Home  / BW52


Company of Proprietors of the Sankey Brook Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Sankey Brook Navigation: a deed concerning property aquired by the company 1574 and 1589, correspondence 1768, accounts of tonnage duty 1826.



Reference code


Access Status

These records are available immediately for research

Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

The Sankey Brook Navigation is also known as St Helens Canal, after the area of collieries the canal was to serve. Coal from these pits was transported to Liverpool across land, but was extremely expensive due to the turnpike tolls. Tolls were so high that in December 1753 riots broke out, which prompted the authorities to investigate whether Sankey Brook could be made navigable all the way to St Helens. Over a mile of the brook was already navigable from the river and there were already private wharves at Sankey Bridges. In June 1754 Liverpool's Dock engineer Henry Berry conducted the survey, assisted by William Taylor. Berry realised the navigation was too small to be improved but knew that seeking an Act to build a canal would meet resistance. William Taylor's previous survey the year before, for a canal at Salford, had been crushed under opposition from landowners. Instead, with the full support of John Ashton on the Liverpool Council, Henry Berry opted to include a clause in the Act that would allow him to make three navigable cuts and any other that the engineer felt necessary. John Ashton was a member of Liverpool Council, who had commissioned the survey, and was a merchant as well. Several other prominent Liverpool merchants became undertakers in the canal. The proposed canal found supporters amongst principal landowners and colliery owners and was not petitioned against. The Act was passed in 1755. A lateral canal following the course of Sankey Brook was built starting on 3rd September that year. Most of the canal was open by 1757 and was complete by 1761, although work continued on smaller branches. As it served most of the collieries in the area, the Sankey Brook Navigation was complex. Starting from Sankey Bridges, the main line travelled 8 miles to the Old Double Lock, then split into several branches. The main line went a further 1 1/2 miles to Gerard's Bridge. From 1762 a short, 5/8 mile-long branch went to Blackbrook. By 1772 it was possible to leave the main line on the Broadman's Bridge branch which itself branched off to the copper and glass works in Ravenhead. Another short branch linked the Sutton Colliery to the Ravehead branch. St Helens also had two private canals; only one, opened in the mid-1780s, connected with the Sankey Brook Navigation. It was an extension of the Blackwood branch and went the 1/2-mile to the mills at Carr. The second, unconnected canal first appears on maps in 1793 and was probably built as a means of transporting coal from Thatto Heath collieries to the Plate Glass Works. There were 10 locks on the main line and a staircase pair, the New Double Lock, on Boardman's Bridge branch. They were capable of taking craft 72 feet 4 inches by 16 feet 9 inches. Only swing bridges were constructed, to limit inconvenience to sailing flats that would otherwise have to be unrigged. The other inconvenience was the tide on the brook leading to the canal. It was decided to build a new cut to the Mersey. After John Eyes had completed his survey, in 1762 an Act was granted authorising a 1 5/8 mile extension downstream to Fiddler's Ferry with a river lock. Both this new and the original lock to Sankey Brook remained in use; sometimes when the sheer number of vessels using the new lock caused delays; sometimes because the carriers preferred not to pay the surcharge on using the new lock. The navigation was a profitable one, especially with the coal supplies to Liverpool and the Cheshire salters. By allying with the Leeds & Liverpoo Canal, in 1772 the Sankey canal was successfully able to oppose a Liverpool Canal scheme that would rival the Trent & Mersey and the Leeds & Liverpoo canals, and have several branches including one to Wigan. The Sankey was opposed to the whole idea, especially as they had had their own plans for an extension to Wigan. Competition came from the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the Bridgewater Canal from the late 1770s, with the Sankey entering the carrying business in order to be able to reduce tolls enough to remain competitive. In 1796, 1797 and 1813 the Mersey & Irwell Navigation tried and failed to convince the proprietors of the Sankey to agree to a junction. Whilst this would probably have been beneficial, as collieries were expressing interest in transporting coal to Manchester, the Sankey were not prepared to entertain the idea. From 1830, however, the colliery proprietors and the Sankey Brook Navigation were in direct competition. The colliery proprietors had decided to build the St Helens & Runcorn Gap railway to transport their coal to the Mersey, thus halving the distance it would normally travel on the canal. The railway would cross the Sankey Brook Navigation twice. If the proposed extensions were built, it would result in another two crossings. The canal responded with another extension from Fiddler's Ferry. Previous attempts had been made to extend to Runcorn Gap in 1819 due to the Mersey's sandbanks and insufficient depth at neap tide. That plan was withdrawn due to opposition; their 1830 attempt was successful. Engineer Francis Giles was in charge of the 3 3/8 mile Widnes extension, the Mersey locks of which were slightly larger than those on the rest of the navigation. The canal and railway docks were built side-by-side. From its completion in 1833 the canal was more successful than the railway. The latter had cost more than anticipated and not all the branches to the collieries had been built. Railway trade did improve but it never became as successful as the canal extension. Both parties agreed to a union in 1838. Good relations do not appear to have soured even after an unfortunate accident in 1842 whereby a train and two wagons fell into the canal as the swing bridge was open. No one was hurt but the accident resulted in the canal being drained and the engine dismantled in order to remove it from the canal bed. In 1845, the St Helens Canal & Railway Company was authorised by an Act of Parliament. For further information on the Sankey Brook Navigation see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield and Gordon Biddle's 'The Canals of North West England Volume 1'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain any original structure of record-keeping from the small number of records held for this company. The fonds has therefore been arranged in chronological order.