Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal
(Including Fletcher's Canal)

Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal History

The original plan for the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal was to create a link on which goods from both Bolton and Bury could be carried to the growing city of Manchester. It was planned to be a narrow canal which would run from the centre of Manchester to a point between both Bolton and Bury. It would then split into two arms which would run separately into each of the towns.

To reach central Manchester the route needed to meet the Mersey & Irwell Navigation but all canal companies which had come anywhere near this waterway in the past had done their best to avoid it.

The river navigation charged extortionist tolls as it saw canals as a major threat to its future existence. Because of this the proprietors of the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal decided to do as the Bridgewater Canal had done nearly 30 years earlier and build an aqueduct across the River Irwell, thus avoiding it all together.

To the north west of Bolton work had re-started on the flagging Leeds & Liverpool Canal which, if completed, would be the first route to cross the Pennines. The Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal projectors realised their proposed canal was ideally placed to create a lucrative link between Manchester and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

Thus they changed their plans and decided to build the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal broad and extend it past Bolton to meet the Leeds & Liverpool Canal near Wigan. It is probably because of the extra cost involved in creating a longer route and making it broad that plans to build an aqueduct over the Mersey & Irwell Navigation were dropped.

Instead the company decided to suffer the river navigation's high tolls and build a junction onto the River Irwell in central Manchester.

The canal's Act of Parliament was passed and work began but the history books concentrate less on the building of the canal and a lot more on the politics surrounding it and its neighbouring canals...

A separate canal was being planned which would provide a new trans-Pennine route and which would run directly into Manchester via Rochdale. This meant the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal would not gain from building a link to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal so the decision to cancel the line from Bolton to Wigan was made, the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal would now end in Bolton. This prompted the promoters of the Lancaster Canal to seriously think about linking their canal (which was also just getting under way) to Bolton, giving them a direct link to Manchester. Their alternative was to build a line from Wigan to Liverpool but in the end no decision was made and no link was made to Bolton.

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal proposed a line from Wigan to Leigh where they would join the Bridgewater Canal and connect Liverpool to Manchester. The Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal fought this proposal hard, if a connection was to be made they wanted it to go via their canal (which was still under construction). The Bridgewater Canal was equally keen to stop the link being made as it already had its own route to Liverpool on the south side of the Mersey. The Bridgewater Canal won the day and no link was created - much to the relief of the Manchester, Bolton & Bury company.

1808 - Fletcher's Canal
The Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal opened throughout, from the centre of Manchester to the centres of both Bolton and Bury. It was 16 miles long with 3 aqueducts, 17 broad locks and was fed by a reservoir near Bury. Just south of Clifton Aqueduct (where the canal crossed the unnavigable River Irwell near Clifton village) a private canal joined the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal. This was named Fletcher's Canal after Matthew Fletcher who was a local colliery owner. The route of this new canal was not a totally new one however as it had been developed by James Brindley even before the days of the Bridgewater Canal. Brindley had designed it as a water drainage channel for the suitably named Wet Earth Colliery.

After 4 years of use the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Company were able to pay out its first modest dividends. The main cargoes being carried included coal, stone and groceries, there were also passenger services from Bolton and Bury to Manchester with a return fare costing 2s 6d. Passengers would change boats at Prestolee to avoid delays at the lock flight there. Another passenger service ran along the two arms from Bolton to Bury and over 60,000 passengers per year travelled on the canal. The service was quite luxurious compared to some packet boat services, central heating was provided in winter and drinks were served on board. However, this caused a tragedy in 1818 when a party of drunken passengers managed to capsize the boat. A number of passengers, including two children, were drowned.

The Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal company were quick to see the potential of railways as Manchester had already become the first place in the world to run a railway passenger service. The canal company successfully obtained the right to build a railway of its own between Manchester and Bolton and the company changed its name to became the "Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal Navigation and Railway Company"! Soon after this a new committee was formed of which the majority of men had railway interests, at first they planned to close the canal and build tracks on its bed but for some (unreported) reason they eventually built the railway alongside the waterway and actually improved the canal while the railway was being built.

The railway line opened and immediately began to carry passengers bringing to an end the canal's own passenger service.

The Manchester & Salford Junction Canal opened in the centre of Manchester. It was just one mile long and was built primarily to allow Rochdale Canal traffic to reach the River Irwell (and then the Mersey) without having to travel on the Bridgewater Canal. Its junction on the River Irwell was also very close to the entrance of the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal which meant its traffic could now reach the centre of Manchester without having to use the Mersey & Irwell Navigation.

