Canal and Boatyard

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This is a page about the history of the canal, for a walking guide to the canal see Canalside.

The Canal locks are on the Millennium festival trail.

The Boatyard and Basin

Most people first see the Canal and Boatyard from the City Walls. The section of the city walls between Bonewaldesthorne’s Tower and Pemberton’s Parlour originally dates to the late eleventh or early twelfth centuries, when the defences of Roman Chester were extended westward, but was altered to form a raised promenade between 1701 and 1708, a walk that is about 2m wide.

The Graving Dock and the Roving Bridge seen from the City Walls. The black panel on the support of the right side of the bridge is a memorial to L. T. C. Rolt one of the pioneers of the leisure cruising industry on Britain's inland waterways.

Approaching the end of this stretch of the City Walls, the Canal and Boatyard come into view to the north. From Boughton to Mollington, the Chester Canal worms its way through the centre of Chester, forming a moat for the walls between Cow Lane Bridge and the Watertower. The Chester Canal which dates from 1779 was dubbed "England's first unsuccessful canal", after its failure to bring heavy industry to Chester and any return for its investors.

Hunters Map of Chester shows no basin, and canal without the line to Ellesmere Port

The City Walls walkway also crosses the railway here, as described in glowing terms by the "Strangers Guide to Chester", where Hughes writes:

  • We are now upon a flat iron Bridge and whew with a rush like that of a tiger from his den the giant of the nineteenth century a steam engine and train emerge from the dark tunnel which passes under the city and dash away beneath us full forty miles an hour en route to Ireland by way of Holyhead The Roman Walls that resisted so successfully the Roundhead batteries have in our own times succumbed to the engines of peace and the railway trains with their living freight now career it merrily through two neighbouring apertures in these ancient fortifications.

It is possible to get down from the City Walls near Bonewaldesthorne’s Tower for a short side-trip to the canal and boatyard. It is also possible to explore the canal by walking along it, although it should be noted that for a veriety of reasons sections of the towpath are sometimes closed.

The canal's history is fascinating. The "New Cut" briefly re-vitalised Chester as a Port, but in the 1770's a canal was needed to expand the Port's hinterland. The hope was that this would bring salt, Cheshire Cheese and other agricultural products to Chester.

Originally intended to go to Middlewich, this route was blocked by the Trent and Mersey Canal Company and the Chester Canal became an unsuccessf "dead-end" leading to Nantwich. In the 1790's, the proposed Ellesmere-Mersey canal was planned to link Shrewsbury with Liverpool; its route being down the Wirral to Chester, on to Wrexham and Ruabon and then on through Chirk towards Shrewsbury. The northern section of that canal joined the Chester Canal near its connection with the Riven Dee at Chester. Building Thomas Telford's 1000 foot long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805 almost ruined the Ellesmere Canal company leaving them with a 17-mile gap between Chester and Ruabon and no money. The Chester Canal was now brought back from dereliction as the central secion of the Ellesmere canal forming much of what was to become the Shropshire Union Canal.

"Chemistry Lock" is one place to start an exploration of the industrial and canal heritage of Chester by walking along the Canalside. Watching the lock being operated is quite fun. The chamber of the lock can be closed off by gates. These come together at an angle pointing uphill (said to be the invention of Leonardo daVinci) so that the gates are held shut by water pressure and both cannot open at once. A balance beam projects from the landward side of the gate over the towpath to provide leverage to open and close the gate, and balance the (non-floating) weight of the gate to allow the gate to swing more freely. The upper gate is as tall as the canal is deep, plus a little more for the balance beam, winding mechanism, etc.; the lower gate's height equals the upper gate plus the lock's rise. A paddle is a valve which alows the lock to be filled and emptied. A gate paddle simply covers a hole in the lower part of a gate; a more sophisticated ground paddle blocks an underground culvert. The white post is a snubbing post, used to stop a horse drawn boat as it enters the lock - otherwise a fully laden boat could smash through the lock gates.

Why the canal?

During the 13th and 14th century, Chester was the largest and busiest port in the north-west, trading with ports throughout the British Isles and Europe. In the 18th century, it traded in raw hide with the Americas and even sent slave ships to Africa, but only on a fairly small scale. Grain and wine were also major imports. Until the start of the 14th Century, the ancient city walls provided adequate defence to the port (the River Dee used to flow close by the Watergate). Silting of the River Dee had become a problem by the early 18th Century, leading to a loss of maritime trade to growing rival ports such as Liverpool which did not have the same silting problem as Chester. In response, the River Dee Company was formed and the Portpool area was developed as a new port for the City. In resturn for the rights to any reclaimed land, the River Dee Company excavated the "New Cut" which, after its opening to shipping in 1737 allowed easier navigation and led to the construction of Crane Wharf at Chester and a minor boom in Chester's failing fortunes.

Even just before the start of of the Industrial Revolution, improvements to the river Weaver after 1730 served to channel trade from central Cheshire away from Chester to the Mersey, and the Trent and Mersey Canal Act of 1766 threatened to strengthen still further the dominance of Liverpool over the Dee. Despite that threat, no apparent opposition to the Trent and Mersey Bill was voiced in Chester, but within two years of its passage there was a proposal for a canal to link Chester to the new canal at Middlewich and surveys were commissioned from, among others, the canal engineer James Brindley.

