The Douglas Navigation was a canalised section of the River Douglas or Asland, in Lancashire, England, running from its confluence with the River Ribble to Wigan. Authorised in 1720, it opened in 1742, but its working life was short, as it was bought out by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Company in 1772, to prevent a rival scheme to build a canal to Wigan. It was connected to the Leeds and Liverpool once that was open, but the upper river into Wigan was replaced by a parallel canal cut, and the lower river was replaced by the Rufford Branch, which utilised part of the river channel near its mouth. The navigation was abandoned by 1801, as the canal provided a better route to the River Ribble.
In 1712, Thomas Steers, a civil engineer and surveyor who had arrived in Liverpool in 1710 to work on building the docks, surveyed the Douglas and recommended that it be made accessible to ships, enabling the transport of coal from the coalfields around Wigan down to the Ribble, and onwards to Preston. A bill was presented to Parliament in 1713, to allow the river to be improved from its mouth to Wild Mill, but the local landowners objected, and the bill was defeated in the House of Lords. A series of pamphlets were produced in an attempt to sway local opinion, and with the support of Wigan Corporation, another bill was presented. Again there was opposition, but the bill was passed, and the canalisation of the river from its junction with the River Ribble to Miry Lane End in Wigan was authorised by Parliament on 7 April 1720, with Steers and William Squire, Esq. of Liverpool as the two proprietors. They were given 11 years to complete the work, and could charge tolls on all goods carried, except for manure, which could not be charged. Commissioners were appointed, who could engage new proprietors if Steers and Squire failed to finish the task.
1720 was the time of the South Sea Bubble, a boom in the stock exchange, and Squire went to London where he raised £6,000 by issuing 1,200 shares against 25 per cent of the profits. The bubble burst two months after the shares had been issued, and Steers, Squire and Richard Norris, who was Squire's brother-in-law, eventually ended up in court, charged with fraud. All denied any wrongdoing, with Steers describing how he had bought land, stone and timber, constructed a lock, and been carrying goods along a 5-mile (8 km) section of the river. He alleged that he had received less money from Squire than he had spent on the work. Squire is believed to have lost most of the money he raised by speculating on the South Sea Bubble. Steers had completed a lock and bridge at Rufford, and had straightened some of the river. Work on the tidal lock at Croston Finney had been started, but with most of the original money now missing, no further work took place. Although the landowners had originally resisted the scheme, and the eleven years to complete it had passed, they revived the idea in 1733, and it was partially complete by 1738, when a contract was made between the commissioners and a colliery owner to deliver 800,000 baskets of coal. Squire and Steers were replaced by Roger Holt of Wigan and Alexander Leigh of Hindley Hall in March 1740, and the navigation was declared to be complete in 1742. An estimated £7,000 had been spent on this second phase of work, and another £1,000 on a fleet of boats.
Canalisation of the river involved the construction of eight locks, with a basin at Miry Lane End, in Wigan, which was connected to the river by a short artificial channel. Steers returned to work on the navigation in the early 1740s, when Leigh asked him for advice. Improvements to the river below Gathurst Bridge began in 1753, with the construction of "Leigh's Cut", but for whatever reason, progress was slow, and the cut was still unfinished in 1771. The main traffic was coal from Wigan, with north Lancashire limestone and Westmorland slate travelling in the opposite direction. The working life of the Douglas Navigation was short lived, however.
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal had been authorised by an Act of Parliament in May 1770, and an agreement had been made to link the new canal to the Douglas Navigation. The proprietors of the navigation had objected to the aqueduct which would carry the canal over the river at Newburgh, near Parbold, on the basis that it would not be high enough to allow sailing vessels to pass under it. The proposed solution involved the construction of cuts on either side of the aqueduct, so that boats on the river could lock up into the canal, and lock down into the river again. The Leeds and Liverpool would pay £500 in compensation once the work was complete. The Canal Company built the canal in sections, and the first recorded use of boats was on 25 July 1771, on the section from Newburgh to Liverpool. Water supply was a problem, as the act of Parliament prohibited extraction from the river Douglas. At the time, Alexander Leigh held 29 of the 36 shares in the navigation, and offered to sell them for £14,500 to the Leeds and Liverpool in November 1771. Although they could not really afford the price, they bought them anyway, as they were fighting a new scheme for a Liverpool Canal, which would have connected directly to Wigan. The Liverpool Canal bill was presented to Parliament in January 1772, but was defeated.
Having bought Leigh's shares, the Leeds and Liverpool lost no time in ensuring that they could adequately service the Wigan coal trade. By August 1772, work had started on completing Leigh's Cut and on constructing a junction between it and their canal. This was completed in February 1774, and boats could reach Wigan from Liverpool by travelling along the new canal, then along Leigh's Cut, and finally joining the river at Dean Lock for the final 3 miles (4.8 km) into Wigan. Various repairs to the navigation were made in time for a formal opening in October 1774.
Leigh died shortly afterwards, and the Leeds and Liverpool rented the remaining shares in the navigation from the administrators of his estate. There were calls to bypass the river sections of the old navigation entirely, and work started on a new cut, including two locks, from Gathurst to Wigan. Progress was slow, and it was not finished until 1780. Meanwhile, work on a new canal to bypass the lower sections of the river began in 1777, and the Rufford Branch, which dropped through seven conventional locks and a tide lock to join the river near its mouth at Sollom, was completed in October 1781.
All that remained to be done was to tidy up the legal details. The Leeds and Liverpool obtained another act of Parliament on 24 June 1783, which allowed them to purchase the remaining shares, but did not authorise the original purchase restrospectively. Once the canal was opened, all trade was transferred to it, and the river navigation was effectively abandoned. It was completely unused by 1801. In 1805, Sollom lock on the Rufford branch was abandoned, and a new tide lock was built further downstream at Tarleton. In order to build the extension, the river was diverted into a new channel further to the east, and the old channel was re-used by the canal. From that time, only the lower portion of the navigation, from Tarleton to the confluence with the Ribble remained in use.
With the decline in commercial trade on the canal system, even the final river section became little used, with most pleasure craft venturing only as far as Tarleton Lock, and it was not until 2002, with the opening of the Ribble Link that this section of the navigation began to see any appreciable traffic.
Despite having been abandoned for 200 years, traces of the navigation can still be seen between Parbold and Gathurst, which include the remains of several locks.
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