by Reg Meredith,   Photos by Peter Shaw

How do you cross a peat bog with a canal?

Telford, as with other engineers of the period, struck the same problems in that trying to maintain a straight line path for his canal and the least undulation in land level, often came into confrontation with irate estate owners who objected  to their estates  being severed, some even refusing point blank to any access. In the majority of cases ‘sweeteners’ were successfully offered, i.e. free company shares were offered, and transportation of goods by, and for, the estate owner would be free or at a reduced rate.

The problem of variation in land levels was solved by the use of locks, an ingenious system of sluice gates whereby water levels could be raised or lowered as required.

The huge workforce involved in the canal project comprised mainly Irish labourers who had been previously imported for other such civil engineering projects and worked for very low wages. These workers became known as navigators – hence the modern  term – navvy.

Suitable routes were chosen whereby earth removed from cuttings required only the minimum amount of transport to nearest embankments, – all work of course being manual and by horse and cart.  The greatest problem to arise locally was the crossing of the Whixall/Fenn Mosses.  Here it was found that immediately  a channel was cut in the peat that the banks collapsed inwards.  After various methods were tried to overcome the problem success was finally achieved by lining the bank walls with bundles of birch branches tied together, these then being covered with ash and sawdust and then lined with “Puddled Clay” a creamy solution of water and clay.  As the canal building continued its course, public houses began to appear in the villages along the route.  It is a fairly safe assumption that The Nag’s Head in Bettisfield came into being at this time, being originally built in 1729 as a maltsters.

A thriving goods trade

Each village also had its wharf  and storage warehouse and usually a hand operated hoist for handling cargo.

The opening of the canal brought a boom in the transportation  of goods, notably coal and stone –  particularly limestone from the Welsh mines, agricultural products and garden product from Wales and the border town of Ellesmere.  Many of these goods  destined  via the River Weaver for the Ellesmere counterpart The Wirral – Ellesmere Port.  The return trip would carry grain, flour, soap, candles and other such goods imported or manufactured on Merseyside.  Limestone, an essential in the iron smelting industry, was carried to the rapidly growing midland industries.

The boats used on the canals were known as long boats or narrow boats and, as the name suggests, were large boats some 40’-50’ long and around 8’ wide, of conventional wooden construction.  Designed with a minimum draft they could be moved through the water with little effort and could, if necessary, be called on to carry around 28 tons.  After the initial start, one horse could keep a barge moving with little effort.  Horses were exchanged at set intervals along the route, where they were stabled and fed.  Travelling speed would be around 3 _ 4 m p h.  Occasionally a cargo would be required urgently and so ‘Fly Boats’ or ‘Fliers’ came into being.  These boats were even narrower and drew less water, hauled by specially selected horses and, although carrying slightly less load, speeds were appreciably increased, to use this service would obviously cost more.

William Meredith, my uncle, as well as being postmaster, acted as canal agent on the nearby wharf, and has often told me that if a flyboat was loaded and set off from Merseyside at 5 p.m. that it would be at Bettisfield wharf awaiting unloading at 8 a.m. the following morning, and this would be around the year 1900.  Another of his duties on behalf of the canal company was to dish out lime to the local farmers.  As previously stated, limestone was a much carried commodity and most village wharves sported a nearby lime kiln.  At Bettisfield the lime kiln was situated  some 200 yds on the Whixall side of the bridge at the foot of the off bank. The kiln operator lived in the end cottage of Bridge Cottage, which was three cottages in those days.  Limestone was fired in the kiln and turned into powdered quicklime.  This was sold to farmers for use as a pest killer on the land and also to local builders for the mixing of mortar.

By the middle of the 19th century the canal system, which until now had been the major transporter of goods, was beginning to feel the effects of the newly formed railways. Although still in their infancy they were taking over considerable slices of business.  A favourite trick with the larger railways was to buy out any canal in their territory and then close it down. Such happened with the Shropshire Union Canal, a major part of which ran through the West Midlands in the L&NW territory.  Fortunately for Bettisfield our branch remained open, although the property of L&NWR Co, due to the fact that it ran through Cambrian Railway Co. territory, – a direct competitor for business.

The Llangollen canal continued to thrive until the outbreak of world war 1, when the railways, virtually commandeered by the military, were forced to turn much commercial work back to the canals and the Llangollen canal went through a boom period until about 1920.  By this time, motor transport – proven through the war years – was beginning to show up and so the much slower canal traffic began to dwindle until by the mid 1930’s goods carrying traffic had virtually ceased. I remember, as a small boy, that one of the last goods carrying barges was owned by A & E Peate of Maesbury Mill, Oswestry.

With the demise of commercial canal traffic, a new craze came into evidence, namely pleasure cruising.

Companies were formed to hire out small 2/4 passenger cabin cruisers, powered by small two stroke petrol engines, operating costs were very low, cheap holidays afloat had arrived.

Traffic continued to increase until the outbreak of world war 2 when, with the rationing of petrol, pleasure boating was completely banned.  During the war years the canal remained derelict and weed ridden.  Rumours circulated that disused canals were an aid to enemy night bomber navigation and that they were to be drained, but this did not happen.  Many of the disused wharf  warehouses were commandeered and used to store emergency foodstuffs.

With the end of the war and nationalisation the canal became the property of the British Transport Commission and an immediate clean up took place and, with the easing of fuel restrictions,  pleasure boats returned in ever increasing numbers.  In the early 1950’s a contract  was arranged to supply water to Cheshire Water Board, Welsh mountain water to Hurleston in Cheshire via the canal.  Due to the large amounts of water demanded a dredging operation was required especially

through bridges.  By 1960 the water supply was in full operation and the pleasure boating traffic was increasing, especially with long boats now converted to motorised passenger vessels.  Understandably, the 150 year old banks could not stand the strain and so bank blow outs became quite common, often doing considerable damage to the surrounding area.

Two such occurrences were adjacent to Canal Side in 1962.  This also had blown out in the exact spot in 1929 and between Bridge Cottage and Canal Cottage in 1967.  In the latter case, a number of village homes were flooded.  A programme of bank strengthening was started whereby interlaced sheet steel piles were drawn into the sub-soil of all embankments, with completion in the early 1970’s.  Bank blow outs are now history.

The leisure boating continues to thrive and many people make their permanent  home on the canal.  The Llangollen canal is now among the busiest in the country.

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