The Mersey Flat's Role in the Coal Trade

Coal, that was mined from pits in the Lancashire Coalfield, played an important role in the industrialization of North West England and Mersey flats were used to transport this valuable commodity from local collieries to the booming urban centers. Toll roads, such as the Prescot Turnpike, provided a more efficient means of transporting coal than the dirt roads that had preceded them. Road congestion, however, and the limited load-bearing capacity of wheeled vehicles as well as pack animals remained a problem. It was known that horses, which hauled cargo along the land routes, could tow heavier loads on water than they could along the roads. Mersey flats, which are believed to have first appeared on the inland waterways at the beginning of the eighteenth-century, were capable of carrying eighty-tons of coal in their holds. A series of artificial waterways were built to accommodate Mersey flats, which could operate under sail or be hauled along the towpaths, and coal was one of the most important cargoes to be conveyed along the water lines of communication. Liverpool, which rose to prominence as an international trading port in the eighteenth-century, relied on sailing flats to convey goods from merchant ships. Merchantmen would lay anchor in the Bay of Liverpool and sailing flats, which are believed to have originated as lighters, would receive cargo from the larger ships and convey the goods to the port facilities. The construction of docks in Liverpool, the first of which was opened in 1715, provided merchantmen with a berthing point that was closer to land. Improvements were made to the River Mersey, as well as its tributaries, that allowed maritime traffic to travel further inland. Sailing flats, therefore, could ascend the River Mersey and its tributaries. Improvements to the navigability of the internal waterways enabled flats to transport coal along the Bridgewater Canal, the Sankey Canal, the Weaver Navigation as well as the Mersey and Irwell Navigation.

Lancashire was Home to the Largest Coalfield in North West England.

Lancashire, home to the largest coalfield in North West England, possessed a number of bell pits and drift mines at the beginning of the 18th century that provided fuel for the burgeoning industries in the region. Shallow mines such as these, prone to flooding and eventual collapse, could only be used to extract coal that was near to the surface. Engineering work, which included the excavation of soughs and the construction of water wheel pumps, was begun in the 17th century and helped to remove some of the water from flooded pits and shafts while improvements in underground supports meant that deeper mines could be constructed.

A Lack of Navigable Waterways Meant that Coal had to be Transported by Land.

A lack of canals or navigable rivers in Lancashire meant that coal, for the most part, had to be transported by pack animals or horse-drawn vehicles along land routes. Horses were the main source of transportation before the invention of the steam locomotive, internal combustion engine or electric motor and remained so throughout the Industrial Revolution. Early fuel-burning engines, such as the atmospheric engine that Thomas Newcomen designed or the steam engine that James Watt invented, were too large to be used for transportation purposes and so the beast-of-burden provided the principle means of motive power before the arrival of the first steam-powered railways.

Horses can Haul more Coal along the Water than they can along the Land.

Working animals can pull heavier loads when the freight is floating on water than if it is contained in a wheeled vehicle or, as in the case of pack animals, carried in panniers. It is estimated that a horse can haul fifty times more weight by water than it can by land and this provided an economic incentive to construct artificial waterways, improve the navigability of existing rivers artificial and built towpaths for the animals or working parties that hauled the barges. Roads in eighteenth-century Britain became waterlogged whenever it rained and horses-and-carts, their wheels sinking into the mud, became bogged down in poor weather and took longer to reach their destinations as a result.

Increasing Demand for Coal leads to the Creation of New Waterways and the Improvement of Existing Ones. 

Increasing demand for coal in the towns and cities of North West England, alongside improvements in mining technology that led to increased productivity, meant that the transport infrastructure in the region had to be improved as the collieries extracted increasing amounts of coal from the ground. It was possible to improve the navigability of certain rivers by dredging the bottoms, excavating new channels, building weirs, constructing locks and creating staithes so that coal could be transported further along the inland waterways. Artificial canals, often positioned above river valleys, provided another means for mines to transport their product to market.

Industrial Uses of Coal.

