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The Underground Canals at Worsley

Historical Profiles: NarrowBoat, Winter 2013

Mike Clarke

Mike Clarke explores some of the best known but least visited early canals

The entrance to the underground canals at the Delph prior to 1770 when the second entrance was dug. The crane, supported by guy ropes, was used for loading stone from the quarry, possibly for canal construction towards Runcorn. There was a description in both French and Spanish, which gives an idea of the international interest there was in Worsley and the Bridgewater Canal.

The entrance to the underground canals at the Delph prior to 1770 when the second entrance was dug. The crane, supported by guy ropes, was used for loading stone from the quarry, possibly for canal construction towards Runcorn. There was a description in both French and Spanish, which gives an idea of the international interest there was in Worsley and the Bridgewater Canal.

Coal mining around Worsley is mentioned as far back as 1376, when coal was probably obtained from seams exposed on the surface. By 1600, bell pits were used, and as mining developed, the pillar-and-stall system was introduced. A sough for drainage at Worsley had been built by 1729, water being raised by hand from the mine and then emptied into Worsley Brook via this sough. However, it was fairly close to the surface and needed constant repair, which proved expensive.

Worsley Brook, from its junction with the River Irwell, was authorised to be made navigable (2 miles long, with a rise of 40ft) in 1737, though the navigation was never built. Scroop Edgerton, the first Duke of Bridgewater, and his agent, Massey, may have considered building locks from this proposed navigation to the mine drainage sough; in September 1735 they had examined the ground from the old sough mouth at Worsley Mill to Middlewood. Boats may have used the sough as it was suggested in 1743 that coal was being brought from the mine via the adit. The main markets for the coal from the Worsley mines were Salford and Manchester, about 5 miles away. It was originally delivered by road, but by the mid-18th century the third Duke was looking for a way to reduce transport costs.

Coal was becoming an increasingly important fuel, and in 1753/4 a scheme for a canal from Salford to the coal mines around Worsley, Leigh and Wigan was proposed. However, it was unsuccessful in obtaining the necessary Act of Parliament. Then, in 1757, the third Duke decided he had to improve his coal mines at Worsley as their profits had declined over the first half of the 18th century. It was his agent, John Gilbert, who was probably responsible later for the initial design of the Bridgewater Canal. Gilbert also brought in James Brindley to act as the canal’s engineer.

Brindley had built a mine drainage scheme a few miles away, at Wet Earth Colliery on the River Irwell, between 1752 and 1756, water being taken from the river to drive the pumps. There may have been navigable levels at Wet Earth and Botany Bay collieries which were probably working in 1765, and may have been open earlier, pre-dating those at Worsley. If so, Brindley would have seen them, and may even have been responsible for them. By 1st July 1759 some 150 yards of navigable level had been driven at Worsley on the same level as the new canal linking the mines with Manchester. By using water from the mines to feed the canal, it was possible to overcome some of the objections made to the earlier 1753/4 canal scheme between Salford and Wigan, though the canal’s main water supply was from the Medlock in Manchester.

The basin at the Delph after the second entrance had opened. The water control lifting gate can be seen outside the second entrance. The one for the other tunnel was originally inside the entrance.

The basin at the Delph after the second entrance had opened. The water control lifting gate can be seen outside the second entrance. The one for the other tunnel was originally inside the entrance.

A map drawn by French engineers who visited Worsley in 1842. It shows three levels of canal, though the lower one had isolated sections which were at two different levels.

A map drawn by French engineers who visited Worsley in 1842. It shows three levels of canal, though the lower one had isolated sections which were at two different levels.

The canal entered the mines at the Delph, originally a quarry from which, in 1676, stone for the construction of Barton Bridge was delivered. Work on the bridge probably started in winter 1675. Eightysix years later, Barton Aqueduct was built alongside the bridge.

