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Stoke-on-Trent Districts: Boathorse Road, Goldenhill


next: the route of Boathorse Road


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

Boathorse Road:

The Harecastle tunnel - an essential part of the transport system to take raw materials and finished ware to and from the Potteries - was built without a towpath.

Boats were propelled through the tunnel without their ponies, who were walked over the top of the tunnel via Boathorse Road.

In the tunnel without the ponies, the barges used to be "legged" along. This involved men lying on the top of the boat on their backs on planks of wood with their legs hanging over the side of the boat, and then literally "walking" on the stepped roof and sides of the tunnel to propel the barge through.

There are two Harecastle Tunnels, one of which is still in use today. The earlier of the tunnels, built by Brindley, is now closed and disused. Yet the Telford tunnel is used daily by canal boats coming to and from the Potteries.

Brindley's Harecastle Tunnel took from 1766 to 1777 to complete - eleven years in all - it took 600 miners and masons and was built using a line of shafts that were dug across the length of the tunnel, then these were joined together to form the tunnel. The shafts dug ranged from 210 to 240 feet deep. Miners were lowered down on ropes to dig, and the builders were fraught with many a hazard, from bad air in the shafts, water ingress into the tunnel, to quicksands, the build up of gasses from coal seams, to the encounter of rock harder than anything that he had ever come across before, such as granite and millstone grit. Many of the miners lost their lives in the building process.

The tunnel was described by a writer in 1767 as "the eighth wonder of the world " as nothing like it had ever been attempted before..

The tunnel itself would run for some 2,897 yards and would join the waterways between Kidsgrove and Tunstall. To give an idea of scale, the next longest tunnel at that time was Preston Brook at 1,239 yards.

Needless to say, the tunnel is not very high - and not very wide either. The Leggers would be workers who hung around the tunnel entrance and would get paid for each boat they "legged" through the tunnel. The speed they went at often depended on the "extra's" they received for the work - it was mentioned that a slice of bread and cheese could guarantee the help of a good legger who would happily send a barge through the tunnel in the best time he could.


Due to the amount of traffic and the slow process of legging, the Harecastle Tunnel was becoming a major bottleneck on the canal. It was decided to commission a second tunnel to be built by Thomas Telford. Due to advances in engineering it took just 3 years to build and was completed in 1827.

This second tunnel had a towpath so that horses could pull the boats through the tunnel. After its construction it was used in conjunction with the Brindley tunnel with each tunnel taking traffic in opposite directions.

The second Harecastle Tunnel was built by Thomas Telford.

Telford was a second generation engineer, who was born in Dumfrieshire in 1757 and is noted for his founding of the Institute of Civil Engineers and being their first President in 1820. His achievements included the Menai Bridge, Anglesey in 1826 and the Conway Suspension Bridge in 1826. A further achievement was the Gotha Canal in Sweeden in 1832 amongst many others.

The second Harecastle Tunnel took from the sinking of 15 shafts, 237 feet deep at the most, then the laying of the first brick on 21 February 1825, to the laying of the last brick on 25 November 1826 to complete. There were cross tunnels to Brindley's old tunnel so that it could be used for the removal of waste by barge from the new tunnel whilst it was being built.

Telford is said to have stated that although his tunnel a lot less time to build (3 years), he was unsurprised by the 11 years it took to build Brindley's tunnel because of the hardness of the rock and the problems experienced with water and gas. At that time, Telford recommended that Brindleys tunnel be repaired and required vast improvement. This recommendation was not carried out, much to the later detriment of the Brindley tunnel which is now closed and in total disrepair.

Golden Hill and the tunnel in 1775:

Extract from William Yates 1775 Map of Staffordshire 
Showing the few dwellings along a single track at Golden Hill
- click map for larger area of map -

The Trent and Mersey canal is the black line running from the bottom centre of the map - where the canal goes through the Harecastle tunnel the map states "cut under Ground"



Golden Hill district, north of Tunstall - from an 1895 OS map
The Golden Hill district - north of Tunstall - from an 1895 OS map

next: the route of Boathorse Road

- click for index page on Brindley -

questions / comments / contributions? email: Steve Birks