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A Brief History of the SANKEY (ST HELENS) Canal

The Act authorising the Sankey Brook Navigation was passed in 1755.  Whilst ostensibly being a use of the existing Sankey Brook for navigation (to pre-empt possible landowner objections), advantage was taken of a loophole in the laws of the day and essentially a new canal, the Sankey Canal, was cut.  The canal was carrying coal by 1757, making the Sankey England's first canal of the Industrial Revolution and the first modern canal in England.

The engineer for the Sankey Canal was Henry Berry who was Liverpool's Second Dock Engineer.  With Thomas Steers, Liverpool's First Dock Engineer, he had a part in building the Newry Canal in Northern Ireland, the first canal in the British Isles.

The Sankey was built to bring coal down to the growing chemical industries of Liverpool.  They rapidly expanded, and spread back along the line of the canal to St Helens, Earlestown and Widnes, which were small villages until this period.  Thus, the Sankey Canal can be credited with the industrial growth of the region.

The Sankey was built for Mersey flats, the sailing craft of the local rivers - the Mersey, Irwell and Weaver - and the Lancashire and North Wales coasts.  To allow for the masts of the flats, all the roads in the canal's path had to be carried over on swing bridges.  When the railways came, they too had to cross in similar fashion - except at Earlestown, where Stephenson erected his massive viaduct for the country's first passenger railway from Liverpool to Manchester, leaving 70 foot headroom for the flats' sails.

England's first double or ‘staircase locks’ were built on the Sankey at Broad Oak, St Helens.  A second set were built later at Parr, known as the New Double (as opposed to the first, or Old Double locks).

Whilst the canal was built originally primarily to take coal down to the Mersey and Liverpool, the final traffic on the Sankey was very different, and in the opposite direction - raw sugar from Liverpool, for the Sankey Sugar Works at Earlestown.

The ending of the sugar traffic in 1959 led to full closure of the canal in 1963 (closure had already taken place north of the sugar works in 1931) and fixed bridges quickly replaced the old wooden swing bridges.  The canal, however, remained largely in water right up into the centre of St Helens, although its terminus had been truncated when Canal Street was built over it in 1898.

The immediate commercial success of the Sankey Canal, followed soon after by that of the Bridgewater, instigated the so-called ‘canal-building mania’ across the country and plans for extension schemes for the Sankey.  One extension would have linked the Sankey to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to the north-east, near Leigh; and another, to the Bridgewater and the Trent and Mersey via an aqueduct over the Mersey at Runcorn to the south west.  But, apart from an early extension in 1762 to Fiddlers Ferry from Sankey Bridges (for better locking into the River) and in 1775 into St Helens itself, the only major change came in 1832, when, to meet railway competition, an extension was built from Fiddler’s Ferry down to new locks at Widnes.

The Sankey Canal became more commonly known as the St Helens Canal after 1845, when the St Helens Railway Company took over the then more prosperous Canal Company to form the St Helens Canal and Railway Company.

For more on the history, a map and a Virtual Tour see Pennine Waterways.


Restoration work on the canal predates the formation of the Sankey Canal Restoration Society (SCRS) which was founded in 1985. 

The two locks into the River Mersey were restored in the early 1980’s to form marinas for sea-going/estuary pleasure boats:

  • Halton Borough Council restored one of the Wood End Locks at Spike Island, Widnes, making a slip-way in the other lock-space.

  • Warrington Borough Council restored the remaining lock at Fiddlers Ferry in the third phase of an extensive programme.


This put most of the canal within Warrington’s boundaries in water - whilst still leaving the fixed road and railway bridges which prevented through navigation.  In fairness, their aim was limited: - to create a marina, provide it with water from upstream, and to improve the appearance of the waterway where it ran through a linear park - the Sankey Valley Park which was being created along the length of the canal from Widnes to St Helens.

Last Edited: 19 Mar 2024

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