Ulverston Canal – “Shortest, widest and deepest”

A history by Alan Postlethwaite

Click here to read more about the industries that operated along and near the canal

1720 Ulverston trade (via the shore) had increased so much that the Custom House was moved from Piel to Ulverston
1736/7 34 vessels (exc. small craft) anchored between Plumpton and Conishead in 12 months. Trade mainly coal inbound and iron ore outbound
1774 70 vessels registered to Ulverston
1790s Kirkby quarry proprietors eager to improve the “Slate Road” to shipping point at Ulverston. Reliable outlet required by charcoal iron manufacturers for their bar and cast iron. Better shipping facilities than low tide beaching needed by iron ore mine owners
1791 (August) Meeting held at which it was agreed “to have a canal”. Coincided with the “great canal mania”. Encouraged by publicity from the Lancaster Canal scheme then nearing Lancaster. John Rennie recruited as a consultant. Energetic organising of local dignitaries by Ulverston attorney William Burnthwaite, jnr.. Practical and parliamentary assistance from the Lancaster Canal Co.: prospect of coal being supplied via Lancaster Canal into Ulverston.
1793 (June) Parliamentary consent to build a cut from Hammerside Hill to Weintend. Supposed that Wilson Bradyll of Conishead Priory opposed thoughts of having the seaward access further west
1793 (August) Cutting of first sod at Rame with processions and banquet. Scheme included drainage of the Ulverston mosses (and loss of peat sources to townsfolk)
1794 Lock excavated. Sandstone from Hawcoat. Stone for upper basin from Hoad. Water from streams and by feeder from Newland Beck. Rennie’s estimate £3,084. Subscribers raised £4,000. Actual cost approx. £9,200. (2009 equivalent by labour costs over £3m.)
1796 (December) Canal completed. Main excavating contractors Pinkerton & Murray of Lancaster. Depth 16ft. (Bay spring tide is 18ft). Width at bottom 36ft. Banks at 60 degree slope. At surface 66ft including two towpaths each 12ft wide. Length 1 mile and a quarter. Upper basin is 102 yds long and 61 yds wide. Lower basin is 50yds long and 80 yds wide. Sea lock cost £813 and could accomodate vessels 100ft in length and 27ft beam. Canal able to receive ocean-going craft of up to 200 tons. Opening coincided with a trade depression.
1797 Warehouse and canal offices built. First slate wharf and coal wharf let.
1798ff Iron floors let:1798 Thos Sunderland Esq (at Cowpark), 1799 Newland Co., 1838 Ulverston Mining Co., 1841 George Huddleston Esq and Messrs Davis & Co. (? site of Ironworks)
1799 Larger vessels already unable to enter Canal due to movement of the river channel
1802 River channel moved east away from Canal foot. Canal Co. donated £21.15s to Turnpike Trust towards cost of improving the branch road from Kirkby Moor slate quarries (Kirkby Slate Road?).
1803 Discussions on managing the river channel
1802-14 Average no. of vessels was 132; total tonnage 1,704 (ave. under 20 tons)
1808 Iron coffin for John Wilkinson imported from his Bradley Ironworks for delivery to Castle Head at Grange
1814 River channel returned to west and remained sp until 1844/5. (In 1839 signs of a shift in the channel had been detected and channel boards had been installed to prevent movement))
1815 Pier erected outside sea lock
1821 259 vessels; tonnage 12,960 (ave. 50 tons). Trade grew to peak in 1846.
1825 Plans prepared for weir from Parkhead to Black Scars to divert channel but no action taken
1835 Copper ore for export (2,000 tons per annum)
1836 Canal Co. pays its first dividend
1839 Plans for weir revived but again shelved
1840 Balance of trade now moving in favour of Barrow with its deeper channel
1846 944 vessels; tonnage 61,360 (ave. 65 tons)Imports – Coal (7,000 tons), timber (600 tons), charcoal, bricks, guano, bones, wheat, cottonExports – Iron ore (25,000 tons), slate (700 tons, declining), iron (500 tons), gunpowder, woodland trades, rope, pitch
1846 Furness Railway opened from Crooklands and Kirkby talking most slate and much of the iron ore trade for shipping via Barrow
1847 River channel moved across to the Cartmel shore – a mile away from Canal Foot
1847/8 Collins (contractor) Weir built from Kephead to the Black Scars
1849 Use of Canal limited by inadequate water supply via feeder. Suggestions to capture water from Rivers Leven and Crake. Dispute over scheme to add an extension to Collins Weir resulting in an Admiralty enquiry.
1850 (late) Proposed sale of Canal to John Brogden Jr (“acting for the Furness Railway Co”) for £18,000 not proceeded with
1851 Furness Railway Lindal branch completed now taking most of the Lindal ore to Barrow for shipment. (In 1857 FR carried 561,495 tons of ore and 61,128 tons of slate to Barrow).
1853 Construction of Ulverstone & Lancaster Railway in progress. W & J Galloways foundry on north side of Canal cast columns for the Leven crossing. Site later became a bone fertiliser plant.
1854 Six Bridges constructed across the Canal for the railway, obstructing access to Canal Head to masted schooners. (Problems gaining firm foundation on the ghost of Jane Benson, excommunicated in late 1700s and buried in adjacent copse).
1857 Ulverstone & Lancaster Railway opened (single track). Middle (or New) Basin built to alleviate loss of schooner access to Canal Head. Railway siding provided from west side of Six Bridges.
1862 U & L line purchased by Furness Railway and doubled. FR agrees to purchase Canal for £22,000 – deal formally completed in 1867.
1864 “Newland” – sailing from Greenodd to the Canal – struck the Leven Viaduct breaking 5 columns – the last of several such incidents
c.1874 FR Bardsea Branch built to serve ironworks but with intention to provide a low level route into Barrow. Drawbridge across Canal with timber fenders to prevent collisions. Western towpath abandoned in favour of Canal Sidings. (? Old rail access to New Basin abandoned)
1877 North Lonsdale Ironworks opened
c.1880 Beaconsfield Pier erected by North Lonsdale Iron & Steel Co. Formed from slag (now lost beneath slagbank)
1883 (June) Plumpton Junction to Conishead Priory passenger service begun
c.1890 Ainslie Pier constructed from tipped slag to accommodate larger vessels. Closer to Hammerside. Access tidal and difficult to navigate. Wireworks chimney as navigation aid. Last used 1939.
1916 Last major vessel to use the Canal – “Clarrie” of Liverpool with flour from Silloth. Subsequently pleasure boats regularly entered the Canal until –
1945 “Nahulla” left on 13th October

The Ulverstone & Lancaster Railway : Les Gilpin, Cumbrian Railways Association, 2009
The Industrial Archaeology of South Ulverston : Rob McKeever & Jack Layfield, 2004
Ulverston Canal and the construction of Collins Weir : Jack Layfield, Finger Prints, 2007
Lost Ulverston : Jennifer Snell, Finger Prints, 2008
Articles in the North West Evening Mail to mark the bicentenary of the Canal : John Marshall, 5,6,& 8 November 1996
Barrow Record Office : Furness Railway plans of the Bardsea Branch
Original working drawings of the Sliding Railway Bridge copied in Ulverston Canal Masterplan
Copy of coloured drawing of the Sliding Bridge deck (in private collection)
Aerial photographs of the Canal taken by Lawrence Hill

The history of the Ulverston Canal : Alan Pearson, Ulverston Canal Regeneration Group, 2019
Ulverston Canal – its ships, ship builders and seamen : Jennifer Snell, The Author, 2020

(Page created 01/02/10. Last updated 012/08/21