Mutlow and Stockdales Map shows the beginnings of the basin, and canal without the line to Ellesmere Port. At this stage the basin was tidal and the staircase of locks leading up to the Northgate connected to it directly.
OS map showing the Canal with the Ellesmere Port line. The re-routing of the canal leads to some difficult bends.

It is hard to say whether Chester approached Brindley or Brindley approached Chester. In 1762 Brindley had, according to his diary, "set out for Chester and Shropshire for a reconiteering" armed with a rough sketch map of a canal between the River Dee and Whitchurch. In the same year he attended a meeting at the Pentice in Chester, but the Asembly minutes do not record what was discussed. In the year that the bill for the Trent and Mersey canal went to parliament (1766) a John Chamberlaine, who was a merchant living in Lower Watergate Street raised the issue of whether the Trent and Mersey would lead trade away from Chester. Chamberlaine was later to become a developer of Queen Street by the canal. 1768 saw the publication of a pamphlet entitled "A serious threat to the Citizens and Merchants of Chester" by Richard Whitworth, which argued that the Trent and Mersey canal would take the entire trade of Chester away. Whitworth also suggested a canal, via Pulford and Holt down to Shrewsbury - an early foreshadowing of what would become one proposed route of a branch of the Ellesmere Canal Scheme.

The economic landscape was much changed by the discovery of rock salt near Northwich in 1670. As Henry Holland explained in 1808:

  • "Though the brine springs appear to have been known and worked in the earliest periods of the history of this country the Discovery of the beds of Fossil or Rock Salt is of much more recent date. The first of these was found in the year 1670 about 34 yards from the surface in searching for coal in Marbury about a mile north of Northwich. The bed of it which was met with was 30 yards in thickness and underneath it was a stratum of indurated clay. The discovery of this bed of rock salt in Marbury led to other attempts to find it and on sinking a shaft any where within half a mile of the place where it was first found it was met with about the same distance from the surface if the access to it was not prevented by brine or fresh water."

Until 1779 this was the only known rock-salt deposit in Cheshire.

The Chester Canal

The original plan for the Chester Canal was for a canal linking the south Cheshire town of Middlewich on the Trent and Mersey Canal with the River Dee at Chester, with a branch to Nantwich, providing a route for produce (including salt) from Nantwich to reach Chester and, beyond it, the sea via the Dee Navigation of 1737. The relevant section of the Trent and Mersey would be open in 1771, although the final (tunnel) section to the Potteries was not completed until 1777. However there were difficulties with the Trent and Mersey Canal Company, and its owner the Duke of Bridgewater, who were jealous of their own lucrative traffic and put up a prolonged and robust opposition to any link with the proposed Chester Canal. Many of the arguments relating to the Chester Canal are set out in John Monk's "Remarks relating to a Canal, intended to be made from the city of Chester, to join the navigation from the Trent to the Mersey, at or near Middlewich" (1770):

  • "That if a navigable Canal was made from Chester to join the Canal at Middlewich which is now making between the Rivers Trent and Mersey and which last mentioned Canal is intended to communicate with the other Canals now carrying on to Manchester, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Kidderminster and the River Severn and also to Tamworth, Coventry and Oxford it would be a means of improving the Public Trade and Manufactures of this Kingdom of increasing the Number of Sailors to be employed in our foreign and coasting Trades of reducing the Expence of the inland Carriage of Goods and of opening a more extensive Communication between the inland Parts of the Country and the Sea and would also be of Benefit to the Inhabitants of the City of Chester and of the Country near to which the said Canal from Chester is intended to pass as well as a Means of increasing the Tonnage on the Navigation from the Trent to the Mersey and of the Duke of Bridgewater's Canal from Manchester to Preston Brook."

Samuel Weston is believed to have come from Cheshire, possibly near Runcorn. He was appointed engineer on the Chester Canal in 1772 after previous experience as a "staff-holder and leveller" for James Brindley and later as a canal contractor. He worked on the survey of the Chester Canal in 1769, which failed to get parliamentary sanction. When a new canal scheme was proposed in March 1770, Weston was appointed as surveyor of a canal from Boughton to Middlewich at 10/6 a day (52.5p). That canal would have joined the River Dee near Barrel Well Hill, i.e. above the weir at the Old Dee Bridge and was expected to have cost (according to Weston's estimate) £32,395. In September 1770 plans were changed so that the canal would circle around the north of the city and join the Dee at the bend on the New Cut, where a series of sluices drained land recovered by from the Dee Estuary. This plan, which would have effectively followed the course of Flookersbrook also failed to get approval. The third attempt, with a different route between Tilstone and Wardle and a branch to Nantwich was successful and Weston was appointed engineer at £20 a year, with his son as clerk. He only stayed with the Chester Canal Company for a few years before being paid off in January 1774 and moving on to canal work in the south of England on the Oxford Canal. His son also became a noted canal engineer both in England at in America. Following Weston's departure, Thomas Morris was recalled from Ireland to take over the engineer's role. He had previous experience building the extension of the Bridgewater Canal to Runcorn. Under his direction, the canal opened from Chester to Huxley Aqueduct on 16 January 1775, and to Beeston in June. Morris was sacked in September, to be replaced by Josiah Clowes. He too was sacked, and was followed by a Mr Moon, who had previously acted as assistant to Morris. The canal was completed under the direction of Joseph Taylor, appointed in September 1776.

