A new group has been formed to protect the future of a section of the original Mersey & Irwell Navigation – Woolston New Cut – and the surrounding riverside meadows in Warrington.
Residents from the surrounding area formed the New Cut Heritage & Ecology Trail Group last November and have already held a number of working parties, focusing on litter picks and wild flower plantings. The Woolston New Cut is, or was, part of my home town of Warrington’s complicated navigable waterway network; created as part of one of the well-known competitive attempts to link the Port of Liverpool and the Mersey Estuary with the lucrative industrial destination of Manchester. An Act was obtained to make the rivers Mersey and Irwell navigable in 1721 and the route appeared to be open for smaller craft by the 1830s, via a series of wide locks, mostly at existing weirs, with odd short cuts, the first lock being at the normal tidal limit at Howley, in Warrington.
Improvements continued, especially spurred on by the building of the competing and successful Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal. New cuts were made to avoid difficult parts of the rivers, the most ambitious being the Runcorn & Latchford, or Old Quay Canal, which left the Mersey at Runcorn at Old Quay in a direct line to a point to meet the river again above Warrington Weir at Latchford Lock; latterly called Manor Lock to not confuse it with the present Manchester Ship Canal (MSC) structure.
Above here, passing beneath the present modern Kingsway Bridge, a loop of the river was first bypassed by Woolston Old Cut, then later the straighter and aptly named Woolston New Cut, built 1819-21. This left the river at Paddington Lock and re-entered it above Woolston Weir via Woolston Lock. There was an unusual wooden aqueduct that carried water from the Woolston New Cut above Paddington Lock to Manor Lock, with an adjacent horse bridge.
Without going into the parliamentary complications of company mergers, the major development was obviously the building of the Manchester Ship Canal. Within this all the routes were acquired and physically chopped about. The Old Quay Canal was severed and partly obliterated, but leaving a short cut from the MSC at a lock called Twenty Steps in my home village of Stockton Heath to the Mersey at the renamed Manor Lock: locally called, after a pub it passed, the Black Bear Canal.
Also, within a few hundred yards, they built a new access from the MSC, called Walton Lock, into the straightened line of the Mersey. So barge access was maintained from the MSC to waterside industry in Warrington above and below Howley Weir: Howley Lock became derelict. Within this, in the proposals for the MSC, there were plans for a ‘Port Warrington’. Ironically, in current owners Peel Ports’ visionary ideas for the MSC, this now looks like becoming a reality. As barge traffic to Warrington ceased these links were abandoned in the 1970s.
My role in the canal world came about despite my family involvement in these waterways. A grandfather worked on the construction of the MSC and another ancestral branch is a line of Mersey Sailing Flat and barge skippers and crew currently traceable to 1770 who traded throughout Merseyside waterways and beyond. After my father was killed in the battle for Normandy, in another coincidence, my mother remarried into the Marsh family of Woolston.
Albert Marsh, my step-grandfather, was the keeper/operator of Warrington (Howley) Weir and I spent some time with him in the control cabin. His brother Alfred was the last lock keeper at Woolston Lock on the Woolston New Cut. My stepfather recalled that when Alfred died a barrowload of photographs and documents were taken out of the lock house (which still exists) and burned in the garden. I just wish I had been around to prevent this and to ask more questions of my relatives and take even more photographs.
Woolston New Cut was apparently navigable in the 1950s but, although I knew it then, I don’t remember boats on it. Since becoming derelict it has been used basically as a tip, although it passes through a very attractive area. One of the factors that led to the formation of the new group was – despite Warrington’s impressive waterway history – it was recently rated within the bottom five in the Royal Society of Arts’ survey of heritage in 325 towns.
The group is already working extensively with Warrington Borough Council, park rangers, and other community groups and council officials have secured funding from external bodies to improve pedestrian access to the meadows. It is also in discussion with the Environment Agency over the impact of flood defences to heritage artefacts in the area, and is already having a powerful influence in protecting the area from developments not conducive to preserving its history. Other projects are in hand such as the installation of three interpretation boards.
New Cut Heritage & Ecology Trail Group chairman Coun Ian Johnson said: “Since we began to highlight the neglected state of the area and work with council officials, there has been considerable progress both maintaining and improving the appearance and the access to facilities and there is a lot more we can do.
“The Woolston New Cut is probably the last substantial remaining section of the Mersey and Irwell’s navigation with so much heritage in place.”
Anyone wishing to help can contact the group at this email address: email@example.com and there’s a website www.newcuttrail.com (currently under construction).