There has been a lock at Vale Royal for over 250 years, starting with a single. Timber-built contruction in the old river, which opened to traffic in 1732.
The locks as you see them today represent three further stages in the modernistation and improvement to the navigation of the River Weaver, carried out between 1791 and 1889 under the management of the River Weaver Navigation Trustees who ran the river from 1760 to 1948 when the inland waterways were Nationalised. During the reign of the Trustees, the river was subject to several improvement schemes, each design to straighten and deepen its course, and to reduce passage times by building fewer, deeper locks. Examples of all this are to be seen at Vale Royal Locks today.
The oldest lock chamber at Vale Royal is the one at the West side of the site, currently this is used as a weir-cum-sluice whose purpose is to control the level of the water impounded above the lock. Originally built in 1791, this lock was 88' long x 18' wide, with 4'6” of water over the sills. Engineered by John Johnson, it was constructed of masonary blocks and brick, and was the only lock on site for 71 years. It was operated manually, the gates originally having balance beams like today's canal locks.
By 1861, increased traffic on the river necessitated doubling the locks.
A larger, deeper lock was contructed alongside the existing one, and additional Lock-Tenders were employed. This new lock is known today as the small lock, and although considerably modified in later years, is still used for the passage of smaller vessels.* It was engineered by Edward Leader Williams, who served the Weaver from 1856-1872, was constructed of masonary and brick, and is 100' long x 22' wide, with 10' of water of the sills. The original manual operating mechanisms for the gates and paddles are still in use.
Further increases in both size of vessels and volume of traffic persuaded the trustees to again upgrade the river in the last quarter of the 19th centuary. The Big Lock on the east of the site was contructed between 1887 and 1889 when it was opened to traffic. Engineered by Lional Bury Wells, it represented a major change in operating practice, the gates being powered by water-driven Pelton Wheels. The dimensions of the lock-chamber are 220' long x 42'6” wide , with 15' of water over the sills, the lock being contructed of sandstone blocks with limestone coping-stones and rubbing-bands. The large size, and speed of operation meant that a steam flat towing three 300-ton dumb-barges could pass through the lock in 15 minutes, making the Weaver an extremely efficient navigation.
So it remains, although the cessation of the salt trade sadly means that no commercial traffic passes Vale Royal Locks today.
* This document was drawn up prior to the collapse of the Small Lock Bullnose 28th August