Opening of Newry Ship Canal proudest works of either ancient or modern times

Peter Bayne


Peter Bayne


Wednesday 22 September 2021 7:54

By John McCabe

This week I look back to the momentous historic occasion of the opening of Newry Ship Canal described in the 'Newry Reporter' as being the 'proudest works of either ancient or modern times.'

Below is a lengthy report about the official opening back on Monday April 15th, 1850 and detailing the background to it's martime history against the current situation of Newry's Albert Basin currently being under threat from a fixed bridge as part of the Newry's Southern Relief Road


"After seven or eight years of anxiety and toil, this great work has been at last successfully completed, and was opened yesterday, (Monday April 15th 1850) for navigation, amidst universal rejoicing. Before proceeding to describe the interesting and memorable event, I will give you a background history and details of the Newry Navigation.

It extends from the sea, at Warrenpoint, to Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the United Kingdom, and which is celebrated for the peculiar quality its waters possess, of petrifying wood into stone, as well as by a romantic legend that its site was formerly occupied by populous cities, whose towers may still be seen, according to the belief of the 'peasantry, "beneath its water shining."

The navigation is partly formed by river and partly by Canal. The whole of the Newry River, to the town, is navigable for ordinary sized vessels and small steamers; but for the largest class, only the first three miles from the sea is passable.

The navigation is thence carried to Newry, by the magnificent ship Canal just completed, which is four miles and a half in length; from Newry it is carried to within a mile and a quarter of Portadown by an inland Canal, eighteen miles long, and admitting boats carrying from sixty to seventy tons; the remainder of the navigation, from the termination of the Canal to Lough Neagh, and which is about ten miles and a half in length, is completed by the River Bann.


The inland Canal, originally constructed in masterly style, was made by grants from the Irish Parliament; and the chief object appears to have been, not so much the opening of a communication between a rich industrious interior and a seaport town, as the furnishing of a cheap and expeditious mode of transit from the colliers in the County of Tyrone to Dublin!

What a lesson is taught by this fact, contrasted with the state of the coal, and the public purse was opened liberally to foster the trade; now, owing to the enterprise and spirit of the English and Scotch colliery proprietors, they have obtained a complete monopoly of the Dublin market, and their coals are actually carried round the shores of Lough Neagh!

Though, however, the design of the Irish legislature to encourage the Irish coal trade, proved a failure, the Canal became, in course of time, a great benefit to the country through which it ran; and as a natural consequence, Newry participated in the advantages, gradually increased as a thriving commercial town, and a port of the utmost importance.


The navigation was committed to the management of Commissioners, denominated "The Board of Inland Navigation" and it continued in their hands until the year 1829. Whatever attention may have been bestowed upon it at the early stages of its history, there is no doubt about the fact that, for some years before it passed from their care, it was greatly neglected and consequently fell wretchedly out of repair.

The Inland navigation required extensive repairs in every department - on locks, banks, and water ways. The supply of water was so scanty, and the Canal was so much choked with mud from want of cleansing, that, in Summer, boats with ten to fifteen tons on board could scarcely pass through it.

The River Bann to Lough Neagh was similarly neglected. From Newry to the sea the navigation was in such a state, Mr Brownrigg, the Government Engineer, in his report dated 1830, stated that, unless extensive improvements were made on this part of the navigation, "Newry would be lost." Vessels drawing but seven feet of water could reach Newry only at Spring tides and were always detained during neaps.

The river was choked with mud, the portion next to the sea was very dangerous, in consequences the channel being accordingly choaked and narrow, and filled with large boulders and rocks. At low water, it was shallow, that it was daily waded by people gathering shell-fish!

The complaints of the merchants and other inhabitants of Newry, who viewed with dismay the threatening ruin of the port, were loud and frequent. They petitioned Parliament that a grant of money should be made to the Board of the Inland Navigation, to enable the Commissioners to make the necessary improvements.

