power and towage were still in the future, this meant that barges capable of using the Leeds & Liverpool must have been able to sail down the Humber. The mast and sails were probably lifted out on entering the Aire & Calder Navigation or at Leeds, as the restricted dimensions of the canal bridges would not have allowed sailing barges to pass, even with a lowered mast. Canal barges from off the Leeds & Liverpool continued to work down the Humber to Hull well into the nineteenth century. When the canal company leased its merchandise carrying fleet to a consortium of railway companies in 1850, of the thirty three boats based in Yorkshire, nineteen had hatch covers. Normally the cargoes carried by Leeds & Liverpool barges were covered with tarpaulins stretched over three rails running the length of the hold. the provision of hatch covers would only have been necessary when the boats worked regularly in tidal waters. They gave extra protection to the cargo, not just from the weather, but also from waves breaking over the boat. (A loaded barge could often have less than a foot of freeboard.)

By-traders also worked onto the Humber. In 1856, following a stoppage of the canal at Shipley, William Selby, a boatmaster from Hull, demanded six guineas compensation after his boat Faith had been held up for ten days. Even as late as 1878, when boat registration was introduced, three boats were registered at Leeds by Hull owners for use on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the Aire and Calder Navigation. The last of these, the Rover owned by Newlove and Wilkinson, was only withdrawn from the list in 1909. However, steam tugs had been introduced on the Humber by the mid nineteenth century, so from then many boats may not have needed sails.

In Lancashire, sailing barges also operated on the canal. From its opening in 1742, the Douglas Navigation had been used by barges carrying up to 20 tons. They were moved either by gangs of men or, if the wind was favourable, by square sails, which were also needed when the barge worked to wharves on the Ribble. The mast must have been capable of lowering in order to pass under the bridges on the navigation. Larger flats worked from Sollom or Tarleton, where cargoes brought down the river were transhipped for delivery to ports around the Irish Sea. When the Leeds & Liverpool Canal bypassed the navigation in 1781, some flats were altered to allow them to work on the new canal, and new ones were built at Parbold dockyard for local owners. Swing bridges were provided where roads crossed the new canal. These soon proved troublesome, particularly where the road was heavily used, and many were quickly replaced with stone overbridges. These must have acted as a major deterrent to the use of sailing barges, even when their masts could be lowered.

In the original proposal for the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, it had been expected that there would be a link into the River Mersey and it was specifically mentioned in the 1770 Act. For various reasons, particularly lack of finance and obstruction by Liverpool's Town Council, it was not built until 1846. In the meantime, all traffic between the canal and the docks had to be transhipped twice, once from the canal barge onto a horse drawn wagon, and then into the vessel waiting in the docks. This double handling caused many problems, especially for the lucrative coal export trade where it increased breakage, reducing the quality of the coal. To overcome this, a link with the docks, either by a branch or by a tramway, was often suggested. There was even a proposal, in 1813, for a new coal dock linked to the canal, but this was rejected as the canal company were more intent on completing their main line from Yorkshire which opened in 1816. Four years later, the branch from Wigan to the Bridgewater Canal at Leigh was completed, linking the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to the rest of the canal system. By using the branch and the Bridgewater Canal, boats loaded with coal from Wigan collieries could reach Runcorn where they were able to lock down into the Mersey. Liverpool Docks were then accessible directly, and traffic soon developed, with Wigan coal advertised as being delivered alongside ships in the docks in one bottom, thus reducing the damage caused by transhipment.

Sailing flats were certainly used in this trade. They may have had lowering masts to enable them to pass under canal bridges, or their masts could have been lifted out at Runcorn to allow them to reach Wigan. Trade started immediately the branch opened, as Pecks, who were tarpaulin merchants in Wigan, were making sails for local barge owners throughout the 1820's. By the mid nineteenth century the trade was well established. When Blundell's Collieries, from Pemberton near Wigan, considered the introduction of steam power for their barges engaged in this trade, the estimated cost per ton of coal delivered was compared with that of their existing sailing barges. Although steam power was tried on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in the 1850's, it did not prove successful for almost thirty years. On the tideway from Runcorn to Liverpool, however, tugs were well established by the mid nineteenth century, so there would certainly have been less need for sailing barges after their introduction.

The route to the docks via Runcorn was of great help to the coal merchants, but drastically reduced the distance barges travelled along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. As tolls were paid for each mile of canal used, this considerably reduced the canal company's income. The obvious answer was to build a branch into the docks. This was finally achieved in 1846 when the canal was linked to the new Stanley Dock. To reach the canal, boats had to pass under Great Howard Street. The bridge provided has limited headroom which would have made it difficult for sailing barges to pass, even when they had a lowering mast. The canal company also introduced a bye-law prohibiting the use of sails when moving boats. Thus, although sailing barges did use the canal in Liverpool, they were always towed by horses, despite illustrations to the contrary.

It is easy to dismiss the evidence of contemporary artists. They often exaggerate details or introduce images from elsewhere. However there can often be more than a grain of truth in what they portray, even if it appears illogical today. It is only by careful research that we can begin to understand the material which has been passed down to us by earlier generations. Next time you see an illustration of a barge sailing along an inland canal, don't dismiss it out of hand, it could be true.

Mike Clarke, 8 Green Bank. BARNOLDSWICK, BB18 6HX
tel: +44 (0)1282 850430
last revised: 27 March 2014