BY RODOLPH FANE DE SALIS. (Director of the Grand Junction Canal Company.}

Printed for Private Circulation, by JAMES PARKER AND CO., CROWN YARD, OXFORD 1894.

Contributed by Matthew Searle.


In May and June of this year [1894], on the invitation of my cousin, Mr [H.R.] de Salis, I had an opportunity of seeing, in his steam-launch “Dragon Fly,” portions of the following inland Navigations, viz.—Oxford, Grand Junction, Grand Union, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, Leicester, Loughborough, Trent, Trent and Mersey, Macclesfield, Peak Forest, Ashton, Rochdale, Bridgewater, Manchester Ship Canal, Weaver, Shropshire Union, Stafford and Worcester, Birmingham, Warwick and Birmingham, and Warwick and Napton. The tour was made by the courtesy of the Managers of these Navigations, to whom my best thanks are due; and who, I hope, will find nothing in these notes on what was, to me, a most interesting run, or in my observations on Canal development, which they might in any case consider as an improper requital for the facilities granted to us, or for the civility we almost invariably met with from all classes of Canal servants during the thirty days we were out.

May 11th  We left Oxford at 9 a.m. on May 11th, and passed at once from the Thames into the Oxford Canal. The Canal follows the course of the river Cherwell to Banbury, the river being in one place canalised,— then locks up to Claydon,— passes over an exceedingly tortuous eleven mile summit to Napton,— and joins the Grand Junction Canal at Braunston.  The Canal was originally cheaply constructed, and follows the contour of the country, almost regardless of distance; which must, in these days of railway competition, tell against it.   It passes through a purely agricultural district, Banbury being the only town it touches; it connects Oxford with Birmingham via the Warwick and Napton, with Coventry via the Coventry, and with Leicester and the Derby coalfields via the Unions and Leicester Canals. Its principal trade is in coal and Hartshill road stone for the district through which it passes; the difficulty of getting return loads is very noticeable, the bulk of the boats running back empty.

May l3th.  We joined the Grand Junction Canal at Braunston, and, running through the Braunston Tunnel—a broad tunnel, 2,042 yards in length, worked by steam haulage, — we entered on the Unions [Grand Union, and Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union], connecting Leicester with London via, the Grand Junction Canal.   These finely constructed canals have just been purchased by the Grand Junction Canal Company, and, forming as they do, a link connecting the Derbyshire coalfields with London, ought to have a great future before them. As they pass through the rich Leicester grass country, the small town of Market Harborough being the principal place touched [by means of an arm five miles long], their local trade must always, necessarily, be insignificant.

May 19th.   Noticing at Leicester the fine stretch of water constructed by the Corporation as a town improvement, we passed into the river Soar; which, with the exception of two cuts, and a short length of the river Wreak, is canalised to the Trent [Leicester Navigation and Loughborough Navigation].   Money might be spent with advantage on the Wreak, but the Soar is a fine navigation; with, however, a river’s necessary drawbacks of liability to flood in winter and to drought in summer.  It flows into the river Trent opposite to the junction of the Derby and Erewash Canals; the Trent thus forms the connecting link between Nottingham and the South, between the Derbyshire coalfields and London, and between Nottingham and Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham, via the Trent and Mersey Canal.  It is worthy of remark that between the Trent and London the only narrow locks are the flight of ten at Foxton, and of seven at Watford, both on the Grand Union.

May 20th.   We made easy running up the Trent and Mersey Canal, the first railway owned canal we had been on [North Staffordshire Railway Company], to the junction of the Macclesfield Canal at Harecastle} passing on our way the towns of Burton-on-Trent, — which contributes no trade to the Canal, the Breweries being entirely served by rail, — Rugeley, and Stoke-on-Trent, also the junction of the Coventry Canal at Fradley, and of the Stafford and Worcester Canal at Great Haywood.  This latter connects Birmingham and Wolverhampton with Manchester via the Macclesfield, or via river Weaver and the Bridgewater Canal.  As we approached Stoke a change in the character of the trade became apparent; we had hitherto chiefly seen through trade between large centres, but now cargoes of iron, salt, coal, and materials for the Potteries told us we were entering the zone of midland mines and factories. Before reaching Harecastle we passed through the Harecastle Tunnel, 2,807 yards long.  This consists of two narrow tunnels, the one from Stoke to Harecastle having a towpath, but the other having to be worked by legging or poling. These tunnels, being very low and unventilated, would be impracticable for steam traffic, and must prove a serious hindrance to its development.

