Chain haulage

Steam towage of Boats on Canals

“Steam towage of boats on canals” in Journal of the Society for Arts Vol 7 No 358, September 30 1859, pp708–709

Many attempts have at various times been made to employ upon canals steam tugs, propelled by paddles or screws, in place of traction by horses. The objection raised against them, however, is always the same — that the waves created by the propelling surfaces injure the banks, gradually washing them down into the canal, and thus decreasing its depth. An ingenious but very simple contrivance is now being applied for achieving this object without either paddle or screw, or, in fact, any other means of propulsion, strictly so called. The mode employed is practically one of traction, by chains, acting on the bottom of the canal or river, instead of upon the towing path at the side.

The plan is the invention of Mr William Robertson, engineer, of Strangeways, Manchester, who has patented it, and the principle is being carried out by “The Chain Propeller Company”. The new method has been tested by experiments, with the sanction of Mr Fereday Smith, on the Bridgewater Canal, between Patricroft and Leigh. An ordinary canal flyboat has been adapted to the purpose. It is 70 feet long, and 7 feet beam, but a new one, of more suitable model, is in course of construction. An engine, of about 8-horse power, is placed on the fore part of the boat, which drives a shaft having a grooved wheel, 2 feet 4 inches in diameter, projecting slightly from each side of the bow. There is a similar paid of wheels, or rather pulleys, near the stern, one on each side.

An endless chain is then placed (on each side of the boat) upon the fore driving wheel and stern pulley, with sufficient slack in it to admit of its reaching to, and lying upon, the bottom of the canal. At the first experiment, the chain used was 20 lb weight to the yard, and it was one of the lightest employed. The driving wheels and stern pulleys are 57 feet apart, but there is a series of smaller running pulleys over which the chain passes after it has come out of the water at the stern, on its way to the wheels at the bow. The weight of the chain used is in proportion to the weight to be drawn, and to the pwer of the engine. For towing purposes, four chains — two on each side — are employed.

The chains may be regarded as constituting an anchor, lying along the bottom, which the engine is continually heaving in at the stern, and as continually depositing a fresh supply at the head. By this action, it will be seen that a fulcrum is obtained without the water being scraped away from the sides, as by paddles, or forced away from the stern and bottom, as by the screw.

At the trial trip there were on board Mr Bryson, the resident engineer of the Bridgewater Trust; Mr Marsden, Mr Grundy, and Mr Kent; Mr Robertson, the inventor, and several other gentlemen. The distance from Worsley Bridge to Leigh is six miles, and it was run, with the single light chain, in an hour and a half, being four miles per hour. There was found, however, to be too much ballast in the stern of the boat, the progress of which was retarded by the hind pulleys dipping into the water. This was remedied in returning, and the speed was nearly five miles per hour. A careful observation showed that the chain had travelled eight miles while the boat had travelled six; or that the slip of the chain along the bottom of the canal was nine inches in each yard.

The general impression seemed to be that with two chains (or one of double weight), which would double the amount of grip upon the bottom of the canal, this slip would almost entirely disappear. By this mode of progression the water is in no way disturbed, as there is, of course, nothing in the dropping of a chain into the water and hauling it out again which can ruffle the surface. The conditions are precisely the same as those of a vessel drawn at the same speed by horses, except that the descent of the chain from each bow, rather tends to berak the wave caused by the head of the boat.

The experiments were devoted subsequently to the towage of laden coal boats, when two chains were employed. The plan has been tested, and the result proved highly satisfactory. The slip, by the use of two chains, was entirely removed. The speed attained by double that by horses with an equal load.

Local hero

The Manchester Times of 13 August 1859 had the same report with a few minor modifications, but added this paragraph at the end:

A strong company has been formed for promoting the adoption of this system of propulsion throughout the canal system of the United Kingdom, and it is scarcely too much to expect that the boats of the “Robertson’s Chain Propeller Company” will soon be seen plying on most of the waterways in Great Britain.

Canal Navigation — chain-propeller

Saunders’s News-Letter, and Daily Advertiser 26 January 1860

A novel experiment was yesterday, for the first time, publicly tried on the principle of chain traction, or chain haulage as it is cometimes called, on the Grand Canal, between James’s-street Station and Portobello Harbour, with one of its boats, the property of the Midland Great Western Railway Company. Amongst the gentlemen present were — Messrs, Cowper, Sterling, Richardson, N Hone, Mr Hornsby, secretary of the Board of Works; Mr Cabry, Mr Forbes, Mr Healy, of the Midland Great Western Railway; Mr Mulvany, engineer of the Grand Canal Company; the patentee, Mr Robertson, &c.

