Douglas Navigation

Extract from Derek Winstanley and Wigan Arch Soc’s paper on The History of Wigan Pier (March 2015)

The Douglas Navigation in was authorised in 1720 but, due to its entanglement with the South Sea Bubble and its subsequent collapse, it wasn’t until around 1737 that construction got properly underway, pushed along rapidly by Alexander Leigh (of Hindley Hall) and his father-in-law, Robert Holt, both mayors of Wigan at various times.  To make the River Douglas navigable from Wigan to the Ribble Estuary, sections had to be canalized and locks and weirs constructed. The Navigation opened in 1741 and was finished in 1742, allowing boats to carry some 20 tons of coal and other goods some 10 miles to the Ribble Estuary and beyond.  Boats from Wigan to Gathurst and Parbold were ‘bow hauled’ by gangs of men. There, the coal was trans-shipped to sailing ‘flats’ which sailed into the Ribble Estuary. Returning boats carried limestone, flags, paving stones and slate for building materials and lime for farmers’ fields. There were also two pleasure boats on the navigation.  It cost £9,866 to make the river navigable, five-sixths of his being borne by Alexander Leigh. In 1771 Alexander Leigh sold all his shares to the newly-formed Leeds and Liverpool Canal Company. The Douglas Navigation certainly provided stimulus to open Wigan to broader markets, but the Ribble Estuary area was not well developed and Liverpool was receiving coal from the much closer collieries in Prescot.

Extract from Bill Froggatt’s History of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal

Although the Navigation had been purchased by the canal company in 1771 the river was still being used for transport to and from the Ribble estuary. The canal aqueduct over the river at Parbold however was causing problems for larger masted boats to pass. Alexander Leigh one of the owners proposed that a flight of locks north of the aqueduct would allow boats to be lifted onto the canal. A branch from the canal would then allow boats back onto the river further upstream. In the end only the branch was built – known as Leigh’s cut it was completed in1774 and stretched all the way to Dean near Gathurst (where a lock enabled the boats to get back on to the river). This opened up the markets in Liverpool to the Wigan coalfields. The river continued in use right up until the canal was extended into Wigan in 1781 when the Navigation finally abandoned and all the locks on it removed.

As part of their Douglas River Project, the Wigan Archaeological Society have been involved in searching for the original locks on the River Douglas. The canal historian Mike Clarke lists thirteen locks on his Douglas Navigation website and we have already shown particular interest in the ones at Dean Lock and Appley Lock – and have also been helping with the researching into the site of the original Wigan Dock.