From Commerce to Leisure
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was arguably the most successful commercial canal on the British waterways network. This was primarily on account of it being a wide canal and passing through a number of industrial towns. Whereas many other canals went into commercial disuse in the period between the two world wars, or in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal continued as a successful commercial canal until the mid-60s. Its subsequent commercial decline was largely due to the shift in the transportation of coal from canal to road.
Due to the pioneering work of the Inland Waterways Association and the vision of the then Minister of Transport Barbara Castle 1400 miles of non-commercially viable canals were retained for pleasure cruising, called by Barbara Castle ‘leisureways’. Although some commercial traffic was maintained on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal increasingly it followed other canals towards a focus on leisure boating. The leisure boats of the time were not the narrowboats that now populate the canal but shorter cruisers often powered by an outboard engine. This can be graphically seen from the second of the BBC programmes Nairn Across Britain recorded in 1972, where Ian Nairn travels from Worsley on the Leigh Branch of the Bridgewater Canal through to Leeds. “Nairn Across Britain” and the 1974 bicentenary commemorations that were held in Skipton View on youtube
With the growth of the number of hire companies operating on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the increasing popularity of the narrowboat leisure boating became increasingly synonymous with narrow boating.
Though, given that the Leeds & Liverpool Canal boasts locks of fourteen foot width, wider converted ex-commercial boats or purpose-built ‘wide beams’ provide manageable possibilities both for hire companies and for ‘live aboards’.
Passengers travelled along the canal virtually from its opening. Packet boats worked between Liverpool and Wigan, with the service extended to Manchester after the Leigh branch opened in 1820.
They also operated in Yorkshire, but the number of locks there made the service slow, and it did not last for long. Blackburn and Burnley were also served, but the packet boats could not compete with railways and they stopped during the 1840s.
By then people had begun to travel the canal for leisure, with coal boats sometimes used for outings during the summer months. By the end of the 19th century there were a few pleasure boats kept on the canal, though it was not until after the Second World War that recreational use expanded.