Building Burnley Embankment

Culverts: The replacement of the original culvert in Burnley (s)
Culverts: The replacement of the original culvert in Burnley (s)

I recently introduced you to a new series in which I published what my colleagues at the Express called “An iconic image of Burnley”.

I would have added the word “old”, as in “An iconic image of Old Burnley”, but perhaps my colleagues got it right because, as has been proved by regular contributors to the Express, an image does not have to be old to be iconic.

The Express, in recent times, has published images from Ramon Collinge, Kevin Robinson, Don Stanworth, Peter Stawicki and others, which remind us there is plenty to see in Burnley today. I would not mind adding the photos of the type taken by these, and other photographers, and commenting on them in much the same way as the ones I have chosen for the series.

The photo today is of Yorkshire Street, Burnley, at a very particular time in its history.

As you can see, the present Culvert was being built when the photo was taken. This would have been in 1925 or more probably 1926 but, if you look closely, you will notice both the remains of the old Culvert and the new one, under construction, are present in this picture.

The first Culvert, which carried the Leeds and Liverpool Canal over Yorkshire Street (except that in those days that part of the street was known as Eastgate), was built at the end of the 1790s and was in use by 1801. The canal itself reached Burnley from the Leeds, or Yorkshire, end of the canal, some 25 or 26 years after the project had started in 1770.

For some time the canal was only navigable to what is now Colne Road Bridge. In those days this bridge was known as Warehouse Bridge as the Canal Company built a warehouse for the transhipment of goods on the right bank of the waterway. Unfortunately, we have no images of the building as it was designed to be a temporary structure and pre-dated the photographic age.

Work progressed along the route of the canal, around the gardens attached to Bank Hall, which had been rebuilt in 1780 and was, therefore a new building at the time. The canal crossed the Brun at Sandholme, the aqueduct there still surviving, and headed, through what were then open fields to Godley Lane, which is now known as Ormerod Road though the bridge which carries the road over the canal is still called the Godley Bridge.

From there the canal makes is way, via the Staight Mile and Burnley Embankment, almost to the centre of town except that, when the canal was built, the intention was that it would keep to the contour lines and skirt around the town centre. Of course, at the time, Burnley’s shopping centre was being moved from its old site at St Peter’s to the junction of St James’s Street and what we now know as Manchester Road, though then the lower part of that highway was known as Market Street.

The Culvert is part of the Staight Mile, which, incidentally, is not quite a mile in length, but includes the Burnley Embankment one of the Seven Wonders of the British Waterways. Its claim to fame has little to do with the Culvert, the old version or new, but Burnley Embankment is the most impressive of the double embankments in Britain.

In effect, it is a great mound of earth taken, with great difficulty, from the cutting at Whittlefield and tunnel at Gannow and transported, by horse and cart, to its present location. This was a mammoth task and involved the removal of about 500,000 tons of earth using technology of the late 18th Century rather than the vast earth moving equipment of today. One writer has said the Burnley of the 1790s must have been like living in Egypt when one of the pyramids was being built!

The original culvert was a far from prepossessing building. Just enough of it remains in the photo for you to see it was merely a single stone arch which carried the canal over Eastgate. Later, in the 1890s, two additional, but smaller, arches were added for pedestrians. These were known, from the beginning, as the “gimlet holes” and, to the right of the centre arch of the old Culvert, you can see the remains of one of them.

The truth is the old Culvert had been something of a barrier to the development of Burnley to the west. The height of the central arch restricted the size of vehicles that could use Yorkshire Street. As you can see, there are two lines of tram track but, even though material was removed from under the central arch, making it higher, only single-decker trams could negotiate it. When Todmorden Council introduced a double-decker bus route to Burnley, the vehicles could not enter town by Yorkshire Street, the natural way into Burnley, and had to make their way to Parker Lane, where the buses stopped, by means of the 1885 canal bridge on Finsley Gate.

By 1900 the writing was on the wall for the old Culvert. Finsley Gate Canal Bridge of 1885, which replaced an equally cumbersome, but very interesting, swing bridge, was part of the plan to improve communications to the eastern parts of Burnley, especially Burnley Wood and Fulledge. Another project, which was never built, was to widen the Calder Aqueduct, near the present Tesco store, and build a wide road under the canal.

The solution that everyone talked about was the replacement of the Culvert but it was thought impossible to do the work and keep the canal open. In those days the Leeds and Liverpool still carried at lot of commercial traffic, especially coal from Bank Hall, and this had to be taken into account. The First World War delayed the project even longer but, in the 1920s, the building of a new Culvert which would not harm the important canal traffic and which would make it easier, and safer, to use the Culvert at ground level, came increasingly to the fore.

The problem with regard to the canal traffic was resolved by the brilliant idea of building of a temporary aqueduct alongside the Culvert. The old Culvert was then removed as the new one was built over it. This picture shows what took place at a later stage in the project, surely one of the iconic images of Burnley.

In the background you can see the tower of St Mary’s RC Church which is in Yorkshire Street. To the right, a small portion of Burnley Embankment can be seen and, behind that, the commercial buildings of Spring Gardens and the Plumbe Street area. On the left, the new Culvert is being constructed against the old industrial buildings on the canal bank.

One thing which is worth noting: there are no tram tracks in Gunsmith Lane (foreground, left). These were still to come, the last tram lines to be built in Burnley, and less than a decade before the system came to an end.