Sankey Viaduct

Sankey Viaduct

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The Liverpool & Manchester line had to cross the trench-like valley of the Sankey Brook. The Sankey Brook Navigation Company objected to the building of the railway and made life difficult for George Stephenson and his team of engineers by insisting on a 60 ft clearance over their canal. William Allcard was given the responsibility of designing the Sankey Viaduct and came up with a nine arch structure. Each of the arches is of 50 ft span and rises from massive sandstone slabs quarried locally, including at Olive Mount. Thousands of tons of marl and moss, compacted with brushwood, was used to increase the height of the embankment. The Sankey Viaduct was built of brick with stone facings and cost the company over £45,000 to produce.

Sankey Viaduct and Embankment

Although the Stockton & Darling-ton Railway was the first public railway on which locomotives were used, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was the first in the accepted sense of the word today. The scheme for a railway between the great port of Liverpool and the thriving cotton-manufacturing town of Manchester, was first entertained as a practical proposition in 1821, when a preliminary survey of the proposed line was made. The company was formed in 1824, and George Stephenson was appointed Chief Engineer in 1826. The route had to be amended as the result of the strenuous opposition which the company encountered, and the line finally approved involved crossing the Sankey Valley, near the present Earlestown Station, 14 miles from Liverpool. Through this valley passed the Sankey Navigation, built by Brindley in 1757 to join the St. Helens coalfield with the River Mersey, and also the Sankey Brook. It is something of a coincidence that this canal, which was the first to be made by cutting an independent channel, should be crossed by one of the first public railway viaducts in the world.

Stephenson was confronted with the problem of how to carry the railway over the valley without obstructing traffic on the canal, and without using steep gradients. It was decided eventually to form an embankment over the western half of the valley, starting just beyond Collins Green Station, and stretching approximately 900 yd. east to reach a height of over 50 ft., and to construct a viaduct over the canal and stream. A loop in the canal was eliminated, and the curve of the waterway altered to a constant radius. This deviation allowed the viaduct to cross the canal at a less acute angle.

Mr. Greenshields was the contractor selected to build the enbankment, and over a hundred thousand tons of marl and moss compacted with brushwood were used in its construction. The magnitude of this work can be appreciated when it is remembered that all the material used had to he handled and transported with only the simplest of mechanical aids. Today, the embankment is covered by trees, and it blends naturally with the surrounding countryside.

The Railway Viaduct over the Sankey Valley, with the old lock gates of the Canal in the foreground.

The viaduct itself has nine arches, which gives rise to the local name of the ” Nine Arches.” Each arch is of 50 ft. span, and carries a double track 70 ft. above the bottom of the valley. The width between parapets is 25 ft. Due to the soft nature of the ground, it was found necessary to drive about 200 piles varying between 20 to 30 ft. in depth, to provide a solid foundation for the ten piers of the viaduct. Henry Booth, Treasurer to the Company, in his ” Account of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway ” (1830) says that the piling was effected in 1828, and was a business of much labour and cost, but indispensable for the security of the superstructure. He describes the operation thus : ” The heavy ram employed to impart the finishing strokes, hoisted up with double purchase and snails pace to the summit of the Piling Engine, and then falling down like a thunderbolt on the head of the devoted timber, driving it perhaps a single half inch in to the stratum below, is well calculated to put to the test the virtue of patience, while it illustrates the old adage of – slow and sure.” The expenditure on the viaduct during the year ended December 31, 1828, was ?32,223 6s. 9d.

During the excavations, a tree was found buried 14 ft. below the ground, and this seems to indicate that there may have been a considerable alteration to the level of the valley floor. Contemporary accounts state that Stephenson thought that the River Mersey had once flowed through the Sankey Valley, and this theory appears to be supported by the discovery of the tree.

