Extract from Derek Winstanley and Wigan Arch Soc’s paper on 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. When the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was finished to Wigan in 1794, the navigation was effectively abandoned.
The Wigan Archaeological Society have been involved with searching for some of the original locks on the River Douglas at Dean Lock and Appley Lock – and have also been helping with the researching into the site of the original Wigan Dock.