A gateway to the past

This summer will see exciting changes along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Burnley, with the renovation of Finsley Gate Wharf. The former boatyard will become a wonderful waterside attraction for the local community, offering boat trips and boat hire, a café, gardens, function rooms and learning areas where visitors can learn about its history. Waterfront has been digging into the archives with the help of our heritage advisor, Bill Froggatt.

Mono aerial shot over the town of Burnley in 1951, showing the canal and buildings This wonderful aerial shot of Finsley Gate from 1951 shows the boatyard sits on the turn into Burnley’s famous embankment, surrounded by terraces and mills.

“This is a site that speaks about how Burnley was built, how the canals were maintained and the social history of the town,” explains Bill. “It isn’t just about protecting listed buildings. It’s about paying tribute to the memory of all the people who spent a lifetime working in them.

For almost 200 years the canal was key to the fortunes of Burnley. And Finsley Gate was key to the fortunes of the canal. So now we’re restoring the site to its rightful place as a cornerstone of the town.”

But how did this rich canal heritage come about? Bill tells us that the Leeds & Liverpool Canal reached Burnley in 1796. Connecting Burnley to Liverpool would realise its full potential as a mill town. But lead engineer Robert Whitworth faced a problem. First the canal had somehow to cross an enormous expanse of the Calder Valley.

His solution was to construct a massive embankment almost a mile long and up to fifty feet high. Whitworth estimated it would take 150,000 cubic yards of soil, moved by hand cart, barrow, wagon and boat. This embankment is now known as the Straight Mile and is recognised as one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways.

Mono shot of a canal at Burnley, almost straight in nature for one mile, surrounded by buildings and two large chimneys The Burnley embankment, also known as the Straight Mile © Brian Hall Collection BCTHIC.ORG

When the link to Liverpool was completed in 1816, Burnley was a town ready to make its fortune. Though it had been a wool town since medieval times, the arrival of the canal brought cotton from America, coal from nearby pits, water to power the steam engines and a route to world trade.

Mill after mill sprang up along the canal banks. By the 1880s, Burnley was the largest cotton producing town in the world. By 1900 there were over 100,000 looms across the town and 90% of the town’s population were employed in the cotton industry. The canal put Burnley on the map. And thanks to Finsley Gate, Burnley kept the canal working.

A vintage shot showing two horses tended to by three men, drawing a large carriage with a massive oak trunk on top Turning timbers into lock gates.

The sawmill turned massive oak timbers into lock gates. The boat yard built the characteristic wide-beamed working boats of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the forge sparked the iron work that underpinned lock mechanisms and swing bridges.

A man and boy stand next to a steam-powered saw in 1905 The Finsley Gate steam-powered sawmill, 1905.

Workers at Finsley were responsible for maintaining locks and bridges, regulating the water supply, dredging the channel and repairing the banks and towpath. It was one of six similar yards along the canal stretching from Apperley Bridge in Bradford to Burscough, just north of Liverpool.

A canal boat laden with goods navigating the Leeds & Liverpool Canal Leeds & Liverpool Canal workboat Othello loaded with goods at Finsley Gate.

As this fascinating silent film from 1946-49 shot by Burnley film-maker Sam Hanna shows, the yard was a hive of activity even after the war. At the end of the film, you’ll see a boat being launched into the canal.

But after more than 150 years of proud history, the decline of the canal hastened the decline of the yard. As commercial traffic on the canal ebbed away in the early 20th century, so did the cotton, the mills, and eventually Finsley Gate itself when British Waterways’ offices closed in 1995.

View of a boat yard next to a canal Finsley Gate in the early seventies.

Now we are reviving Finsley Gate as a gateway to Burnley’s rich waterway heritage. It’s only the first stage of our exciting plans to improve towpaths and green space the Straight Mile and give local people opportunities to make their lives better by water. Waterfront will keep you updated as Finsley Gate reopens and improvements to Burnley’s waterway continue.

All images from the Waterways Archive, unless otherwise credited.

Last date edited: 8 July 2021

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