The arches of the viaduct are built on sandstone slabs, and the arches them-selves are constructed of brick, faced with stone. The sandstone foundation slabs are said to have been cut from a quarry about half a mile from the viaduct the quarry face can still be seen. According to local legend, the cottage which stands between the viaduct and the quarry was the lodging place of George Stephenson, and is known locally as ” Stephensons Cottage.” It is probable, however, that he stayed there only occasionally, since work on other parts of the line would occupy much of his time. More probably Mr. Holkyard, the resident engineer, and his assistant Mr. Fife, lodged there during the construction of the viaduct.

The viaduct is joined to the embankment by retaining walls, which have been strengthened since they were constructed by the addition of stay bolts extending right through the embankment and fastened outside each retaining wall.

The viaduct was built at a total cost of ?45,208 1.8s. 6d. Apart from minor repairs, it has withstood the strains of increasingly heavy traffic for well over a century. Credit for the architectural features, which give the viaduct a hand-some appearance, must be given to Thomas Gooch, the Chief Draughtsman but George Stephenson must be accorded the praise for the general design of the structure. Etchings prepared in 1830 show the viaduct in detail, and also give a picture of its rural surroundings at that time.

from an Article in The Railway Magazine dated July 1952, the original article was written by Mr W. R. Watson. Transcribed by Steven Dowd ©2004

As the Sankey Canal was the first canal of the Industrial Revolution, its crossing by the first purpose-built passenger railway in the world by means of this viaduct makes this a site of great significance in transport history.


  1. ^"Sankey Viaduct over Sankey Brook (that part in St Helens district)", The National Heritage List for England (English Heritage), 2011 , , retrieved 30 April 2011  
  2. ^"Sankey Viaduct over Sankey Brook (that part in Warrington district)", The National Heritage List for England (English Heritage), 2011 , , retrieved 30 April 2011  


Pottgießer, Hans (1985). Eisenbahnbrücken aus zwei Jahrhunderten [Railway Bridges from Two Centuries]. Basel, Boston, Stuttgart: Birkhäuser. pp.㺒–19. ISBN�.   (German)

The Sankey Viaduct was built between 1828 and 1830 by George Stephenson for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company to enable the railway to cross the line of the Sankey Canal with sufficient clearance for the Mersey flats, the sailing vessels for which the canal was constructed.

It is the earliest major railway viaduct in the world still in operation, constructed from yellow and ginger sandstone and red brick, with nine round-arched spandrels on sharply-battered piers. It is 183 m long, its arches are of 15 m(50 ft) span, and 21 m (70 ft) high. (But see Laigh Milton for the unqualified earliest).

The Sankey Canal was built principally to transport coal from the Lancashire Coalfield mines to the growing chemical industries of Liverpool, though iron ore and corn were also important commodities. These industries rapidly expanded, and spread back along the line of the Canal to St Helens, Earlestown, and Widnes, which were small villages until this period. The Sankey Canal was thus an important factor in the industrial growth of the region.

By Road: South west of Newton on the A572, turn south onto Wharf Road. A turning to the right, Bradley Lane, leads to a small car park from which a footpath heads northward under the viaduct. It follows the course of the now dried up canal.

Biddle, Gordon, Britain's Historic Railway Buildings, Oxford University Press, ISBN-10: 0198662475 (2003)

Biddle, Gordon & Nock, O.S., The Railway Heritage of Britain : 150 years of railway architecture and engineering, Studio Editions, ISBN-10: 1851705953 (1990)

Biddle, Gordon and Simmons, J., The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, Oxford, ISBN 0 19 211697 5 (1997)

Bonavia, Michael, Historic Railway Sites in Britain, Hale, ISBN 0 7090 3156 4 (1987)

Conolly, W. Philip, British Railways Pre-Grouping Atlas And Gazetteer, Ian Allan Publishing, ISBN 0-7110-0320-3 (1958/97)

Davies, Hunter, George Stephenson: The Remarkable Life of the Founder of the Railway, The History Press, ISBN-10: 0750937955 (2004)

Jowett, Alan, Jowett's Railway Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland, Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 1-8526-0086-1. (March 1989)

