First Canal of Industrial Revolution at risk of drying out

Published: Monday, 24 August 2020

WATER supply to Sankey Canal  ends as coal fired power station closes down.

SpikeIslandPowerThe Sankey Canal, opened in 1757, a full three years before the Bridgewater Canal, has its last part-navigable stretch between Bewsey Lock in Warrington and Spike Island in Widnes now at risk of drying out as its main water supplier Fiddlers Ferry Power station stops generating electricity and awaits demolition.

Sankey Valley Park

Originally the canal took feed water from Carr Mill Dam in St Helens and the Sankey Brook but with in-filled sections on the line these sources have not been available and the canal's lower sections relied on the power station. This section of the canal with its towpath both a central feature of the Sankey Valley Park and an integral part of the Trans-Pennine Trail has seen increasing public use since restoration work began in the 1980`s.

Now very popular with families, walkers and cyclists, it benefits from views across the Mersey Estuary whilst small sea going craft berth in marinas at Spike Island and Fiddlers Ferry.  The locks are functional along this stretch and give access to the tidal Mersey.

a sankey spike islandCheaper fuel for Liverpool

The canal has never really been recognised fully for its role in the Industrial Revolution and the economic development of the region.  The main reason for building the canal was to develop the Lancashire Coal Field around St Helens to supply the expanding population of Liverpool with cheaper fuel but the coal it carried was also to fuel the salt extraction industries of North Cheshire and the industrial growth of the Mersey valley.  Commercial traffic lasted into the late 1950’s when imported raw sugar was shipped to Newton le Willows for refining.

Recognised as an important wild life corridor by local authorities and a tourist attraction, Warrington and Halton Boroughs are rushing to reconnect the canal to the Sankey Brook, but as civil engineering is involved this will take time to develop and implement.  The current fear is that whilst some temporary water feeds may be possible, a dry summer could result in the bed drying out.  Should this be allowed to happen there would be enormous loss in wildlife habitat including fish kills in the heavily stocked waters.

Money spent on bridges

The Sankey Canal Partnership which is made up of the three local authorities, Canal & River Trust and Sankey Canal Restoration Society, have committed to the long term goal of full restoration whilst focusing on short term issues facing this section of canal from Spike Island to Bewsey Lock. Over the past ten years a vast amount of money, effort and time has been spent on installing a new swing bridge at Tan Hose Lane, an electrically operated lift bridge at Fiddlers Ferry and a further swing bridge is planned for later this year at Spike Island.  Other Improvement have been the upgrading of the towpaths and the installation of the canal milestones donate by the canal society and various sponsors.

Jim Forkin Inland Waterways Association Chairman (Chester and Merseyside Branch) explained:

“This canal has associations with the beginning of the civil engineering profession in Britain, it was to help start the canal building manias which facilitated the industrial revolution and it needs to be saved and restored. Global warming resulting in the closing of coal fired power stations is something we have to accept and we can only encourage the engineers working on the project to resolve the issues promptly.”