When the warring counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire finally connected the canal
THE first of the trans-Pennine tunnels is not getting the attention it deserves for two reasons. One is that it was built for a canal rather than a railroad. The second is that his name barely strikes a chord in terms of loving memory. It’s in Foulridge, near Barnoldswick.
It is neither filthy nor piercing much of a ridge, but in the heady days of Georgian England it was fundamental in a grand plan to “unite the seas”. Rivers were already navigable from the North Sea at Hull to Leeds – and the Vision was a channel through the Pennines to connect with the Irish Sea. Hence what turned out to be Britain’s longest single canal and the longest to build. Since its conception in 1770, it has taken 46 years to complete the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
The Yorkshire side of his route was straightforward, following the valley of the Aire to Skipton and onto Gargrave, and only three years passed before he saw his first traffic. Writing in her diary in April 1773, Elizabeth Shackleton recalled the opening of the “new canal to the metropolis of Skipton-in-Craven, much to the joy of the poor, and demonstrations of happiness to all kinds of people, from bells to bells and bonfires ”.
It should have been relatively easy to continue across the divide between Skipton and Colne with a tunnel at Foulridge, but things have now collapsed. As the first canal to connect Yorkshire and Lancashire, there was the long-standing issue of feuds between the two counties. Progress was in the hands of two committees, one meeting in Bradford and the other based in Liverpool. The Yorkshire committee was in control of the finances, causing such grief in Lancashire that it looked like the whole project was going to collapse.
It was not until 1791 that work finally began on the Foulridge Tunnel. Less than a mile long at 1,640 yards (1.5 km in today’s parlance), it was shorter than other canal tunnels already built elsewhere in Britain. However, it posed many problems and its name proved to be appropriate. The ground turned out to be unstable and steam engines were needed to pump out the excess water.
The work was undertaken by navvies – an abbreviation of the word “navigators”. According to a hellfire chaplain, the term came about because it sounded too much like “alligators.” He argued that a navy is like a human alligator, which feeds on helpless women and shy men, and scares children!
Much of the work used what is today called the trench and cover system with deep excavations before providing the tunnel lining, arch and earth replacement. It turned out to be difficult and dangerous, and it is likely that the collapse of the support frame was the cause of four workers receiving either a guinea or a half guinea depending on the nature of their injuries.
The company also paid one guinea’s surgeon’s bill – the equivalent of around £ 180 in today’s money. Although operations continued day and night, it was in May 1796 that the work was finally completed and the boats were able to continue from Gargrave to Burnley.
The lack of funds meant that the tunnel was built to small dimensions and did not have a towpath. The barges were laboriously “legs” through men lying on the cargo and pushing against the roof or walls with their feet. The tow horses, often driven by children in boats, were taken up the hill above the tunnel. A good track was created through the fields and a hut allowed the “leggers” to recover.
Financial problems and lingering wrangling in Lancashire meant that another twenty years passed before the canal was finally completed. In October 2016, a flotilla of boats passed through Skipton on their way from Leeds to Liverpool to celebrate the opening of the entire 127 miles.
It was now almost the dawn of the railroad era and in 1848 there was a parallel line running from Leeds through Skipton to Colne. It did not require a tunnel at Foulridge, and the faster travel resulted in a gradual drop in traffic on the canal.
Road freight transport dealt a further blow, but unlike other trans-Pennine canals, Leeds & Liverpool never closed. There is a certain irony that the railroad between Skipton and Colne saw its last train in 1970.
In recent times, recreational use of the canal has increased dramatically with a “traffic light” system installed at the Foulridge Tunnel to avoid traffic jams.
In 2023 it will be 250 years since Leeds & Liverpool reached Skipton and it is hoped that the anniversary will be celebrated in an appropriate style.
Piercing the Pennines by David Joy is published by Great Northern Books, priced at £ 19.99.