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A Short History of Maritime Activity on the River Douglas
(or Asland) at Hesketh Bank and Tarleton.

By Graham J. Fairhurst, Southport, Lancashire
(Corrections and further information on these articles are welcomed)

The River Douglas which starts as a stream on the hills of the West Pennines flows through Wigan and westwards through a deep valley at Parbold to the West Lancashire Plain. East of Burscough, the River turns to the north across the Plain to flow to the east of both Rufford (where it becomes tidal) and Tarleton and enters the estuary of the River Ribble at Hesketh Bank. Whilst the channels of the Ribble Estuary have shifted around over the centuries, the position of entry of the Douglas channel has been relatively stable, being fixed to a degree by the ridge of boulder clay on which Hesketh Bank stands.

The River Douglas technically changes its name in its lower reaches around Tarleton and Hesketh Bank to the River Asland or Astland although these names are not now in such common usage as they once were.

The Ribble Estuary has been used by seafarers, at least since the Vikings came to this part of the world. It is not an easy estuary for boats and shipping to navigate and to find safe anchorage, not least because of the shifting channels but also because the Estuary faces directly into the prevailing wind and has an extremely high tidal range. There is up to 26 feet (8m) between the levels of low tide and high tide in the outer Estuary although this reduces as one moves further up river. The River Douglas has always been a good place where boats could lie with access to both navigable water and landfall and in the lee provided by the boulder clay ridge. As a result of this, Hesketh Bank and Becconsall have a long association with the sea. The name "Becconsall" itself is thought to be derived from "Beacons Hill" where in ancient times a beacon was kept on the high ground adjacent to the confluence of the rivers Ribble and Douglas to guide shipping.
An annual payment of £2.16s.5d has been paid by the Duchy of Lancaster since 1535 for prayers to be said in Hesketh-with-Becconsall chapel for mariners on the river Ribble. This payment is still made to the church today.

Guiding and Ferrying.
The ridge of boulder clay on which Hesketh Bank and Becconsall are situated formed an ancient north – south route, elevated above the land to the west which, in ancient times was a treacherous and impassable morass. With rivers to both the north and the east, it is understandable that guiding over the sands and ferrying over the rivers were important, historic roles for the settlement. At this point the Ribble could be crossed at low tide to Freckleton Naze (in a similar manner to the better known crossing of Morecambe Bay). This route is referred to at least as far back as the 12th century and although dangerous, the low tide crossing shortened the journey between Chester and Lancaster by 28 miles compared with the inland route which crossed the Ribble at Preston. As an indication of the dangers, William Tomlinson of Warton, who had been a guide over this crossing for 40 years, petitioned in 1655 for a horse stating that in his years of service he had "lost above the number of ten to his great impoverishment".
Another guide was James Blundell who lost his life in 1844. His grave stone in Becconsall church yard carries the epitaph:

Often times I have crossed the sands
And through the Ribble deep
But I was found in Astland drown'd
Which caused me here to sleep
It was Gods will it should be so
Some way or other all must go

During the Civil War, in 1643, a group of Royalists comprising Lord Molyneux, Sir Marmaduke Langden and Sir Thomas Tyldesley and their troops managed to ford the Ribble at this point ahead of pursuing Parliamentary forces who were prevented from crossing by the rising tide.

Historically, the Douglas has been crossed by two ferry routes operated from a landing at the end of Becconsall Lane: one to Longton and the other to Hoole. These crossings also avoided significant detours in the age before the railways and good roads. The last house at the end of Becconsall Lane is still called Ferry House. There are several tales of this crossing, one user of the route observed that there were five ferry-men on duty: ‘‘taking matters very pleasantly, lying full length on the ground, getting as much sunshine on their backs as they possibly could,’’ with two playing leap-frog. It is doubtful that they suffered from stress! In the latter years of operation, a woman ran the ferry and she carried a stout stick to ensure that she secured payment from passengers.