May23rd.   At Harecastle we branched off into the Macclesfield Canal, the property of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway Company.  This fine Canal, carried across a hilly country on a series of bold embankments, forms, with the Peak Forest and Ashton Canals the property of the same Company, the direct route between Birmingham and Manchester; it has not, however, been the policy of the Railway Company to develop canal trade, and consequently, though touching the considerable town of Macclesfield and passing through a country thick with cotton factories, there is but little doing on these Canals.

May 26th   From the Ashton Canal we entered the busy Rochdale, with its ninety broad locks in thirty miles; and, running for l1/4 miles through the heart of Manchester, found ourselves on the Bridgewater Canal.  This Canal, one of the earliest made, and still one of the finest inland canals in the country, has now been absorbed by the Ship Canal, which will, doubtless, divert a portion of its Liverpool trade, but with coal trade from pits on its banks, trade from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, and from the salt and pottery districts via the Trent and Mersey Canal, it should prove a remunerative purchase. We passed over the swing aqueduct, which carries the Bridgewater over the Ship Canal.  This, when full of water, weighs some 1,400 tons, and opens in 1 min. 15 secs.  Then,—the lift which is to connect the high and low level canals at this point not being yet constructed,—we ran back to Manchester, and locked down into the Ship Canal.

May 28th.  Of the future of this magnificent enterprise, with its thirty-five miles of waterway 26ft. deep, having a section of 120ft. at bottom, its five sets of looks and eight swing-bridges, all worked by hydraulic power, its extensive Docks and Warehouses, and its heavy cuttings and embankments, it is impossible, and would be unfair, to speak on such a slight knowledge as I could hope to obtain on a casual survey.  It is, however, clear that if Manchester and the Shareholders of the Canal have done a great deal, there still remains much to do before the work can be considered complete.  The sewage question, must be dealt, with.  Besides the danger to health caused by the present insanitary state of the first ten miles of the canal—i.e., as far as Latchford Locks, where the canal becomes semi-tidal—the quantity of deposit passing into the channel as sewage must be large, and, if the full depth is to be maintained, will cause constant expense in dredging.  There is still, also, a good deal to be done to render the embankments and facings complete.  Whether ships of more than comparatively small size—200 to 300 tons—will care to face the risks of an inland navigation and the difficulties of lockage, and will not prefer, rather, to discharge their cargo into trains of barges, which could be towed up the canal with ease, remains to be seen.  It is, also, obviously to be regretted that the headway of the bridges was, necessarily, limited to 75ft., this creates an additional difficulty for ships of any size.

We ran down the Ship Canal as far as the junction of the river Weaver, which flows into the canal below Runcorn, the discharge of its waters into the Mersey being provided for by sluices.  The Weaver is canalised for twenty miles, to Winsford; we travelled up it as far as Northwich, and were struck by its fine locks, weirs and. sluices, and by the good condition of the waterway, —10 feet deep. The locks have centre gates, and we worked by hand capstans. There is a heavy trade on the river, chiefly from the Salt district to Runcorn and Liverpool; this is carried in steam barges, having a capacity of from 200 to 800 tons, and often towing flats. The navigation is in the hands of trustees for the             County of Cheshire, towards whoso rates it con tributes about  1,000 a year, after paying interest on Debentures and all expenses of upkeep. The Weaver is connected with the Trent and Mersey Canal at Anderton, near Northwich, by a lift. This is worked partly as a balance lift, being in duplicate, and partly by hydraulic power.

May 29th   We were 15 min. in the sluices, and were raised 50 ft. 4 in. in 41/2  min.  The trough is 15 ft. 6 in. in width and 5 ft. 6 in. deep, and would, therefore, take any boat that could navigate on the Trent and Mersey Canal. This canal is here at its busiest; the salt and chemical works established on its banks are a fertile source of revenue, and, to meet the requirements of this traffic, a heavy sum of money has recently been expended on raising the bridges, and improving the section of the waterway, between Anderton and Middlewich.  From Anderton we turned back to Barnton to see the working of the tunnel; through which a heavy trade of grain, coal, and salt passes between Runcorn and the salt and pottery district.  This is a narrow tunnel, 572 yards long, and is worked by tugs with broad wheels placed horizontally on the bows, to fend them off the walls of the tunnel.

