Chester Canal Heritage Trust


How, Why & What?

Why were canals built?

The growth of industry, about 200 years ago, meant that better transport was needed to move raw materials from one place to another. Coal, stone, wood, cotton and wool had to be taken from ports, quarries and mines to factories and mills.

At the time, horse-drawn wagons were used. This was slow and expensive, and they could not carry large quantities. Something was needed, which was cheap, quick and easy to run.

Canals were built to meet this need. Canals are narrow channels, dug out and lined with clay to stop water leaking out. Then they are filled with water from a nearby river or lake.

Beginning of the 'Canal Age

The St. Helens Canal, near Warrington, and the first part of the Bridgewater Canal were opened on the 1750's. From this time onwards many more canals were built and the 'Canal Age' began in the 1750's.

Widths and depths of canals varied. Each canal was built by a different company or person to carry different goods. The Bridgewater Canal was built by the Duke of Bridgewater to carry coal from his mines at Worsley to the growing town of Manchester. More canals were built and the amount of traffic increased. The invention of railways brought competition and rivalry (after 1850) and canal traffic began to lose its importance.

How were the canals built?

Navvy is a short word for 'navigator'. To navigate is to direct the course of a ship or boat along the water. Therefore the men who dug the canals came to be known as 'navvies'.

Canals were cut before the invention of mechanical tools and had to be dug out with shovels, picks, gunpowder and hard work. The earth and rubble out of the channel was carried away in wheelbarrows by the navvies. This was not easy. Planks were leaned against the steep sides of the canals to make 'barrow runs'.

Sometimes a canal is referred to as a 'cut'. This is because the navvies had to cut the canal instead of it being a natural waterway like a river. The canals have sloping sides with a flat bottom and are usually 2 metres deep. If the canal was not lined, the water would soak through the bottom. So puddled clay was used to form a watertight seal. Puddled clay is clay which has been soaked with so much water that it holds no more when it is pressed down.

The navvies worked long hours and had to move from place to place, following the digging of the canal. They lived in rough huts which were made from whatever materials were available. The work was dangerous and there were many injuries and deaths among the 'navvies'. They were usually paid by the month, which caused problems. On pay days they lost no time quenching their thirst for ale.

Building difficulties

In those early days, there were difficulties for all canal engineers and builders. Often there were hills, rivers and other obstacles in the path of the new canal. This meant that new ways had to be found of overcoming the obstacles. As a result many canals have locks, bridges, aqueducts and tunnels.


Locks were built to let the canal and its boats move up or down hill. In fact locks are like steps or stairs to let the canal run over hilly countryside.

A lock is a chamber with gates at each end. With the top gates closed, a boat enters the lock. The bottom gates are closed behind it. Paddles or sluices near the bottom of the top gates let water flow into the lock. The level of the water rises; so does the boat. When the water is level, the top gates can be opened and the boat leaves the lock. Going down the process is reversed.

Where the land rose steeply, more than one lock had to be built. A flight of locks like this is sometimes called a staircase.


Sometimes the canal crossed through farmland, dividing the farmers' field. Farm bridges were built so that animals could be moved from field to field. Often the canal needed to cross roads and tracks, road bridges were built to carry the roads over the top of canals.

Special bridges called winding bridges or snake bridges had to be built when the canal towpath changed sides. This allowed the horse to carry on pulling the boat without having to untie the horse or the boat.

An aqueduct is a special bridge which carries water over a road or other obstacle. The aqueduct is often high above the land, built on arches. On the Lancaster Canal there is a huge aqueduct over the River Lune, near Lancaster. The most famous aqueduct is the Barton Swing Aqueduct which carries the Bridgewater Canal over the Manchester Ship Canal, near Eccles, Greater Manchester. The Anderton Lift, near Middlewich, Cheshire, was built to lift boats 15 metres from the River Weaver to the Trent and Mersey Canal. This has recently been restored.


The early boats were pulled by horses on a towing rope, so the path at the side of the canal is called a towpath. Horses spent the night tethered on the bank or in canal side stables. Sometimes horses fell in, and on some canals you can find "horse creeps" or "pull-outs" so the horse could be rescued.

On the corners of bridges there are rope marks which have bitten deeply into the stonework. Iron rollers were sometimes put at these points to prevent damage to the ropes.

Towing was sometimes done by gangs of men-called bow-haulers. This was expensive and one horse could do the work of six men. During the winter when the canals froze, an 'ice breaker' or 'rocking boat' was used. The boat was pulled by a horse and men rocked the boat from side to side to break the ice. The men held onto a special rail down the middle of the boat. Poor horse!

Steam engines replaced horses in the 1880s. Some boats were converted to steam, many were still pulled by horses. A steam driven boat could pull more than one boat.

After World War I (1919) diesel engines were introduced. Although this helped boats to be pulled in two lines of three on the Manchester Ship Canal, on other canals the amount of cargo grew less and less.



Chester Canal 1972


Northgate Locks



Shropshire Union Canal, Chester 1950`s


And again in 1996...



Under the Bridge of Sighs, Chester 1991