Sankey Canal

Sankey Canal, also known as the Sankey Brook Navigation and St Helens Canal, was opened in 1757 primarily to transport coal from Haydock and Parr to the expanding chemical industries of Liverpool. Widely regarded as England’s first true canal having opened some time before the nearby Bridgewater Canal, a substantial section of it runs through Warrington. One section, known as ‘The Hotties’, has even been known to include tropical fish! Here, with the help of SCARS (the Sankey Canal Restoration Society), is a brief history of the canal followed by a short essay on the impact the canal had on the childhood of one of our members, Tom Ireland. 


Stephenson's Viaduct. Courtesy of SCARS.

Stephenson’s nine-arch viaduct at Collins Green, Burtonwood. Its construction in 1830 saw England’s first canal crossed by its first scheduled passenger railway. Courtesy of SCARS.

The Sankey Brook Navigation was the first English Canal of the industrial revolution. It was authorised by parliament in 1755 and open for traffic in 1757, some years before the Bridgewater Canal which is often mistakenly described as England’s first canal. It was however never a navigation since the channel of the Sankey Brook was never improved. Instead an artificial channel was constructed alongside the brook but independent from it.

The Canal was engineered by Henry Berry, from Parr, St Helens, who was a Liverpool Dock Engineer under Thomas Steers. It was the Councilors and merchants of that city, many also involved with the Cheshire salt trade who promoted the canal in order to secure cheap supplies of coal for the industrial and domestic hearths.

The old double locks. Courtesy of SCARS.

The old double locks. Courtesy of SCARS.

The first double or staircase locks in England became known as the Old Double Locks to distinguish them from a similar pair on a later branch. Together with the eight single locks these raised the waterway by eighty feet on the original line.

The Canal was extended along the Mersey twice to take advantage of more favourable tides. The first extension from Sankey Bridges to Fiddlers Ferry opened in 1762 and the second, onwards to Widnes followed in 1830. When the St. Helens Railway was extended eastwards to Warrington in 1852/53 the course of the canal at Fiddlers Ferry was modified to eliminate its oblique approach to the lock.

Extensions at the St. Helens end took place in 1770 (to Blackbrook where the waters from the Canal reservoir at Carr Mill were taken in) and in 1772 (to Ravenhead, where copper works and later glass works were built to utilise coal from nearby mines).

From Wikipedia.

From Wikipedia.

The Canal was very profitable until the railways came along, reputedly paying an average annual dividend of 33%. Even when the St. Helens Railway Company amalgamated with the Canal Company in 1845 the latter was the more profitable with a surplus of £13,581 against the railway’s surplus of £5,686. The London & North Western Railway took over in 1864.

By the turn of the century the coal traffic had gone from the canal and abandonment commenced progressively from the northern terminus of the Canal. Canal Street was built over the Ravenhead spur in 1898 whilst the Sutton Branch shrank gradually. Inevitably the lack of traffic through to St. Helens and the rise of motor traffic led to the complete abandonment of the waterway to the north of Newton Common Lock in 1931 allowing fixed, low level road bridges to be built soon after.

In 1855, a century after the Canal was authorised; the Sankey Sugar Company had opened its works at Earlestown. The Company was attracted by the local coalfield and the availability of bulk transport for the raw sugar via the Mersey and the Canal. This traffic singled out the Sankey in 1942 when the current owners, the London Midland Scottish Railway Company refused to allow its closure despite a recommendation to this effect in a commissioned report. The carrying fleet of T.H. Burton & Sons was too old to be worth modernizing when improved road transport and bulk handling (as opposed to sacks) came along in 1959 so traffic finally ceased. The final Act of Abandonment was passed in 1963.

The canal at Widnes in 1933 (Courtesy of SCARS).

The canal at Widnes in 1933 (Courtesy of SCARS).


…or the secret of uniting children with their surroundings – by Tom Ireland.

Tom Ireland, aged 11.

Tom Ireland, aged 11.

Apologies to those of sounder mind than mine: I tend to ramble. This is a study of how a youngster came to realise the existence of his historical environment.

I blame my father. A lovely man, a sea-going engineer, the first of his family’s firstborn males not to have been christened Thomas for two hundred years. Naturally, I expected to follow in his salty footsteps, hindered only by almost terminal short-sightedness, red/green colour blindness, and an inability to form any sort of bond with mathematics. Where was I?