The limited plan authorised 1772 permitted the building of a canal 14 feet wide from Chester to Nantwich and Middlewich. This had immediate effects on Chester: Queen Street having been constructed fairly rapidly around 1777, with much development by two individuals in particular: John Chamberlaine (who was much involved with the canal) and Roger Rogerson. The development of the street was obviously also connected with the development of the Chester-Nantwich canal. From the 1770s city development was especially concentrated north of Foregate Street, beginning with Queen Street and expanding later to include Bold Square and Seller and Egerton Streets before 1820.

The Weaver Navigation (c1730, shown in light green) took newly discovered rock salt from the "wiches" (Nantwich, Northwich and Middlewich) to the Mersey. The "New Cut" (1737, in yellow) was an attempt to re-open the Port of Chester. The Trent and Mersey canal (1777, in orange) provided a way of exporting fragile goods from the Potteries. The unsuccessful "dead end" Chester to Nantwich canal (1779, light blue) was initially intended to link up with the Trent and Mersey at Middlewich and divert trade to the Port of Chester on the other side of the Delamere Forest - something which was successfully resisted by the Trent and Mersey. The Wirral Line (1795, dark green) saved the Chester-Nantwich canal from complete ruin. The Llangollen Canal (1806,in purple) was originally intended to link Ruabon with Wrexham and Chester but was never completed.

The overall canal project was seriously undermined, however, by a requirement that the new canal should end at least 100 yards away from the Trent and Mersey Canal at Middlewich, requiring overland portage rather than allowing for a functional junction. As a result, the Middlewich branch of the Chester Canal was not begun, and the branch to Nantwich became the course of the final section of the Chester Canal. " Weale's Quarterly Papers on Engineering" noted the following:

  • "The line which Mr Brindley surveyed was probably that of the Ellesmere Canal from Chester to Nantwich with a branch to the Grand Trunk at Middlewich. By the first Acts of Parliament obtained for this canal the proprietors are empowered to make it from Chester to Nantwich and Middlewich. In the Act 17th George III 1777 however there is a most singular clause inserted for the protection as it is called of the Duke of Bridgewater and the Grand Trunk Canal Company by which the Chester Canal Company is restricted from carrying the Middlewich branch of that canal nearer than 100 yards to the Grand Trunk Canal. In consequence of this restriction the branch to Middlewich remained untouched up to the year 1827, while in the mean time the Chester Canal had been extended to the south as far as Wolverhampton and connected at Welshpool and several other places with the Severn and with the canals in Staffordshire. The want of a communication with the Grand Trunk however was still severely felt and a valuable mining district in Denbighshire was almost ruined by the competition of places more favoured by the proximity of water carriage. At the same time the value of the shares in the Chester Canal had been extremely depressed by the want of communication with other canals and at one time were worth no more than one per cent of their original value."

There were also arguments with the River Dee Company over access to the River Dee at Chester, and in particular about the construction of the link betweem the canal and the River Dee. The River Dee Company had managed to insert a clause into the Act which restricted the width of the final lock into the river to 7 feet (2.1 m). Although the lock was built, and some narrow boats capable of using it were constructed, agreement was reached on a wider connection after four years of argument. The solution adopted was a single pair of gates, which provided a 15-foot-wide (4.6 m) entrance into a basin from which the canal rose to the Northgate level. The land on which the basin was built was owned by the River Dee Company, who therefore charged tolls on all traffic using it.

By late 1777, the canal company had spent all of the share capital of £42,000 and another £19,000, which had been raised as a loan guaranteed by Samuel Egerton of Tatton. He was a shareholder in the company and related to the Duke of Bridgewater. They applied for another Act of Parliament, which allowed them to raise another £25,000, by additional calls on existing shareholders, and to borrow £30,000 as a mortgage. They succeeded in raising £6,000 by making additional calls, and borrowed £4,000 from Richard Reynolds, an ironmaster from Ketley, who was responsible for several of the East Shropshire Canals, including the Wombridge Canal and the Ketley Canal. Shareholders who could not provide funds on the additional calls found themselves deprived of their existing shares.

When the canal between Chester and Nantwich opened in 1779, it was a dead end and attracted little traffic other than a moderately successful and fast passenger trade, leading to financial disaster for its backers who at one stage saw the share price in the canal company fall to 1% of the initial value. John Aikin wrote:

  • "For want of money the branch to Middlewich was never cut; and thus the principal objects of the undertaking, the carriage of salt from that place to Chester, and the communication (though not the absolute junction) with the Grand Trunk being never effected, the sceme has proved more totally abortive than any other in the kingdom."

No dividends were paid during the canal company between 1772 and 1813. By the end of 1781, the company had no money and was unable to meet interest payments on the loans. They decided to forfeit the canal to Egerton, the main mortgagee, but he did not respond to their offer. Part of the canal was even abandonned in 1787, when Beeston staircase locks collapsed, and there was no money to fund repairs. The canal was funded by subscriptions with almost half of the capital of £38,500 coming from Chester, a fifth from Cheshire gentry a tenth from Nantwich and lesser sums from further afield. While the Chester Corporation was strongly in favour of the intended canal to Nantwich and beyond, it was a heavy investor (to the tune of £2000) in the company's shares only through the Owen Jones charity, thus risking the funds of the charity rather than its own. In due course the £2000 was lost when further calls for funds were made and the Corporation was not prepared to meet them. Others were not so lucky. Various plans were put forward to improve the canal. In 1791 Joseph Turner, identified in various sources as either "a Chester architect" or a "Whitchurch Engineer" (Canal Ports, John Porteous), put forward a scheme for the course of the Ellesmere/Whitchurch Canal routed to the east of the Dee, with Whitchurch being served by a heavily-locked branch about 10 miles long, up the Wych Valley from a junction near Threapwood.

