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History of the canal

The history of the canal

Promoted by wealthy merchants in the late 18th century, the Lancaster Canal was originally envisaged as a line from the Bridgewater Canal at Worsley through to Kendal.  The plans were torn up and redrawn several times, and the final incarnation as seen today bears little resemblance to the original proposals.


The canal’s principal purpose was to transport coal north from the Lancashire coalfields, and limestone south from Cumbria.  The nature of these cargoes gave the waterway its local nickname – the Black and White Canal.  The Glasson branch (1820) allowed cargo transfer from seagoing vessels that could not navigate the increasingly shallow Lune estuary into Lancaster port.

The canal was built in two sections, north and south of the River Ribble.  John Rennie designed two major aqueducts, one over the Lune at Lancaster and one over the Ribble at Preston.  The Lancaster Canal was just one of many projects designed by Rennie who also designed Waterloo Bridge and London Bridge.

Due to problems with the foundations of the Lune aqueduct, the company ran out of sufficient money to build the Ribble aqueduct to connect the two sections.  Instead a tramway was built from Walton Summit to Preston.  This worked adequately, and the two sections were never connected.

Subsequently in 1816 a branch was opened from the southern section to the Leeds Liverpool canal at Johnson’s Hillock.  The section south of Preston became part of the much delayed Leeds Liverpool, who leased it in 1863 – and the tramway from Walton Summit to Preston was eventually closed in the 1880s.

North of Preston the waterway was fairly successful.  Because of the lack of locks the daily Packet Boat passenger service really was ‘express’ – Kendal could be reached from Preston in an unheard of 10 hours!  In fact the service was so comfortable that passengers on the daily runs between Preston and Kendal remained loyal to the waterway after the arrival of the railway.

Roads posed a more serious threat and after a general decline (the last cargo sailed in 1947) the construction of the M6 motorway through the line of the canal finally saw the 14 miles of the Northern Reaches isolated at Tewitfield Locks.  The isolated, largely unnavigeable section to the north is home to the only tunnel on the Lancaster canal, at Hincaster.

Information courtesy of the Canal and River Trust


Original proposed route of the canal through Garstang shown in red on a modern Ordnance Survey map of the area. The final route is shown in blue.

Looking at the map above it seems odd that the canal takes such a winding route when the more logical way would be to take the straighter course.

The reason for the deviation was due to an appeal by Lord Derby who owned the majority of the land through which the red route was intended to pass. To either side of the red route was land owned by the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, and the Keppel family.

Lord Derby stood to lose more land than the other landowners so he petitioned to have the route changed.

Samuel Gregson, on behalf of the Lancaster Canal Company wrote to James Wareing on 7th May 1793 about the proposed deviation, including this paragraph:

“By the direction of the Lanc. Canal Com. I enclose you a copy of the field plan near Greenhalgh Castle with the direction of the canal upon it through the Estate of Lord Derby. The Com. have had an alteration pointed out to them which is also marked on the plan, and to which they wish for the consent of his Lordship.  If any inconveniences appear to you to arise in this deviation the Com. will be much obliged by your pointing them out, but they hope the deviated line will much better accommodate his Lordship’s property by taking a less quantity of land and avoiding coming too near the houses as the Parliamentary Line does.”

It was eventually agreed that the canal would follow the blue route, as Lord Derby requested.