At Worsley, the coal seams are inclined approximately north/south and have several faults, so that as the level was extended, it cut through more and more of the seams. Over the 12 years after the canal was opened, the Main Level was extended northwards and at least four branches were built into seams west of the main tunnel. During this period, the Delph may have continued to be used as a stone quarry to provide materials for the construction of the extension of Bridgwater’s Canal to Runcorn. In a letter to the printer of the St James’s Chronicle in 1763, the entrance is described thus: “There is also a mill that by a small overshot stream turns a wheel eight yards diameter, and by that power, three pairs of stones to grind corn, and an apparatus compleat to make mortar; also portable cranes of an uncommon construction, to draw stone out of the quarry with callipers”.

Carrying the Coal

Some boats were loaded with bulk coal, others with coal in baskets (capacity 2cwt), from which the coal boxes (holding around 2 tons) developed and were used until the 1950s. These reduced coal handling as they were loaded within the mine, carried by boat to Manchester and unloaded by crane. Only then was the coal discharged from the containers. Navigable tunnels in Manchester provided access to coal yards closer to the town centre and at a higher level than the basin at Castlefield. Containers of coal were raised through shafts from these tunnels for sale at the yards.

Some Underground Canal Systems Associated with Mining

1743 Boats were proposed for the original sough at Worsley, though this was too small.
1747 Clyn-du Level, near Swansea, under Craig Trewyddfa Hill: coal supply to Morris, Lockwood & Co’s copper smelting works. Boats 20ft by 3ft, carrying 4 tons, level 4ft 7½in wide.
c.1755–7 Upper Boat Level at Rhandir-mwyn, lead, north of Swansea.
c.1757 Gwaun-cae-gurwen coal mines, head of Swansea Valley.
1759 Main navigable sough begun at Worsley, 150 yards in length by 1st July.
c.1761 First branch, Ellinbrook, begun at Worsley.
c.1764 Clod Coal Level and Double Coal Level, Donnington Wood, Shropshire.
1765 Possible underground canal at Wet Earth Colliery.
1766 Navigation level proposed by John Gilbert at Ecton (Ape’s Tor), Derbyshire, for Duke of Devonshire.
1767 Navigation level proposed by John Gilbert at Hillcarr, Derbyshire, for Duke of Devonshire.
1767 Coalisland Canal level, transport only.
1770 Second branch begun at Worsley.
1770 James Watt suggests navigable level at Cauldwell (between Glasgow and Kilmarnock) in Baron Mure’s mine. About 2 miles in length to Lock Libuch. Canal 9ft at bottom, 2ft deep; boats 6ft by 30ft with draft of 18in carrying 4½ tons.
1771 Second entrance and third branch begun at Worsley.
1771 Tynebottom Level, Middle Fell, East Cumberland.
c.1771 Navigation level (by John Gilbert?) at Hollingwood Common Colliery, Nottinghamshire, for Duke of Devonshire.
1772 Fourth branch begun at Worsley.
1772 Mist Colliery, Stevenson, Ayrshire.
1774 Holywell, Flintshire, develops into visitor attraction with cavern where visitors could picnic.
1774–81 Speedwell Level, Castleton, Derbyshire, used for transport only, not drainage.
1775 Harecastle Tunnel.
1776 Nent Force (lead level), East Cumberland.
1787 Worsley visited by John Curr, viewer of Duke of Norfolk’s collieries, Sheffield, where there may have been navigable levels at Sheffield Park and Attercliffe.
1791–4 Brierley Hill, Shropshire Canal, transhipment shaft and tunnel.
1792 Dudley Tunnel.
1793 Tir-y-lluest Coal Level, Glamorgan, width 4ft, boats carry 2cwt.
1794 Butterley Tunnel.
1796 Boating and drainage level constructed at Grassington Moor (the Duke’s Level), Yorkshire, engineer Cornelius Flint, for Duke of Devonshire.
c.1800 Crooke Colliery, Lancashire.
c.1805 Doonane, on branch from Grand Canal, Ireland, two miles into hillside for coal.
1816 Morwelham Tunnel, Tavistock Canal.

 

 

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The French engineers also described the machinery in the mine, such as the water control gates, coal tippers and wagons seen here.

