- Hits: 3806
The Ellesmere Canal was a canal in England and Wales planned to link the Rivers Mersey, Dee, and Severn, but the Ellesmere Canal as originally envisaged was very different from what was eventually constructed.
Part of the Ellesmere Canal has now become known as the Llangollen Canal, part forms part of the Montgomery Canal, and part forms part of what is now called the Shropshire Union Canal main line.
The early history of the canal was bedeviled with indecision as to which route to take, fueled by the unreasonable expectations of the canal boom of the 1790s, and what was planned as a roughly north-south route ended up being roughly east-west.
The formal proposal was launched at a meeting in Ellesmere in 1791 for a canal from Netherpool (now known as Ellesmere Port) on the River Mersey to the River Dee, and from there via Overton (south of Wrexham) to the River Severn at Shrewsbury with branches, including one to the iron making and coal mining areas between Wrexham and Ruabon.
However, there were also suggestions that it would be better to take a more westerly route from the Dee to the Severn passing directly through the industrial area, and John Duncombe was asked to survey such a line.
The engineer William Jessop was called in to advise, and he recommended the Duncombe route. However, this posed formidable engineering obstacles, with deep valleys to be crossed and high ground to be tunnelled. Duncombe's survey involved a climb of 92m (303ft) from Chester to Wrexham, a 4212m (4607 yard) tunnel at Ruabon, high level crossings over the Dee at Pontcysyllte, a further tunnel and aqueduct near Chirk, and a tunnel in Shropshire near Weston Lullingfields.
An Act was passed in 1793, and Jessop was appointed engineer while Thomas Telford was appointed as General Agent.
The easy section from the Mersey to the Dee near Chester, now part of the Shropshire Union Canal, was first used in 1795, and joined to the Chester Canal in 1797.
For the second, upstream, crossing of the River Dee, rather than crossing at full height, Jessop had offered a cheaper solution using locks on both sides of the valley to take the canal down to a more manageable height, although this would have required backpumping the water they would use. Although it is not clear exactly with whom the credit should lie, between them Jessop and Telford developed a proposal for a cast-iron aqueduct at Pontcysyllte in 1795 without any locks, thus maintaining the original level.
Chirk Aqueduct was opened in 1801, and Pontcysyllte in 1805.
However, by this time the line from the Dee at Chester to Ruabon had been abandoned as uneconomic. Also abandoned was the plan to reach the Severn, as the Shrewsbury Canal was already serving the town, and the poor navigational state of the Severn meant that additional traffic would not justify the cost of the building works.
As the canal would now not reach its proposed main source of water northwest of Wrexham, a feeder was constructed along the side of the Dee valley to Llantisilio; this narrow feeder branch was made navigable, allowing boats to reach Llangollen and beyond.
So the main line as constructed only ran from Pontcysyllte Basin to Weston Lullingfields, some 29 km long. Instead a 47 km "branch" via Ellesmere to the Chester Canal at Hurleston, finished in sections between 1797 and 1806, became the canal's only link with the rest of the waterways network, and became considered the main line.
Another branch from Frankton served the limestone quarries at Llanymynech, and joined the Montgomeryshire Canal at Carreghofa.
The Ellesmere Canal merged with the Chester Canal in 1813, and a further merger with the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal in 1845 was followed in 1846 by the formation of the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company.
The Company was taken over in 1922 by the London & North Western Railway.
By 1939 traffic on the line from Hurleston to Llangollen had ceased, and the whole of the Ellesmere Canal network other than the line from Ellesmere Port to Chester was closed to navigation by Act of Parliament in 1944.
However, the line from Hurleston to Llangollen was retained purely as a water feeder for the Shropshire Union Canal main line and for drinking water, with an agreement in 1955 with the Mid & South East Cheshire Water Board securing the line's future.
Despite the formal closure, increasing popularity of the canal with pleasure boats led to its acceptance as an important amenity, and the rebranding as the Llangollen Canal. As the canal was never intended to go to Llangollen, this renaming is an ironic twist symbolic of the canal's convoluted development, but the route today makes for a delightful journey with a dramatic final few kilometres from Chirk to Llangollen.
The Ellesmere Canal south of Frankton Junction, including the Llanymynch Branch and the Montgomeryshire Canal, is nowadays referred to as the Montgomery Canal, and the isolated northern section from Chester to Ellesmere Port considered part of the main line of the Shropshire Union Canal.