The Trent and Mersey Canal, which runs from Preston Brook near Runcorn to Shardlow in Derbyshire, follows a route surveyed by James Brindley.
It took 600 men eleven years to construct the canal. Work began on July 26th, 1766 when Josiah Wedgwood cut the first sod near Tunstall Bridge at Brownhills in the Chatterley Valley.
Brindley’s Harecastle Tunnel that took the canal through Harecastle Hill between Chatterley and Kidsgrove, is a feat of civil engineering which merits World Heritage Site status in its own right.
Described as the eighth wonder of the world when it was opened, the tunnel’s historical importance has been ignored by both the City of Stoke-on-Trent and the Borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme.
One of the first canal tunnels to be built, it was 2,880 yards long and nine feet wide.
There were branch tunnels leading to underground loading bays in collieries and mines where small boats were loaded with coal or ironstone. These tunnels which ran directly from the main tunnel into the mine workings are the earliest known examples of true horizon mining.
Opened in 1777, the Trent and Mersey Canal was a commercial success and it quickly became one of England’s major inland waterways.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Brindley’s Harecastle Tunnel could not cope with the number of narrowboats using the canal. The tunnel was too narrow to take boats going in both directions.
It took about two hours for a boat to pass through the tunnel. Bottlenecks developed at Kidsgrove and Chatterley where boatmen were forced to wait until they were allowed to enter.
The tunnel did not have a towpath. Narrowboats were “legged” through the tunnel by men lying on their backs and moving the boat along by “walking” with their feet on the roof or on the side of the tunnel.
A second tunnel, designed by Thomas Telford, was constructed between 1824 and 1827 by civil engineering contractors Pritchard & Hoof. The firm specialised in building canal tunnels and Daniel Pritchard said that with the exception of the Brindley Tunnel the rock at Harecastle Hill “was much harder than the rock any tunnel had ever been driven in before”. Brindley’s tunnel remained in use until 1914 when subsidence made it unsafe.
Copyright Betty Cooper – The Phoenix Trust 2010