May 30th   From Barnton we ran to Middlewich, where a. branch of the Shropshire Union Canal connects the Trent and Mersey Canal with the main line of the former at Barbridge.  Crossing the main line we entered, at Hurleston, the Elles-mere branch, winch terminates at Newtown, and also branches off to Llantisilio, our destination.  This branch passes through a most picturesque country.  The rich, undulating, grazing lands of Cheshire are succeeded by the fir woods and lonely tarns of Ellesmere; then, as the Welsh mountains are approached, the country grows more hilly; the canal touches Ruabon, —from which, however, it draws but little trade, —Llangollen, with its stone quarries high up on the mountain sides, and crosses on the way two magnificent aqueducts, at Chirk and Pontcysyllte.  The former of these is carried on stone piers and arches, the latter on stone piers and iron arches; both compare favourably with the modern railway viaducts alongside, and are fine examples of early canal enterprise.  At Llantisilio the Canal receives a beautiful natural supply of water from Lake Bala.  This arm of the Canal is in excellent order; its water supply is so pure that but little silt can be deposited.  The principal trade on it is road stone from Llangollen, carried by the Company in 20-ton boats.

June 3rd  Returning from Llantisilio to Hurleston, we turned up the main line for Birmingham.  I was much struck with the bold design of this canal, which is carried in almost a straight line from point to point.  It forms a through route, connecting Wolverhampton and Birmingham with Chester, and with Liverpool, via Ellesmere Port and the Mersey; and, excepting that its locks are narrow, is well suited for carrying a heavy trade.  It is the property of the Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Company, and the principal trade on it appears to be iron, raw and manufactured, from the Midlands, and return cargoes of grain. This is carried almost entirely in the Company's boats.  The traction employed is horse-power, excepting on the section of the Canal between Tyrley top lock and Autherley.  From Tyrley top lock to Wheaton Aston there is a seventeen-mile Pound, then one lock, then a seven-mile Pound to Autherley; between these points two tugs ply, one running each way daily, and taking the Company’s boats in train.  The Company have stables at Tyrley top lock and Autherley.

June 4th.  At Autherley the Shropshire Union Canal connects with the Stafford and Worcester Canal, by means of a stop lock.  A half-mile length of the latter connects the former with the Birmingham Canal Navigations. It is needless to dwell on the inconvenience to trade caused by this short link in a great through route.

The Birmingham Canal (railway controlled) rises by a flight of twenty-one locks to Wolverhampton.  Through these there is a heavy and constant trade; that from the Potteries and Stoke-on-Trent, via the Stafford and Worcester, and that from Liverpool and Cheater, via the Shropshire Union, converging at this point; and this flight of locks, which took us, the circumstances being specially favourable, two hours to pass, is, necessarily, a great hindrance to its development. The Company will doubtless eventually get over this difficulty by means of a lift or slide. The canal between Wolverhampton and Birmingham passes through the populous districts of Smethwick and Oldbury.  Coalpits, which occasionally cause disastrous subsidences, are thickly scattered over the country; these form a nucleus for iron-works and factories, which bring a heavy local trade to the Canal.  This section, fed by numerous docks and branches, has in fact so heavy a trade that a double towpath has been found necessary.  The locks are, however, all narrow.   The Canal passes through the heart of Birmingham, and is there lined with wharves and warehouses. There, also, the great, carrying firm of Fellows, Morton and Co. have their headquarters.

June 5th.   Locking up on the Western outskirts of Birmingham, through a flight of six looks, we entered the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, which, with the Warwick and Napton, Oxford, and Grand Junction Canals, forms the through route between London and Birmingham.  This Canal, and the Warwick and Napton, with which it connects at Warwick, are under the management of Mr. Lloyd, than whom no one has done more to promote Canal enterprise, and to whose broad-minded views of Canal management much of the revival of interest in their development is due.  On these Canals the bulk of the trade is “through” i.e. between Birmingham and London, and a fair proportion of it is worked by steam traction, a loaded steamer towing one boat.  The locks are narrow; a great drawback to the increased use of steam, and it is perhaps not too much to hope that at some future time the money may be forthcoming to widen them.  If this were done, as the bridges ore broad, a fifty-ton barge could run from London to Birmingham.  There is one tunnel—broad—on this Canal, at Shrewley near Hatton, 1,000 ft. long, it is worked by holdfasts fixed to the sides, about 5 ft. above water level.   By means of these, boats can be pulled through by hand.  This method, if slow, is better for the tunnel sides than "legging" or "poling." 

June 6th.  At Warwick we branched off from the Warwick and Birmingham on to the Warwick and Napton Canal.  Both these Canals are in it state of practical efficiency.  Near Napton we again joined the Oxford Canal, and arrived at Oxford on June 9th, this being our 30th day out.

We ran, in all, 562 miles, on twenty Navigations, under fifteen managements, and passed through 437 locks.

<< Back to Introduction
Page 2 >>