Shipping and Boat Building.
An indication of the use of the historic role as a port is provided by a ship's charter dated 1563 which shows that: Nicholas Bonnde chartered the ship "Bartholomew" of Liverpoole and discharged a cargo of 3 tons of ferri (iron) at Hesket Bancke. Later, Bonnde bought the "Bartholomew" and a later charter shows that in 1565 it discharged at Hesket Bancke 3 tons of ferri, 1 ton of sal (salt), 25 windles of avenax (oats), 2 sacks of pissax (peas) and 6 windles of fri (wheat).
This shipping activity was to increase considerably when the industrial revolution began to gather pace and the major landowners with coal interests decided to promote the Lower Douglas Navigation which received its Act of Parliament in 1720. Through the introduction of locks, they were able to make the whole of the River Douglas from the sea to Wigan navigable by 1742 so that the cost of transport could be reduced and Wigan coal thereby secure a larger market.

Through the river navigation, coal was able to be brought to the Ribble Estuary by barge and distributed locally to markets such as Preston and the Fylde; places like Kirkham being served by cart following transhipment at a wharf at Freckleton. The shipping of coal to more distant destinations such as Liverpool and Ireland was very important, but required larger, sea-going boats and the section of the River Douglas at Tarleton and Hesketh Bank became a good point where cargoes could be transhipped between those craft that could use the navigation and the sea-going ones. Inbound cargoes included timber, slate and gunpowder (the latter for the mines of the Wigan area) from the Lake District.

In 1774 the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was opened from Liverpool to Wigan and this direct link to some extent superseded the Douglas Navigation and the coastal route for traffic to Liverpool itself. However, the canal at that time did not have a direct link into the Liverpool docks and the Douglas continued to be important as a link between the canal and coastal shipping. Therefore a branch canal was built from the main canal at Burscough to join the River at Sollom (south of Tarleton). This branch was finished in 1781 and was later extended from Sollom to a large basin, 500 yards (457m) long, at Tarleton. Here a sea lock was built to provide good access to and from the tidal river for ships up to 90 feet (27.4m) long, 18 feet (5.5m) wide and drawing 7 feet (2.1m) draught. This basin meant that the coastal ships could stay afloat at all times making the port and transhipment activities more effective. Facilities at Tarleton included a stone built gunpowder magazine and a large stone warehouse. The gunpowder magazine was built in an isolated position between the basin and the loop of the River to the east and was demolished in the early 20th century after it became derelict. The warehouse was built to store cargoes in transit to or from the canal and produce with local origin or destination. This building still stands as fine, stone built structure between the canal and River adjacent to Bank Bridge on the A 59 Liverpool Road.

The first part of the 19th century was probably the busiest period for shipping activity in the Douglas at Tarleton and Hesketh Bank, with over 400 ships using the port in one year (100 of them engaged in overseas trade) and a customs officer was stationed here. The old custom’s house at Becconsall is now Douglas Bank Farm.

Whilst the Douglas was extremely busy with cargo traffic, it is likely that it also formed a base for fishing boats. The Ribble Estuary was a thriving fishery until the end of the 19th century when pollution saw a decline in catches. The middle of the 19th century also saw other changes to the Estuary as Preston sought to realise its ambitions to become a major port. Despite strong opposition from Southport on the likely impacts, Preston obtained Parliamentary approval to construct training walls to fix the position of the main navigation channel and later to build a large dock. These training walls and dredging of the main channel led to scour in the tidal section of the Douglas which gave a greater depth of water at high tide. However, as Southport had feared, the walls also led to significant siltation of the rest of the Estuary. Much of the stone used for the training walls came down the Leeds & Liverpool Canal from Parbold. This stone traffic became a regular feature of the Douglas at least until the 1920s.

At a point on the tidal river, downstream of the sea lock at Tarleton, Mayors established a boatyard where they built barges for the canal system, fishing boats and coastal cargo boats. Of the latter craft, one of the most well known was probably the 65 tons schooner Tarleton Lass launched in 1879 which traded from the Ribble and Douglas to Ireland and along the west coast of England and Wales. Unfortunately, during the launch, a boat carrying spectators capsized and four people were drowned, two of them children of the boat’s captain.
As an indication of the risks involved in coastal shipping in the days of sail in the Estuary, the Tarleton Lass was caught by an unfortunate combination of strong winds and tide on 23rd June 1899 and stranded on a sand bank. The St. Annes lifeboat attended the incident but fortunately the Tarleton Lass came off the bank on the next tide.