Morgan, Bryan, Railways: Civil Engineering, Arrow, ISBN 0 09 908180 6 (1973)

Morgan, Bryan, Railway Relics, Ian Allan, ISBN 0 7110 0092 1 (1969)

Ross, David, George and Robert Stephenson: A Passion for Success, The History Press, ISBN-10: 0752452770 (2010)

Simmons, J., The Railways of Britain, Macmillan, ISBN 0 333 40766 0 (1961-86)

Simmons, J., The Victorian Railway, Thames & Hudson, ISBN 0 500 25110X (1991)

Smith, Martin, British Railway Bridges and Viaducts, Ian Allan, ISBN 0 7110 2273 9 (1994)

Turnock, David, An Historical Geography of Railways, Ashgate, ISBN 1 85928 450 7 (1998)

The Manchester And Liverpool Railway: Sankey Viaduct

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026C - Sankey Viaduct

Built for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Engineered by George Stephenson.

Network Rail Corporate Archive

Level of Description : Series

Reference Code : NRCA140020

Extent and Medium : 1 drawing

Creator : Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Scope and Content : One drawing from the Liverpool and Manchester Railway showing the location of Sankey Viaduct. Designed by George Stephenson.

Drawing Office Number : n/a

Keywords (Person) : Stephenson, George

Keywords (Country) : England

Keywords (Structure Name) : Sankey Viaduct

Keywords (Structure Type) : Bridge or Viaduct


Liverpool and Manchester Railway – Plan of Viaduct across the Sankey Valley

Details of Sankey Viaduct. Five drawings on one sheet. First drawing is of a plan showing the location of the viaduct crossing the Sankey Canal, second drawing is of cross section of culvert bb, third drawing is of side elevation of framing, fourth drawing is of cross elevation of framing, fifth drawing is of elevation of viaduct. First plan also shows proposed deviation of the Sankey Canal. The drawing also contains a series of references. Drawing is a plan of the work proposed to be done as connected with the viaduct across the Sankey Valley referred to in my report to the Director of the Liverpool and Manchester Director. Signed by [John Hentley].

Why these Warrington landmarks are some of the most important in England

From churches with mystery pigs, to the suspected origins of the Cheshire Cat - the Grade I listed buildings in Warrington certainly have some interesting history.

Did you know the captain of The Titanic even got married in one of Warrington&aposs historic, protected churches? Or that the Sankey Viaduct was one of the first railway viaducts in the world?

There are over 9,000 Grade I listed buildings and 20,000 Grade II* listed buildings in England. In Warrington, there are seven Grade I listed buildings, which is a building of the highest significance, according to Historic England.

The borough also has 18 Grade II* listed buildings, and 379 Grade II listed buildings.

Here are five of the Grade I listed buildings in Warrington:

Sankey Viaduct

The Sankey Viaduct was one of the earliest major railway viaducts in the world - built between 1828 and 1830.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway company were authorised to construct the intercity railway in 1826 - but it would need to cross the Sankey Valley, including the Sankey Brook and Sankey Canal.

The viaduct - designed by George Stephenson - would also need to be tall enough for sails of Mersey flats using the canal.

Work was completed on the viaduct in 1833, but it was closed completely in 1963. Three years later, it received its listed status, attributed to its "international significance being the earliest major railway viaduct in the world".

St Wilfrid’s Church, Grappenhall

Situated on Church Lane, St Wilfrid’s is a Norman 12th century church, completed around 1120.

It’s believed that here is where the origin of the phrase ‘Cheshire cat’ came from, due to the carving of a cat just below the west window.

St Wilfrid’s started off as a small church, with the original foundations being discovered during a restoration in the 1870s. Over the years, the church was expanded, including a chantry chapel which was added in 1334 by the Boydell family.

In 1529, the church was mostly rebuilt in sandstone, demolishing the old building, but still incorporated the Boydell chapel.

A south porch was added in 1641, followed by the roof being raised in 1833. It then underwent a major renovation costing £4,000 between 1873 and 1874.

