Preston’s lost canal, drunk on the packet boats

Posted on - 1st August, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, History, Nostalgia, Preston News
The canal basin just off Fishergate. Dereliction had set in by 1960. Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The canal basin just off Fishergate. Dereliction had set in by 1960 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Preston once had a canal that terminated just off Fishergate. The Lancaster Canal still exists but now stops by Aqueduct Street in Ashton-on-Ribble.


Trade was brisk as coal headed north, while limestone headed south. Additionally, heated packet boats carried passengers from Kendal to Preston.

The original canal fell derelict and was filled in and built over, in the 1960s.

History of the Lancaster Canal

Map of Preston in 1852 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Preston in 1852, before the Longridge Railway branch was built. The long lost canal can be seen along with the coal wharf Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The Lancaster Canal was originally planned to run from Westhoughton in Lancashire to Kendal in Cumbria, but the crossing over the Ribble at Preston was never completed. An Act of Parliament was obtained in 1792 and construction began, in 1794. John Rennie designed the remarkable Lune Aqueduct, which is still in use today. The aqueduct was open by 1797.

The Lune Aqueduct Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The Lune Aqueduct Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Building of the canal began in Preston and continued to Tewitfield near Carnforth. Notably, this is the only section still open to navigation today. Due to money issues, there was a delay before the next section of canal was built, to Kendal, being completed in 1819.

The Tram Way

The problem remained of how to cross the River Ribble. By 1799 the southern section of canal was completed from close to Westhoughton to near Chorley. However no design had been submitted for a Ribble crossing. Funds were insufficient for an aqueduct and a temporary tram-road was proposed. This was open by 1803 and the bridge is still there today!

Old Tram Bridge Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker
Old Tram Bridge in 2021 Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker

Because of the steep incline from the river to the canal wharf in the centre of Preston, coal wagons had to be hauled up using several steam driven inclined planes.

The cable drum can be seen on the right of the building. A continuous chain ran around this drum to a lower drum on the bridge. A beam engine operated the wheel.

The winding house Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The winding house Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Demise of the canal

By the 1930s, leakage problems resulted in closure of the first section of canal, in Kendal. The canal was now owned by the LMS Railway who wanted to close the whole route. However coal traffic from Preston to the Kendal gas works kept the canal alive until 1944, when coal was transferred to road haulage.

An Act of Parliament closed the whole route in 1955. Since then road building has severed several sections, while others have been filled in.

Later, the section from Ashton basin to Tewitfield was re-opened and further restoration is proposed.

Packet boats

Passengers once travelled by canal, in packet boats; they were faster than the stagecoach and served ‘refreshments’. Consequently, they became notorious for drunkenness! The first ran from Preston in 1820 and by 1833 a faster boat made the journey from Kendal to Preston in seven hours. Later the arrival and departure times were integrated with the rail network at Lancaster and Preston.

In fact the boats added a touch of luxury with heated cabins and onboard refreshments. Something unheard off on the railways of the day.

Where are they now? The lost canal and station

Maudland Station is now under the Leighton Street Caravan Site, and the slip basin is under the Sir Tom Finney Sports Centre. Furthermore, Canal Street and part of the canal is under the appropriately named UCLan Wharf Building.

The main basin was just off Ladywell Street and is now under Brunel Court and Aldi. Heatley Street was cut in two when Corporation Street was built. A lot of the old streets were wiped out in the 1960s when the ring road was built.

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