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Stoke-on-Trent Districts: Boathorse Road, Goldenhill


next: inside the tunnel
previous: the route of Boathouse Road


Boathorse Road, Harecastle, Goldenhill, Stoke-on-Trent

The "Grand Cross" of canals:

The map below shows how a waterway from the east coast to the west coast of England would link up the important ports of Hull and Liverpool.

James Brindley had a plan to join the Mersey to the Trent and the Thames to the Severn. When these two systems were linked up, a 'Grand Cross' would be formed, providing a canal system between London, Liverpool, Bristol and Hull.

The 'Grand Cross' - a canal system between London, Liverpool, Bristol and Hull.
The 'Grand Cross' - a canal system between London, Liverpool, Bristol and Hull.

The Runcorn extension to the Bridgewater Canal had been built with the idea of joining it up to a future canal linking the Mersey to the Trent.

Josiah Wedgwood, the wealthy factory owner, was willing to provide money for the canal because he owned a pottery at Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent and needed a way of getting Cornish china clay to his works. A meeting was held in Staffordshire in December 1765:

"Mr Wedgwood and many other important gentlemen were present to take part in the proceedings. Mr Brindley was called upon to explain his plans. He did this so clearly that it was clear to the dullest person present what he meant.
It was decided that steps should be taken to apply for a bill in the next session of Parliament. Mr Wedgwood put his name down for 1000 and promised to buy a large number of shares.
The promoters of the plan proposed to call the project 'The Canal from the Trent to the Mersey' but Brindley urged that it should be called 'The Grand Trunk because other canals would branch out from it at various points of its course."

An Act was passed giving permission for the building of a canal on 3 May 1766. Samuel Smiles wrote:

"There was great rejoicing at Burslem on the news arriving of the passing of the Act. The first sod of the canal was cut by Josiah Wedgwood. It was a great day for the Potteries as the event proved. In the afternoon, a sheep was roasted whole in Burslem market place for the good of the poorer class of potters.

Wedgwood was most impressed with the advantages of the canal. He knew how much his trade had suffered as a result of poor roads and rivers and how it might grow if a canal joined Liverpool, Hull and Bristol. On the banks of the canal he built the famous Etruria Pottery Works, the finest factory of its kind. Near the factory he built a mansion for himself and cottages for his workpeople."

Brindley had stated that the new canal would be finished by December 1772. But the work was held up by problems in digging a tunnel through Harecastle Hill, west of Stoke-on-Trent. When Brindley revealed his plan to drive a tunnel through the hill, many people thought he was mad. The tunnel was over 2.5 km long and it took 11 years to build.

All the work had to be done by hand. The workers or 'navvies' used pick-axes and shovels for digging, candles for lighting and dynamite to break up the rocks.

The tunnel became famous as an engineering marvel. One merchant wrote:

"Gentlemen! Come and look at the eighth wonder of the world, the underground canal which is the work of the great Mr Brindley. He handles rock as easily as you would handle plum pies. He is as plain a looking man as one of the peasants of the Peak or one of his own carters. But when he speaks, all ears listen and every mind is filled with wonder at the things he says are possible. He has cut a mile through bogs which he binds up, embanking them with stones which he gets from other parts of the canal.

On the side of Yelden Hill, he has a pump which is worked by water and a stove which sucks through the damps which would otherwise annoy the men who are cutting towards the centre of the hill. He cuts the clay which he uses as bricks to arch the subterraneous parts. We would like to see the canal finish at Wilden Ferry when we shall be able to send coal and pots to London and to different parts of the globe."

Unfortunately Brindley never saw the tunnel or the canal completed. He became ill from diabetes and died in 1772. His brother-in-law, Hugh Henshall, carried on with the work and the tunnel was finished in May 1777. There was no towpath through the tunnel, so the bargees had to push the barges along by lying on their backs and bracing their legs against the tunnel walls. This was known as 'legging' and it was very tiring.

The Trent and Mersey Canal, and others which followed, brought enormous benefits for industry. Thomas Bentley, a friend of Josiah Wedgwood, wrote:

"The most obvious effect of the new canal is that it cuts the cost of sending goods and opens up an easy way of getting from the distant parts of the country to the sea. Not only does the canal increase the number of factories but occasions the setting up of many new ones in places where the land was of little value and where there were few people. The means of sending goods by water to the towns of Hull and Liverpool also helps the merchants, by enabling them to export greater quantities of goods from those parts which lie a long way from the sea."

How Brindley planned the Harecastle tunnel

1 He drew a plan and cross-section of the hill and worked out where the tunnel was going to run.

2 The navvies started digging from either end of the tunnel towards the middle.

3 Several vertical ventilation shafts were sunk into the hill along the line of the tunnel.

4 Men were lowered down the shafts and then started tunnelling out from them towards the other shafts and both ends of the tunnel.

5 When the tunnel was completed, the shafts were left to provide the bargees (men who worked on the canal barges) with ventilation.


A fanciful contemporary print of the tunnel - (1785)
A fanciful contemporary print of the tunnel - (1785)
a highly stylised sketch - note that the barges are shown with sails!! and
are pulled through with horses - in reality the tunnels were small and
had no room for a towpath, the barges were legged through and the
horses took Boathorse Road over the hill.

The route of Boathorse Road
The route of Boathorse Road
the blue line show the route of the Trent and Mersey canal
the red line shows the general line of Boathorse Road


next: inside the tunnel
previous: the route of Boathouse Road