And the church isn’t the only listed landmark on the land - it’s also home to a Grade II listed sundial and a set of Grade II listed stocks in the churchyard, which also contains five war graves from WWI and WWII.

Lymm Cross

Lymm Cross is a sandstone structure in the village of Lymm, dating back to the mid-17th century.

The cross was restored in 1897 as a Queen Victoria memorial, gaining listed status in January 1950.

Whilst the purpose of Lymm Cross remains a mystery, a number of crosses were erected before the reformation to remind residents of their commitment to their religion. Lymm Cross is one of the few remaining of its kind, sitting in a square red sandstone pavilion.

Above the cross is an extension which carries a stone ball and an ornate weather vane. Featured on the east, south and west gables of The Cross are bronze sundials of 1897 displaying the inscriptions "We are a Shadow", "Save Time" and "Think of the Last".

Today, the town crier will often make his announcements from Lymm Cross, and its adjacent Grade II listed stocks.

St Oswald’s Church

In the village of Winwick, St Oswald’s Church dates back as early as 1086, where it was mentioned in the Domesday Book.

Earlier parts of the church date back to the 13th century, with many additions in the 1300s, including the walls of the Chapel, the west tower and north arcade.

But considerable damage was caused in 1648 when Oliver Cromwell stationed his troops at the church after the Battle of Red Bank.

In 1720, a south porch was added, and the south arcade and nave rebuilt in 1836, before the church was restored in 1869 - spire included.

There is a unique carving of a pig on the church’s exterior wall, with a funny local story passed down generations. It’s said that the foundations for the church had been laid elsewhere, but a pig ran to the church and it was seen as a sign that they were building it in the wrong place. And so, the church was built on the hill, complete with a pig carved into the stone.

Fun fact: Titanic Captain, Edward Smith, from Stoke-on-Trent got married at St Oswald’s church in 1887.

Warrington Town Hall - including Eastern and Western Outbuildings

Warrington Town Hall was built in 1750, and listed as a Grade I building nearly 200 years later, in 1949.

The hall consists of a country house designed by James Gibbs for Thomas Patten - originally called Bank Hall - with two detached wings, all of which are listed. THe Patten family were highly respected merchants in Warrington, having made the River Mersey passable from Runcorn to Bank Quay, and owning a copper smelting factory.

The three-storey red brick property was historically declared ‘the finest house of its date in south Lancashire’, and was sold to Warrington Borough Council in 1870 for £9,000 - the equivalent of £870,000 in 2019.

The Western Outbuilding, also listed, was built as stables for Bank Hall, and later used as offices by the council. The Eastern outbuilding was built as offices, and was listed slightly later in April 1975.

Going, going. The exact moment these iconic buildings in Nottinghamshire were demolished

There are few sights as satisfying as seeing a building which is earmarked for demolition come crashing to the ground.

The slow-motion fall of the building, the billowing clouds of brick dust, the hasty retreat of the person who suddenly realises they&aposre standing too close - it&aposs all quite hypnotic, somehow.

Of course, some of the demolitions in Nottinghamshire over the past few decades will be regretted now, as the area has undoubtedly lost some of its industrial heritage.

Nevertheless, here are some the moments (below) when these buildings were lost for good.

Mansfield General Hospital (2014)

The former Mansfield General Hospital had been unoccupied for the past 20 years when it began to be demolished.

The photo below was taken in April 2014 near the end of a six-month project to pull the building down.

Richard Sankey and Son (1980)

Bulwell horticultural firm Richard Sankey and Son Ltd was once the world’s largest producer of clay pots. It was renowned for its quality, with all its pots being stamped &aposSankeys, Bulwell Nottingham&apos beneath the rim.

In July 1980 the firm’s famous &aposPotteries&apos factory was destroyed in a fire. The old landmark site was demolished and the firm moved to a new site.

