Travelling by boat – early buses on water


For a closer look at a packet boat, take a look at Cheryl Harness’s painting from her book (New York : Macmillan Books for Young Readers, c1995):

An early account of a journey on the Steamer ‘The Duke of Bridgewater’ from Liverpool up the River Mersey to Runcorn and the along the lockless Bridgewater Canal to Manchester is a good starting point as it highlights good and bad features of this early form of transport.

The journey starts with an unremarkable two hour journey from Liverpool to Runcorn. Our traveller notes the transfer from the river Mersey to the canal, probably the top lock at Runcorn, needs the use of porters to move passengers’ luggage on to the horse drawn packet boat. This was clean and tidy, consisting of one first class and one second class cabin with a flat roof and benches to allow people to travel on top. He goes on to describe ‘gliding through a continuous panorama of cows, cottages and green fields, the latter gaily sparkling in the season with buttercups and daises’. This conveys a wonderfully pastoral scene of North Cheshire only to be balanced by the cruelty to the horses and the polluted water. Our traveller goes on that how badly the canal is discoloured and uses the word pestiferous to describe the impregnation of gas and refuse. The two clumsy cart horses were pushed to go at five miles an hour, well beyond their normal working pace. One horse appeared to working very hard to avoid being dragged into the canal by the other. The two twelve year old boys who were constantly jumping on and off them were harsh in their control of the bridles in the well tutored mouths of the work beasts. They even whipped and kicked the animals, not surprising then that one horse should be constantly pulling one way and the other another. Having left Runcorn around ten in the morning and eventually arriving in Manchester at four in the afternoon, lets not forget that there probably was no standardisation of our time at this time, the expansion of the railway made this possible, so the length of the journey could be longer.

The River Mersey, before the creation of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, was only able to take boats as far as Bank Quay in Warrington. From here the rest of the journey was by the slow and costly road option. In 1712, the engineer and businessman Thomas Steers proposed to improve the river route from Warrington to Manchester by ‘building eight locks and making a cut at Butchersfield. This was alongside similar proposed improvements to the Weaver and Douglas Navigations. The Act was passed on 17 June 1721 authorising a towpath, locks and cuts between Bank Quay and Hunt’s Bank which we now call Manchester. The toll was set at 3s 4d (£25 per ton at present day prices) with dung, manure and marl toll free if used within 5 miles of the river. The nearest lock to Warrington was at Howley by the side of the weir and across from Victoria Park. Even so trade was slow, passage up to Warrington from Liverpool was only good on spring tides even using flats. The difficult section of river near Warrington was to be bypassed by the building of the Runcorn and Latchford Canal but not until 1804; this gave a much better access to the river passed the narrow section prone to moving sandbanks by Fiddlers Ferry.

The Act to build the original section of the Bridgewater Canal from Worsley to Manchester was passed in 1759 with the extension to Runcorn being completed in 1776. This gave Manchester a competitive route to Liverpool and also within two years with the opening of the Trent and Mersey Canal from Preston Brook, to the Midlands. There was much pricing competition between the two routes.

‘The term packet, which derives from the bundle of official dispatches sent overseas by ship, had been used since Tudor times. From this was derived the term packet boat, meaning the vessel carrying the Royal Mail. It is not established that the Bridgewater boats were entrusted with this duty, but it would seem probable, since they formed by far the safest and most reliable service between the two towns and Liverpool with coach links for Chester and Warrington.’