The merchants of Liverpool also sent forward a petition to the same effect, and a deputation was appointed to proceed to London to forward the views of the petitioners. The Treasury informed them that the Lords of the Treasury would not sanction any grant, for the purpose of they were assured that "an offer to undertake the outlay of the estimated sum (£80,000 Irish) in the execution of works, to be approved by an engineer affording complete security to the public for the future maintenance of this line of navigation, on condition of it's being made over to a responsible body of proprietors, would meet with the favourable attention of the Treasury."

In consequence of this intimation, the Merchants Committee proposed to the Lords of the Treasury, to form a Company, under the authority of an Act of Parliament, with liberty to raise the sum of £80,000, for the purpose of extending and maintaining the Canal; and in the 10 George IV; 1829, an Act was passed, incorporating the present Company, under the title of "The Newry Navigation Company."

By this Act, "the Canal and Navigation, from Lough Neagh to the sea, and the branch or branches thereof, with all their tolls and revenues, and all estate and interest therein, and all powers over the same, or relating thereto, and to the Board of Inland Navigation," were vested in the Company.


On the other side, the Company agreed to "execute the extension and improvement of the Newry Canal according to the plan and estimate prepared by a Mr. Killaly, in the year 1820, by order of the Irish Government - to be approved of by an engineer appointed on the part of the Government - and maintain and preserve the same, and all other parts of the Newry Canal and Navigation, in good and sufficient order and condition.

The books of account and proceedings of the said Company," it was further guaranteed, should "be, at all times, subject to the inspection of a Government Commission, so as to afford complete security to the public for the due performance of the undertakings proposed." The capital, £80,000, was to be raised in sixteen hundred equal shares.

The Company, having been put into possession of the navigation, first procured the services of several eminent engineers, to report on the best plan of effecting the necessary improvements. It was finally decided to extend the Canal from Fathom to Doyle's Hole, where the largest class of vessels can always lie afloat at low water; to widen and deepen the existing Canal from Fathom to Newry; and, meantime to cleanse, widen, deepen and straighten the river navigation, from Warrenpoint inwards.

Great as the anticipated difficulties were, it was found, after the works had been commenced, that the reality was infinitely worse. Immense sums of money were raised, and expended, and still the work "dragged it's slow length along."

The navigation, according to the Act of 1829, was to be completed in seven years; but when this period expired, the Company had to apply for an extension of time, and subsequently they had to apply for a further extension. Instead of £30,000, which it was estimated the works would cost, the amount expended has been more than double that - £170,000 - an enormous sum, compared with the extent and means of the town.


Perseverance has, however, at least been crowned with success. The work is now completed; and whether we regard the extent of the undertaking, the obstacles to be surmounted, or the the manner execution, it is worthy to be compared with the proudest works of either ancient or modern times.

Since the navigation was handed over to the present Company, all its features have been changed by their proper and skilful management. The Bann River and the Inland Canal have been made navigable Summer and Winter, with safety, and with every accommodation. In the middle of Summer, when the navigations are generally much inconvenienced, and to a certain extent stopped, for want of water, vessels with from fifty to sixty tons on board, pass through, easily.

The Ship Canal from Newry to Fathom has been widened and deepened; and the new Ship Canal, from Fathom to Doyle's Hole, two miles in length, has been constructed. The river, from the termination of the Canal to the sea, has been widened, deepened, and made straight. The jutting points have been cut off, and the channel cleared of boulders and rocks.

The materials removed have been formed into embankments, for the purpose of straightening and directing the current of the river and towing paths. At Newry, a capacious basin, the area of which covers five acres, and suitable quays, have been formed, for the accommodation of the steamers and other large vessels coming up to the town.

The Ship Canal is of great magnitude, averaging fully 160 feet in width, and in no part less than fifteen feet in depth. It will admit vessels drawing 17 feet water, and, when lightened two feet, they can pass up to the town.