Mansfield Brewery (2008)

On July 9, 2008, Mansfield&aposs skyline changed forever when the iconic tower at Mansfield Brewery iconic tower was brought crashing down to earth by demolition contractors.

The 100ft tower had dominated the town&aposs skyline for more than 30 years and was home once-thriving brewery.

The brewery had closed in 2001 shortly after being taken over by Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries. For the next half a dozen years the 6.1 acre site was beset with problems, including thefts, vandalism and fires.

Great Northern Railway bridge (1979)

The old Great Northern Railway bridge between Highbury Road and Vernon Road, Bulwell, was demolished as part of Nottingham’s reclamation scheme in 1979.

It was carried out explosives expert Barry Lowe, of Broxtowe, assisted by Phillip, his son, and Cyril Wesson, from Awsworth.

Breconshire Dyeworks (2009)

Breconshire Dyeworks in Barlock Road, Basford, had the last brick dye works chimney in Nottingham.

That was until it was demolished by by Prodem in March 2009.

Colwick Sidings (1971)

Colwick Sidings, which was once one of the biggest loco depots in Europe, had been under threat before a number of years before it finally closed in 1970.

In December 1971 the huge coal tower - 70ft high and weighing 2000 tons - was demolished. Used to fill steam engine coal tenders, it had in operation from built in 1939 until 1966.

Its days were ended by demolition expert Sid Widdowson using 20lb of gelignite, watched by a crowd of onlookers and railway enthusiasts.

Watnall brickyard (2009)

The four chimneys at the former Watnall brickyard were demolished in August 2009.

The 200ft-high chimneys were brought down with controlled explosions.

The Meadows viaduct (1975)

The demolition of the old railway viaduct in The Meadows took place in March 1975.

Shirebrook Colliery (1994)

Of course, it&aposs not surprising that many of the most well-known structures to be demolished have been connected with Nottinghamshire&aposs former mining industry.

This is the demolition of the Shirebrook Colliery headstocks in 1994.

Welbeck Colliery (2011)

Meanwhile the demolition of Welbeck Colliery began in November 2010 , proceeding through most of the buildings on the site, including the main offices which were thought to date back to the early days of the mine in 1911.

The two headstocks, which went in March 2011, were the final part of the site to be cleared.

Colwick sugar beet factory (2011)

The 150ft tall chimney at the former sugar beet factory in Colwick was demolished in March 2011.

In a twist to the usual procedure, it was carried out by the winner of a prize draw which could be entered by anyone who had given a donation to Troop Aid.

Balloon Wood flats (1984)

Demolition wasn&apost always done with explosives. Sometimes, as with the Balloon Wood flats in Wollaton Vale (below), cruder methods were used.

The flats were a costly mistake for the city, having been opened just 18 years earlier.

Wright and Dobson (2004)

It was a similar story with the chimney of the former Wright and Dobson brothers dyeworks on Carlton Road.

Photo Highlights of the Sankey Canal

The stretch of water downstream of the present limit of the canal in St Helens was known as "The Hotties" as hot water pumped from the nearby glassworks warmed the canal. Overlooking the canal is the glass facade of the Hilton Hotel, St Helens.

The enclosed footbridge crossing the Sankey Canal between the two parts of the World of Glass museum, St Helens. The building incorporates an 1883 glass cone house.

The terminal basin of the Blackbrook Branch. There was a loading wharf here where coal arrived from several collieries.

Looking back to the remains of the Old Double Lock. This was the first "double lock" or "lock staircase" in England, built in 1756-7.

The nine arches of the Sankey Viaduct on a winter's morning. The viaduct was built by George Stephenson in 1830 to carry the Manchester to Liverpool line, the world's first passenger railway, across the Sankey Canal.

Below Bewsey Lock and swing bridge, near Bewsey Old Hall, Warrington.

Fidlers Ferry Lock. Between 1762 and 1833, this was the end of the Sankey Canal, where boats joined or left the tidal River Mersey.

