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The Trent and Mersey Tunnel Tugs by Edward Paget-Tomlinson.


published by Waterways World, January 1976


(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 drowned.

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.

At Preston 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)