and Mersey Tunnel Tugs by Edward
published by Waterways World, January
(reproduced here by kind permission of Mrs
Pam Paget-Tomlinson and Waterways World)
Preston Brook tunnel, (1,239 yds)
on the Trent & Mersey Canal, was opened in February 1775, a few months
before Harecastle and Norwood on the Chesterfield and so was the first major canal tunnel
completed in the British Isles. Later, by May
1777, two shorter tunnels had been completed on the same canal near Northwich,
where it follows the steep side of the Weaver valley. Whereas the Preston Brook
tunnel is necessary to pierce the ridge between the Weaver valley and that of
the Mersey, and bring the Trent & Mersey to join the Bridgewater, the other
two, Saltersford (424 yds) and Barnton (572 yds) were driven for the sake of
safety, at points where terracing out the bed of the canal would make it liable
to slips. Preston Brook is a straight bore, but the other two have pronounced
bends, due, one imagines, to surveying mistakes.
This length of the Trent &
Mersey, as far as Middlewich, was designed for Bridgewater Canal
barges. However, the tunnels were given a width of only just over 13 ft, too
narrow for most barges, so the canal was perforce used by narrow boats as far
as Preston Brook, the junction with the Bridgewater, which became an important
transhipment centre. The tunnels were also too narrow for narrow boats to pass,
so traffic had to be regulated from the start by keepers who would operate a
simple timetable. Since none of the tunnels had towing paths progress was by
legging and shafting.
Unfortunately, Trent & Mersey
minute books have never been discovered so how the tunnels were worked is
supposition. Clearly, traffic was subject to delay and eventually the North
Staffordshire Railway, owners of the canal since 1846, put on steam tugs to tow
boats in trains. They were introduced in 1864 and air shafts were sunk for
them, but not before there had been a fatality in May, 1865. A bricklayer
working on the shafts became insensible, fell from his work boat and was
There were three tugs eventually,
two small ones and a large one which came in about 1910. The large one with a
steel hull, 60ft long by 9ft beam, could only go through Preston Brook, she was
too wide for the curves of the other two. The small tugs, 56ft by 7ft, worked
through all three, although, operationally, Saltersford and Barnton were
considered as a single tunnel. This allowed one of the small tugs to be held in
reserve for any tunnel. She was berthed at the covered drydock built specially
for the tugs at the southern, or Dutton, end of Preston Brook tunnel. There was
a smithy here as well.
Brook a 50 minute service was worked from 6.00 am to 9.00 pm, daily except
Sundays, 50 minutes one way and 50 minutes the other. De Salis in his
'Bradshaw' gives full details, the 6.00 am run was from North to South and the
8.30 pm from South to North, so the tug tied up each night at the North end.
Because of their combined length the Saltersford and Barnton services were also
worked at 50 minute intervals. Each tug had a crew of two, steerer and
engineman, and two shifts were worked each day. Fires were banked each night
except Saturday when they were allowed out. This meant starting from cold on
the Monday morning. Boiler tubes were swept every morning and the boilers were
washed out weekly. The tugs never used canal water because of its salinity in
this part of Cheshire,
but carried water tanks which were replenished from tanks on the bank. The
Preston Brook one was at the Preston Brook or northern end of the tunnel fed
from the Preston Brook itself, whereas the coal was stored at the Dutton dry
dock. Coal was supplied by the Wigan Coal & Iron Co and came in their own
boats and in those of a local owner, Mrs Agnes Beech of Saltersford.
Many tunnel tugs were
double-ended with a propeller at each end, for example, the Foulridge steam tug
and the motor one at Gosty Hill on the Dudley Canal.
The Preston Brook tugs were, however, conventionally shaped and had to be
"winded" or turned at the end of each trip, so special winding holes
were cut a few yards from each portal at Preston Brook and at Barnton and
Saltersford. The holes were not sufficiently far from the portals to allow the
tugs to draw their full trains clear of the tunnels, for a train might consist
of twenty boats. The horses coming over the hill were used to pull the boats
out when the tug cast off, the train getting shorter and shorter and further
and further out as each horse came for its boat.
Because of the curves at
Saltersford and Barnton the two small tugs were fitted with guide wheels, four
of them, two forward, two aft, port and starboard. They had wide iron treads
and were each mounted on a spring-loaded arm which would allow retraction but
which could be locked to give the needed guidance. Usually the front pair were
locked and the rear left free. The tiller could thus be safely abandoned until
the tug emerged. No 3, the later big tug, had no such wheels, but Preston Brook
did not demand the concentration of the other two.
All three tugs had injector-fed
locomotive type boilers with squat chimneys, the working pressure being about
90 lbs per square inch. The small pair had single-cylinder engines, arranged
horizontally down the length of the boat, driving the screw through a
right-angled bevel gear. No 3 had a two-cylinder inverted engine, not a
compound, but a simple expansion. No condensers were fitted, the engines
exhausted to atmosphere.
Tug driving was a sooty business
and the craft had an unpretentious colour scheme, red oxide hulls and grey
cabin over the engine and messroom. There are ventilation shafts in all the
tunnels but the tug crew were best pleased when a north-south wind was blowing
through Preston Brook. The engineman would make up the fire at the end of each
trip and allow it to burn through before turning back into the tunnel. However
the smoke was undoubtedly offensive, for the tunnel keeper's house at the
Preston Brook end, perched on the crown of the portal, had the canal-facing
windows bricked up.
Services lasted into the 1939-45
War under London, Midland and Scottish Railway supervision but
were discontinued after about 1943 because horse boats were then relatively few
- there had been motor boats on the canal for some time. These were allowed
ahead of the tug but had to keep to the timetable, although they paid no tunnel
toll. After withdrawal of the tugs the old timetables were kept and regulated
by the keepers, latterly only one at Preston Brook who had to cycle over by the
horse path. In the early fifties the British Transport Commission put in a traffic
light system, the lights being actuated by switches operated by wheels which
rubbed along the boats' hulls. They were removed by 1958 and a time interval
system introduced, boats being allowed in at so many minutes past each hour.
During the sixties this too was abandoned and one proceeded if the way was
clear. However the recent increase in the number of pleasure boats has resulted
in the introduction of a working timetable at weekends between the months of
April and October.
Images of the Trent
and Mersey tunnel tugs
One of the two small tugs, originally thought to be photographed
between Barnton and Saltersford. However, since it is a fairly wide waterway,
it is probably the River Weaver, possibly between Weston Point and
Anderton. It is suggested that the tugs
were being used to work traffic round a stoppage on the canal.
(courtesy of Mrs Sarah Heath)
With a coal boat in tow, one of the small tugs approaches Saltersford eastern portal in 1910. (courtesy of Michael Ware)
One of the small tugs at Dutton
One of the small tugs leaving the western end of Barnton Tunnel
The tug shown here at the southern (Dutton) end of Preston Brook Tunnel
is Tug No 1 which normally acted as the spare. The crewmen are George
Lightfoot, Ernest Clare and Fred Higgins.
(Courtesy of Fred Higgins)
This is the only known image of No 3 Tug. This was the larger tug which
only operated in Preston Brook Tunnel.
She is shown here exiting from the southern portal.
(Dennis Ashby collection)