The first of these tunnels ran 150 yards from the basin, with the Grocer’s Warehouse subsequently built over the entrance. A shaft from the tunnel served a coal yard in Bridgewater Street, near to what is now the Air & Space Museum, but traces of the tunnel are difficult to find as the Rochdale Canal was built over the top of it. The other tunnel, from the River Medlock, served a coal yard at Bank Top (next to today’s Piccadilly Station), where the wharf master was Richard Mullineux. Construction started in 1787, and some form of lock was built at Knott Mill to allow boats to enter the Medlock. This may have been difficult to operate as it took boats three days from Worsley to Bank Top, the same time as travelling to Runcorn. The tunnel opened in 1789 at a cost of at least £1,302.

In 1796, the Ashton Canal opened, and the canal’s Act said that any excess water was to be fed into the Medlock, and thus the Bridgewater, via the shaft and tunnel. When, in 1799, the Rochdale Canal opened from Castlefield to Piccadilly, there had been a suggestion of pumping water for the canal from the Bank Top shaft. However, water from the Ashton provided the supply instead. With its water supply function superseded, the tunnel and shaft may have continued to be used for coal until around 1805.

The 1842 French drawing of the top of the inclined plane which worked carrying coal from 1797 to 1822. By 1842 it may have been out of use, or perhaps just used by maintenance boats, which is why the boat illustrated is not typical of those used in the mine.

The 1842 French drawing of the top of the inclined plane which worked carrying coal from 1797 to 1822. By 1842 it may have been out of use, or perhaps just used by maintenance boats, which is why the boat illustrated is not typical of those used in the mine.

Above: Prussian engineers also visited the mine in the 18th century, and two Prussian mines in Upper Silesia had canal systems based on Worsley. This drawing of the one at Zabrze gives an idea of the underground arrangements, such as the transhipping crane.

Above: Prussian engineers also visited the mine in the 18th century, and two Prussian mines in Upper Silesia had canal systems based on Worsley. This drawing of the one at Zabrze gives an idea of the underground arrangements, such as the transhipping crane.

With such a system there was no need for a coal handling area at the mine entrance. In 1763, the entrance was described: “At the mouth of the cavern is erected a water-bellows, being the body of a tree, forming a hollow cylinder, standing upright. Upon this a wooden bason is fixed, in the form of a funnel, which receives a current of water from the higher ground. This water falls into the cylinder, and issues out at the bottom of it, but at the same time carries a quantity of air with it, which is received into tin pipes, and forced to the innermost recesses of the coal-pits, where it issues out, as if from a pair of bellows, and rarifies the body of thick air, which would otherwise prevent the workmen from subsisting on the spot where the coals are dug.”

Inside the original tunnel there are several short side tunnels close to the entrance. The ‘water-bellows’ were probably situated in a shaft joining one of these, with a control door fitted to the mine entrance. The bellows were probably dismantled after a few years as the tunnel increased in length and ventilation and winding shafts were opened. By around 1790, there were around forty shafts along the various underground canals. Inside the mine, canvas was used to control the flow of air. It was described by a visitor to the mines in 1874: “Presently we came to a canvas ‘screen’, that hangs across our path, for the purpose of sending the aircurrents up some branch canal.”

A second entrance tunnel, 500 yards long, was driven in 1771, empty boats entering by one tunnel and loaded ones leaving by the other. Opinions differ as to which tunnel was used by empty or loaded boats, though a canal workerwho had been based at Worsley since around 1930 thought that the new tunnel was used for empty boats. The basin behind the nailmaker’s shop was probably built at the same time as the new tunnel and could have provided a storage area for empty boats waiting to be hauled into the mine.The earliest canal survey (1785) shows the first tunnel mouth projecting further into the Delph than it does today. A large wheel over the first mine entrance and a second close to the second entrance were part of the water flow control system, the wheels being used to raise or lower gates. Inside the mine around 1780, there were eight water control stops on the main level and twelve on a second higher level of canal. Eventually there were four canal levels in the mine. The stop gates were closed after boats had entered the mine, stopping the flow of water out of the mine and making it easier to haul the boats into the tunnel. When the gates were opened, the flow of water made it easier for loaded boats to travel back along the tunnel.

