Early History of the Shropshire Union Canals
The present Shropshire Union Canal network did not take this title until 1846 when the constituent canals were amalgamated and run by the Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Company before being bought out by the London North Western Railway Company.
The earliest part of the system was the Chester Canal which ran from Chester to Nantwich and was constructed under an Act of Parliament in 1772. Some 21 years later an Act of 1793 saw the length from Ellesmere Port to Chester being built.
The Montgomeryshire Canal was built under another Act of Parliament of 1794 and ran from Carreghofa to the Newtown Basin and was used principally for the carrying of lime for agricultural use.
The present Llangollen Canal, known then as the Ellesmere Canal, was started in 1797 by the Ellesmere Canal Company under the direction of Telford. This was to be built from a connection with the Montgomery Canal at Frankton to Whitchurch but the difficulties of the route meant that it had only reached Tilstone Park by 1804.
The main difficulty on this route was to get the canal across Whixall Moss. In order to do this the water level of the Moss was lowered by 5 to 6 feet and the canal built across on a floating bed in much the same way that Stevenson used later on the railways. Continued peat extraction has caused constant subsidence problems and up to the 1960s British Waterways employed a Moss gang to continuously raise the canal banks to maintain the free board. This has now been superseded by underpinning with steel piling.
A branch was started with the intention of reaching Prees Higher Heath but by 1806 this had only reached Quina Brook where lime kilns were built. The canal was intended to transport lime for agricultural use and coal to fire the lime kilns.
It was originally hoped to build a northern extension of this canal from Trevor to Chester as part of a grandiose scheme to link Liverpool and Bristol by canal. It was with this in mind that the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was constructed by Telford in 1805 but efforts to extend north from Newtown came to nothing.
The line from Tilstone to Hurleston was finally completed in March 1805. By this time the Middlewich Arm had been completed to connect the Chester Canal to the Trent and Mersey Canal, thus opening up a huge new area to canal traffic from Wales via Whixall and making the canal a very profitable operation. This was a complete contrast to the former use of the Ellesmere and Montgomery Canals which until then were a closed system. Eventually, in 1813, the Ellesmere Canal Company and Chester Canal Company merged to form the Ellesmere and Chester Canal Company.
As railways grew, canals declined. The Weston branch, which joins the Montgomery Canal south of Welsh Frankton, suffered a breach in 1917. Being uneconomic to repair it was closed in 1920 leaving only a short length to Hordley navigable. Parts of the Shrewsbury Canal closed progressively from 1921 and by the end of the Second World War it was all disused and unmaintained. As with the rest of the network, traffic on what is now the Montgomery Canal steadily declined. By the time of a breach near the Perry Aqueduct near the northern end in 1936 usage was virtually non-existent – the breach was not repaired.
Acts of Parliament passed in 1944 permitted the abandonment of western branches of the Shropshire Union network although the Llangollen Canal continued to be used as a water supply from the River Dee to Cheshire serving some industries along the way, the local Water Board and a feed for the Shropshire union main line.
It was against this backdrop, also experienced in so many other parts of the country, that a multitude of societies and organisations to preserve and restore waterways were established in the decades that followed. The Shropshire Union Canal Society was established in 1966 and in 1987 a further Act of Parliament was passed to enable full restoration of the Montgomery Canal to be undertaken – the very first new Act for the reopening of a waterway.
Peter Brown’s book ‘The Shropshire Union Canal’ provides a comprehensive history. A map from the book showing the constituent canals is provided in the Maps section here.