Ulverston Canal

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Ulverston Canal
The basin of Ulverston Canal
Maximum boat length 112 ft 0 in (34.14 m)
Maximum boat beam 27 ft 0 in (8.23 m)
Locks 1
Status Closed
Date of act 1793
Date completed 1796
Date closed 1945
Start point Ulverston
End point Morecambe Bay
Ulverston Canal
Ulverston basin
Barrow in Furness - Carnforth Rly
Bridge for dismantled rly
Swing bridge (over lock)
Entrance lock
Morecambe Bay

The Ulverston Canal is a canal in the town of Ulverston, Cumbria, England. It is claimed to be the deepest, widest and straightest canal in the UK. But in truth the shortest is the Wardle Lock Branch of the Trent & Mersey Canal and the deepest is the Manchester ship canal. It is entirely straight and on a single level. It is an isolated canal and does not connect to the main canal network.


Despite its location being more than 1 mile (1.6 km) from the shore of Morecambe Bay, the town of Ulverston (often spelt "Ulverstone" at the time) was declared to be a port in 1774. Ships of up to 150 tonnes could reach the shore at high water, and 70 vessels were registered there. Trade in slate and ore was growing, so with canal mania gripping the country, a local solicitor called William Burnthwaite organised a meeting in July 1791 to consider ideas for a canal to improve access to the town. He estimated the cost at £2,000, which had been raised by May 1792, but by this time, the engineer John Rennie had produced proper plans for a ship canal, estimated to cost £3,084, including the construction of a sea lock. By October 1792, around £3,800 had been raised, and the proposers decided to proceed.[1]

An Act of Parliament for the canal received Royal Assent on 8 May 1793. The Act was entitled An Act for making and maintaining a Cut or Canal from a Place called Hammerside Hill, in the parish of Ulverstone, in the county palatine of Lancaster, to a Place called Weint End, near the town of Ulverstone aforesaid.[2] The act empowered "The Company of Proprietors of the Ulverstone Canal Navigation" to raise amongst themselves, for the purposes of the Act, the sum of £4,000 in shares of £50 each, with an additional £3,000 if required.[1]

The contract for the construction of the main canal was given to Pinkerton and Murray, while construction of the entrance lock was awarded to John Lancaster and James Duckworth. Work began on 23 August 1793, when the chairman cut the first sod, and was expected to be completed by September 1794. However, Pinkerton and Murray were also working on the northern end of the Lancaster Canal, and it seems they over-stretched themselves, for they abandoned the contract in August 1795, when they could no longer pay the wages. H. Baird took on the task of completion, and the work was finished in October 1796.[3]

The canal was opened in 1796, and provided the town of Ulverston with a port. The channel was 15 feet (4.6 m) deep and 66 feet (20 m) wide, but ship sizes were restricted by the lock, which could accommodate vessels of 100 by 27 feet (30.5 by 8.2 m), drawing between 12.5 feet (3.8 m) and 7.5 feet (2.3 m), depending on the state of the tide. Delays in construction meant that the final cost was over £9,200 and the opening coincided with a slump in the ore trade. It was not until June 1797 that William Burnthwaite was appointed as clerk, and a project to build a warehouse and toll office began, funded by a further call on the shareholders. Wharves for the transfer of slate and coal were constructed at the same time.[3]


In the days before the construction of the Furness Railway, Furness was cut off by the mountainous Lake District on its only landward side; the region was accessed only by crossing the sands of Morecambe Bay, which was often dangerous. A passenger ferry to Liverpool thus commenced from Ulverston canal in 1835, which was later complemented by a service from Barrow-in-Furness to Fleetwood. A junction was formed with the Lancaster Canal. Coal, culm and cinders from the Lancaster Canal to the Ulverston Canal were not liable to sea duty. The canal serviced the movement of goods to locations as far as Glasgow and Cardiff.[4]

File:Canal Foot Ulverston.JPG
A footbridge at the canal foot

Other industries developed as this new infrastructure came under increased usage. Timber-related industries such as charcoal burning and hoop-making were common; ship building, gas and chemical works, rail engineering works, and paper manufacturing activities also provided employment.[4] In the 1800s there was a substantial shipbuilding industry at Ulverston, building wooden sailing ships which were strongly constructed to carry local ore rock cargoes.[5] An example of an Ulverston ship is the barquentine Gaerwen of 249 tons, built in 1878 and later trading from Salcombe.[6]


The opening of the Furness Railway in 1846 seriously damaged the profitability of the canal, which was eventually bought by the railway company. The rise of Barrow-in-Furness as a deep-water port also saw a decline in trade.[4] After 1878, no ships were built in Ulverston.[4] It was used commercially until the First World War and was officially abandoned at the end of the Second World War. It has since been maintained by Ulverston town council, who run a walkway on its eastern side. Its western side is still industrialized, being the location of a large GlaxoSmithKline factory (built on the site of the former iron works and paper mills). Glaxo bought the canal from the town council in 1974, and used it as an emergency water reserve.[4] In 2009, GlaxoSmithKline reviewed their operations at Ulverston and concluded that ownership of the canal was no longer necessary. Ownership has since been transferred to Ulverston Canal Company, a company set up to manage the asset. Ulverston Canal Company is a subsidiary of NPL Estates Ltd, a company which specialises in land management. A Trust has also been set up by GlaxoSmithKline, to ensure that funds are available for its management, maintenance and preservation.[7]


In addition to the industry on its western side, there is a sheep and cattle auction by the canal, and other buildings, some of which have been renovated and some of which are dilapidated. At the end of the canal is a pub, and part of the Cumbria Coastal Way.[4]

The canal began at Hammerside Hill at Morecambe Bay and terminated at a basin and wharfs at Ulverston. At its head there is a 112-foot (34 m) long sea lock, the only lock on the canal. A public swing bridge was built over the canal at Hammerside.

Points of interest

See also



  1. 1.0 1.1 Hadfield & Biddle 1970, p. 207
  2. Priestley 1831, pp. 647–648
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hadfield & Biddle 1970, p. 208
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "Ulverston Canal Masterplan" (PDF). South Lakeland District Council. Retrieved 2009-07-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Rothwell, Catherine Ports of the North West 1991 p.61 ISBN 1872226175
  6. MacGregor, David R. Square Rigged Sailing Ships 1980 pp78-9 ISBN 0852425163
  7. "Change of Ownership Announced". NPL Estates. Retrieved 2011-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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