The Lagan Canal

Brain Cassells studies the now defunct canal

The Lagan Canal exists today in two distinct stretches: from Belfast to Sprucefield and from Moira to Lough Neagh. The M1 motorway was built on the bed of the canal from Sprucefield to Moira in the 1960s. There are however plans to re-open the stretch from Lisburn through to Belfast.

The Lagan Canal is 43km long, with 27 locks once overseen by 18 lockkeepers. Sadly only one lockkeeper’s house survives along the Belfast to Sprucefield stretch.

Money for building the canal came from the family of Arthur Chichester, the third Earl of Donegall, and from local taxes and grants from the Dublin parliament. The stretch from Belfast to Lisburn was engineered by a Dutchman called Thomas Omer, and work commenced in 1756.

The stretch from Belfast to Lisburn largely consists of river navigation with short cuts of canal. The flight of locks at Sprucefield was designed by Richard Owen, who then took the navigation on to Lough Neagh. Lock 12, situated opposite the Island Civic Centre, has already been restored at the cost of £1 million.

In 1820 it took 14 hours for a loaded lighter to go from Belfast to Lisburn, and another 14 to reach Lough Neagh. The locks lifted the barges 8m over a distance of 91m. A basin was located between two locks where boats could stop temporarily or be held while another passed. A carpenter’s workshop, stables for the horses, and canal manager’s house were also located here. This redbrick building has changed little over the years and is still known as Navigation House.

The stretch of canal from the summit of the Lagan Canal to Lough Neagh was the most successful, but suffered from flooding. Moore’s Bridge, near the summit, was built in 1825 at the cost of £3000, and this bridge now carries the main Lisburn to Hillsborough road.

Lisburn was without doubt the most important port on the navigation and its harbour was always busy. In 1763 the 61 tonne Lord Hertford was the first barge to make the journey between Belfast and Lisburn, effectively opening the canal.

Of Lisburn’s nine quays, one was owned by the navigation company and the other eight were privately owned. The majority of the cargo handled was coal for the adjacent gas works, though other cargoes included linen, corn, flour, timber and farm produce. Tolls were charged on cargoes, but to encourage greater use of the waterway it was decided to waiver charges on potatoes, hay and straw moving downstream in 1813.

The navigation is dominated by the Union Bridge. The present structure dates from 1880 and replaced a number of earlier structures. Lisburn could also boast a dry dock erected by the timber merchant Henry Mulholland, reputedly capable of housing up to three lighters at a time.

The Lagan navigation was a reasonably successful enterprise, but the company were persuaded to take over the Ulster Canal and this proved a drain on its finances. Following the outbreak of the second world war, traffic began to decline due to competition from the railways and an improved road network. In 1954 the stretch from Lisburn to Lough Neagh was officially abandoned, and in 1958 the stretch from Lisburn to Belfast closed too.