The Weaver runs through the Cheshire salt-producing area, but was not deep enough to allow boats to reach the salt mines. It was tidal for around 7 miles (11 km) to Pickering's wharf, and salt from the mines was carried by pack horse to the wharf, where it was loaded into barges. These used the ebbing tide to carry them back down the river. By the early 17th centuary, coal was being transported into the area so that it could be used to evapourate the brine, and as the industry expanded, there were calls to improve the river to simplify this trade. There was opposition to the initial schemes, however, from landowners who feared flooding and from carriers who feared a loss of trade, which resulted in Bills laid before Parliament in 1711, 1715, 1718 and 1720 being defeated.
In 1720 the first Act of Parliament to authorise improvements to the river was obtained by three gentlemen of Cheshire. The Act was dated 23 March 1720 and authorised work between Frodsham bridge and Winsford bridge. Rates for tolls were set, which were to be reduced by 20 per cent once the cost of construction had been met, and profits were then to be used to maintain bridges and highways within Cheshire. Each year the Justices of the Peace were to meet to decide which structures should benefit from this source of revenue. The Act included powers to improve the Witton Brook from the Weaver to Witton Bridge. A separate Act, dated 7 June 1721, authorised improvements to the River Dane, but did not result in any work being undertaken.
Progress was slow, as only Richard Vernon of the original three undertakers was actively engaged on the project, and he could not reach agreement with the Commissioners. The stalemate was broken when Vernon died in 1726, and new undertakers were appointed. The work on the Weaver was completed by 1732, at a cost of £15,885. Eleven timber locks and weirs had been constructed, but no work had been carried out on the Witton Brook. The river had been improved by dredging and the construction of a series of cuts, with locks and weirs to manage the drop of around 50 feet (15 m) over the 20 miles (32 km) between Winsford and the River Mersey. Barges of up to 40 tons could reach Winsford, and boats called Weaver flats were the predominant vessels. These either sailed up the river, or were bow-hauled by teams of men.
The navigation was not initially profitable, and the amount of money owing to the undertakers gradually rose to a peak of £19,659 by 1740. Toll receipts improved, and by 1757, the debts had been reduced to £9,809. In September 1757, merchants from Liverpool complained about the run-down state of the navigation to Liverpool Corporation, who offered to pay for a survey. The merchants then offered to take over the navigation, but the commissioners wanted to keep control of it, and paid £17,000 to the undertakers, which repaid the outstanding debt and bought the navigation rights. The deal was completed on 11 October 1758. The commissioners largely ignored the survey carried out by Henry Berry, and decided to enlarge the locks to 17.3 feet (5.3 m) wide. Work began on a new cut, lock and weir at Pickerings, but in 1759, the navigation was cut in half by the collapse of a salt pit at Northwich. The commissioners discovered that they could not sue for damages, as the provisions of the 1721 Act no longer covered they way in which they were operating, and so a second Act of Parliament was obtained on 22 May 1760. This changed the way in which the debts were managed, and gave the commissioners powers to sue and to appoint a management committee. It also stipulated that all locks should be 90 by 17.3 feet (27 m × 5.3 m) with a draught of 4.5 feet (1.4 m), but the actual depth exceeded 6 feet (1.8 m)..
Debts continued to increase, as the commissioners borrowed more money to fund the improvements. The new weir and lock at Pickerings failed in 1761 and both had to be rebuilt. Work had started on Witton Brook in 1756, but the plans were revised in 1764 to increase the navigable depth to 4.5 feet (1.4 m), and this work was completed in 1765.
The proposed Trent and Mersey Canal was seen as a threat by the Trustees of the Navigation, for it ran parallel to the River Weaver for some distance near Anderton. However, the commissioners pressed on with upgrading the river, completing new locks at Barnton in 1771 and at Acton Bridge in 1778. They also set about repaying their debts, which were liquidated in July 1775, resulting in some of the profits being given to the County of Cheshire, as stated in the original Act.