Bituminous coal, extracted from the Lancashire Coalfield, fired the fuel-burning engines that powered mechanised industry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries while heating the blast furnaces in which iron was smelted. The mineral, formed from tropical swamp vegetation that was deposited over three hundred million years ago, also provided fuel for Newcomen engines that were used to extract water from mines. Pewter, created by mixing tin with metals such as copper and bismuth as well as metalloids such as antimony, was manufactured in Wigan and coal fires were used to heat the cauldrons in which the alloy's components were melted for casting.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal, first opened in 1774, allowed Mersey flats to transport Lancashire coal from local mines to pewter factories in Wigan. Barges would be unloaded of their cargoes at a coal-loading staithe, sometimes referred to as Wigan Pier, and transported by horse-and-cart to the pewter factories. The abundance of coal that resulted from advances in mining technology and improved transport infrastructure made this fossil fuel, transported from colliery to consumer along the inland waterways, more affordable to people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and was used for cooking as well as domestic heating purposes.

The Duke of Bridgewater Desires an Economical Means to Transport Coal from his Collieries to Manchester and Liverpool.

Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, owned a number of collieries in Worsley that were prone to flooding. Drainage soughs were constructed in 1729, at a time in which the estates were in the possession of the 1st Duke of Bridgewater, and were effective at removing some of the water from the mines. Egerton, having inherited the Bridgewater estates in 1748, travelled Europe during his youth and was impressed by the Canal Royal en Languedoc in the South of France as well as other feats of aquatic engineering on the continent. The artificial waterways of Europe inspired the Duke, who reached his majority in 1757, to build his own canal in England. The Worsley Collieries, also known as the Bridgewater Collieries, supplied most of the coal that was burned in Manchester as well as the surrounding towns and cities. Egerton, in need of a fast and economical means of transporting his product, was informed by John Gilbert that a canal would improve the drainage system in his mines and that coal could be transported along the water in boats. Gilbert, who suggested the idea of building an artificial waterway during a routine inspection of the collieries, surveyed the land in preparation for the upcoming construction project. James Brindley, who would go on to construct other canals in Britain, served as the consulting engineer.

Worsley Navigable Levels Drain the Collieries and May Feed a Potential Canal.

A network of underground drainage channels, known as the Worsley Navigable Levels, discharged their water into a disused sandstone quarry and were used as underground canals where coal was transported in small boats that were propelled by miners who walked their feet against the roofs of the tunnels. This pit, known as the Worsley Delph, acted as a reservoir for the Bridgewater Canal and as a terminus for the barges that transported coal from the collieres to Manchester. Horses would haul the small boats, known as starvationers, to Manchester while the larger Mersey flats were also used to transport heavier weights of coal along the canal.

The Bridgewater Canal.

The Bridgewater Canal, opened in 1761, may not have been the first artificial waterway to be constructed in England but it is regarded as the nation's first true canal and inspired the creation of others in Britain as well as in Europe. Brindley, whose skill at aquatic engineering had enabled him to drain the Wet Earth Colliery via a water wheel that was fed by a system of weirs and tunnels, was tasked with building an aqueduct over the Mersey and Irwell Navigation that would allow horse-drawn barges and sailing flats to pass over the rival waterway. The Barton Aqueduct, that ran over the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, was the first navigable aqueduct to be constructed in the country. Conflicts of interest with the proprietors of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation meant that the construction of the aqueduct, which was hailed as a wonder of the industrial world, was a matter of practical necessity. A series of extensions were made to the Bridgewater Canal, beginning with a direct link between Manchester and Runcorn, which would interconnect the artificial waterway with other canals and rivers in North West England as well as the Midlands. The Runcorn connection, built between 1762 and 1776, required a flight of ten locks to connect the canal with its terminus while further extensions were built to Stockport and Leigh. More collieries were established as the artificial waterway, connected to the Rochdale Canal in 1804 and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in 1819, expanded and greater numbers of Mersey flats were built to accommodate the increase in coal production.

Liverpool Procures Coal from St Helen's via the Land Routes. 