In 1793 Joseph Turner was to be paid "£20 on erecting a stone arch over the canal from the Northgate garden to the Blue Coat Hospital" (ZA/B/5/f.36v, [p.72] 30 July 1793). This became known as the Bridge of Sighs. He by now appears to have some role in local government as he is involved in the consideration of a "Petition from John Bramwell for a lease of land, to compensate for land recovered from him by River Company" (ZA/B/5/f.43, [p.85] 13 February 1795).

Overall, the Chester Canal was 19.5 miles long, has 17 locks and ran from the River Dee to what proved to be a pointless end at Nantwich. If anything, it had a negative effect on the trade of Chester by allowing the export of Cheshire Cheese to Shropshire rather than via the Port of Chester. Chester's canal was only saved from complete financial ruin and ignominious closure by the "Canal Mania" of the 1790s and the opening of the "Wirral Line" (1795) between Chester and what is now Ellesmere Port.

A panorama showing the corner where the Ellesmere Canal joins the Chester Canal. The brick building is "Telfords Warehouse" and the white building next to it ("Harvest House") was the head-office of the Shropshire Union Canal until 1920. At this point the canal originally used to go straight on to the River Dee, but the layout was changed when the Wirral line of the Ellesmere Canal was constructed. Still set in the curving wall before the bridge is an iron ring and hook which would have been used for haulage ropes to help boats make the shart turn.

The Wirral Line

The Ellesmere Canal Act was passed in 1793, and although the scheme took 12 years to "complete" it ultimately connected the city to a much wider hinterland. The overall plan was to construct a canal from what is now Ellesmere Port to Chester and then on to Shrewsbury via Wrexham and Ruabon. There would be various branches along the route. The first section, opened in 1795, and linked Chester to the Mersey at Netherpool (later Ellesmere Port) as the "Wirral Line". "Joseph Turner Architect" was named as a shareholder in the 1796 Act which enabled the purchase of the mortgage of the Chester Canal for £8000 from William Egerton (heir of Samuel Egerton) (it was valued at £15,0176 19s and 7d). Turner was engineer for the Chester Canal until 1797, when he was succeeded by John Fletcher (who is frequently confused with the Chester newspaper proprietor, another John Fletcher.

The Northgate Staircase Locks were the deepest in Britain when they were built and are unusual in that they are cut out of solid rock. Operation of a staircase is more involved than a single lock - it is possible to send down more water than the lower chambers can cope with - it is usual to have the whole staircase empty before starting to descend, or full before starting to ascend, apart from the initial chamber.

The addition of the Wirral Line section of the Ellesmere Canal led to some changes in the original layout at Chester. Hunter's Map of Chester (1775) shows how the canal was initially planned to go straight to the River Dee. Nowadays, the River Dee branch heads eastwards from the river, and passes through two locks before turning to the north - initially it went straight on after the basin to join the Northgate staircase of locks - as shown in Stockdale's Map of Chester (1795). The basin was originally tidal but this proved difficult of access and prone to silting, and so a new entrance with a tidal lock was opened in 1801 Another two locks now raise its level to that of the Ellesmere Canal. Originally, the branch continued eastwards after the first two locks, and another two brought it up to the level of the Chester Canal main line. From the junction, the Ellesmere main line heads south, to another right-angled bend where it joined the Chester Canal. The last bend proved awkward for horse-drawn boats and was made worse when the railway cut across the cramped site below the locks.

One difficulty with the Wirral Line was the supply of water to fill the canal. Every time a boat passed through a lock some 60,000 gallons of water would be lost from the "summit level" to eventually pass into the Dee or the Mersey. There was insufficient water supplied by the brooks and streams of the Wirral to maintain the level so other arrangements need to be made. At Chester this was met by water from the Chester Canal company and an additional benefit from the change in the layout of the locks. At Ellesmere port a Boulton and Watt steam engine was used to pump sea-water into the canal: it was made by John "Iron Mad" Wilkinson the famous iron founder and an influential member of the Canal Committee.

The Wirral line of the Ellesmere Canal proved a great success and revived the debt-ridden Chester Canal. It was built. at some extra cost to be navigable by "flats", the standard craft of the Mersey and Weaver, and goods could be brought directly to Chester by water from Liverpool and other points on the Mersey. Lancashire coal, for example, became cheap enough to compete with that from north Wales. John Philips wrote (in his "A general history of inland navigation" of 1803):

  • "1796: In the month of February four flats laden with coals from Lancashire, arrived at the Tower Wharf of the Ellesmere canal, near Chester, being the first vessels which have navigated that part of the canal with coals."