A second Prussian drawing shows how coal was brought down a sloping coal seam to the canal.

A second Prussian drawing shows how coal was brought down a sloping coal seam to the canal.

A third Prussian drawing shows how some boats had square ends such that they could easily form a train. The early form of bow is shown with a specially-shaped coal container, the design being altered to that on the left using a conventional container turned through 90 degrees.

A third Prussian drawing shows how some boats had square ends such that they could easily form a train. The early form of bow is shown with a specially-shaped coal container, the design being altered to that on the left using a conventional container turned through 90 degrees.

The Packet House steps at Worsley, showing the corn mill which was adjacent to the mine entrance beyond the road bridge, and the nailmaker’s house in the centre

The Packet House steps at Worsley, showing the corn mill which was adjacent to the mine entrance beyond the road bridge, and the nailmaker’s house in the centre

The system was described in 1874: “At different places along the route are cloughs, or ‘clows’, as they call them, which serve the double purpose of cleansing the canal; and assisting in the navigation of the boats. There is a slight fall all the way down to Worsley; and as the canal drains the mines, it is well supplied with water. The clough is a kind of flood-gate, rising some five inches above the water, and causing the waters in the upper reaches, as they accumulate, to stand on a higher level than those below. When the full boats are passing down … and sometimes there will be a hundred fastened together, reaching a full mile, and carrying nearly a thousand tons of coal … the clough is hoisted so that they can pass under it, and the waters rushing forward to find the level, carry forward with a swing this black flotilla.” The gates were also used to keep the level clear of rubbish, ensuring sufficient depth of water for loaded boats to operate. Opening the gates would carry rubbish to the tunnel mouth where it would accumulate in the Delph to be dredged out.

Trains of boats probably entered or left the mine once per day, as this would allow time for the levels to stabilise after the stop gates had been opened and closed. In 1773, it was reported in Mrs Raffald’s Manchester Directory that 3 to 15 boats, each carrying 5 tons of coal, reached Knott Mill from Worsley each day, except Sundays. Later, in 1874, it was suggested that trains of up to one hundred boats were operated within the mine. Presumably boats were added as the train passed branch canals on its way out. Shorter trains were used on the canal.

A Mine Visit

Samuel Curwen recorded his visit to Worsley on 7th June 1777 With Mr Nelson set off for the canal, intending to take a passage to Worsley to visit the Duke of Bridgewater’s coal mines. After some delay we entered the passage boat, drawn by a horse in the manner of the Trek-schuits in Holland. Arrived at Worsley in two hours, passing athwart the River Irwell, over which the canal runs, being raised on arches not less than fifty feet in height above that stream. In many places the bottom of the canal is considerably higher than the level of the neighbouring grounds.

Sent compliments to Mr Gilbert, the steward, asking the favour of seeing the Duke’s underground works, which was granted, and we stepped into the boat, passing into an archway partly of brick and partly cut through stone, of about three and a half feet high; we received at entering six lighted candles. This archway, called a funnel, runs into the body of the mountain almost in a direct line three thousand feet, its medium depth beneath the surface about eighty feet; we were half an hour passing that distance. Here begins the first underground road to the pits, ascending into the wagon road, so called, about four feet above the water, being a highway for the wagons, containing about a ton weight of the form of a mill-hopper, running on wheels, to convey the coals to the barges or boats.

Under the guidance of a minder, with a lighted candle in his hand, we proceeded through an arched-way about five feet high, walking with our bodies at an angle of less than sixty degrees, through a road of three feet in width, a length of eight hundred yards, arrived at the coal mine, which appearing about five feet through the roof, was supported by many posts, the area being about twenty feet square and height scarce four. From this dismal abode, which my companion, whose name was Chandler, would fain have dissuaded me from proceeding to visit, after remaining a few minutes, I hastened back to our boat.

