A NEW book has thrown the spotlight on the fascinating history of Ellesmere and Montgomeryshire Canals.
Written by canal historian Ray Shill, Border Canals: Middlewich to Llangollen is a photographic study of the popular waterways, using original canal records and newspaper sources.
“This is a study of navigable waterways in the counties of Cheshire, Denbighshire, Flint and Shropshire, and starts with the River Severn which was navigable to Pool Quay near Welshpool,” explains Ray, who lives in Birmingham.
“It was the monks who first dammed the river there, creating a head of navigation.
“At the same time it was a power source for the waterwheels to grind the monastic corn. They were later adapted for other industrial needs, including iron and lead working.”
The Ellesmere Canal, which was first proposed in 1791, would have operated as a waterway between Netherpool and Shrewsbury with the aim of carrying boat traffic between the rivers Mersey and Severn.
The proposal would create a link between the Port of Liverpool and the mineral industries in North East Wales and the manufacturing centres in the West Midlands. However, the canal was never finished as intended. Problems arose because of the project's rising costs and the failure to generate the expected commercial traffic.
“Despite their best efforts, the canal never reached Shrewsbury,” says Ray.
“The great engineer William Jessop had the overview of this project, but was unable to surmount the engineering difficulties which included the line of canal between Ruabon and Chester.”
The salvation of the canal route was the decision to change direction and complete the Ellesmere Canal to Hurleston, where the Chester Canal linked Nantwich with Chester.
Supervision for this project and the water supply route from the River Dee near Llangollen lay with one of the most famous engineering names of the age, Thomas Telford, who before he came to Ellesmere was something of a novice.
“Under Telford’s stewardship, not only was the canal completed, it was also improved and modified after the Ellesmere and Chester sections had merged together,” says Ray.
On the main line section, the Chirk Aqueduct was opened in 1801 and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805. By this time the proposed line from the Dee at Chester to Ruabon had been abandoned as uneconomic. The canal terminated at Trevor Basin, two miles southwest of Ruabon.
Due to the constraints placed on the canal by its incomplete design, the Ellesmere Canal struggled financially throughout its operating life as an industrial waterway.
In 1813, the Ellesmere Canal Company merged with the Chester Canal to form the Ellesmere and Chester Canal Company. This then merged with the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal in 1845.
A year later the canal was taken over again by the formation of the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company.
By 1917 the Weston branch had closed following a breach near Hordley Wharf. In 1939 traffic on the line from Hurleston to Llangollen had all but ceased.
All remaining parts of the Ellesmere Canal network, other than the northern line from Ellesmere Port to Chester, was closed to navigation by Act of Parliament in 1944. However, the canal from Hurleston to Llangollen was retained as a water feeder for the Shropshire Union Canal main line and for drinking water.
In 1955, an agreement with the Mid & South East Cheshire Water Board secured the canal's future.
The increasing popularity of the canal with pleasure boats led to its acceptance as an important amenity, and the rebranding as the Llangollen Canal.
Meanwhile, the Ellesmere Canal south of Frankton Junction nowadays forms part of the Montgomery Canal, together with the Montgomeryshire Canal, and the isolated northern section from Chester to Ellesmere Port considered part of the main line of the Shropshire Union Canal.
“The Llangollen Canal today is quite unlike what the original promoters intended,” adds Ray.
“The Ellesmere Canal Act of 1793 was to link the River Mersey to the River Severn at Shrewsbury, past Chirk, Ruabon and Wrexham to the Dee at Chester, then continuing to the Mersey at what was to become Ellesmere Port.”
“But Jessop and Telford’s great aqueducts, tunnels, bridges, cuttings and embankments marked a significant stage in the evolution of transport.
“The canal was an outstanding engineering feat for its time.
“The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct alone took more than 10s to complete.
The final stone was laid in 1805 at a total cost of £38,499 (£38m in today’s money).
“Its combination of picturesque countryside and breath-taking engineering draws visitors from far and wide many of whom probably don't realise how close this beautiful canal once came to closure.”
Border Canals: Middlewich to Llangollen is available from www.canalbookshop.co.uk