The Trent and Mersey was completed in May 1777, and had an immediate effect on trade, which dropped by 25 per cent, particularly in the Winsford area. The downturn was short lived, as the salt trade developed, figures reaching their former levels by 1783, and climbing another 40 per cent to 171,719 tons by 1790. Ultimately, the Trent and Mersey generated significant trade for the Navigation, for in 1793 a system of chutes was constructed at Anderton, to enable salt from narrow boats on the canal to be tipped into Weaver flats moored in a dock some 50 feet (15 m) below the level of the canal.
The steady increase in traffic encouraged the trustees to press on with improvements. Witton Brook was widened in 1788, and the lock was raised, but subsidence caused by the salt mining resulted in a new lock being needed in 1826. A longer-term solution was provided by the decision to move Northwich lock to a new site below the town. When the work was finished in 1829, Witton Brook lock was no longer necessary, and was removed. New cuts and locks were built through the 1790s at Vale Royal, Newbridge, Hartford and Hunts, and Butty Meadow lock was removed. In response to petitions, the construction of a towing path suitable for horses was started in 1792, and was completed as far as Anderton by mid-1793. It was later extended to Winsford, and bow-hauling of boats by men was ended.
The Weston Canal
Below Frodsham, barges carrying salt had to negotiate a tidal section of the river to reach the Mersey, from where the cargo would be taken to Liverpool or Manchester for distribution worldwide. Water levels were inadequate for the Mersey Flats at neap tides, resulting in them having to wait for days at Frodsham. In 1796, users of the navigation suggested that it should be extended to Weston Point, where the water was deeper. The trustees wanted to pay for this extension by raising tolls, but the users objected, and it took several years to work out a deal which suited bothe parties. Finally, the Trustees obtained a third Act on 8 August 1807, which authorised the construction of a cut from Frodsham to Weston Point. The trustees insisted that their own engineer, John Johnson, should oversee the work, but the project was too large for him, and ran over time and budget. He was sacked in 1809, after serving the navigation for 29 years, and Thomas Telford was asked to complete the work. He managed the project with Samuel Fowls as engineer. At Weston Point, a new lock connected the cut to a basin, and tide gates connect the basin to the Mersey This cut was called the Weston Canal and was completed in 1810. A fourth Act was obtained on 2 May 1825, which altered some of the details of the previous Act, and an Act of 22 May 1829 noted that the Weston Canal had been completed. It stated that the Trustees had built a basin, piers and a lighthouse at Weston Point, that the Weston Canal was officially a branch of the River Weaver, and that the Trustees would make no additional charges for using the section. No tolls had been collected since 1816, once the construction costs had been repaid.
The trustees investigated the idea of a junction canal from Winsford to the Middlewich branch of the Ellesmere and Chester Canal in 1830, but felt that water supply would be a problem. New cuts were constructed at Barnton, Crowton and Aston Grange between 1832 and 1835, and they then planned to construct a second lock beside each of the original locks. William Cubbitt was asked for advice on whether the river could be adapted for sea-going ships, and although he said it could, he did not think it would be cost effective. Work was then started on making the river 7.5 feet (2.3 m) deep throughout, and building double locks suitable for 100-ton vessels which were 88 by 18 feet (27 m × 5.5 m). By 1845, Winnington, Acton and Hunts locks had been improved. Trade was good, with tolls generating £38,363 in 1845 from the carriage of 778,715 tons of goods. All of the improvements had been funded from the toll revenue, and over £500,000 had been given to the County of Cheshire, in line with the original Act.
Further improvements to make the river suitable for coasters began in 1856, when Edward Leader Williams was appointed as engineer. He oversaw the complete reconstruction of the navigation between 1870 and 1900, a programme which was designed to ensure that the river remained attractive to carriers, and which ensured its profitability. The 12 locks of the 1830s were replaced by five much larger locks, and most of the bridges were replaced by swing bridges, which enabled coasters of up to 1000 tons to use the river.