One may go six miles by water in various directions, the wagon ways to the pits lying below the level of the water; it is said the distance from the mouth is six miles in the tunnel. A hundred men are daily employed, and each turns out a ton a day; the miners’ wages two shillings, and the labourers’ about one shilling. Price of coal at the pit two pence per hundred weight; at the key threepence halfpenny, and at the door fourpence halfpenny. The boat having left, we returned to town on foot, five miles through fields and vacant lands.

The mine entrance shortly after closure in 1887. The larger mine boats had probably been put to work on the main canal, and only the smaller ones were left at the mine entrance. Three of these survived until recently, two in museums and the third sunk outside the newer mine entrance. A larger mine boat in poor condition was preserved at the NCB museum at Lound Hall, and the remains are now at the National Mining Museum, near Huddersfield.

The mine entrance shortly after closure in 1887. The larger mine boats had probably been put to work on the main canal, and only the smaller ones were left at the mine entrance. Three of these survived until recently, two in museums and the third sunk outside the newer mine entrance. A larger mine boat in poor condition was preserved at the NCB museum at Lound Hall, and the remains are now at the National Mining Museum, near Huddersfield.

In the mid-19th century, the arches over the original entrance were probably removed to improve access, with the stop gates being moved to their present positions. A photograph shows a collection of empty boats in the Delph, and may date from shortly after 1887, the year when the coal traffic out of the mine ended. The length of the Main Level was 4 miles and the upper level 2 miles. However, there were many branches, and the total length of the navigable system, including branches, was 52 miles. Boats on the upper level were brought up a sloping adit to the Boat Shed in Walkden for repair, and this adit may still survive. Boats on the lowest level were raised or lowered vertically via the various shafts, and this restricted their size.

The underground system continued to be used for drainage and was inspected regularly, even after coal carriage ceased in 1887. Several visits were arranged by the NCB for enthusiasts in 1963/4, and these included the inclined plane site. The last underground inspection took place on 28th September 1968, and pumping into the canal ended on 11th October 1968. This was about the time the M62was built, the tunnel being strengthened where the motorway crosses. About ten years ago, there was an inspection of the first few hundred yards of the tunnel with a view to opening it for visits, but it was considered too dangerous for public access.

The Boats

Over the first thirty years of operation, six different types of boat were used within the underground system. Their carrying capacity was described in 1779 in terms of the number of baskets, each basket holding around 230lb of coal. The exact weight and number of baskets varied depending upon the seam from which the coal had been excavated.

The smallest boats had square ends, the oldest carrying 44 baskets, the newer 54 baskets. ‘Common Cutters’ without ceilings (the lining within the cargo area) carried 70 baskets, while the first box boats carried 82 baskets. Slightly larger were the ‘Pudding Dicks’ at 84 baskets, and then came the 12-ton boats of which there were various types carrying around 105 baskets. Finally the 18-ton boats carried up to 160 baskets, but they could not sail into the certain branches. Standard 25-ton canal boats carried 187 baskets but were even more restricted in access. The baskets were subsequently replaced by wooden containers; the three sizes of boat thenused carried seven, eight and a half or twelve containers.

Eventually, there were two main sizes of boat for use within the mines. The largest or M boats, were used on the Main Level, and were 50ft long by 5ft broad and could carry around 12 tons. Smaller T boats were used on the other three levels and also for maintenance. In 1803, there were 82 M boats and 75 T boats, 45 in the deep levels. By 1837, there were 187 M boats and 33 T boats, with none in the deep levels. The deep levels continued to be exploited at this time, so presumably coal was raised by shaft. Between 1795 and 1797, an inclined plane was built within the mine between the Upper Level and the Main Level, making both accessible by M boats. This ceased work in 1822 when the upper level was closed, though the level remained in use for drainage. A further type of boat, the B boat, seems to have developed later. They were about 6ft longer than the M boats, and were probably used on the section of the system between Worsley and the incline.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Glen Atkinson, Alan Davies, Paul Sillitoe and the late Roger Lorenz for their suggestions and information.