The best description we can give of it is from the authentic formula:—

The chain-propeller used in this experiment is distinct and different from all other forms of chain traction heretofore introduced in France and England; which were properly described as chain-haulage, and which have not been found capable of general application. The chain-propeller has now for the first time been patented and introduced. The boat to which the propeller is applied in this instance, although quite sufficient to show the application of the principle to heavy goods traffic, does not show the mode in which the gear would be attached to an ordinary trade boat. The shaft and pulleys extend beyond the gunwale on either side, in consequence of the boat being so much narrower than a regular trade boat, the gearing being made so as to be applied to a boat of suitable beam afterwards. The pulleys, when properly applied, will not project at all, and will be either partially or wholly hidden from view.

The boat as at present fitted up is capable of showing that canal boats, fully laden with cargo, can be moved by this power at the rate of fully three miles an hour, which is a speed beyond that attained with two horses; with a regularity equal to the railway system, at a cost as nearly as possible one-third of horse-power, and without injury to the banks or the bottom of the canal. The same engine which moves the boat can also be employed for discharging cargo at country stations.

The simplicity and small dimensions of the engine suitable in consequence of obtaining a fixed power; the readiness with which you can stop the boat, or, if necessary, reverse it without stoppage, or without requiring the crew to get out of the boat, as at present; and the steadiness with which the boat moves, are advantages which, with its great economy (the principal feature), will force the adoption of the principle over such canals as are capable of using it. More than double this speed can be attained where a passenger traffic is carried on; but for such a purpose chains of a different scantling, suitable engines, gear, and boats would be required.

The experimental boat under notice moved without a load at nearly four miles an hour; and in the long reach four boats loaded, amounting to one hundred and sixty tons, were taken in tow, and were conveyed with ease at from three to three and a-half miles per hour. One great feature is, that the wave produced by screw or paddle steamers is not produced; and another, that the growth of weeds in the bottom will be annihilated. The expense will not amount to one-third that of horse traction.

The experiment was so far successful; and when it is considered that this was but a mere experiment, it bids fairly to decrease the cost of the transit of goods generally. The working of the endless chain caused great interest amongst the wayfarers; but when, as it is intended, that all the machinery will be enclosed, it will still further excite public curiosity when a line of loaded boats are pulled along without any aid, as of old, from the banks, or any visible sign but the small smoking chimney, which falls at the bridges like the Thames river boats.

Introduction of steam power

The Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser 30 July 1860



The Directors hereby give NOTICE that a BOAT, fitted up with the Chain Propeller, WILL START with Goods on her trip outwards from the Company’s Goods Stores, at the GRAND CANAL HARBOUR, JAMES’S-STREET, on TUESDAY MORNING NEXT, the 31st Inst, at ELEVEN O’Clock precisely.

This boat carries its own cargo, and in addition thereto hauls another boat laden with a cargo after it.

By Order. John M’Mullen, Secretary. 28th July, 1860

Steam power

Samuel Healy “On the Employment of Steam Power upon the Grand Canal, Ireland” in Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 1867 26:1867, 6-9

In the year 1860, experiments were made in propelling by chain haulage, on a plan proposed by Mr Robertson; but this was a total failure.


John Ditchfield adds:

It would be interesting to know what the specific problems were which caused its early demise. I don’t know whether canal companies would have relished the prospect of heavy chains on the canal bed, especially if it put the puddled lining at risk. I haven’t managed to find any additional information, beyond the fact that the vessel was also demonstrated on the River Barrow at Carlow, in 1860.

I missed the Barrow trial, so that’s useful extra information. I suspect that side winds would have caused problems for the vessel.


2 responses to “Chain haulage

  1. Hello. I am researching an Irish engineer William Edward Bryson who worked with the Midland & Gt Western Railway in about 1846 and wondered if this was the same Bryson who is listed with the Bridgewater Trust in your article. Any further information would be helpful. With thanks, Elaine

  2. I’m afraid I have no further information about him. Some Bridgewater Canal archive information is held in the University of Salford. bjg

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