An Act of Parliament authorising the Sankey Brook Navigation was passed in 1755 and it was constructed as an entirely new channel. It predated the Bridgewater Canal, so it was the first ‘modern’ canal built in England, opening in 1757. The Sankey was built to bring coal down to the growing chemical industries of Liverpool. They rapidly expanded, and spread back along the line of the canal to St Helens, Earlestown and Widnes, which were small villages until this period.
England’s first ‘staircase locks’ were built on the Sankey at Broad Oak, St Helens. A second set were built later at Parr, known as the New Double. The Sankey Canal became known as the St Helens Canal after 1845, when the St Helens Railway Company took over the Canal Company to form the St Helens Canal and Railway Company.
In later years its main traffic was raw sugar from Liverpool, but the end of the sugar traffic in 1959 led to full closure of the canal in 1963 (closure had already taken place north of the sugar works in 1931) and fixed bridges replaced the old wooden swing bridges. The canal remained largely in water right up into the centre of St Helens, although its terminus had been truncated when Canal Street was built over it in 1898.
The two locks into the River Mersey were restored in the early 1980s to form marinas for sea-going and estuary pleasure boats. Halton Borough Council restored one of the Wood End Locks at Spike Island, Widnes, making a slipway in the other lock-space. Warrington Borough Council restored the remaining lock at Fiddlers Ferry. The Sankey Canal Restoration Society was formed in 1985, with the help and encouragement of the St Helens Groundwork Trust. The Society has undertaken isolated projects on the Canal, including the restoration of the ‘new double’ locks on the outskirts of St Helens, funded by St Helens Council, between 1986 and 1992.