Construction of a connection between the river and the Trent and Mersey Canal was begun in 1871 and completed in 1875. Because of the difference in level, a vertical boat lift was designed by Edwin Clark, using counterbalanced tanks which were linked by a hydraulic system. A descending tank caused hydraulic fluid to enter the pistons which raised the other tank. The design was a success, but the fluid became contaminated, resulting in corrosion of the pistons. The lift was replaced by a new design, where each tank was attached to its own counterbalance weight by wire ropes and pulleys, with small electric motors to overcome friction. The new lift was built over the top of the old one, so that it could continue to be used until the new one was ready, and the work was carried out by staff of the Navigation, supervised by the engineer J A Saner. It was completed in 1906, and continued in use until 1983, when it was closed on safety grounds due to corrosion.
It had been expected that use of the chutes to transfer salt between the canal and the river would cease once the lift was opened, but by the turn of the 19th century, although there were 190,000 tons of cargo using the lift each year, 38,000 tons of salt were still being transferred by chute. From the middle of the 19th century, some of the salt traffic transferred to the railways, and the use of pipelines through which the brine was pumped also affected trade, but as that source of revenue declined, a chemical industry developed in the area around Northwich, which became the major source of income for the Navigation.
The locks on the river are paired, with two lock chambers side-by-side, and in most cases the larger lock also has intermediate gates, so that ships of varying length can be accommodated, without undue waste of water. The maximum size of the locks is 196 by 35 feet (60 m × 11 m) above the Anderton boat lift, and 213 by 37 feet (65 m × 11 m) below it. The lock at Weston Point Docks is slightly narrower, at 213 by 36 feet (65 m × 11 m). The boat lift is designed for canal craft rather than ships, and so can hold vessels up to 72 by 14 feet (22 m × 4.3 m) with a draught of 4 feet (1.2 m).
Anderton Boat Lift
Access to the navigation was improved for traditional canal boats with the opening of the Runcorn and Weston Canal, which was completed in 1859. The canal left the Weston Canal at Weston Point, and provided a link to Runcorn Docks, near which two flights of locks connected to the Bridgewater Canal. This link was severed in 1966, when the Runcorn to Widnes road bridge was constructed. Half of the Runcorn and Weston Canal was filled in at the same time.
Significant change occurred when the Manchester Ship Canal was opened in 1894. The tidal section of the river below Frodsham now flowed into the ship canal, rather than the River Mersey, and the exit lock from Weston Docks also joined the canal rather than the estuary. A new ship lock was constructed at Weston Marsh, which provided a more convenient route to the ship canal than the alternative route through Weston Point docks. The Weston Canal has been little used since. Although it is possible for pleasure craft to reach the Weaver from the Ship Canal, it is a commercial waterway, and most leisure users are disuaded from doing so by the amount of paperwork and the requirements of the operating company.
Situated just below Northwich, the Anderton Boat Lift is now the normal route for leisure boats to reach the river. Following its closure in 1983, a Trust was created to campaign for its restoration. The lift became a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1994, and work eventually started on its refurbishment in 1999. It reopened in 2002, and is once more hydraulically powered. The use of modern hydraulic fluids is expected to prevent the problem of corrosion suffered when it was originally built.
The Navigation is managed by British Waterways, as far as Winsford Bridge. Beyond this are Winsford Bottom Flash and Winsford Top Flash. Both are shallow lakes and are a result of the legacy of the uncontrolled brine pumping in the area. They now form a chain of salty ponds and wetlands which contain saline plants unusual for inland areas. It is possible for some canal boats to explore the Bottom Flash, but the depth of water is limited, and great care is needed.
Notes and References
- Nicholson Waterways Guide, Vol 4, (2006), Harper Collins Publishers, ISBN 978-0-00-721112-0
- The Shell Book of Inland Waterways, (1981), Hugh McKnight, David and Charles
- Inland Waterways of Great Britain, 8th Ed., (2009), Jane Cumberlidge, Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson, ISBN 978-1-84623-010-3
- The Canals of North West England, Vol. 1, (1970), Charles Hadfield and Gordon Biddle, Chap. 2, David and Charles, ISBN 0-7153-4956-2
- Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, of Great Britain, (1831), Joseph Priestley