A service of passenger packet boats bewteen Chester and Liverpool was provided from the opening of the canal, the journey to Liverpool optimistically timed at three hours, and 15,000 passengers a year were using it by 1801. Pigot describes the journey as follows:

The Leadworks (right) and the Steam Mill (blurred out on left) at Chester in the 1950's
  • "From hence to the river Mersey is ahout nine miles and the canal in that distance is not interrupted hy a single lock. A large clean and commodious hoat leaves the Canal Tavern every day ahout two hours hefore high water for Liverpool. The passage along the canal is very pleasant and the sail down the Mersey particularly amusing the intercourse between Liverpool and Chester hy this conveyance is very great, and the payment demanded for the whole distance amounts only to the sum of half a crown."

Pigot's description of the sail down the Mersey being "amusing", probably idicates that it could get quite rough. The service continued until the opening of the Chester and Birkenhead Railway in 1840. In the 1780's the new link to the Mersey attracted a Leadworks and corn mills to the canalside in Chester. The interdependence of the Chester and Ellesmere companies led to their friendly merger in 1813. However, there was still no connection with the Trent and Mersey canal despite many petitions in parliament. One such petition from 1796 made it clear that:

  • ".. the Petitioners apprehend the real Object of the Trent and Mersey Canal Company is to exclude all Competition and to lay hold of all the Supplies of Water in the Country in order to prevent the Possibility of any other Canal being brought through the Staffordshire Potteries however beneficial or necessary to its increasing Trade and so to secure the great and alarming Monopoly of that Company for ever." (Journal of the Commons, 7th Dec 1796)

By 1827 the joined companies had become powerful enough to overcome the long-standing (45 year) resistance to a connection with the Trent and Mersey. "Weale's Quarterly Papers on Engineering" noted:

  • "In 1827 however the influence of the Chester and Ellesmere Canal Company was sufficiently strong to effect a junction with the Grand Trunk at Middlewich. Under the powers of an Act obtained in that year the Grand Trunk Company undertook to cut a branch of 100 yards in length out of their own canal and by another Act passed in the same year the Chester and Ellesmere Canal Company is empowered to make a cut of five miles to join this branch from the Grand Trunk. In this way these important navigations have been united we believe greatly to the advantage of both notwithstanding the long and determined opposition of the Grand Trunk Company."

Successful as it was, the new canal served ultimately to demonstrate that Chester's waterborne traffic could be carried more effectively through Liverpool and the Mersey than through its own port. Although the increase in imported grain after 1860 initially made the canal more important, eventually it became more economic to open new mills on the Mersey and the canal-borne trade to Chester ceased around the time of the First World War. The trade in timber brought from the Mersey to the lumber-yards at Cow Lane bridge also ceased soon after 1918.

The Llangollen Canal

A very detailed history exists as "The Elllesmere and Llangollen Canal: A historical Background", by Edward A. Wilson

Thomas Telford's 1000 foot long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct of 1805 crosses the Upper Reaches of the River Dee.

In 1806 Chester was linked by the circuitous new Ellesmere Canal (later called the Llangollen Canal) to the Denbighshire coalfield near Ruabon, as well as to Whitchurch in Shropshire and Montgomeryshire. It joined the Chester Canal at Hurleston not far from the original terminus at Nantwich. Plans for a direct link between Chester and Wrexham foundered because of cost and engineering difficulties. The present-day Llangollen Canal was originally the centre section of the Ellesmere Canal. The canal was intended to link the River Mersey at Netherpool (now known as Ellesmere Port) with the River Dee, and from there run via Overton (south of Wrexham) to the River Severn at Shrewsbury. The upper section was built as a navigable feeder and is both shallow and narrow - it was never intended to carry goods to Llangollen, but to carry water. Thomas Telford's Horseshoe Falls is the "filling point" for the canal. Construction work on the canal running through the Vale of Llangollen began in 1795 and was completed in 1808. The Llangollen section of the canal could be used to supply a means of transport but was also intended to provide a supply of water (to Crewe and Nantwich) and so it is known for it's marked current.

In 1791 a proposal for the route was put forward at a meeting in Ellesmere held in the Royal Oak (now the Hotel Ellesmere) and subsequently the Ellesmere Canal Company was formed. The route as initially suggested was to follow an easterly course crossing the River Dee at Overton, south of Wrexham. This would then have branches cut to Llanymynech, Ruabon and Bersham to give access to the rich lime, coal and iron deposits to be found and in 1792 the "Plan of the Eastern Canal & Branches" was deposited on the 11th November. Under the 1792 planning, the Ruabon Branch was to continue on, past Cape Kynaston and Llangollen to the Abbey of Crusis and Eglwyseg River where head water for the branch could be drawn. The Easterly Route did not meet with the approval of all the commercial bakers of the company, and they wanted a more favourable course for their businesses, passing directly through the Welsh mining areas. This resulted in the "Westerly Plan" being deposited on the 10th of November 1793 after being surveyed by John Duncombe (who died 1810 in prison at Inverness). This then gave two competing routes for the canal and William Jessop, a leading canal engineer was invited to appraise both routes and advise, following which he recommended the Westerly Route. He was subsequently appointed as the Project Engineer, and brought in Thomas Telford as General Agent. There was then a further change of plan which led to a route that would link in the productive coal mines of Chrik, Ruabon and Bersham along with the limestone deposits that could be found at Llanymyneck and Froncysyllte in the Dee Valley. This new proposed route would also join the navigable waters of the River Seven at Shrewsbury, the River Dee at Chester and with a further branch from Chester, the River Mersey at what would become Ellesmere Port, i.e. the port for Ellesmere in Shropshire and the Ellesmere Canal Company, thus giving seaward passage, both north and south of Wales and linking Liverpool to Bristol via an inland waterway. Much of the traffic on the canal was lime for agricultural use, but the link betwen limestone areas and coalfields wout have been of great benefit to iron-founders such as "Iron Mad" Wilkinson at Bersham.

