Leeds And Liverpool Canal at Hapton. By John Cave.

Hapton and the Leeds and Liverpool.

Perhaps the first thing any visitor to Hapton cannot help but notice is the close proximity of all forms of terrestrial transport. For more than three centuries pioneering engineers have chosen to route their very different transport technologies close to or through the village. First came the Leeds and Liverpool canal which at 127.25mls. is the longest canal in Britain. Then with the age of steam the railway and finally during the latter part of the twentieth century the Motorway. They all had some influence on the evolution of the village, its people and more obviously its landscape. Hapton was first reshaped with the coming of the Leeds and Liverpool canal but that very nearly didn’t happen.

When the building of the canal first began in 1770 it was envisaged that the route would follow the north side of the Calder valley from Barrowford through to Padiham. It would continue on to Read and then to Portfield Bar where a spectacular 80 foot high viaduct would carry the canal across the River Calder to Whalley Nab. In fact groundwork for the viaduct began in 1772 but due to a lack of finance resulting from the American War of Independence and war with France the work was suspended in 1774. Although by this time many miles of canal were operational on both the Lancashire and Yorkshire sides of the Pennines the difficult bit in the middle still had to be completed.

Financial constraints continued until the early 1790s but with trade again booming and willing investors available, engineers and contractors were hired to complete the project. Times had changed however and it was seen that the towns of Burnley and Blackburn were already developing an industrial base. Although a change of route to serve these towns was adding a few more miles to the overall length of the canal the potential for lucrative trade was most attractive. Unfortunately there were two major embankments to construct, the “straight mile” through Burnley and another at Bentley Brook (adjacent to Burnley Crematorium) but this compared favourably when balanced against the cost of the Whalley viaduct.

The decision to re-route the canal through Burnley and Blackburn instead of Padiham and Read was taken in 1790 and the section from Burnley through Hapton to Clayton-le-Moors completed by 1801. There was now uninterrupted passage eastwards to Leeds but the connection west to Wigan through Blackburn was not operational until 1816. This however had not prevented the carriage of freight along the completed lengths of canal which encouraged the growth of many industries. The canal could move bulk freight much more cheaply than transport by road and this greatly benefited coal mining. Cutting transport costs made coal affordable to the many villages and towns along the line of the canal boosting sales and encouraging wider use. Also the limestone producing areas around Skipton could now supply the growing industrial centres both sides of the Pennines and many limekilns were to be found close to the canal.

Once the Leeds and Liverpool was fully operational the variety and quantity of goods carried was quite exceptional. At its peak the transport of coal to Liverpool from Lancashire coal fields regularly exceeded one million tons each year. Limestone produced from just one quarry in the Skipton area was running at around 80,000 tons every year, all of it transported by canal. But the Leeds and Liverpool carried a much more varied cargo. Some of the goods arriving by boat in Blackburn during a week in the summer of 1810 were recorded by the local paper and included, beans, raisins, nuts, malt, hops, molasses, snuff, paint, oil, soap, linen yarn, hemp, flax, cast iron pillars and boskins for a stable, tallow, gunpowder and other parcels. Added to this general cargo other boats delivered 223 tons of coal, 693ft of timber and 66tons of road stone.

At that time the section of canal between Blackburn and Wigan had still to be completed and so some of the goods may have been transhipped onward by road, either to Wigan, where they would be reloaded onto boats for Liverpool or for distribution elsewhere in Lancashire. There is unfortunately no record of the goods that left Blackburn for the return journey to Yorkshire but as can be seen from the list of goods carried the Leeds and Liverpool had become the main artery for the industrial revolution in Hapton and this part of Lancashire. Carriage on the canal was not only restricted to goods and from the beginning of the canals operation there were many passenger services known as packet boats. Compared to the jolting, cramped conditions of riding in a horse drawn coach along pot-holed roads the smooth journey in a spacious barge must have been in its day the height of luxury travel. There was however one particular daily service that passed through Hapton on its way between Blackburn and Burnley that gained a little notoriety. The operator was licensed to sell ales and spirits during the journey and regular complaints were made regarding passengers’ riotous behaviour and the playing of music even on Sundays. The service must have proved popular as it was still operating in 1847. Perhaps this was the original “booze cruise.”

Inland waterways played a significant role in the success of our nation during the 18th and 19th centuries by using the technology of the day to replace horse drawn road transport.

It was the entrepreneurs and business men of Lancashire and Yorkshire who recognized the potential of a waterway connecting the coasts of their two counties and then drove the venture forward. And this was not for the faint hearted. Almost 130 miles of canal with its tunnels and bridges to be constructed by men using little more than picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Horses were employed to pull carts but the digging and the loading was all done by manpower. It appears that the number of men employed in construction at any one time could vary between 250 to 500 and this in itself could cause logistical problems. Although some would be local men others were itinerant workers and these had to be fed and housed by the company. Records show that there were instances of profiteering by some local suppliers which added to friction between the navvies working on the canal and the local population. One locally recorded instance of conflict at Barrowford and Marsden in 1792 was described as a riot and only ended with the intervention of a Captain Clayton JP. Following that exchange the canal company issued 500 notices threatening to prosecute should there be any further intimidation of their workforce. There does not appear to have been any similar problems involving Hapton residents.

For almost two hundred years the canal was in private hands and remained a competitive force even when faced with the emerging railway network although the railways did capture much of the passenger traffic. It has been suggested that the commercial viability of the canal system ended with the coming of the railways but here in Lancashire the Leeds and Liverpool continued as a significant bulk carrier of coal well into the 1960s. When I was a school boy in the early sixties I remember watching lorries tipping coal down a chute into barges at the Rosegrove canal wharf. The coal was produced by nearby Hapton Valley Colliery and was brought the short distance from the pit by the lorries to be transported westward along the canal through Hapton in the direction of Liverpool.

Private ownership of the canal had come to an end in 1948 when the government of the day nationalised much of the nations resources and infrastructure including canals, railways, road haulage and coal production. Road haulage was amongst the first of these to be de-nationalised and it was the rapid technical development of heavy lorries and the improving road network that finally ended commercial goods traffic on the Leeds and Liverpool canal.

Today the pits are closed and coal barges have been replaced by pleasure cruisers. Most of the once dark satanic mills from the industrial revolution are in the process of either been demolished or redeveloped for more urbane usage. It would appear that the future of the canal will be as part of an expanding leisure industry but even that is nothing new for the Leeds and Liverpool. As early as 1839 there are records of privately owned pleasure boats being licensed to use the canal system.

As from 2012 ownership of the Leeds and Liverpool canal passed into the hands of the newly formed Canal and River Trust who are now responsible for its maintenance and administration.

Source of information, “The Leeds & Liverpool Canal, a History and Guide by Mike Clarke.” Carnegie Publishing, 1994. Additional information by John Cave

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