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Coal to Liverpool

A Broader Outlook: NarrowBoat, Spring 2011

Ian Moss

Ian Moss photographed one of the last traffics on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal: from Crooke to Athol Street gas works

In April 1962 at Crooke, Parke & Sons’ transom-stern wooden dumb boat Mario is being loaded with coal for Athol Street gas works. Ahead, motor boat Elmo waits to be loaded, as does the far boat, this one destined for Westwood power station at Wigan (see ‘Coal to Wigan’, Autumn 2009 NB).

Crooke, on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal about three miles west of Wigan, originated as a mining village. The John Pit nearby had closed by 1954, but the railway system – dedicated to coal carrying and dating from at least a century before – continued to bring coal to the canal from the washery at Gidlow, which served a number of adjacent mines about two miles from Crooke. Latterly the operation was conducted with wagons condemned for main line use and two brightly painted tank locomotives.

Athol Street gas works – one of Liverpool’s earliest – was a principal customer for the coal from Crooke. The works were very near the Stanley Dock branch of the canal. They closed a few years after canal traffic ceased and the site is now modern housing, including ‘Canalside Grove’.

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal from Crooke to Liverpool is almost ideal for commercial traffic. There are just two sets of locks. The first is at Dean, about a mile from Crooke, where there are two locks side by side, both working in the 1960s although only one does now. Then, in another two miles, Appley where there were two locks as an alternative to one, though I believe only the single deep one was used for this traffic. Then there is a 29mile pound (though there are swing bridges) to Liverpool. The traffic was worked by John Parke & Sons’ boats until the early sixties, when British Waterways bought the business. It was seriously affected by the frost of 1962/3 but continued until early 1964. The last of the pits providing the traffic had closed the previous November. Parke & Sons had about 27 boats. Only four of them were motors, and these usually towed a dumb boat. Therewere also two tugs which hauled four dumb boats; they took a pair to Dean then returned for the other pair as the first two used the locks. Someone at Parke & Sons had managed to find 20-odd boat names ending in ‘o’– the only exception was one of the tugs: Sulzer. British Waterways also used the ‘Town Class’ boats built for them after the war. The names were in alphabetical order of commissioning, the first Atherton, the last Farnworth.

Sulzer, one of the two tugs, gets a dumb boat (possibly the Mario seen loading in the top picture) under way towards Dean Locks. The stern of the boat waiting to load for Westwood power station is also visible.

In November 1961 tug Leo is takes two dumb boats away from the loading chute at Crooke to Dean Locks. Another boat is under the wagon tippler, and yet another nearer the camera awaits loading. It is likely that Leo will return for these two; they will be loaded by then. Once through the locks Leo could pull all four on the long pound to Athol Street.

For a few years British Waterways offered what is nowadays called ‘corporate hospitality’ for the Grand National at Aintree, where the Leeds & Liverpool Canal famously passes alongside the race course. In 1960 Atherton, relieved of her coal-carrying duties, was rigged to provide covered accommodation for the event. Severn, built for Canal Transport Ltd in the 1930s, is similarly fitted behind. They are seen at Litherland Lift Bridge, at that time a huge electrically operated structure built in 1922 to replace a wooden swing bridge, although not powered directly from the overhead high-voltage power lines! A high level road bridge replaced the lift bridge in 1975, and the power lines have also long gone.

On more mundane duty in 1962 Atherton spends Sunday at Burscough – tomorrow she will continue with her coal to Athol Street. There is a second boat – probably another town class – behind and two ex Parke & Sons' boats on the far bank: the rear one is Elmo.

In the early spring of 1964, Atherton, Scorpio, Bembo (beyond Atherton) and at least two more unidentified boats (one of which the next image shows to be Marco), loaded with coal, are moored below Dean Locks. By this time, loading at Crooke had ceased: for some reason the boats lay here for several weeks before taking the coal to Athol Street; later at least one of them sank.

Taken at the same time as the previous image, Juno – which was not in the previous picture – is nearest the camera with Scorpio to the left, and Marco next to it. Atherton and Bembo are beyond.

Six Parke & Sons’ boats at Athol Street gas works in 1962. The near loaded one is Domino. The other five, three empty, one loaded and one unloading, have not been identified.

The traffic to Athol Street over, in the early summer of 1964 Sulzer, four dumb boats and a motor are moored near Wigan Pier. Soon the wooden boats were taken away and burned – and BW paid for that to be done.

Angelo and another boat aground near Tawd Aqueduct on the west Lancashire plain in June 1962. An embankment had failed and the canal level was falling. The breach was repaired in a few days.