Duncombe's fate was rather sad. He was born in Oswestry, was the first engineer/surveyor on the Ellesmere Canal and he proposed the "western route" which would have taken the canal through Ruabon, Bersham (for Iron Mad Wilkinson's Works), close to Wrexham, through Pulford and ended in Handbridge. It was he who first proposed a specacular aqueduct over the Dee (later taken up by Telford). He wore himself out with the work and then followed Telford to the Caledonian Canal where Telford complained he was burnt-out, and Duncombe took to drink. Telford was hardly sympathetic when he died in 1810 and wrote:

  • "I am vexed about the old fool - his dying will be no matter of regret; but in a jail at Inverness is shocking".
The proposed Elesmere Canal, of which the section between New Bridge and Chester was never built beyond a very short length at the southern end. The canal would connect to the River Dee at Farndon.

East of Llangollen, Thomas Telford's 1000 foot long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, of 1805, carries the canal (and water from the Dee) 120 feet above the River Dee itself. It consists of a nine foot cast iron trough supported by nineteen hollow masonry piers. Each span is 53 ft (16 m) wide. Mortar used in the construction comprised lime, water and oxen blood. The thin iron plates making up the troughs were cast locally (at the Plas Kynaston Foundry, owned by William Hazledine) and dovetailed into each other. They were caulked by a mixture of pure Welsh linen and boiled sugar before the joints were sealed over by lead. Crossing the aqueduct is not advised for anyone with a morbid fear of heights. The towpath is cantilevered out from the east side of the trough, which is the full width of the aqueduct. While walkers on the towpath are "protected" by railings on the outside edge, the holes to fit railings on the other side of the aqueduct were never used. As the edge of the trough is only a few inches above the water level, the narrowboat crew have nothing between them and a fatal drop. With it's aqueducts and scenery, it is the most popular canal for holidaymakers in Britain. The aqueduct cost the then considerable sum of £47,000 - never before - and never again - was such a structure ever built. This resulted in the project running out of money and the Wrexham branch of the canal never reached Ellesmere Port, it's intended destination, but in this phase only reached a quarter of a mile north of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, leaving (1803) a canal from the Mersey to Shrewsbury with a 17 mile gap from Chester to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, and an unfinished section at the Shrewsbury end. Being unable to reach the planned water sources at Wrexham the Horseshoe Falls on the River Dee became the feeder for the Llangollen-Shrewsbury section and even further upstream on the Dee, at Bala Lake, sluices were constructed to ensure a controlled flow of water into the River Dee and hence the canal system. A glance at a map shows how this intricate "machine" extended over a huge geographical reach.

The still part-ruinous Chester Canal now saw its fortunes change. The Llangollen company had already built a branch from its main line, near Ellesmere, to Whitchurch, so the suggestion was put forward that a link should be made from Whitchurch to Nantwich and turn the Chester Canal into an important part of a main line from the River Mersey to Shrewsbury. The Llangollen company were not so keen about being dependent upon the Chester company, and attempted - without success - to buy out the whole of the Chester Canal in 1804. Eventually the Llangollen canal was completed between Frankton Junction to Ellesmere and Whitchurch in Shropshire, eventually reaching the Chester Canal at Hurleston Junction near Nantwich. The originally ruinous Chester Canal now actually went somewhere. The new canal was a roaring success even though the southern link to Shrewsbury was never completed. Writing in 1808, Henry Holland in his "General View of the Agriculture of Cheshire; with Observations Drawn Up for the Consideration of the Board of Agriculture, and Internal Improvement" states:

The plaque on the wall of the former Royal Oak, commemorates the opening of subscriptions for the Ellesmere canal company.
  • "Till its junction with the Whitchurch branch of the Ellesmere canal was completed the canal between Chester and Namptwich proved a most burdensome concern to the proprietors and was productive of no advantage to the internal intercourse of the country. The carriage on it was insufficient to pay for the necessary repairs and shares were in many instances sold at one per cent of their original cost. The act for this canal which was passed in 1772 provided for its extension to Middlewich a part of the undentaking which had it been accomplished would in all probability have ensured immediate success to the whole scheme from the communication it would have opened with the Grand Trunk and consequently with the large tract of country through which this canal passes. An absolute junction was indeed prevented by a spirit of injudicious monopoly in the proprietors of the Grand Trunk the land carriage however necessary in consequence of this restriction would have been too short to have retarded in any great degree the intercourse between the two canals. Another principal object of the extension of the Chester and Namptwich canal to Middlewich was the carriage of salt from the latter place to Chester. It is not probable howevcr that this project would have succeeded to any very great extent even had the canal been completed from the superior advantages for the exportation of this airticle which the port of Liverpool enjoys. It is notwithstanding much to be regretted that the undertaking was not executed to the extent at first proposed a circumstance which originated chiefly if not entirely in the want of adequate funds. The expense of cornpleting the canal from Chester to Nantwich was eighty thousand pounds; a sum far exceeding the calculations that had been made. The length of the part thus completed is eighteen miles, its rise from Chester one hundred and seventy feet ten inches. Since the junction which has been effected With the Ellesmere canal the carriage 0n it has increased very rapidly and it seems highly probable that it will become in a short time an advantageous concern to the present Proprietors. It is not unlikely that in this case the originally ptopoéed extension of the canal to Middlewich will be carried into execution." (with original spelling)