Much to the dismay of the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal, the Manchester & Salford Junction Canal was bought out by the Mersey & Irwell Navigation company. This meant that, once again, boats travelling into central Manchester had to pay the extortionist tolls charged by the river navigation. However, just 3 years later, in an era of take-overs and amalgamations, the neighbouring Bridgewater Canal Company bought the Mersey & Irwell Navigation and problems were eased somewhat.

The Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal & Railway Company itself amalgamated with the Manchester & Leeds Railway Company which within a year became the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company. Unlike a lot of other waterways, the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal was not closed down by the railway or left to run into disuse. On the contrary, it was well maintained and continued to be well used even though the railway line was running successfully alongside it.

Damage caused by subsidence led the canal's owners to rebuild sections of the route. In the long run this proved to be a big bonus because the subsidence problems had cost the company a lot of money over the years. Following the repairs maintenance costs on the trouble sections were greatly reduced. Revenue was also gained at this time by selling water to local businesses which otherwise ran straight into the River Irwell.

After almost 120 years of success the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal finally began to hit hard times. New damage from mining subsidence and the closure of a number of local pits resulted in loss of trade and a big drop in revenue for the waterway. The pit closures also hit Fletcher's Canal when the colliery that it served closed in 1928. Pilkington Tile Company, which was situated on the branch's southern bank, took control and used it for a number of years.

The Pilkington Tile Company gave up using Fletcher's Canal and the short waterway was closed.

A breach occurred just ½ a mile into the Bury Arm. The damage was never repaired and Bury was cut off from the rest of the route although the arm itself was still used as a self contained canal.

London Midland & Scottish Railways (who now owned the canal) abandoned 7 miles of the waterway including the whole of the arm to Bolton. The closures left the canal in 2 separate parts, neither of which were connected to any other waterway.

The remaining sections of the canal (which were now owned by the government) were also abandoned. On many canals up and down the country, abandonment came after decades without seeing a boat but the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal actually continued to carry a small amount of traffic even after the official abandonment.

Finally, the last boat to use the canal was moored for the last time. It had been carrying coal on a 100 yard stretch of the waterway from a dump to a works in Bury.

In a magazine article in December it was reported that the locks on the Prestolee flight near Nob End Junction had been cleared of trees and weeds. (However, when I saw the locks in 1997 they were completely overgrown with bushes that looked a lot more than just 2 years old)! The article also reported that the canal's restoration society had leased the old canal side buildings at Nob End from B.W. at a nominal rent. These were to be restored and used as the society's HQ. On the Bury Arm an area to the east of the breach of 1936 was cleared, dredged and fully restored as a linear park.

It was reported that the society had lodged a £3.5 million application for restoration of the Bolton and Bury arms, the Prestolee Locks and the canal side buildings at Nob End Junction. To succeed, the application needed a matching sum of money from local authorities and B.W. No further reports were made on the outcome of the application. The restoration society hoped to fully restore the Bolton and Bury arms by the year 2000.

Between the locks at Prestolee and the newly restored sections of the Bury Arm, at the site of the 1936 breach, the line of the canal was now owned by Danisco Paper company. A factory building stands right across the canal bed and will provided a major obstacle to restoration. However, Danisco Paper have offered to sell their section of the canal to the restoration society. No big fund raising campaign was needed to make this purchase - the price was just £1.

In December the Waterway Recovery Group arrived at Prestolee Locks and this time they really did clear the chambers and surrounding area of shrubs and other overgrown plant life. For the first time in many years the 3-way junction could be clearly seen. However, restoration of this section to a navigable state is still some way off, and the opening of the whole route will take many more years.

