We all have different ways of travelling in and out of The Heatons; walking or cycling for those of us who are health conscious, but more often by bus, train and car. However, just over 200 years ago it was possible to cruise out of The Heatons on Stockport’s very own canal.
The Industrial Revolution in Britain started from around 1760 and wealthy merchants and mill owners were looking for a cheap way to transport their goods safely, and in large quantities. The Manchester to Ashton Canal was opened in 1796 and, just a year later, Stockport was linked into the canal system by a new spur which ran from between Locks 10 and 11 at Clayton, down into Heaton Norris at the top of Lancashire Hill.
The main purpose of the canal was the transportation of coal from the collieries around Ashton into Stockport. In addition it was used to carry general cargo such as raw cotton to the local mills, returning with manufactured goods. It also carried supplies of grain to William Nelstrop and Co’s Albion Mill in Heaton Norris. The canal was just over four miles longs and was unusual in that it didn’t contain a single lock. It passed through Openshaw, Gorton, Debdale Park and Reddish before arriving at a wharf and warehouse complex at the top of Lancashire Hill. Today, the biggest reminders of its existence are the presence of the Navigation Pub just outside Albion Mill, and Wharf Street, which still runs along the back of the premises.
There was however, an unexpected benefit for Heatons’ residents with the rise of a passenger boat service which sat side by side with the busy trade route. In May 1799 the Manchester Mercury gave notice that a passenger boat service would open between Heaton Norris and Piccadilly. The success of the service was immediate, with the appeal to passengers being the relatively short journey time and the comfort of the boats compared to a rickety ride down cobbled streets into the city centre.
The initial operations saw boats leaving Heaton Norris for Manchester from 8am with the last boat returning from Piccadilly Wharf at 6pm. The service ran daily and its success was such that the service was expanded with operators offering a two hour trip from Stockport to Stalybridge via the Ashton Canal and the newly opened Huddersfield Narrow Canal.
The fare from Heaton Norris into Manchester was 1 shilling for a front seat and 8d for a seat at the back (around £ 4.00 and £ 2.75 in today’s money). To travel into Stalybridge was slightly more expensive at 1s 3d for a seat in the front cabin and 9d for a seat at the back of the boat, with passengers coming back the same day paying only half fare for the return leg of the journey. Such was the novelty of the new mode of transport that groups of people hired canal boats for the day and cruised between Heaton Norris, Manchester and Ashton at their leisure.
Sadly, the canal began to decline as a result of competition from the railways and roads and was starting to fall into dereliction as early as 1922, with commercial traffic ceasing in the 1930’s. The canal was dredged in the 1950’s but this did not result in a resurrection of trade and it was finally abandoned in 1962. The line of the canal can still be followed though, as it has been turned into a surfaced pathway along most of its length.
So next time you’re packed into a bus, standing shoulder to shoulder with commuters on an early morning train, or crawling at snail’s pace in your car up the A6, think back enviously to those days when travellers could enjoy a leisurely journey into the very heart of the city, arriving fresh and unhurried from their very own Heatons’ cruise.