Lagan Canal

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McLeave's Lock on the Lagan Navigation

The Lagan Canal is a disused industrial canal in the south of County Antrim and the north of County Down, 27 miles long and built to connect Belfast to Lough Neagh, along the valley of the River Lagan.

The first section is a river navigation, and was opened in 1763 linking Belfast to Lisburn. The second section from Lisburn to Lough Neagh includes a small amount of river navigation, but was largely built as a separate canal. At its peak, this was one of the most successful of the Irish canals,[1] but ultimately it was unable to compete with road and rail transport, and the two sections were closed in 1954 and 1958.

The central section from Sprucefield to Moira in County Down was destroyed by the construction of the M1 motorway in the 1960s. Responsibility for most of its remains passed first to the Department of Agriculture and then to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, although the section between Aghalee Bridge and Lough Neagh, including the final ten locks, passed into private ownership. There is an active campaign to re-open the canal, including reinstatement of the central section.


The River Lagan at Moira is only six miles from Lough Neagh, the largest inland lake in the British Isles, and the terrain between the two is relatively flat. In 1637 during the Plantation, the first suggestions were made that a navigable link could be constructed, but no action was taken at the time. There was renewed interest following the discovery of coal deposits in eastern Tyrone, which resulted in the construction of the Newry Canal, and in 1741 Arthur Dobbs, the Surveyor General, surveyed the route. Another twelve years elapsed before a petition was presented to the Irish House of Commons, which resulted in an Act of Parliament in 1753 to authorise the work.

The engineer Acheson Johnston estimated that making the River Lagan navigable to Moira and then building a navigable cut to Lough Neagh would cost £20,000. Since 1729, all such work was managed by the Commissioners of Inland Navigation for Ireland, but the funds at their disposal were limited. The canal was therefore funded by imposing an extra tax on alcohol sold in the districts through which the canal would pass, which amounted to one penny per gallon on ale and fourpence on spirits. The tax would last for eleven years from 1753, and on this basis, work began in 1756.[2]

The engineer overseeing the project was Thomas Omer, and six miles of river had been made navigable within the first year. The work included new cuts to remove meandering sections of the river, four locks, the removal of shoals, and the construction of a towpath. The Irish Parliament gave additional grants of £4,000 towards the project in 1759 and 1761, and the navigation was completed as far as Lisburn in 1763. A formal opening took place in September, when the Lord Hertford, a 60-ton lighter, laden with 45 tons of coal and timber, made the journey from Belfast to Lisburn. A small additional section to Sprucefield had been completed by 1765, but work then stopped. Around £40,000 had been spent on the project, but it was evident that using the river was not ideal, as it was subject to flooding in winter, and there was a linen bleaching industry along its course, who objected to the navigation commissioners' having control of the flow of the river.[3]

In 1768, the engineer Robert Whitworth, who by this time was James Brindley's chief surveyor and draughtsman, was asked to assess the project.[4] He reported that the river section was not suitable for navigation, and should be replaced by a canal, for which he suggested two routes and a cost of £22,000, and that beyond Sprucefield the navigation should be constructed as a canal, either on the north bank of the Lagan, or on the south, which would involve building an aqueduct at Spencer's Bridge to cross the river. Although attempts were made to raise the necessary finance, and two Acts of Parliament were obtained in 1772 and 1774, to give additional powers to local commissioners, no real progress was made, and in 1779, the 'Company of Undertakers of the Lagan Navigation' was formed. The Marquess of Donegall was the chief shareholder, and most other members were either landed gentry or drawn from the nobility, and so had considerable financial resources.[5]

In June 1782, Richard Owen, who had worked on the construction of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal for ten years agreed to oversee the project for four years. The company had insufficient capital to build a new canal below Lisburn, nor to fund the northern route to Lough Neagh, and so construction started on the southern route. The four Union Locks raised boats from the river to a summit level, which followed a course due west, and then turned to the north-west to cross the Lagan. The aqueduct cost £3,000 and took nearly three years to build. Progress was much slower than expected, but Aghalee was reached in March 1792, ten years after Owen began work. Initially, goods were transferred between the canal and the shore of the lough by road, for the final connection was not completed until December 1793. The Marquess of Donegall opened the canal on 1 January 1794, by travelling from Owen's house at Moira to Lough Neagh by boat. He had funded most of the £62,000 cost himself.