Back to Top

Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal Route

The canal leaves the River Irwell in the centre of Manchester just north of Princes Bridge near the head of the former Mersey & Irwell Navigation. Almost opposite, on the east bank of the river, is the entrance to the former Manchester & Salford Junction Canal. My reference book ("Lost Canals of England & Wales" written by Ronald Russell in 1971) said parts of the canal could still be found in Salford lurking behind walls at the ends of streets.Whether this is still true is very doubtful though the 1992 Manchester A-Z street map shows long stretches of the route as it heads north west through Salford. After passing under East Orsall Lane and Oldfield Road the 1978 A-Z marked a "Basin Wharf", this is not marked on the 1992 A-Z though the canal is shown in water as it passes by Upper Wharf Street. Just to the west Crescent Wharf was marked in 1978 but not in 1992 and on the south side of the canal rows of railway sidings have also gone since 1978. Continuing north west, with a railway very close to it, the canal passed under Windsor Crescent and Frederick Road but the stretch between these two has disappeared under new streets since the 1978 A-Z was published. It reappears on the north west side of Frederick Street bridge. Just past Broughton Road the route passes between mills which are on either side of the waterway. Then, after passing the back of Orchard Trading Estate, the landscape opens up much more.

After passing the Agecroft Road (A6044) and a power station the canal comes to a sudden end on the A-Z map. The word "aqueduct" is marked a few yards further north but there is no sign of the canal at this point. The route reappears on the A-Z about ¾ of a mile further north behind a massive tile & pottery works. Fletcher's Canal leaves the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal just before the route crosses the River Irwell on Clifton Aqueduct. All 3 waterways head north west, running side by side for about 2 miles. However, Ronald Russell said the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal was dry and obscured from view by factories along most of this stretch though a section to the south of the A667 (Kearsley Road) could still be walked. Bridges and cottages still survived on this stretch - and probably still do. After passing under the A667 at Ringley Bridge in Stoneclough the 1978 A-Z marked Ringley Lock but once again this is not marked in 1992. Past here Ronald Russell described the canal as "surprisingly interesting", having visited this area myself in 1997 I can also vouch for this.

Heading north west the canal, which is weedy but full of healthy looking water here, is crossed by Prestolee Road and then an isolated a humped bridge which is in very good condition. Next, a substantial 4-arched aqueduct takes the canal over the River Irwell for a second time. Two massive milestones were near the aqueduct in 1971 though I did not notice them when I was here. Running parallel to the aqueduct I saw a strange looking concrete bridge which I found out later is a pipe bridge carrying sewage! On the far side of the pipe bridge is a third crossing of the river, this is a stone arched footbridge which probably predates the aqueduct. Immediately after the aqueduct the canal widens out, straight ahead is a small iron bridge crossing the entrance of what was once a short arm (now dry) while the main line turns at a right angle to head north east. The reason for the wide stretch of canal just before the turn was to give boats room to manoeuvre. This would certainly have been necessary on busy days because immediately after the turn boats would enter the first of a flight of 6 broad locks heading steeply up the hill towards the junction where the Bolton and Bury arms split the main line into two. From the bottom of the locks it is possible to look down into the wide Irwell valley a long way below. Although the canal is about to rise much higher you realise you are already high up on a hillside.

In 1971 Ronald Russell said the masonry on 4 of the locks could still be seen and there were also the remains of some of the bridges which crossed the locks. When I visited in 1997 I found the locks to be very overgrown with large bushes and trees growing within them, a rough path led up the east side of the locks. The original stone steps could be seen by the side of the locks, some still had their metal hand rails but all the steps led down only into thick undergrowth. To the west of the locks a steep cobbled lane (Prestolee Road) runs up to the top of the flight. There is no water in the locks but I did find the canal water when I was here. It was passing right along the side of the towpath - in a pipe.

At the top of the 6 locks is the 3-way junction known as Nob End, the Manchester line comes up the locks from the south west, the Bury line heads straight on to the north east while the Bolton line takes a very sharp left turn to the west. In 1997 I found the junction totally overgrown with no chance of actually seeing the canal through the bushes though in December the WRG cleared the undergrowth away.

The Bolton Arm

From the junction the Bolton line immediately passes under Prestolee Road (a cobbled humped bridge). On the far side of the bridge the canal is in water and looks as navigable as any fully restored canal.There is an attractive group of cottages on the towpath side which look as though they date back to the earliest days of the canal while on the hill opposite is a large square house in a nice garden which looked to me like a former inn or - more likely - an important canal company building. Higher on the hill, as the Bolton line bends away from the junction, is another house with excellent views of the Bolton line, the junction, the locks and the aqueduct way down below.However, the house looked like it was built exclusively for the "Adams Family"!