A short spur of the proposed canal northward from Pontcysyllte was constructed in 1820 when the Ellesmere and Chester Canal Company gave Exuperius Pickering junior permission to make a canal from Trevor Basin to the site of his projected new colliery at (possibly at Cefn), just north of Pontcysyllte. Prior to that the Ellesmere Canal Company built what was usually referred to as the ‘Ruabon Brook Railway’ as far as Acrefair in time for the opening of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805. Probably a plateway, and of unknown gauge, it took a curving route climbing steadily round the valley to the village of Cefn Mawr where there was a hairpin bend at a point later referred to as ‘The Crane’, from which it continued its climb to collieries at Acrefair. Part of the route is thought to have followed that of the tramway used to bring stone from the quarry at Cefn Mawr for the construction of the aqueduct. The railway was extended to Ruabon Brook in 1809, and further extensions and branches were made in subsequent years. This was a vital feeder of traffic to the canal, many coal mines, iron works and brickworks being served and parts of this railway were operating years before the general introduction of steam railways.

The volumes of water abstracted from the River Dee into the canal system led to problems - when the sluices were opened the level downstream fell significantly and water-powered mills on the River Dee suffered a loss of flow. In 1811 the canal company admitted liability and paid £312 in compensation, but problems continued. Before long the tenants of the Dee Mills were claiming compensation for the reduced flow of the river. A merger with the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal in 1845 was followed in 1846 by the formation of the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company, making the canal part of the Shropshire Union Canal network. Following litigation in the 1880's the canal company entered into an agreement to pay compensation to Mills on the Dee for the next 21 years. It is not known to what extent, after 1808, the diversion of water from the Dee (which was canalised by 1740) accelerated the silting of the estuary, which was already well underway, but the abstraction of such a volume of water must have reduced the scouring action of the River Dee in the "New Cut".

In 1821 extra boats came to the now merged Ellesmere & Chester Canal when the adjoining Montgomeryshire Canal (via the Carreghofa Branch) was extended to Newtown in mid-Wales. In 1835 the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal joined the Chester Canal at Natchwich, meanwhile agreement was finally obtained to build the stretch of Canal to link the Chester Canal with the Trent and Mersey at Middlewich after a delay of half a century.

A panorama showing the Graving Dock and the Roving Bridge. The commemorative plaque to Tom Rolt, who did much to encourage the restoration of the British canal system, is on the brickwork of the Bridge. The Graking Dock is surrounded by fencing because, while the Health and Safety people say the railings are not high enough, the Conservation People won't let them be touched.

The locks on the Dee Branch do not have by-washes, so excess water simply pours over the tops of the gates. In the early 19th Century the canal company did not like the loss of water from the canal system that use of the river lock caused, as well as the loss of income from boats not using the "main line" so they imposed a higher toll for those boats which used the Dee Branch. In 1827, traders from Chester actually refused to use the Dee Branch for six months in protest (which got them nowhere). While boats were often left to sit and rot in the Dee Branch as the canal declined, it was still used, with some of the last traffic being steel-carrying barges taking cargo from the John Summers steelworks at Shotton to the "Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company" at Ellesmere Port. The Tidal Lock was also used by riverboats going to Taylor's boatyard for maintenance work and having their bottom's scraped in the Graving Dock.

The Ellesmere Canal Scheme would never reach Shrewsbury as in 1797 the Shrewsbury Canal reached there first.

The Shropshire Union Canal

In 1846, the Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Company was created at a time when "railway mania" was beginning to take over from the canal age and Chester was becoming a "railway town". The Shropshire Union Company added the word "railway" to their name to attract business and interest from the "real" railway companies, and the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR) was soon to became a major shareholder in the canal company. L&NWR saw that the canal continued in business because it ran deep into Great Western Railway territory, something L&NWR would not have been able to do themselves: and filled-in canals would make good railway routes. However, when the railway company eventually took over they discovered that the Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Act of Parliament wasn't transferable and the L&NWR couldn't build tracks on the canal routes. Many years of legal wrangles ensued.

The two major industrial areas on the canale were at Ellesmere Port and Pontycysyllte. Ellesmere Port industries included the import and storage of China Clay from Cornwall for shipment to the Potteries, and flour milling. There was also considerable trade in iron and iron ore. Eventuallly most of this inductry was replaced by refining of oil-products. At Pontycysllte the initial industries were coal, iron, limestone and bricks although there was also the extraction of oil from shale and a significant chemical industry. Coal-tar products were too dangerous to be transported by road and so the canals were used to ship them. Later the chemical industry developed for the manufacture of "fine" chemicals such as saccharin, vanillin and aspirin.