St Helen's, situated in Lancashire, is an amalgamation of four settlements that rose to prominence after the arrival of the Sankey Brook Canal in the middle of the eighteenth-century. Landowners, who owned the agricultural land and collieries, exported their goods by land before a water line of communication was established with Liverpool. Richard Meade, on Chapter IV of The Coal and Iron Industries of the United Kingdom, claims that St Helen's was an important center of coal mining activity in the South Lancashire Coalfield. It is explained, on page 68, that the South Lancashire Coalfield was thirty-two miles in length while the average breadth is reported to have been six miles. The Sankey Brook Canal, on page 95, is described as having connected the collieries of St Helen's with the River Mersey. Mersey flats would have used the canal, which is reported to have connected with the river between 1755 and 1759, to export the mineral resources of the local collieries. Worrall's Directory of Warrington, Wigan, St. Helens [&C.] claims that St. Helen's was home to a plentiful supply of high-quality coal that could be transported to Liverpool by rail or canal. The business directory, which was published in 1876, implies that coal was the foundation of the economy of St Helen's and that the industrial concerns in the town had built their success upon it. Pilkington, on page 75, is reported to have owned an extensive glass making works in St Helen's and the local supply of coal may have been used as a fuel in the glass-making process. Metallurgy, too, was a thriving industry in the market town during the second half of the nineteenth-century and coal would have been used in the smelting of metals. Coal fires facilitated the smelting of brass, copper and iron in the market town. It is reported that fired clay products such as bricks, earthenware sewage pipes as well as terracotta were manufactured in St Helen's and coal would have been burned in the kilns that was used to manufacture these products. 

The Sankey Brook Navigation Emerges as a Rival of the Preston Turnpike.

It is explained, on page 162 of Liverpool as it was During the Last Quarter of the Eighteenth Century by Richard Brooke, that an Act of Parliament was passed in 1725 that allowed improvements to be made to the turnpike road that connected Preston to Liverpool. Coal was transported from Prescot to Liverpool along the land route and an Act of Parliament, which was passed in 1746, extended the line of communication to St Helen's. Information about the extension of the Preston Turnpike to St Helen's can be found in part one of The Minutes Of The Trustees of the Turnpike Roads from Liverpool to Prescot, St. Helens, Warrington and Ashton in Makerfield, 1726-89 that was written by F.A. Bailey. Road transport, by itself, was insufficient to accommodate the increase in coal traffic to Liverpool and it was decided that a water line of communication would be a viable alternative. Sir James Allanson Picton, on page 214 of the first volume of Memorials of Liverpool, mentions the first Act of Parliament that led to the creation of the navigable waterway between St Helen's and the River Mersey. The Sankey Brook, which was a tributary of the River Mersey, would be used as a water source for the canal. An Act of Parliament, which was passed in 1755, authorized the creation of the Sankey Brook Navigation. The navigable canal, which Picton describes as being the first to be constructed in England, established a water line of communication between St Helen's and Liverpool. Coal was transported along the Sankey Brook Navigation, which was also known as the St Helen's Canal or the Sankey Canal, as were other materials. Portfolio of Fragments Relative to the History and Antiquities of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancashire, which was composed by Matthew Gregson, contains a document about the Sankey Canal that includes information about the activities of Mersey flats. It is stated, on page 186, that flats entered the River Mersey at the point at which it connected with he Sankey Canal. 

Building the Sankey Brook Navigation.

Creating an artificial waterway, fed by the flowing waters of the Sankey Brook, would connect St. Helen's with the River Mersey and improve access to the growing market in Liverpool. A document that is dated to the 16th and 17th of January, 1755, claims that William Taylor and Henry Berry surveyed the three branches of the Sankey Brook. The document appears in the twenty-seventh volume of Journals of the House of Commons, which was published in 1803, and reports that the engineers believed that they could make the stream navigable. The sixty-second volume of The European Magazine and London Revue, which was published in 1812, claims that Henry Berry had assisted in the construction of Salthouse Dock in Liverpool before he was employed by the proprietors of the Sankey Brook Navigation. It is revealed, on page 170, that Berry informed the proprietors that it would be more practical to create a new watercourse that was fed by the waters of the Sankey Brook. Work began on the new canal on the 5th of September, 1755, and the nature of the project had to be concealed from local landowners. Improving the navigability of the Sankey Brook, as opposed to excavating an artificial waterway, may have been more agreeable to local business concerns and proprietors. James Allanson Picton, on page 187 of the first volume of Memorials of Liverpool, claims that the Sankey Canal was opened in the November of 1757 and that it soon became profitable. Mersey flats, transporting coal from St Helen's to Liverpool, were a key component in the financial success of the canal. Joseph Priestly names three separate Acts of Parliament in Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals and Railways of Great Britain that authorized the construction as well as the extension of the Sankey Brook Navigation. Royal Assent was granted to the three Acts of Parliament in the March of 1755, the April of 1762 and the May of 1830 while George II, III as well as IV were on the throne. 

Last updated on the 16th of October, 2024, which was a Thursday.


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