The canal then curves right until it is heading north west. Near Little Lever there is a short branch which heads north, now into a housing estate. Just a little further north west the main line comes to an abrupt end. Although my 1978 A-Z shows an aqueduct crossing Hall Lane (A6053), in 1971 Ronald Russell said the crossing has been demolished in the 1960's. In 1997 I found the approach to the aqueduct completely overgrown, Hall Lane has been widened and the aqueduct has long gone. However, at the head of the watered section is a number of large stone blocks which I guess were once part of the aqueduct. Just before the dry approach to the aqueduct there is a wide stretch of canal which is popular with fishermen. There is a small car park next to what looks like the entrance to a former short arm. To the south, way down below the canal embankment, is the very well kept River Croal Valley which has been developed as parkland and includes a caravan site.

West of the former aqueduct the canal bed is dry though its route is marked on the A-Z for almost a mile to Radcliffe Road (B6209) at Darcy Lever. The centre of Bolton is just to the north of here but there is very little trace of the once successful waterway.

The Bury Arm

The line to Bury runs east on an embankment high up above the north banks of the meandering River Irwell. The towpath runs along the south side of the dry ditch and is frequently used by local people as it provides good access to a garden centre on Boscow Road. Within ½ a mile the dry route is crossed by the dead-end Mytham Road but immediately after the road bridge the canal bed has been blocked by a relatively new works unit. On the far side the watered section begins and continues all the way to Bury. The first stretch after the blockage at Mytham Road was the section which was breached in 1936. During the 1990's this stretch was fully restored and is said to be as beautiful as any stretch of canal in Britain. The scene is helped by the steep slope dropping away from the canal side down into the adjacent Irwell Valley.

As it heads east the canal passes very few roads for its first few miles. Just before it leaves the river and curves north eastwards towards Radcliffe an old rusty canal crane stands on the canal bank.At Water Street in Radcliffe, the main road (A6053) has completely blocked the waterway and is probably the biggest problem for the restorers to overcome. Past here the canal passes through open fields for a mile and then it swings northwards. These stretches are very good to walk and are kept clean and tidy, the remains of a number of sunken boats can be seen in the canal. At Warth Fold the River Irwell appears once again on the canal's eastern side while over to the west is the large Manchester, Bolton & Bury Reservoir. The new Greater Manchester supertram now flashes by close to the route. The canal continues north for another couple of miles to the west of Bury town centre. Just before the centre of town is reached, the water runs dry though its line can clearly be seen. Access can be found in among industrial buildings on Wellington Street.

The route ends, as it started, right alongside the River Irwell and the terminus could still be seen according to Ronald Russell in 1971. Approaching the end of the line, the canal went through the factory yard of Rushton & Barlow where there was an old warehouse and an arm which had 2 sunken boats on it. Also at that time two other boats were still on the canal in Bury, one was a coal container-barge and the other an ice-breaker. These were the last boats to have used the canal back in 1968. The canal ran between the factory buildings and into a tunnel under the terminal warehouse on Bolton Street (A58). The tunnel was 141 yards long and emerged in the yard of Joseph Webb's factory. The route met the river a few yards further on.

Ronald Russell questioned how much longer the terminal basin would survive and reported that parts had already been filled in with plans to obliterate the rest fairly soon. The author wrote that it would be a great loss as the old Victorian terminal area had survived intact right in the heart of an industrial town. Whether any of the terminal survives today I do not know, until I visit the area myself any information would be gratefully received. Most of the rest of the Bury arm appears to have survived fairly well however, it is watered and stocked with fish.

Fletcher's Canal Route

This short branch was owned and run independently from the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal. Its junction with the main line was at Clifton just south of the Clifton Aqueduct where the main line crossed the River Irwell. The branch ran north west, for nearly 2 miles, parallel to the river and the canal main line. Its full length can still be seen though the only road that crosses it is the M62! Near the junction with the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal, Fletcher's Canal now runs to the north of the large tile and pottery works. In the 1930's the canal was run by the owners of the works for a short time. The M62 is reached within ½ a mile and past it the canal runs between the River Irwell to the north and apparent open land to the south. This land was probably once dense with collieries though none are marked on the A-Z street map today. There are small sections of severed canal on the A-Z map which may indicate a number of locks. The branch ends alongside a circular area marked as "Clifton Marina" though what this actually is, is not clear. If it holds boats then they do not travel far as there is nonavigable waterway anywhere in the area!

Back to Top

Canal Routes Home