The canals were very important in supercharging the industrial revolution. Most people think of railways when they think of the industrial revolution, but railways need miles and miles of steel track. Where do you think all that steel track came from? Someone had to make it, and the raw materials had to be brought to one place for that to happen. They were carried by canals, of course.
Steel production is a two step process that needs three raw materials:
While all of these raw materials are available in the UK, it was only when the canals arrived that they could be brought together, anywhere, but especially the Black Country, in the huge quantities needed for the exponential industrial growth of Britain, and the rest of the world.
Of course, the industrial canal traffic has declined now, but the narrow strip of canal and its banks are teeming with with life. They are wildlife superhighways, bringing wildlife right into the heart of our towns and cities.
That’s not all. The canal had a big local impact on villages and small towns right from the start. It doesn't just connect Liverpool and Leeds or Wigan, it connects all the villages and towns, large and small along its route, to each other and to Liverpool and its port. The idea wasn't just to move Wool from Leeds to Liverpool, or coal from Wigan to Liverpool, but to move all sorts of goods for short distances along the canal. For example, milk from dairy farms near Sefton was sent to Liverpool, and if you look carefully at the stones lining the canal at Gorsey Lane you’ll see the sort of marks you get from moving milk churns. In those days, they coludn’t keep milk cold for long, but they could get it 5 miles from Gorsey Lane to Liverpool in an hour, and they needed to! The explorers “Build a Canal” game shows how trade between villages and towns results in growth.
The influence of the canal on architecture is just as important. There is no natural limestone in Liverpool, but you would hardly think so to look at its 18th and 19th century buildings, like St Georges Hall, the Walker Art Gallery or World Museum in the civic centre. The limestone comes from Yorkshire, on the canal. And it’s not just Liverpool. The slates on the roofs of Wigan are Welsh, brought by sailing boat to Liverpool, transferred to canal barge at a yard on Lightbody Street, at the Liverpool end of the canal, then pulled by horse to Wigan.
The Superhighway to Wigan Pier
The stretch of Leeds and Liverpool Canal between Liverpool and Newburgh (which includes all of the canal in Sefton) was completed and opened in February 1774. By October that year, the canal had been linked to Wigan via the Douglas Navigation. 4 horses could pull 4 canal barges, each carrying 50 tonnes. That's 100 times as much as the Dover mail in Mr Dickens’ story! So it’s no wonder that, within a few years, the Leeds and Liverpool canal was bringing more coal and other cargo, into Liverpool than any other route. Over 150 years after the canal first opened, when George Orwell published his famous book, "The Road to Wigan Pier" in 1937, the Canal was still the most used route for delivering coal into Liverpool. The amount of coal delivered was huge. The record was 1,879,721 tons of coal, delivered on the canal in the year 1865.