The start of the Industrial Revolution can be traced to the construction of the Aire & Calder Canal to Leeds and Wakefield in 1700. It was the first time mill owners and merchants had invested in improving their local economy and led to similar successful canal ventures in the Liverpool area.

            There was a great demand for two important commodities: coal, to fuel industrial processes, and later steam engines as they became the source of power in the mills; and limestone, needed as a building material and for use as a fertiliser. The fertiliser improved the grassland and thus was able to support more sheep, which increased the production of wool. This in turn increased textile manufacture and the demand for housing for weavers. The success of the Aire & Calder Canal led to a proposal to increase the navigation on the Aire from Bingley to Skipton. This would deliver coal from the mines at Stockbridge to the lime kilns at Skipton. The “back trade” would be lime and limestone. The proposal failed to gain its Act of Parliament but generated a more imaginative proposal.

            The natural line across the Pennines for the canal was through the Ribble-Aire Gap that had been the main trading link from Roman times and also used by the Vikings travelling from Jorvik (York) to Dublin. The sponsors employed canal engineer James Brindley to check Longbotham’s survey but insisted that the canal should be a wide one capable of taking boats with a 60-ton capacity. Robert Whitworth, Brindley’s assistant, estimated the total cost of the canal to be £259,777.



            The city fathers and landed gentry of York and East Riding were unsure about the financial return as the ‘Grand Canal’ would be very expensive so, to make it more realistic, the scheme was cut back to become the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The merchants in Liverpool realized the canal would provide a good supply of coal to the town, and became the major investors in the project, though Bradford remained the administrative centre. There was a dispute between the Liverpool and Bradford investors concerning the route on the Lancashire side. The Liverpool merchants wanted the canal to pass through the Wigan coalfield in order to improve the supply of coal to the town. Both parties were reconciled through the mediation of Bradford attorney John Hustler, who had assumed control on the death of John Stanhope, and the original Yorkshire route was adopted but with a branch added to the Wigan coalfield

            In 1770 the first Leeds & Liverpool Canal Act was passed confirming the line as Leeds – Skipton – Gargrave – Colne – Walton le Dale – Parbold and Liverpool. Money for implementing the project was raised by issuing shares at £100 and by borrowing money at 5 percent interest. Skipton raised £29,400 compared with Bradford’s £26,600. Leeds, Sheffield and Colne each raised less than £14,000 and Keighley raised £8,800. Skipton merchants were probably more inclined to support the canal because they could see the advantages that would accrue to their town, putting it firmly “on the map.” The Liverpool businessmen were much more enthusiastic, raising £59,900. Other income for construction came from tolls as sections were completed


BINGLEY 5-RISE LOCKS                                                                           Martin Winterton SCHS

           In September 1773 the Skipton to Bingley section was opened, followed in 1774 by the Skipton to Gargrave section and the Bingley to Shipley section including the Bingley 5-Rise locks. Bradford was reached by the Bradford Canal, a branch off the main line at Shipley. This canal had received is own Act of Parliament at the same time as the main line.

bradfordjctbridge02 JUNCTION OF OLD BRADFORD CANAL                                          Martin Winterton SCHS

            Meanwhile in 1773 the Earl of Thanet’s Spring Branch Act of Parliament allowed the construction of the Springs Branch canal from Skipton to the Earl of Thanet’s limestone quarries located near Skipton Castle.

            At the same time a Settle Canal was proposed, to join the main canal at Barnoldswick, to bring coal from the Settle mines and also limestone. There was considerable opposition and the Act was rejected by Parliament in 1774. Thus a water source for the main canal was also lost.

            On 5th June 1777 the Leeds to Shipley line was completed. Then the money ran out and work almost stopped until 1790, though the old Douglas Navigation up to Wigan was bypassed in 1780/1781. The financial hiatus was exacerbated by a dip in the British economy caused by war with France and the American War of Independence.

            When work began again, they started construction at Gargrave working westward. On 3rd May 1796 the Gargrave to Burnley section was opened following completion of the Foulridge tunnel. Burnley to Henfield was completed on 23rd April 1801 and then Henfield to Blackburn on 21st June 1810.

            The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was finally completed in 1816. On Saturday October 19th two barges left Leeds. After four overnight stops at Skipton, Burnley, Blackburn and Wigan (which included at least two celebratory dinners!) they reached Liverpool at 5pm on Wednesday 23rd October 1816.

            A wide range of goods was handled by the canal. A list in the Blackburn Mail gives some idea: “Beans, Bran, Brandy, Butter, Calico pieces, Canvas, Cast iron, Cast iron pillars & boskins for stables, Clog soles, Cloth, Cotton, Currants, Flags, Flax, Flour, Glass, Gunpowder, Linen cloth and yarn, Nails, Ovens, Paint, Pine timber, Rushes, Soap, Sugar, Weft, Whiting, Woollen cloth and yarn.” In addition, heavy building materials such as bricks, stone flags and Welsh slate were transported and would give local builders in Skipton a better choice of materials thus changing the face of the town.


WAREHOUSES & MILLS AT SHIPLEY                                                      Martin Winterton SCHS

         The new canal encouraged the development of the cotton industry in Lancashire and the woollen industry in Yorkshire along the banks of the canal. Originally it was thought that the highest income would come from limestone – a promotional leaflet in 1768 estimated that the carriage of limestone would be twice that of the combined coal and general cargo trade. However, the promoters had not realised the importance of coal in relation to the setting up of mills and its use in steam engines. The canal provided a ready source of water for condensing the exhaust steam of the engines so it was natural that industry spread along the banks of the canal. It soon emerged that both coal and general cargo, ie manufactures, would become the main sources for income. Limestone came third but was still considerable. By the late 19th century, though the annual limestone trade was some 150,000 tons, the figure for coal was ten times this amount.

         The canal competed successfully with the railways when they arrived in the 1840s. The railways were initially hampered by two factors, first they were still trying to cover their initial costs whereas the canal had paid of all their debts by this time; and second, all the significant customers were located alongside the canal. The Leeds & Liverpool Canal continued to compete successfully into the 20th century as an important carrier of general cargoes. It is estimated that in 1910 about 800 tons of general cargo was landed at Skipton each month. However, the decline in the traditional industries and the coming of reliable road transport after the First World War saw a decline in the canal’s importance for transporting goods and materials.

         This is the brief history of the development of the main line of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. In addition, various branch canals were mooted across Lancashire and Yorkshire. All had their supporters and their opponents. Some succeeded, others did not. The fascinating web of these proposals has been untangled by Mike Clarke in his recently revised book, “The Leeds & Liverpool Canal – A History.” Published to coincide with the 200th Anniversary of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, it presents the development and history of canals in Yorkshire and Lancashire in great detail

            To quote from Mike Clarke’s foreword to the book, “…arguably the country’s most important canal. A few waterways carried higher tonnages or made more money, others were enlarged, but no single canal had such a great effect on the economy of the areas through which it passed. Textiles were Britain’s most important industry, and the Leeds & Liverpool was the canal which provided the greatest benefit to that industry. For that alone, it is a canal of a national, and even international importance.”

Martin Winterton, September 2016

 The author is indebted to Mike Clarke for his advice in the preparation of this article. His website is: www.mikeclarke.myzen.co.uk