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Sankey Canal - St. Helens

The first industrial canal in England

Red Wheel Site:
Transport Mode(s):


St. Helens,


WA12 9PA
Visitor Centre:

About Sankey Canal - St. Helens

The Sankey (St. Helens) Canal was sponsored by Liverpool merchants to obtain the vast amounts of coal the city required from mines in Haydock and Parr. The project was surveyed by Henry Berry and William Taylor who were paid £66. The representations made to Parliament suggested that the Sankey Brook would be made navigable but Berry - who went on to supervise construction - knew that this was not feasible and built a separate canal instead with the brook providing feeder water. Thus, it became the only canal built in the country without anyone petitioning against it. The first Act of Parliament sanctioning construction was passed on 20th March 1755 and the canal was carrying coal by autumn of 1757. It was designed to accommodate Mersey Flat barges which were a common sight on local rivers at that time. The Sankey Canal versions were about 70 feet long with a draught of 6 feet and capacity of 80 tons. Originally powered by sail they were later converted to steam with the first trial of a steam engine in 1797. The immediate commercial success of the canal led to the construction of extensions to other coal mines in St. Helens and to Widnes in the opposite direction. It can be argued that the Sankey Canal was in no short measure responsible for the 'Canal Revolution' that following by providing a template for design and construction. The presence of the canal in Earlestown created a problem for George Stephenson who was tasked with building the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. Owners of the canal insisted that the masts of the Mersey Flats should to be able to clear any structure over it. Swing bridges were built where possible but at Earlestown this was not feasible. So Stephenson built the famous 'Nine Arches' viaduct opened in 1830 which allowed for this clearance. The Sankey Canal also hosts the first two-rise staircase lock in the country - the Old Double Lock. The final cargo for the canal was not coal but sugar. The Sankey Sugar works operated on the banks of the canal in Earlestown and barges brought raw cane sugar there from Liverpool and out again as refined sugar. All traffic ceased in 1959 and the canal closed in 1963. Efforts to re-open sections of the canal continue. 

YouTube videos about The Sankey Canal:

What's left of the Sankey Canal:

The end of the Sankey - England's oldest Industrial Canal

Bimble the Sankey Canal

Red Wheel Plaques erected during Covid pandemic on 19th January 2022. A formal unveiling ceremony took place on 11th April 2022.

Pictures by Jerry Swift and Barrie Pennington:

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Two Sankey Red Wheels unveiled by Lady McAlpine and the Mayor of St. Helens, Councillor Sue Murphy


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The unveiling party

Left to right:

John Tabern, Chair of St. Helens Town Deal Board

Gerald Leach, Railway and Canal Historical Society

Councillor Seve Gomez-Aspron, MBE, Deputy Leader of St. Helens Council

Conor McGinn, Member of Parliament for St. Helens North

Lady McAlpine

The Mayor of St. Helens, Councillor Sue Murphy

The Mayor’s husband, Mr. Mike Murphy

Dr. Barrie Pennington, National Transport Trust member

Mrs. Susan Pennington

Councillor Andy Bowden

Councillor Jeanette Banks

Councillor Anthony Burns

Councillor David Banks

 Lady McAlpine was presented with a commemorative glass plate by the Mayor

left to right: Dr Barrie Pennigton; Lady McAlpine, Mrs. Susan Pennington, The Mayor of St. Helens




Nearest railway station is Earlestown (Northern Rail).

By road take A49 to Newton-le-Willows off Junction 23 of M6 then A572 and turn off at Wharf Road. The Sankey Valley Visitor Centre is at 275 Blackbrook Road, St. Helens, WA11 0AB.

Barker, T. C., The Sankey Navigation: The first Lancashire canal, The Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, ISBN: 0951940716 (1948)

Barker, T. C. and Harris, J. R., A Merseyside Town in the Industrial Revolution: St. Helens 1750-1900, Frank Cass, ISBN: 9780714645551 (1954)

Edwards, Lewis A., Inland Waterways of Great Britain and Ireland, Imray, Laurie, Norie & Wilson, ISBN:  9781340297336 (1962)

De Salis, Henry R., Bradshaw's Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales, Henry Blacklock & Co., ISBN: 9781908402141 (1904)

Pratt, Edwin A., A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.,  ISBN: 9780530588667 (1912)

Rolt, L.T.C., The Inland Waterways of England, George Allen and Unwin, ISBN: 9780043860069 (1950)


National Transport Trust, Old Bank House, 26 Station Approach, Hinchley Wood, Esher, Surrey KT10 0SR