In addition to boat building the shipping activity gave rise to other industries such as sail making and rope making. The local rope walk was located in a field at Tarleton, between Hesketh lane and Carr Lane, near to where Kearsley Avenue now is.

From the middle of the 19th century, the coming of the railways (especially to Preston and the Fylde) started to cause a general decline in trade on the River and the customs officer was withdrawn. It was in 1878 that the West Lancashire Railway reached Hesketh Bank and this event actually stimulated some new activity on the River Douglas. The West Lancashire Railway was promoted by business people from Southport to try and break the monopoly on traffic that the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway held. The ambition was to establish a network of lines stretching both north to Preston and Blackburn and south to Liverpool. However, by 1878 the construction of the West Lancashire Railway had only got as far as Hesketh Bank where it had stalled pending the raising of further capital to enable the line to be extended to its goals of Preston and Blackburn. Initially, in order to bring in construction materials for the Railway, a wharf was built on the River at Hesketh Bank at the location where a substantial swing bridge was to be built. The wharf and crane facilities were also used for commercial traffic, mainly coal from Wigan, to be taken to Southport and the West Lancashire Railway put five steam barges into service, working between Hesketh Bank and the canal; principally to Wigan and Liverpool. Using this route for freight to Southport must have been financially challenging as there were already direct railway links from both Wigan and Liverpool to Southport. However, so long as water borne cargo traffic remained viable, Hesketh Bank and Tarleton represented the nearest port facilities to the fast growing town of Southport.

1878 also saw another very interesting development when the West Lancashire Railway purchased a small paddle steamer called the Virginia and opened a station directly on the embankment above the south side of the River. This station, called ‘River Douglas’, had no road access but had staircases down to the wharf on the riverbank. The Virginia was used for excursions to Lytham and around the estuary, these principally being targeted at the residents and visitors of Southport. Ultimately it was hoped that regular ferry sailings would take place, but the excursions must have incurred significant losses and they ceased at the end of summer in 1879. Virginia was, however, not immediately disposed of and may have spent some time laid up at the wharf and/or may have been used for towing barges on the River. In 1885 it was sold and went to work as a tug in connection with the construction of Preston Dock and then moved on to similar work in connection with the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal. The fact that sailing times were totally dependant upon the state of the tide, meant that a regular timetabled passenger service would of course have been impossible from Hesketh Bank.

In order to avoid the effects of the tide at Hesketh Bank and improve the transhipment between canal barges and the Railway, a branch line was built in 1879-80 from Hesketh Bank to Tarleton basin and a locomotive bought to work it. This was built by Manning Wardle & Company of Leeds and was a 30 ton 0-6-0 saddle tank, named Tarleton. (This was not unsurprising, sitting within a stud of locomotives whose names included: Southport, Preston, Blackburn and Longton.) Construction work continued on the Railway and the large iron swing bridge across the River Douglas was completed in 1882. Even though the Parliamentary approval for the Railway and bridge required it to be openable to allow the passage of tall-masted sailing ships, this type of shipping traffic was in decline and the traffic in barges could pass under the bridge without the need for it to be opened. As a result the bridge was able to be fixed after a few years so that the operation of the Railway was not disturbed by shipping, but not without protest from the boatyard at Tarleton.

Southport had a thriving fishing industry at this time, mostly using ‘Lancashire Nobbys’. These were extremely good sea boats 30 foot or 40 foot long, single masted, gaff rigged and with very elegant lines. They were used along the coast from Southport up to the Lake District, being also known as ‘Morecambe Bay Prawners’. The design was so good that it was used as the basis for some pleasure yachts built for wealthier individuals of Southport. Many of the boats were actually built in Southport, at a boatyard in Marshside and another alongside Crossens Pool. However, in 1901 the buildings and yard at Crossens were totally destroyed in a huge fire. The owner of this yard, Robert Lathom, decided to relocate to Hesketh Bank rather than rebuild the yard at Crossens as the Douglas offered better conditions for launching new boats and for maintenance work. This yard was set up at the point near to the end of Becconsall Lane, close to where the former ferry operated. This is an ideal location for a yard, being downstream of the railway bridge and sheltered from the west and from the north by the bluff upon which Becconsall Old Church stands.

In 1924 Mayors relocated their boatyard from the tidal river into the basin at Tarleton where there was the benefit of a stable water level.

