Ellesmere Canal History
Note: The Ellesmere Canal’s history is tied in with the Chester Canal. Please see the History page on the Chester Canal for more details.
When the original plan for the Ellesmere Canal was published it proposed a route connecting the River Mersey to the River Severn at Shrewsbury via Chester, Wrexham and the iron and coal trade at Ruabon. There was to be a branch to the limestone quarries near Llanymynech and another to Whitchurch.
After much arguing over the exact line of the route an Act of Parliament was passed and work began. The job of engineer was given to William Jessop with Shropshire’s County Surveyor, Thomas Telford, among his assistants.
The first part of the route, through The Wirral, went according to plan with the line running from the Mersey at the tiny fishing village of Netherpool, southwards, into Chester. Netherpool grew into a major terminus for the Ellesmere Canal and because of this it soon became known as Ellesmere Port. The Wirral Line became very successful as soon as it opened, including a popular Packet Boat (passenger) service between Chester and Liverpool.
Part of the proposed main line between Chester and Ruabon was also started though only 2¼ miles of it at Ffryd near Wrexham were actually built.
In the same year another part of the line was opened (over 30 miles to the south of Chester) from Welsh Frankton, just west of Ellesmere, to Llanymynech on the Welsh border where there were numerous limestone quarries – this line was to be known as the Carreghofa Branch. Meanwhile, south of Llanymynech a completely separate company was also busy building a canal which would connect the Carreghofa Branch to the many lime kilns in the Welshpool area.
This route was to be known as the Montgomeryshire Canal and it opened in 1797.
The most difficult part of the main line was the stretch between Wrexham and Welsh Frankton. This part of the route was to include two huge embankments, two tunnels, a deep cutting, a giant stone aqueduct at Chirk and a massive lock flight to cross the River Dee near Froncysyllte. The original plan was to construct a lock flight down one side of the Dee valley and then cross the river on a small aqueduct just above the water level.
Another lock flight would then be built to take boats back up the other side. It is not surprising that this idea was dropped because if each lock had been 12 feet deep (making them some of the deepest in Britain), it would have needed about 10 locks on each side of the valley. This would have been very time consuming for the boatmen and very costly in terms of water usage, man power and maintenance. An alternative was needed and it came in the form of an aqueduct – but not just any old aqueduct! Pontcysyllte was to be over 1,000 feet long and 120 feet high. It was to have an iron trough and would be supported by around 20 brick piers. Never before – and never again – was such a structure ever built.
Meanwhile, other work was still going on. The Carreghofa Branch to Llanymynech was up and running and the main line towards Shrewsbury was well under way. A branch line which headed east from Welsh Frankton was also being built. It passed the south side of Ellesmere where a short arm was cut from the branch to a basin in the town while the branch continued east towards Whitchurch. Another arm, the Prees Branch, was also started, it left the Whitchurch line a few miles west of Whitchurch and headed south towards Prees.
The building of the mighty Pontcysyllte was both time consuming and money sapping. It soon became apparent that the building of the main line link northwards, from the aqueduct to Chester, would have to be suspended until more funds could be raised. This left the company stuck in no man’s land with two separate canals and a 17 mile gap between them. At the head of the southern section was a half built monster of an aqueduct with a dead end just yards past the end of it!
At Chester there was already another canal, the Chester Canal. It had been built some 30 years earlier and was originally planned as a rival to the Trent and Mersey Canal when it was feared that the small town of Liverpool may steal trade away from the port of Chester. The Chester Canal had been planned to link the city to the Potteries and make a short cut to the Liverpool (via the River Dee). It connected with the Dee in Chester and ran south east, it was supposed to have run to Middlewich where it would have joined the Trent & Mersey Canal. However, when the main line was built an arm into Nantwich was completed but because of money shortages the final stretch to the Trent & Mersey Canal was never even started. Because of this (and also due to arguments with the River Dee Company) the Chester Canal was never much of a success and by the time the Ellesmere Canal project was under way, the Chester Canal had been abandoned by its owners and was becoming derelict.
To bridge the gap between their two severed lines the Ellesmere Canal Company tried to buy up the Chester Canal but its owners now had good reason to re-open the route themselves and maybe even build their long awaited link to the “outside world” via Middlewich. If the Ellesmere company wanted to reach their detached Wirral line at Chester they’d have to agree to make a junction onto the Chester Canal. This they did by constructing an extension from their Whitchurch line to Hurleston on the Chester Canal, just north of Nantwich.
The link-up between the Ellesmere Canal and the Chester Canal was a very friendly agreement compared to some canal “partnerships” around the country at that time. Both companies knew that if they were to survive, co-operation was definitely the best tactic. The Whitchurch line now became the main line, replacing the severed route through Chirk to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. In fact, the aqueduct was in danger of becoming the largest and most expensive folly ever built in Britain. Luckily, help was at hand…
The whole of the southern part of the Ellesmere Canal was fed by the River Dee on a very long feeder which started in the Welsh mountains at Llantisilio. The feeder passed through Llangollen high on the side of the hills to the north of the town. Around 5 miles further east it ran into the canal at Trevor Basin – just a matter of feet to the north of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Luckily the feeder was just about wide enough and deep enough to get a boat down it and thus the original main line became known as the Welsh Branch and Pontcysyllte was saved from becoming a very expensive mistake. Instead, it became a very expensive feeder which just happened to pass the small Welsh town of Llangollen. Little did anyone know that this narrow feeder would one day become the most heavily used stretch of canal in the whole country.
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct opened to the sounds of brass bands, a parade and a thousand cheers from the astonished spectators who travelled from miles around to watch the first boats “fly” across the valley. There must have been much relief for the canal company now that the feeder could be used and some relief for those who’d had to work 120 feet above the ground. Telford was proud that only one man had died during the 6 years of construction.
While the opening of Pontcysyllte and the partnership with the Chester Canal meant the Ellesmere Canal company now had a usable route, they never managed to reach most of their original destinations. The route from Pontcysyllte to Wrexham and Chester was never built; the southern end of the main line fell well short of Shrewsbury and became known as the Weston Branch; the Prees Branch also failed to reach the village which gave it its name. Similarly, the Chester company could still not afford to build a link to the Trent & Mersey Canal at Middlewich.
Due to the success of the Ellesmere and Chester partnership, a merger took place and the two canal companies became one under the imaginative title of the Ellesmere and Chester Canal Company. The canal was very profitable but was losing out due to there being no outlet to any part of the main canal network which by now covered most of England. The hoped for link from the Chester Canal to the Trent & Mersey Canal had still not been started.
Extra boats came to the Ellesmere & Chester Canal when the adjoining Montgomeryshire Canal (via the Carreghofa Branch) was extended to Newtown in mid-Wales.
A new canal was proposed which would finally give the Ellesmere & Chester Canal a way out into the main inland waterways network. This was to be the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal which would meet the original Chester Canal head on at Nantwich. Thomas Telford was to be the engineer on the new canal and he was also employed by the Ellesmere & Chester Company to finally build a link to the Trent & Mersey Canal at Middlewich.
The new link with the south took 10 years to build, opening shortly after the completion of the long awaited link into the Trent and Mersey Canal. At last the canal had links with the whole canal network to the south and to the north.
By the time the railway age arrived the canal was running steamers of its own. These boats ran from Chester to Ellesmere Port (which by now was a major town and dock) and then into the River Mersey.
To combat the onslaught of railway competition, the Ellesmere & Chester Canal Company joined forces with the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal and shortly afterwards they reformed as the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company. For Roots information after 1845, see the Shropshire Union Canal History page.
See also the Ellesmere Canal Route