The Mersey Flat's Role in the Coal Trade

Port side view of Mersey flat.

Coal, mined from pits in Lancashire, played an important role in the industrialisation of North West England and Mersey flats were used to transport this valuable commodity from local collieries to the booming urban centres. Sailing flats, first appearing on the River Mersey in the early 18th century and capable of carrying eighty tons of coal in their holds, were of such importance to the mining industry that a series of river navigations and canals were built to accommodate vessels of this size. These flat-bottomed barges, equipped with a fore-and-aft rig that was attached to a single mast, only required a crew of three to operate.

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 canals or navigable rivers in Lancashire meant that coal, for the most part, had to be transported by land via pack animals or horse-drawn vehicles. Horses were the main source of transport 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 Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric engine or James Watt's steam engine, 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.


Starboard side view of Mersey flat.

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 packhorses, 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 improve the inland waterways by constructing river navigations, artificial canals and towpaths for the animals that hauled the boats. Roads in 18th 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 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.

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.


Model of a Mersey flat with a pound coin to demonstrate scale.

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.

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 by barge. 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.


Rear view of a Mersey flat sailing barge.

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, 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, the first navigable aqueduct in the country, was hailed as a wonder of the industrial world.

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.

Port side view of sailing flat.

St. Helens, an amalgamation of four settlements that are situated on the grounds of the South Lancashire Coalfield, had been mined for its mineral wealth since the 16th century and local businesses had always relied on land transport to move their goods to nearby settlements. The 18th century saw the construction of toll roads, such as the Prescot Turnpike, which provided a more efficient means of transporting coal to Liverpool 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 for those in the business of selling coal in the thriving sea port.

The Prescot Turnpike, arriving at St Helens in 1746, allowed collieries to transport mineral goods to Liverpool with greater ease than before but it soon became apparent that it was cheaper and quicker to transport coal by boat. Sankey Brook, a tributary of the River Mersey, ran its course near to the coal-mining town but it was too shallow to accommodate the barges that operated in the region. Creating an artificial waterway, fed by the flowing waters of the stream, would connect St. Helens with the River Mersey and provide better access to the growing market in Liverpool. Work began on a navigable channel, running beside the brook, in 1755.

Henry Berry, having assisted in the construction of Salthouse Dock in Liverpool, was hired by the Sankey Brook Navigation Company to build the artificial waterway. The decision to excavate a cutting besides the stream, rather than improving the navigability of the brook itself, makes this waterway a rival contender for the title of Britain's first canal. Hostility from navigation companies and objections from landowners meant that the company needed to convince the government that it was not, in fact, building a canal but enabling colliers to pass along an existing watercourse. Mersey flats, laden with coal, used the Sankey Brook Navigation from 1757.

Last updated 3rd December, 2020.

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