The summit level was 11 miles long, with a flight of 10 locks, each 70 feet by 16 feet at Aghalee, and four at Sprucefield.[6]


The canal was not as successful as expected. There were problems with water supply on the summit level, because water from the Lagan was needed by the bleaching industry further down the river, and so could not be used indiscriminately. Below Lisburn, there were often problems where excess water during periods of high rainfall washed away the new banks. The Union Locks were not completed, and work continued until 1796, while it was suggested that Owen had prolonged the work for his own benefit. John Dubourdieu, writing in 1802, concluded that the use of the river was a fatal flaw, and that the navigation would have been much better if the lower section had been built as a canal to the same standard as the upper section. The canal had been planned to enable coal from the east Tyrone coalfields to reach Belfast, but in practice, higher quality coal was imported through Belfast and distributed to the communities around the canal and Lough Neagh.[7]

A group of businessmen from Belfast took over the canal in 1810. They investigated costs for a new canal section from Belfast to Union Locks. Owen estimated that it would cost £42,425, and an application was made for half of this amount to the Directors General of Inland Navigation. They sent John Killaly to report on the plans, who suggested a new canal section from the Blackstaff river to the second lock, to avoid the tidal section near to Belfast. Owen's and Killaly's ideas formed the basis for an Act of Parliament obtained in 1814, but the proposals to split the navigation channel from the river and to build a reservoir at Broadwater near Aghalee to supply the summit level were never implemented. However, improvements were made, towpaths were created, and traffic increased, although there were still some water supply problems. The canal did not make a profit, and when the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners refused to make a loan to fund the work, the likelihood of a new canal at the lower end receded.[8]

The lock-keeper's cottage near Shaw's Bridge

In the 1820s and 1830s, there was competition on short-haul traffic from the road network, but it was hoped that the construction of the Ulster Canal, linking Lough Neagh to Lough Erne and the River Shannon, would create long-haul traffic. The Directors General of Inland Waterways were replaced by the Board of Public Works, and although they took control of the Tyrone Navigation in 1831 and the Ulster Canal in 1851, there was local opposition to them taking over the Lagan Canal. The old company was replaced by the Lagan Navigation Company in 1843, to ensure that the canal was maintained in good order, but the Board of Public Works supervised its activities quite closely. They successfully competed with the Ulster Railway, which had reached Portadown in 1842, and ploughed all profits back into improvements until 1859, when they announced a first dividend of one per cent. The canal was one of only two inland waterways in the north of Ireland that was commercially successful. Dividends gradually increased, and by the 1870s, traffic figures were more than double those of the 1830s.[9]

The condition of the Ulster Canal worried the Lagan Navigation Company, as almost no trade passed between the two. This was not helped by the fact that the locks on the Ulster Canal were narrower, and the depth over the cills was less, so that Lagan boats could not work the canal, and goods had to be transshipped. Although the Board of Public Works controlled the Ulster Canal, and had spent £20,000 on it since they took control in 1865, no additional traffic had been generated. Between 1878 and 1880, the Lagan Canal built five boats which could work through both canals. The Lagan Canal was persuaded to take over the Ulster Canal and the Coalisland Canal or Tyrone Navigation in 1888. Although they spent a great deal on improvements, the additional canals remained in a poor state and continued to make a loss. The Lagan itself was maintained well, and traffic rose from 153,000 tons in 1893 to 170,000 tons in 1898.[10]

The Ulster Railway crossing the Lagan Canal near Moira


An overgrown section of the canal near Dunmurry

During the First World War, traffic dropped by half, but after hostilities ended, the government returned the canal to private ownership, some £20,000 was spent on repairs, and traffic flourished. In the 1920s, traffic from Belfast to Lisburn averaged 307,033 tons of coal and 19,126 tons of other goods. Traffic above Lisburn was much lower, but some coal continued to reach the Ulster Canal until it was closed in 1931. There were large cargoes of sand and gravel travelling in the opposite direction, originating on the east Tyrone shores of Lough Neagh, and used for building projects in Belfast. The years immediately before the Second World War saw a collapse in commercial canal traffic. Downstream traffic dropped from 29,000 tons to 600 tons between 1931 and 1941, while upstream traffic dropped from 87,000 tons to 28,000 tons. The canals were thought to be too slow, compared to roads and railways.[11]

