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The Barge People – Liverpool’s Unsung Heroes

Liverpool city is renowned for its maritime history, but just as one of the Liver Birds gazes out to sea, the other looks inland and maybe should symbolise the unsung working class heroes that toiled on an altogether gentler wave, the barge families whose haulage for a couple of centuries was one of the crucial cogs in the industrial revolution wheel. They played a vital role in powering Liverpool a century ago to achieve its zenith of handling a third of the world’s trade, and helped the making of other Lancashire industrial centres such as Wigan.


My own family history includes these ‘barge gypsies’ as they themselves have been known to identify. Great grandmother Esther Pedder was the 4th generation of bargees who had immersed their lives in this trade for over 100 years, and although she was born in Liverpool, like so many of the barge families, her ancestral roots linked ‘up country’, 20 miles not by crow but by canal to Burscough on Lancashire’s south western coastal plain. Esther’s life was touched upon in the last Scottie Press edition where I profiled her second husband, my great grandad, Kirkdale-born Liverpool Irish fireman sailor Tom Pender.


For my family and hundreds of others, the opportunity to become a Lancashire bargee, and swap the typical life of an agricultural labourer for one travelling on the water, was thanks to the foresight of powerful and pioneering Liverpool merchant investors. By the early 1700s, with a rapidly expanding population and port, they had recognised that vastly increased quantities of coal were needed to power the city’s factories and domestic hearths – but the transport of St Helens coal along the Prescot road was virtually impossible in winter conditions, and in summer it was little better, with smaller quantities than on water being carted by packhorse or cart.


The powerful Liverpool merchants were eager for this precious coal resource and so teamed up with Leeds counterparts to sponsor a joint enterprise, the Leeds to Liverpool Canal connecting the trade of both cities

The powerful Liverpool merchants were eager for this precious coal resource and so teamed up with Leeds counterparts to sponsor a joint enterprise, the Leeds to Liverpool Canal connecting the trade of both cities


The Sankey Brook Navigation from St Helens to the Mersey, the world’s first canal of the industrial age, had shown the potential for water transport, together with Wigan coal trade along the River Douglas to the River Ribble. The powerful Liverpool merchants were eager for this precious coal resource and so teamed up with Leeds counterparts to sponsor a joint enterprise, the Leeds to Liverpool Canal connecting the trade of both cities. However, my relatives’ new job prospects nearly didn’t get off the ground when in an early meeting in 1768 the Liverpool sponsors walked out because the Leeds side were proposing a route north that ignored Wigan and its coal – the Yorkshire side had a primary interest in the limestone further north needed at the time for their textiles.


As fate would have it, this ‘War of the Roses’ was won by Lancashire because the main route did indeed go through Wigan because a pause in the project from its opening in 1774 to reaching Parbold, due to national financial constraints largely brought on by America’s independence war, meant that by the time of the canal’s resumption in the 1790s limestone had lost its importance and coal had gained in strength. A dead end cut-off in Parbold of the original proposed main route can still be seen in Parbold village

The Cheetham family - the Palais Buildings in the background. Photo credits on the whole wall display are Burscough Heritage Group, Burscough Parish Council, collections of Alan & Margaret Birch & Michael Dawson Images of Burscough and various boat families.

By the early 1800s my relatives, the Pedders, were fully involved in the barge life from their Burscough base. The small town had become a hub for employing barge families and its heritage is still visible and appreciated today. Burscough Wharf in its centre has been regenerated from derelict warehousing, canal company offices, stables, bargee provisions and barge horse veterinary care to an attractive retail and arts venue today, with acknowledgement of its past shown on an quality wall display on the former wharf warehouse showing some of the families involved. The photos below were taken from this display.


My family had relatives living in the row of barge terrace cottages at New Lane just outside of Burscough on the way to Liverpool. I took a photo of the row recently, and locals in the nearby Farmers Arms showed me where the muck wharf wall still exists. ‘Night soil’, another name for human effluent, mixed with manure and rubbish from the many Liverpool cart horse stables and streets was the load often hauled on barges on the return journey from delivering Wigan’s coal. It was eagerly sought by the West Lancashire farmers to fertilise their prime peat moss land.

Unloading manure and organic rubbish on to barges at Sandhills, Liverpool, for use by farmers on the west Lancashire coastal plain. Photo courtesy LRO, Liverpool Records Office, Central Library

By the 1840s Thomas Pedder, my great great grandfather, though born in Burscough was now living as a boatman with his family in Liverpool’s Ray Street next to Leeds Street (so named after the canal) close to where the canal then finished by Old Hall Street.


The completion of the Exchange Railway Station and the many tracklines in this area meant this city centre section of canal was later sacrificed, ironically as a foretaste of how the railways were to become a main factor responsible for the demise of barge work, with the final nail being the motor vehicle. The family moved a mile or so further up and for many decades later based their trade in Vauxhall from Slade Street which ran by the canal parallel to Athol Street. It is from these streets on census, newspaper, book and family history research that I have unearthed many fascinating insights into their lives up into the Edwardian 1900s, including some significant amount of criminality. But I will write about this and the lives of these unique people on the Liverpool to Wigan side of the canal in the next issue.   


Liverpool is fantastic at honouring its past with many public momentoes, but unlike Halsall, Burscough, Crooke and Wigan centre, I have not seen any for these bargee unsung heroes in the city they helped make. What a great shame.

Thomas Bowen (on the tiller) and his bargemen friends.