The first regular packets started in 1767 on the Bridgewater Canal, up until this time travellers on the Broadheath (Altrincham) to Manchester route would have had a rough uncomfortable road journey. The full route of the Bridgewater was not available until the Duke had built two packet-boats to replace the original converted barges, of 120 and 80 passengers respectively. Ticket offices were established, of which only the Packet House at Worsley remains, but the Packet Boat Inns at Eccles and Worsley imply that a local agents were licensed as retailers along the cut. At first it was advertised with ‘Tea and cakes elegantly served for breakfast and in the afternoon in each boat’. It is reported that the Captain’s wife ran a coffee room at the front of the boat with first class travellers paying 2s 6d, second class 1s 6d and third class 1s each in there own cabins for travel; they were so successful that they were sometimes overcrowded, the takings at this time increasing more quickly than coal takings. By 1788 boats left Manchester at 08:00 calling at Altrincham 10:00, Lymm 11:30, Stockton Quay 13:00, Preston Brook 14:30 and Runcorn 16:00. There were connecting coaches at Stockton Heath for Liverpool and Preston Brook for Chester. The reverse working left Runcorn between 08:00 and 09:00 allowing connecting passengers to have joined from Liverpool. There were connecting return coaches feeding in as on the down trip for the longer 9 hour return trip.

The Runcorn and Latchford Canal opened in1804 giving a better and more reliable route to Runcorn for all Mersey and Irwell traffic as previously mentioned. Passenger services started in 1807; the Leeds and Liverpool Canal had been running passenger boats since its opening and by 1775 were charging owners £90pa after initially charging 1/2d per 2 miles per passenger. The Runcorn to Manchester service on the Mersey and Irwell started on 1 May 1807 leaving at 10:00 in the summer and 08:00 in the winter taking an hour less than their rivals on the 8 hour journey. Fares for the two companies were the same but private rooms were available for parties of people on the Mersey and Irwell route. This route had the advantage at Runcorn of a flat crossing from one boat to the other whereas the Bridgewater transfer involved traversing the flight of locks on foot. A transfer to a Liverpool coach was initially possible at the Black Bear in Warrington and later Warrington Bridge and also
special boats serving markets. At Runcorn there was a connection to the service along the Weaver Navigation to Northwich. The packets also conveyed parcels and bundles of cloth and groceries for country stores. The cost to travel from Manchester to Runcorn in 1794 was 3s 6d in the front room and 2s 6d in the back room.

The initial period saw horses used to move the canal boats but by 1815 the Mersey and Irwell were taking steam packets seriously. After extensive investigation, including a visit to Scotland, it was decided that the available draught on the old river was not sufficient to allow trouble free passage by these heavier boats; also there were many other navigational difficulties namely the twisty river, narrow cuts and numerous locks. In 1880 the two rival companies decided to offer identical rates including tolls for freight movements, this helped to produce a sharp rise in profits along with an increase in trade from connecting canals. As the years went buy it became more of a loose understanding to match each others tariffs.

The packets boats were improved in design and lightness of build leading up to 1843 when the new boats could achieve a good speed drawn by two horses at the canter. The pair need frequent changing along the route even though the new boats were built very lightly of iron. By 1845 Water Witch, Swallow, Eagle and Dolphin were completing the journey in 3 and a half hours. From the 1830s, the Mersey and Irwell were putting on fast packets timed to connect with the best tides enabling passengers to make the fastest journey between Liverpool and Manchester; the sum of 3s would secure one of the best cabins for the trip. The Mersey and Irwel Navigation were known for their ‘elegant and commodious steam packets’. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal had operated packets from the beginning, steadily growing in popularity and even running suburban services as well as the expect ones in summer. The Lancaster Canal had two packets running between Preston and Lancaster by 1800. To travel the whole length of the canal in a first class cabin from Kendal to Preston cost 6s in 1833, second class was 4s in the swift packet Waterwitch. Two new boats Swiftsure in 1834 and Swallow in 1835 added extra sailings.

As populations grew in cities, Manchester included, fresh food was taken in to their centres. Potatoes, cabbages, peas, beans, milk, butter and poultry needed fast transporting. Fresh fish was even brought over from Yorkshire. The lighter fly boats were used for fast transfer of products being of lighter construction and able to make greater speed. These were drawn by relays of horses not stopping until they reached their destination.

The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway in 1830 began the demise of canal transport although to this day there is still just one commercial boat, Longford Canal Services, that still trades along the Bridgewater canal and a number of passenger ‘cruises’.


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