Looking back to the former railway bridge near Spike Island, with Fiddlers Ferry power station dominating the skyline.

Widnes Lock, Spike Island, where the Sankey Canal joins the tidal River Mersey.

Thomas Talbot Bury Depicts and Explains the Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Excavation of the Olive Mount cutting on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The cutting was 20 ft (609.6 cm) wide and 70 ft (21.3 m) deep. Construction required the removal of 480,000 cubic yards of sandstone. This was used to build the Roby embankment and the Sankey Viaduct.

In 1831 architect and lithographer Thomas Talbot Bury published a spectacular folio volume of 7 hand-colored aquatint plates through R. Ackermann in London depicting very dramatically operation of the first steam-powered railroad to carry passengers as well as freight. This work was entitled Coloured Views on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, with Plates of the Coaches, Machines, &c. from Drawings Made on the Spot, by Mr. T. T. Bury. With Descriptive Particulars, Serving as a Guide to Travellers on the Railway. As Gordon Ray wrote in The Illustrator and the Book in England, "This classic record of the beginnings of the railway age was also one of the last significant books illustrated with aquatints. Lithography was already sweeping the field for pictorial records of this kind&rdquo. Today this book is primarily remembered for its dramatic plates. However, I also find the brief introductory text extremely informative regarding the symbiotic relationship between transportation and manufacturing that motivated the construction of the railroad, which originated as an improved way to transport cotton from Liverpool, the port of entry for imports of cotton from America, with the inland power-loom establishments in Manchester. Bury's statistics also document the extraordinary growth of the British textile industry resulting from the introduction of power-looms in textile manufacturing, supported by the new railway, and the resulting increase in cotton imports from America, which benefitted cotton-growers in the American south.

The work was issued in two parts, with the first part appearing in February 1831 and the second part appearing August in the same year. It was reissued in 1832, followed by French and Spanish editions, revised in 1833, and reissued in 1834.

Bury wrote on p. 1 of the text supplied with the second part:

"The establishment and the astonishing increase of the cotton manufactures, towards the conclusion of the last century, in Manchester and the surounding country, occasioned a corresponding increase in the traffic of Liverpool, the nearest port by which the raw material for the supply of those manufactures could be introduced. The consequent rapid rise in the prosperity of both these towns will be evident from the following data:--in 1760, 2560 vessels paid dock duties at Liverpool in 1824, 10,000 and in 1829, 11,383. The population of the same town in 1760, was 26,000 in 1824, 135,000: the population of Manchester being, in 1760, 22,000 and in 1824, 130,000. In 1784, 8 bags of cotton were imported into Liverpool from America in 1824, 409,670 bags, and in 1829, 640,998. In 1790, the first steam-engine was erected in Manchester in 1824, it contained 200 steam-engines in 1784, therre was not one power-loom in Manchester in 1824, there were 30,000. At the latter date, the average quantity of goods transmitted between the two towns was 1000 tons daily it now amounts to 1300 tons, about 1000 of which pass from Liverpool to Manchester, and 300 from Manchester to Liverpool.

"The bulk of this immense traffic has been carried on by means of two canals, the Mersey and Irwell, and the Duke of Bridgewater's canal. This mode of conveyanace was liable to great uncertainty, as well from drought in summer and frost in winter, as, from the canal's termination at Runcorn, on the Mersey, twenty miles above Liverpool, the passage to and from which sometimes was so retarded by contrary winds and tempestuous weather, that goods have been known to make the transit from New York to Liverpool in less time than from the latter town to Manchester. These inconveniences were so severely felt, that when, in 1824, the expediencey of a rail-road between the two towns was suggested, the project was warmly supported by the principal merchants of both. A company was formed for carrying the plan into effect. "

In 1976 Hugh Broadbent of Oldham England published an excellent full-size color facsimile of Bury's book with an historical introduction to the railway by George Ottley, a bibliographical note by J. M. Lloyd and Notes on the Plates.

Watch the video: Sankey Viaduct 1830, first flyover, but why?