While the Shropshire Union remained profitable until the 20th Century, from the start of WW1 business began to go sour, all canal routes were suffering and the Shropshire Union never recovered from the losses made during WW1. During WW2 the railway company sought permission to close 175 miles of the waterways under its control. Only the main line was kept open, this included the original Birmingham and Liverpool Junction, the old Chester main line and the Wirral line from Chester to the Mersey. The long delayed link to Middlewich was also kept open. The part of the Ellesmere canal from Hurleston to Llantisilio was never abandoned because it was an important water feeder from Horseshoe falls on the River Dee - this saved the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct from dereliction and almost certain destruction. Today the Shropshire Union Canal from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port is a very important part of the pleasure-boat network. The Hurleston to Llantisilio line of the Ellesmere Canal (now known as the Llangollen Canal) is the most popular canal in Britain. The Middlewich Branch is also still open and used by holidaymakers.

Chester Canal

From Boughton to Mollington, the Chester Canal (see: Canalside) worms its way through the centre of Chester, forming a moat for the walls between Cow Lane Bridge and the Water Tower. Overall, the canal is 19.5 miles long, has 17 locks and runs from the River Dee to Nantwich. It is now part of the Shropshire Union Main Line.

Surveying and layout

James Brindley by Francis Parsons, engraved in mezzotint by R. Dunkarton (1770).

The original surveyor of the Chester Canal was the prolific canal engineer James Brindley, and work on the canal is generally taken as having started in 1772. However, Brindley appears to have been involved in a "Chester" canal scheme as early as the late 1750's, just before his work on the Bridgewater Canal. This could have involved a canal at Neston or one to Shropshire, although Brindley's diaries are a confused mess due to his poor literacy.

Brindley's death (from diabetes) was noted in the Chester Courant of 1 December 1772 in the form of a dreadful epitaph which plays upon the cause of his death and is worthy of William McGonagall in terms of extremely bad poetry:

JAMES BRINDLEY lies amongst these Rocks,
He made Canals, Bridges, and Locks,
To convey Water; he made Tunnels
for Barges, Boats, and Air-Vessels;
He erected several Banks,
Mills, Pumps, Machines, with Wheels and Cranks;
He was famous t'invent Engines,
Calculated for working Mines;
He knew Water, its Weight and Strength,
Turn'd Brooks, made Soughs to a great Length;
While he used the Miners' Blast,
He stopp'd Currents from running too fast;
There ne'er was paid such Attention
As he did to Navigation.
But while busy with Pit or Well,
His Spirits sunk below Level;
And, when too late, his Doctor found,
Water sent him to the Ground.

James Brindley was a man of humble birth, and for several years worked as a labourer on a farm, amusing himself in his spare moments with making wooden models of machinery with a pocket-knife. He was so clever that he was often called in by the mill-owners of Macclesfield and Congleton to repair their machinery. When he was first employed by the Duke of Bridgwater he was paid only half a crown a day. He was a very practical man, and gained his knowledge not from books but from his own experiments. When he was called to the House of Commons to explain his scheme for carrying a canal over the Mersey, which many people laughed at as absurd, he took with him a Cheshire cheese which he cut in halves to represent the arches of the bridge, and made a complete cheese model of his proposed work which greatly amused his audience. "Weale's Quarterly Papers on Engineering" noted, after listing his works:

  • "Besides these numerous projects the consideration of which must have required the active and incessant occupation of Brindley's time and talents there are many brief notices of his inventions and casual employments scattered through the imperfect histories of his life Amongst these may be noticed his suggestions for the drainage of the fens in several parts of Lincolnshire and the Isle of Ely his plan for cleansing the Liverpool Docks of mud his method of building walls against the sea without mortar his improvements in the machinery for raising water and coals out of mines his use of double barges with an opening between them for forming canal embankments on the principle of the hopper barge with several others concerning which we are merely in possession of notices like the above without particulars of any kind Mr Brindley died in the fifty sixth year of his age at Turnhurst in Staffordshire on the 27th September 1772 and was buried at New Chapel in the same county. In taking a hasty retrospect of Brindley's engineering career it is important to remember that all the works he projected planned and executed are comprised within a period of twelve years and by far the greater part of them within the last seven years of his life It is amazing to reflect that the man who had to struggle without precedent or experience to guide him with all the difficulties which attended the early history of canals should himself have effected and originated so much There can be no doubt that he possessed an intellect of the highest order that his views were most comprehensive and his inventive faculties extremely fertile Brindley was wholly without education and it has even been asserted that he was unable to read and write the utmost extent of his capacity in the latter accomplishment extending no further than that of signing his name This however has been disputed as before mentioned on the authority of his brother in law who stated that he could both read and write though he was a poor scribe However this may be it is certain that he was quite ignorant in the vulgar sense of the word Education and perfectly unacquainted with the literature of his own or any other country It may be a bold assertion and yet I believe it to be one with strong presumptions in its favour that Brindley's want of education was alike fortunate for himself for the world and for posterity There was no lack of scholars in his day more than in our own nay the literary coxcomb had then a more nourishing soil in which to vegetate But where were the Brindleys amongst these scholars where were the men capable of the same original and comprehensive views the same bold unprecedented expedients and experiments upon matter and the forces of nature which the illiterate Derbyshire ploughboy dared to entertain and to undertake?"

Links to the canal

Probably the most complete history of the canal is that edited by Gordon Emery with contributions from other local authors.

Related Pages