With their funds exhausted, the company considered closure of their canal and the Coalisland Canal. However, there was a clause in the Act of Parliament from 1843 which stated that if the canals became unnavigable, the Lagan Navigation Company would automatically cease to exist. Rather than create an awkward political situation, where the Ministry of Commerce inherited canals that were already defunct, the government made payments to the company to cover operating losses and some repairs to the infrastructure. Between 1938 and 1952, these payments amounted to £130,000. There had been no traffic above Lisburn since 1947, and the Ministry of Commerce announced that the canals would close in the spring of 1954. The Inland Navigation Act (NI) was passed in April 1954, and the Coalisland Canal, the Upper Bann Navigation and the Lagan Canal above Lisburn were closed. Below Lisburn, the canal remained open for another four years, but was closed on 1 July 1958.[12] In 1965, some seven and a half miles of the central section, between Moira and Sprucefield, were destroyed by the building of the M1 motorway along its route.[13]


The restored Lock 12 at Lisburn

There are proposals to restore the canal, to once again provide a navigable link between Belfast and Lough Neagh. Initially, a steering group was formed, with representatives from local councils, user groups and central government.[14] The Lagan Canal Restoration Trust was a logical development of this group, and was formed as a company limited by guarantee[15] in 2008[13] with representatives from the four councils which administer the areas through which the canal runs, and six other key partners, including the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure, and the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. There are also representatives from other groups with an interest in the area.[16]

As part of the assessment process, a feasibility study was carried out by Fergus and McIlveen of Belfast. It concluded that even though parts of the route have been destroyed by the building of the M1 motorway, there were no insurmountable barriers to restoring the canal, which "has the potential to become one of the most significant recreational waterways in these islands."[17] A small section of the canal near Lisburn Civic Centre, which includes lock 12, has been restored to navigable condition, and there are three major sections of towpath which can now be accessed by the public. All of the locks and many of the other structures associated with the canal are scheduled monuments, which gives them some protection. [18]

A proposal for a £2.5 million scheme to build a new lock, weir and footbridge at Stranmillis Gateway, at the site of the original first lock, has been planned and is undergoing an economic appraisal. The project will include restoration of the second lock at Corby Wood. Lock 3 at Newforge has been restored, together with the lock keeper's cottage, with funding provided by the Heritage Fund, the Lottery Partnership Scheme and the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure. An 1.0-mile (1.5-km) stretch of the towpath has been reopened at Aghagallon, following work by Craigavon Borough Council to obtain access rights.[19] Since the closure of the canal, the section between Aghalee and Lough Neagh has been privately owned, and this is the first part of that section where public access has been restored.[13]

Station Road near Moira, looking towards Lough Neagh

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Lagan Canal)
("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Lagan Navigation)


  1. About The Canal - Lagan Canal Trust
  2. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 40–41
  3. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 41–42
  4. Skempton 2002, p. 779
  5. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 42–44
  6. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 44–45
  7. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 45–46
  8. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 46–49
  9. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 52–54
  10. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 55–56
  11. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 58–59
  12. McCutcheon 1965, pp. 59–61
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 LCT 2010, pp. 7–8
  14. "About the Trust". Lagan Canal Trust. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  15. "Operations". Lagan Canal Trust. Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  16. "Partners". Lagan Canal Trust. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  17. "Restoration". Lagan Canal Trust. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  18. "About the Canal". Lagan Canal Trust. Archived from the original on 12 March 2012. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  19. "Achievements". Lagan Canal Trust. Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  • McCutcheon, W A: 'The Canals of the North of Ireland' (David and Charles, 1965) ISBN 978-0-7153-4028-8
  • Skempton, Sir Alec: 'A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland': Vol 1: 1500 to 1830 (Thomas Telford, 2002) ISBN 978-0-7277-2939-2