The wharf and cargo handling at Hesketh Bank came to be solely used by Altys Brickworks which was linked to it by a short, narrow gauge inclined railway. This had double track and a winding drum at the top with a brake so that a loaded truck descending could pull up an empty truck. The wharf comprised of a substantial timber staging with a scotch derrick on it which was used to lift complete wagon loads of bricks into the holds of coastal ships and barges. Much of this traffic was destined for the Fylde, particularly via the wharf at Freckleton on Alty’s own steam ship, although Clyde ‘Puffers’ (small steam powered coasters) and other ships also visited the wharf. Alty’s steam ship was in effect a smaller version of a ‘Puffer’ and was built by the Lytham Shipbuilding & Engineering Company (their builder’s number 272). It was 62 feet (19m) in length, had a 12 horse power condensing steam engine and was launched on 31st July 1899. It was appropriately named Fylde.  If bricks were to be despatched via the canal, the barges would have been loaded directly at the wharf and taken up the River to enter the canal by the sea lock at Tarleton and the wharf also gave the brickworks the facility to receive coal by barge from Wigan.

Other commercial traffic on the River at this period still included coal being taken from the canal in barges directly over the Ribble to Freckleton for local consumption there (the railways having largely taken the inland market within the Fylde). The last customer for this traffic was Balderstone Cotton and Linen Mill at Freckleton for which the traffic was carried using a tug towing several barges at a time. During the 20th century, cargo traffic on the River dwindled away. The traffic to Balderstone Mill ceased in the 1920s when they decided to switch to road transport from the railway yard at Kirkham and Altys too ceased using the River.

However, by this time, people with an interest in leisure sailing had started to keep their sea going boats in the tidal section of the River Douglas with access from Hesketh Bank boatyard or in the basin at Tarleton. The boatyard at Hesketh Bank and Mayors at Tarleton both have continued in use to serve the leisure market; for new boats and for refurbishment and maintenance. Much of the south bank of the River between the Hesketh Bank boatyard and the site of the old railway bridge is now lined with landing stages and many boats are lifted up onto the bank for renovation. It is clear that, for some, the renovation work provides as much pleasure as actual sailing. In 1953 Collins describes the scene as: ‘‘……..a small creek and boat-building yard where cabin cruisers lie, drawn up on the river mud or lifted bodily on to dry land. Desultory knockings came from some of the boats on my last visit. A dozen or so men were surveying their craft to see how repairs were progressing. They had an air as of men who liked to escape into a greenhouse on Sunday morning. Here was another kind of escape – a plug to be changed, some new linoleum to lay on the cabin floor, and the camaraderie of the sea.’’

In recent years a pontoon and link span has been constructed in the River channel just downstream of the Hesketh Bank boatyard. This allows boats to remain afloat at all states of the tide.

The most recent development has been the construction of the Ribble Link navigation from the Lancaster Canal in Preston down to the north bank of the Ribble. The Link was built to celebrate the Millennium and cost £6.54 million, of which just over £3 million was a grant from the Millennium Commission. The remaining £3.54 million was mainly from public funds. Using the Link, the River Douglas and the sea lock at Tarleton, canal boats can sail from the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to the Lancaster Canal for the first time since the canals were built over 250 years ago.

The River Douglas at Hesketh Bank and Tarleton provides a very interesting example of the critical role transport infrastructure played in enabling the industrial revolution to progress and in the development of local industries and towns. Changes in transport modes saw its eclipse as a place of intense commercial activity, but current leisure boating activity serves to provide an ongoing link to the maritime traditions and features such as the Tarleton basin and the boatyards evidence the maritime heritage of the area.

Lancashire Plain and Seaboard by Herbert C. Collins. Published by J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. 1953

Southport and North Meols Fishermen and Boat Builders by L. J. Lloyd. Published by Merseyside Maritime Museum 1998

Hesketh with Becconsall Old Church. A Brief History by Stephen Trippier, 1999

On a Broad Reach. The History of the St. Anne’s-on-the-Sea Lifeboat Station by G. I. and J. E. Mayes. Published by Bernard McCall, Bristol 2000

Photos of the River Asland / River Douglas & Tarleton Canal

More Local History