Friday, 2 September 2016

The Sankey Canal; The first canal

The Sankey Canal was constructed in 1757 and was the first industrial canal to be constructed in England. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1755 'for making navigable the River or Brook called Sankey Brook', which is why the canal is sometimes overlooked, as the Act was to make the Sankey Brook - which runs alongside the canal - 'navigable'. However, a canal was constructed, the work financed by Liverpool merchants such as Nicholas Ashton. It was constructed to transport coal from the coalfields of St Helens, Parr and Haydock, to Liverpool, the canal first entering the River Mersey at Sankey Bridges, but later being extended to Fiddler's Ferry after a second Act of Parliament was obtained in 1762. Another extension to Widnes was opened in 1833.

The surveyor for the canal was Henry Berry, a Liverpool Dock Engineer who had worked under Thomas Steers, Steers having constructed Liverpool's first dock in 1715. The canal was designed for Mersey Flats - a sailing craft common to the River Mersey and surrounding waterways. A series of swing bridges were designed to accommodate the Mersey Flats, with locks being designed at various stages of the canal and a dry dock and boat yard at Winwick Quay. Heavy industry soon developed along the canal; along with the coal mines there was an alkali works, Sankey Sugar works, glass works in St Helens and a pottery in Bewsey, all utilising the canal. In 1830, the first railway from Liverpool to Manchester crossed the canal at Newton Common with the Sankey Viaduct constructed by George Stephenson, the viaduct and canal being a monument to the industrial age.

The decline of the canal in the twentieth century saw various branches north of the Sugar Works fall into disrepair, and with the end of the sugar traffic, the canal finally closed in 1963. It soon silted up and various swing bridges were replaced with more permanent bridges due to the development of local road systems. Stretches of the canal were infilled in the 1970s, but by 1985, a Sankey Canal Restoration Society was formed and there are plans to restore the canal. Parts of the canal at Fiddler's Ferry and Spike Island are used as a marina, and there are still many industrial archaeological features to be seen along the canal, which is now part of the Sankey Valley Park.

The Sankey Canal at St. Helens. The Glass Works can be seen on the right hand side.

The Glass Museum at St. Helens, just by the canal.

New Double Lock in St. Helens.

A derelict house by the canal in St. Helens. It may have been a bridge house.

The Ship Inn, St. Helens, one of the many pubs that is located along the canal.

Old Double Lock, St. Helens.

The Sankey Viaduct.

Bradley Lock, near Newton le Willows.

The remains of a wharf side wall at the top of Bradley Lock.

A surviving swing bridge at Newton le Willows, just below Bradley Lock.

The remains of Winwick Lock.

What used to be The Ship at Winwick Quay, a pub situated by the side of the canal.

The boat repair yard at Winwick Quay, the building dates to 1841.

Winwick Quay in the early 1970s before the canal was infilled. The boat repair yard is in the background to the right. (Warrington Borough Council)

Sunset at Fiddler's Ferry yacht haven.

The lock at Fiddler's Ferry. The canal enters the River Mersey.

Where the canal meets the Mersey. There is a boat repair yard and Yacht club at Fiddler's Ferry. Silt can be seen collecting to the right of the lock wall. The Mersey is still tidal here so boats have to wait until high tide to enter the river.

The Polly - a Manx Knobby built in the early 1900s, can still be seen at Fiddlers Ferry. This type of local boat was common to the Liverpool Bay area.

The lock at Spike Island in Widnes, the end of the canal. The canal also enters the River Mersey here.

The remains of a Mersey Flat on the banks of the Mersey, Spike Island.

The remains of another vessel at Spike Island. 

A print showing the Sankey Viaduct from Newton Common Lock, c.1830s.

All photos taken with permission by Dr David Harrison.
The map of the Sankey Canal taken from


The website for the Sankey Canal Restoration Society is well worth a visit:


  1. Why the jump from Winwick to Fidlere Ferry - missing out the waterway from Bewsey all the way to Spike island

  2. Many thanks for your comment David. Yes indeed there is a gap in the post which excludes the beautiful and historic stretch of the canal at Bewsey and Sankey. I will concentrate on this stretch on an up-and-coming blog post.