Newry Navigation

Vol. 6 No. 1 - 1989

The Newry Navigation

a brief history and plans for the future

by Amanda Wilson

The inland section of the Newry Navigation was the first summit level canal in the British Isles. It pioneered the building of true canals as opposed to Navigable rivers, and because of the many advanced techniques, its long summit section and summit reservoir used in its construction it has an important place in the history of canal engineering.

The first survey for a canal between Lough Neagh and Newry was made in 1703; this was followed by petitions to the Irish House of Commons. Coal had been discovered in East Tyrone which would find a ready market in Dublin via Newry. It was thought that there would be enough coal produced to make Ireland independent of coal imports. With this sound financial footing construction went ahead in 1730.

Canal opens

Richard Cassels, a German architect, was engineer on the canal until 1733 when Thomas Steers and English engineer took over the completion of the canal. It was eventually completed in 1742 when the first vessel, the "Cope of Lough Neagh" passed down the navigation heading to Dublin with a full load of Tyrone coal.

Lough 9, Poyntzpass
Lock 9, Poyntzpass

Its 18 mile length ran from Newry through Damolly,Poyntzpass, by Lough Shark, Scarva, Madden Bridge and Knock Bridge to the Upper Bann. There were 14 locks for vessels 44' x 15'6". Each lock was faced with hardstone from Benburb, County Tyrone, and the bottoms of the lock chambers were planked with deal timbers 2" thick. The canal was 45' wide by 5' or 6' deep.

Lough Shark was the summit reservoir and various feeder streams also provided water. But this was far from adequate in a dry season, so in 1759 improvement work began under John Golborne. However, he was soon replaced by Thomas Omer who cut a ship canal with a lock 130' x 22' at Lower Fathom, Newry. This work was finished in 1769 and did much for the economy of Newry as it allowed coastal vessels access to the town.

The Commission of Ireland Navigation, which had overseen the development, improvement and maintenance of canals, were disbanded in 1787 and canals came under local control. By this time the inland canal was in a poor state of repair. In 1800 the Directors - General Inland Navigation took over and between 1801 and 1811 both the Newry Navigation and the ship canal were extensively repaired. The locks on the inland canal were enlarged to 62'x14'6". By 1811 the coal in from Tyrone had petered out but the canal was kept busy bringing coal inland from Newry and 1833 a passenger service was started between Newry and Knock Bridge.

Ship canal completed

The ship canal, was still prone to silting and was again enlarged and lengthened; now 3 miles long its new Victoria lock 220' x 50', was at Upper Fathom. The ship canal was completed in 1750 with the Albert Basin also being constructed at Newry and the natural channel below the Victoria lock being improved down to Warrenpoint. Since 1829 this work has been done by the locally formed Newry Navigation Company.

But by 1858 the inland canal was in difficulties again', this time due to the competition provided by the Railways, and also Belfast had replaced Newry as Ulster's main port. Newry tried to compete by deepening and widening the natural channel to take 5,000 ton ships, in 1901 the Newry Port and Harbour Trust took over the running of the canals; they continued the improvements in an effort to keep the inland canal commercially viable. But there was no traffic on it after 1939 and it was abandoned in 1949 as far as Newry, the final section to the Albert Basin was abandoned in 1956.

For drainage reasons the canal bed and bank became a designated Main Watercourse in 1963 and in the 1970s the Newry Port and Harbour Trust passed into liquidation.

The liquidation of the Trust belatedly aroused much interest on the canal and a Newry Canal preservation Society was formed and several local District Councils have become involved in the refurbishment and redevelopment of the canal for recreational and leisure activities.

Lock 12 Terryhoogan

Enterprise Ulster has been involved in the refurbishment, so far, of the canal banks and towpaths and Craigavon Council is now responsible for the maintenance of these within its district. As interest increases in the preservation and re-use of the Newry Canal the idea of boats again passing from Lough Neagh to Newry becomes less optimism and more reality.

Moneypenny's lock

A programme of renovation began last year at Moneypenny's lock (the 14th) which is situated about 1 1/3 miles south of Portadown, between the point of Whitecoat and Knockbridge. So far the stables building has been restored for display purposes. The display will include a wildlife reconstruction of the canal bank both above and below the water, information about the history of the canal in 3 wall mounted panels; the rest of the building, including loft, will have the appearance of a working stable, apart from the horses and the smell though. The lighterman's bothy will also be restored as if it was still in use.

Moneypenny's Lockhouse

Renovations to the house are hoped to start in early 1989, these will be done by Heritage Repairs Limited. This will be done in 4 stages: the outside of the building will be rendered waterproof in keeping with its original appearance; the inside of the oldest part of the house (the actual lock-keepers cottage) will be restored to the first half of the 19th century when the canal was at its busiest the rest of the house will be renovated and modernised, though the integral fabric of this part of the building will be left in its original state as much as possible; the last stage will be the extension for a bathroom and kitchen to the rear of the house. This will not touch the lock-keeper's cottage part of the building and the exterior of the extension will be in keeping with the rest of the house.

When it is finished it is intended that the people who live in the house will also be guide/caretaker for the site. The rest of the site will be landscaped; a picnic area and a small play area for children will also be provided. It is hoped that a car park will be provided close to the site for the use of visitors.

In the future when the lock gates are replaced and working that narrow boat trips will take visitors from Portadown out to Moneypenny's lock. Several of the artefacts intended for display at the site are on loan from the Craigavon Historical Society and will be so marked. I wish to take this opportunity to thank those who provided these artefacts for their generosity.

Amanda Wilson, Heritage Projects Officer, Craigavon Borough Council.