The Lancaster Canal Company was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1792.
It was promoted by Preston, Lancaster and Kendal businessmen anxious to improve the transport of coal northward from Wigan pits to feed developing industries, and carry their products southward – principally limestone for building and for manufacturing lime for agriculture and making cement.
Connecting with the newly-completed Bridgewater Canal, at Westhoughton, it was surveyed by the celebrated engineer John Rennie, and required numerous aqueducts across rivers and streams, including the Ribble and Lune, and a tunnel at Hincaster in order to serve Wakefield’s gunpowder mills at Sedgwick, south of Kendal. It was a broad canal, taking barges 14ft wide, compared with the narrow canals of the Midlands.
Samuel Gregson, a leading Lancaster merchant and twice mayor, was appointed clerk of the canal.
In 1797, the first section was opened from Preston to Tewitfield, north of Lancaster, when a flotilla of boats sailed northward from the city to the impressive Lune aqueduct, thence back to Galgate where it met a northbound barge for a symbolic exchange of boxes of coal and limestone. The party then returned to Lancaster for a celebratory dinner at the King’s Arms. Simultaneously, work was proceeding south of Preston between Wigan and Chorley – it opened in 1798.
As a temporary expedient to link the two sections of canal, Rennie’s successor, William Cartwright, built a horse-drawn tram road from the south end at Walton Summit to Preston. It was double tracked and had three steep inclines up which wagons were drawn by endless chains operated by stationary steam winding engines, located at Walton, Penwortham and Avenham. Completed in 1803, it crossed the Ribble on a wooden trestle bridge, later replaced by a concrete replica still known as the Old Tram Bridge. Much of the tram road’s course is still traceable, particularly the incline from the bridge up to Avenham Park and part of a tunnel under Fishergate. Trains comprised a horse drawing three or four wagons. In 1816 the Leeds and Liverpool Canal completed its route through Lancashire by leasing the south end of the Lancaster to form part of its own waterway.
After 22 years the final section from Tewitfield to Kendal was ceremonially opened, including Hincaster Tunnel. In June 1819 Kendal’s mayor and corporation sailed southwards in 16 boats, accompanied by three bands, and at Crooklands met a northbound party of canal directors and officials. Together they returned to Kendal for a procession to the town hall for a banquet. Industrial growth, stimulated by the canal, also created rivalry between Preston and Lancaster business interests, the former pressing for early replacement of the tram road by canal, the latter more interested in building a branch canal to Glasson, where a dock had been opened in 1787.
The Lancaster party won and the Glasson branch was opened in 1826, enabling small coastal craft to reach both towns and Kendal. After the opening of the canal, Preston rapidly outgrew Lancaster. Ironically, it also began the decline of Lancaster as a port, with its quay on the Lune. Proportionately, Kendal was the greatest beneficiary, hitherto reliant on the tiny port of Milnthorpe for sea-going trade. Other towns served were Chorley, a quarter mile from Botany Wharf, and Garstang, where there was a large basin and warehouse.
In 1816 Gregson’s younger son, Bryan Padgett Gregson, took over from his father. Later he became Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire.
As engineer and manager he was enterprising and far-sighted. He instituted swift packet boats for conveying small merchandise and passengers, operating timetabled services such as a daily one from Chorley to Blackburn, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds; and twice-daily between Preston, Lancaster and Kendal. Canalside industries quickly established themselves, such as lime kilns (by 1847 there were more than 20 on the north end), quarries, brickworks, collieries, cotton and flax mills, and bleach and print works. Among the principal canal carriers were Hargreaves & Son of Wigan, Ashcrofts of Preston and John Brockbank, the Lancaster shipbuilder. Foreseeing that the new railways would supersede canals, BP Gregson recommended the company should concentrate on developing the north end. The south end having already been leased to the Leeds and Liverpool, the tram road was now leased to a railway company and eventually was closed.
In 1833 a fast passenger boat service was begun between Preston and Kendal in eight hours, using specially developed swift boats drawn by two horses at 10mph. They were changed every five miles. Stops were made at Salwick, Garstang, Forton, Galgate, Lancaster, Hest Bank, Bolton-le-Sands, Carnforth, Capernwray, Tewitfield – where passengers walked up the locks to another waiting craft – Burton, Farleton, Crooklands and Hincaster. The boats carried 100 passengers in two heated cabins where refreshments were served. It was a very slick operation. The Lancaster and Preston Railway was opened in 1840, but quickly experienced financial trouble, whereupon the ever-enterprising Gregson, contrary to events elsewhere, arranged a takeover by the canal, at the same time discontinuing the passenger boat service. It was a profitable move, helped by an immediate increase in rail fares and removal of third class seats in order to accommodate more passengers standing. After the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway was opened in 1846 that company was empowered to run its trains independently through to Preston. With a complete lack of co-operation between the two companies, and no effective signalling, inevitably there was an accident.
In 1848 a southbound Lancaster and Carlisle express ran into the back of a Lancaster and Preston stopping train standing in Bay Horse station. The Board of Trade then intervened and ordered the two companies to put their houses in order, resulting in an agreement that the railways should carry passengers and small merchandise, and the canal coal, minerals and heavy goods.
Soon both railways were absorbed into the much larger London and North Western Railway, to which in 1864 the canal sold the north end of its waterway, simultaneously selling the south end to the Leeds and Liverpool.
To its credit the railway company kept the canal in good order until dwindling traffic by 1947 forced closure to commercial traffic between Preston and the foot of Tewitfield Locks. The last cargo was a boat load of coal from Preston to Lancaster.
Following nationalisation of the waterways in 1948, the canal beyond Tewitfield was progressively closed entirely to Kendal, followed in 1956 by the severance of this section by the M6 motorway at six places. A flow of water from the main northern feeder at Stainton was taken under the M6 in small box culverts, thereby physically preventing through navigation on the last 14 miles. The final six miles were subsequently drained and filled in.
The 43 miles from Preston to Tewitfield, together with the Glasson branch, are fully navigable. In 2002 the canal, at last, was connected to the country’s main system by the opening of the Ribble Link, using the course of the Savick Brook to reach the estuary, thereby enabling craft to cross over to the Douglas and on to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. In 1963 the Lancaster Canal Trust was founded to campaign for reopening to Kendal. In 1972 Ashton Basin at Preston was restored, followed by the old packet boat house at Lancaster. Volunteers have undertaken numerous smaller projects, including repairing the lock walls at Tewitfield, Hincaster Tunnel (twice), and refilling a dewatered section. In summer months the trust operates a trip-boat from Crooklands. South of Tewitfield the canal is popular for pleasure cruising and supports a thriving boat club.
*Taken from Two Hundred Years of the Lancaster Canal: an Illustrated History by Gordon Biddle, published by Pen & Sword Books.