The canal at Sankey Bridges

The canal at Sankey Bridges (Courtesy of SCARS).

The water I was using to immerse myself in was a pond. Ponds were great; they had limits, edges, places for immersion and exmersion. Then I discovered canals. Well, one very particular canal, one that I’m in love with even now. I blame my mother. It was her habit to go shopping in Warrington Market on Saturday. Every Saturday. We travelled by Crosville bus, possibly the H20 (?), from Widnes to Warrington. One day the bus was held up by an opened bridge at a place known as Sankey Bridges. I escaped from the bus and watched a boat crawling along a waterway.

The waterway was not a pond. It had a this side and a that side but no end in sight in either direction. I was intrigued. I wasn’t a greatly travelled child and hadn’t noticed much about the habits of rivers but I examined this canally object. It required exploration. The idea lurked while I swotted for the 11+. I recall an arithmetic test. I recall most of my answers which consisted of written notes much to the effect of ‘I would love to know how to solve this. Is it possible?’ The English paper included a small space to write a story about a star. I used the allocated space to explain that most navigation did not require a knowledge of astronomy but, because our creator had given us brains, one simply had to start off in the right direction and we would automatically end up in Manchester (where ever that was.) I walked home and waited for the letter allocating a place at the Grammar school.

Spike Island

Spike Island (Courtesy of SCARS).

To the surprise of all adults I was granted a place and started to plot. The traditional reward for passing the 11+ was a bicycle. I wanted a boat and a pair of pram wheels. The milk round lasted for weeks, a cart horse named Captain in charge, and, with tips, I raised four pounds. Mrs Haney, four doors away, donated a pram. News had travelled about my need for a boat, possibly because I talked about nothing else for a year. I eventually paid three pounds and ten shillings for a 10 foot long PBK canvas covered kayak, which I tied to the pram wheels and towed home behind my bike from Northwich. I paused on the bank of the Sankey Canal at Spike Island in West Bank, Widnes, where I launched my boat ‘PuP’ (because by now I needed a dog).  I fell in again, tried again, paddled a few yards and fell in love. I cycled soggily home, head full of places to go and sights to see and determined to find out why a canal should have been built there, exactly where I needed it to be.

Abandoned Mersey Flats, pictured here in 1961

Abandoned Mersey Flats, 1961 (Courtesy SCARS).

That was the first of many voyagettes, mostly along the Sankey, avoiding the huge sugar-carrying Mersey Flats, intimidated by the soaring nine arches of Stevenson’s railway viaduct, squeezing PuP under low lying rail bridges. The romance lasted for a few years then faded for a while when clip-on motors for bicycles were invented. I sold my soul for a gold painted Mini-motor and whizzed away in a cloud of smoke. Trade on the canal ended in 1959 but by then I’d completed National Service, Teacher Training, discovered cars (I part-exchanged PuP for a BSA three-wheeler) and a girl who liked history and boats.

Time for another canoe, I think. The pram wheels probably no longer essential to the story.

THE HOTTIES – by Andy Green

The Hotties!

The Hotties in St Helens.

Although it falls outside the boundary of Warrington, no article on Sankey Canal would be complete without a reference to ‘The Hotties’. I recall being taken to St. Helens as a child to see the strange phenomenon of steam rising from the canal caused by the warm water pumped into it by Pilkington’s Glass Factory. So warm was the water it became home to a number of tropical fish, dumped there by youngsters who had become bored of keeping them in fish tanks. Tropical fish reported to have been seen in the Hotties, all allegedly confirmed, include Guppies, Liberty Mollies, Catfish and Tilapia Galilae. Reports of an alligator in the depths of the canal are unconfirmed but the possibility of one kept me from diving in back the early 80s!

The Sankey Canal Restoration Society (SCARS) was formed in 1985 with the principal aim of achieving the full restoration of Sankey Canal. It is currently concentrating on a project which seeks to open up the lower sections of the canal between Fiddler’s Ferry and its river entrance at Spike Island. To find out more about SCARS and its work visit Warrington History Society would like to thank SCARS for their assistance in producing this article and for allowing us to illustrate it with their photographs.

About Warrington History Society
Established in 1964, Warrington History Society’s aim is to encourage an interest in all aspects of local history with particular reference to Warrington and its surrounding areas. Our 2017/18 lecture programme can be viewed here. If you would like to submit an article for possible inclusion in our ‘Fleeting Memories’ series please email it to