A structure of elegant simplicity, the Anderton Boat Lift is considered by many to be one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century. The need for a 'boat lift' had manifested itself over a century earlier when the Staffordshire pottery industry was bringing in raw materials from the south-west. Firstly, the china clay would be loaded onto a boat and brought by sea to the River Mersey, then transferred to a river boat and taken down the River Weaver, and finally it would be transported overland on horse and cart. In 1765 a local campaign was launched to improve transport links to the potteries and, within twelve years, a 93 mile stretch of canal was completed from the River Trent (in the south-east Midlands) to the River Mersey (in the north-west).
The Trustees of the River Weaver Navigation were duly opposed to the Trent and Mersey Canal, as their waterway had previously benefited from the local salt trade and the potteries' traffic, now seemingly in danger of being lost. Further pressure from the Cheshire salt manufactures, eager to exploit the potential of this new inland opportunity, led the Trustees to develop the idea of 'linking' the two waterways at a convenient point. Anderton was identified as an ideal location, the two waterways running roughly parallel at this point with a horizontal gap of only 400ft (121m), and a vertical difference of approximately 50ft (15m). In 1793 work began on excavating a basin on the north bank of the river, to the foot of the valley incline where the canal was situated above.
Although it would still be many years before the Anderton Boat Lift was constructed, the initial concept was to enable cargoes to be transhipped from canal boats to river boats and vice versa. Several wooden chutes were constructed at the top of the incline near the canal, allowing appropriate cargoes to be manually 'poured' from the canal boats directly into waiting river 'packets' below. In an attempt to encourage shippers to use the Weaver Navigation for the import of raw materials from the Mersey, two cranes were constructed in 1796 with the sole intention of lifting goods upwards, from the river basin to the canal.
During the first half of the 19th century the Anderton basin became a major focal point for river and canal traffic in the north-west of England, with an average tonnage of 30,000 tons of pottery alone being transhipped. It was clear that the volume of labour and time involved to meet this requirement was becoming prohibitive. The solution was to construct a boat lift, and in 1871 the Trustees announced their intention to go ahead with this project. Royal Assent was given in 1872 to enable construction of the Anderton Boat Lift, and the contract was awarded to Emmerson Murgatroyd & Company. By 1875 the lift was open and operational.
Designed by the eminent engineer Edwin Clark, the basic principle behind the operation of the lift was simple but successful. A large gantry was constructed from the river basin to the top of the valley, and a small canal basin was created to allow boats a 'waiting area'. This basin led to a metal aqueduct terminating at the gantry where two large counter-balanced and water filled containers or Caissons', driven by huge hydraulic rams, were then inserted side by side within the gantry. As one Casisson was at canal level the other would be at river level. By increasing the volume of water in the top Caisson the extra weight would cause it to descend, thus raising the opposite Caisson from the river. A steam-driven 'accumulator' was used to facilitate the last few feet of the lifting process, in bringing the upper caisson to the aqueduct.
Problems caused by corrosion of the hydraulic components started to occur in the 1890s, and by the turn of the century a radical solution was being considered. In 1904 a comprehensive report prepared by Colonel Santer, engineer to the Trust, recommended the conversion of the Anderton Boat Lift from hydraulics and steam to electrical power. The proposal was eventually accepted, and the newly refurbished lift opened on 29th July 1908. To facilitate this change, the external appearance of the lift was vastly altered. The existing gantry was completely 'straddled' by a massive 'A' frame, allowing a number of counterweights to be pulled up the side of the structure. To achieve this, the counterweights were attached to steel cables that were wound over a series of headgear, mounted across the top of the 'A' frame. These then dropped down the inside of the gantry where they were attached to the Caissons.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century the Anderton Boat Lift successfully continued operations, but the advent of the Second World War marked the decline of Britain's waterways commercially. As the trend for goods to be transported by rail and road increased, so the boat lift became used largely by leisure traffic resulting in much reduced revenue. During the 1970s routine repair and maintenance work could no longer be supported and, in 1983, the Anderton Boat Lift was finally closed.
Ironically, it was the leisure potential of Britain's waterways a decade later that prompted British Waterways to reconsider proposals to restore the lift. With the new millennium approaching, it was decided that the lift would be completely restored to the appearance of the 1908 electrical structure, but with the operation reverting back to the original hydraulic concept of 1875. This magnificent structure was re-opened in March 2002, and is once again enjoying a working life. Visitors can 'ride' the lift in the Edwin Clark trip boat, and learn the whole story of the restoration at a recently constructed Exhibition Centre.