CRAVEN folk may well be aware that the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was built in the late 18th century, but not realise that the Yorkshire and Lancashire ends initially remained unconnected, writes John Pallister.



The extensive gap in the canal was between Gargrave and Wigan. The reasons was of course finance, coupled with the predominant view of shareholders that through traffic would not become a principal source of revenue. Initially this view seemed correct, as Skipton to Bradford (via the Bradford link) prospered on limestone and coal traffic, and the East Lancs to Liverpool trades of coal and textiles were quickly established.

Initially Craven had seen Skipton linked to Thackley (Shipley) by early1774, and the waterway extended onwards to Gargrave later in the same year. Here, a warehouse was built, from where cargo was expensively transported overland to Wigan, in order to rejoin the Canal on its way towards Liverpool. So, in 1790 work began to close the gap, which coincidentally included the canal summit. No one would have guessed it would take 42 years to complete the canal, which would only become fully navigable by 1816.

Works on the new summit lengths began at Gargrave and I assume that Higherland lock was part of that renewed effort. At some stage, alongside the humped back bridge and new lock, Higherland Lock House became built. Located immediately alongside the tow path, this house remains a solid and substantial building, and had an attached office overlooking the canal. A paved path leads down to a substantial stone wharf equipped with mooring bollards. Its purpose may have remained conjecture, had it not been that in 1998 a booked entitled ‘Times Remembered’ was to recount a childhood at the lock House.

The writer was Mary Walls who had been born in 1908 into a canal family. Her grandfather, Ben walls, seems to have been the lock Keeper and was distinguished by having had a hand replaced by a hook’. His son, also Ben Walls, was born in 1879 eventually replacing his father in the role and by 1903 was designated the ‘Traffic Inspector’ for the Leeds and Liverpool Company. One can guess that as well as overseeing the lock, Ben was tasked with inspecting the traffic. That must have involved noting the tonnages and types of cargo passing through the lock. No doubt it was for this special purpose that, the wharf below the office windows was built. Barges on the canal were all gauged, which meant they were weighed, calibrated and marked, thereby enabling the weight of the cargo in the hold to be ascertained.

Mary remembered the telephone becoming installed, as perhaps the first in the district. It was important that Leeds HQ knew the position of the fleet. The Company phone often being used later during the first War to update Gargrave folk about the loss of local lives. The office had long high desks with high stools, which sounds distinctly Dickensian, but also a ‘pressing machine from which the office boy duplicated letters’, which must have been considered high tech at the time. Heating was by a big iron stove that was kept stoked up with coke by the office boy, and upon which Mary and her siblings managed to bake potatoes, and sometimes make a passable ‘toffee’ from sugar and butter. At the rear of the house were Stables where horses were changed, probably from the ’Fly boats’ coming through. Originally, these Fly boats carried passengers and their main purpose was speedy travel. Fly boats had priority over all other canal craft, particularly at locks, thereby saving time for the passengers. As times progressed, the Company spotted the advantage of sending small consignments of commercial cargoes through the ‘Fly’ system, and the numbers of Fly boats increased. Travelling at speed required fresh horses, and of course somewhere to rest those horses that had done their pulling. Young Ben walls was also responsible for the Company’s stores. Whilst Company boats were stopped at Higherlands lock, completing what to the boatmen was Company red tape, their stores and basic supplies could be topped up. Mary Walls remembered big jars of apricot jam, cutting big blocks of butter, and handing out tins of mutton to the boatmen’s families. That there was never a shortage of big cheeses in the house is hardly surprising. At this time traffic through the summit was averaging perhaps 10-15 boats a day, so there can be little doubt that Ben and his staff were kept extremely busy.

Whilst business was good, the water supply to feed the canal was now hopelessly insufficient. Originally, the Engineers had planned upon taking water from Eshton beck directly into the higher levels of the canal, but by ‘Old Ben Walls’ time, the canal began drying up in periods of drought. Worse still, traffic was often stranded for several weeks in these summit levels, with no means of supply. The solution adopted was to build an additional reservoir at Winterburn, and to feed that supply into the summit levels at Greenberfield locks at Barlick. This of course solved the problem, but at a huge cost. Mary and her family remembered socialising with Mr Vivian, the reservoir engineer and designer, who lived at the big Company house at Winterburn.

In 1921, the Leeds and Liverpool Company took the momentous decision to cease trading along the canal with its own fleet of boats. Long the Company man, Ben Walls, also took the momentous decision to change from Gamekeeper to Poacher. He purchased some of the fleet and began the Company which was called ‘Walls Shipping’. Operating from the old Leeds and Liverpool office and warehouse at Skipton basin, the Company was to be run successfully by Ben’s sons until the late 1950’s. Signs advertising the past presence of Walls Shipping are were present until recent times, as ghosts of the Canal Age.