The sea-lock, at Doyle's Hole, is one of the largest dimensions, and will admit the largest coasting steamers and vessels of 600 tons burden, and upwards; so that, instead of stopping at Warrenpoint, and discharging their cargoes into lighters, as hitherto, these vessels will now come direct to Newry, and discharge and load here.


The dimensions of the new lock are - 220 feet long, 50 feet in width, with a depth of water, at ordinary tides, over the the lower cill, of 21 feet. The upper cill is laid at 17 feet 6 inches below the surface of the Canal. Taking, therefore, the Canal and lock together, we fearlessly assert there are not finer specimens of engineering, in magnitude, beauty, and permanency of workmanship in the United kingdom.

The whole of these really stupendous works have been completed from the designs and under the personal superintendence of John Ramsay, Esq, the Company's Engineer. It is little to observe, that they reflect on him the highest credit, for engineering skill and ingenuity. He was shewn himself equally master of the highest points of his science, and of the minutest practical details; and he has, also exhibited a rare power of inventing expedients for overcoming difficulties, and ponderous machinery.

This faculty was shewn, in a striking manner, in suspending the gates of the new lock. A leading member of an eminent firm in Drogheda said that that firm, only, had the requisite machinery for hinging them, and that, without it, he would give Mr. Ramsay three months to put them up. It is scarcely possible, after this, to believe the fact, but a fact it is, that Mr. Ramsay, by the perfection of his arrangements, suspended each gate in its place, firm and sure, in less then ten days! In drawing the piles of the coffer dam, he also exhibited great ingenuity.

This is usually a very slow undertaking occupying, on a dam of any extent, several months, but by a very simple, yet most ingenious arrangement, he drew up the whole of them in less than ten days! We feel it a duty, as well as a pleasure, to pay this tribute to Mr. Ramsay, who has earned himself by his indefatigable exertions and great skill, the highest respect of the Company. The masonry of the new lock, which excites the admiration of every spectator, was built under the practical superintendence of Mr. Gullet, who deserves much praise for the tasteful and durable manner in which it has been executed.


About 12.30pm, yesterday, admist the thunder of cannon and the cheers of assembled thousands, the sealock was opened, and several vessels were admitted into the spacious waters of the Canal. The scene, at this moment, was one of deep interest. The morning had been very rainy, but shortly before twelve, the day cleared up, and the sun burst out with splendour.

Thousands of spectators lined the banks of the Canal; the vessels were bedecked with flags; and on each side were the picturesque hills, which echoed back the roars of the canon, and cheers of the multitude.

The schooner 'Pride', belonging to our townsman, Francis Carvill, although not the first vessel to enter the Canal, took the lead of the others, being towed along in grand style by many well wishers of the owner. The little steamer, the 'Pioneer', which had previously entered the Canal, came down the lock, and a number of gentlemen, invited by the Committee, came on board.

The 'Pioneer' then started, amid the plaudits of the multitude, and steamed towards Newry in fine style, the company on board congratulating each other on the auspicious event of the day, and enjoying the beautiful views that opened to them at every successive turn in the navigation.

As the 'Pioneer' reached the 'Pride' the bulwarks of the latter were slightly injured, owing to a collision arising from causes that we are not competent to satisfactory explain. But in a few minutes, every thing was put to right. The 'Pioneer', on arriving in the Basin, was greeted by the cheers of thousands, assembled to witness the interesting spectacle; and the excellent Band of the 2nd Regiment, which was stationed in a convenient spot, played an appropriate air.

A large number of vessels, that had been lying at Doyle's Hole, came up the Canal in succession, as fast as they could gain admission. They were all ornamented with flags, and presented a very gay appearance. As each successive vessels approached the Albert Basin, she was greeted with loud cheers, the assembled multitude appearing highly delighted with the magnificent and beautiful spectacle.

A number of gentlemen, invited by the Committee of the Navigation Company, then proceeded to partake of a déjeuner, which was laid out in the house at the Dublin Bridge recently occupied by Mr. Kidd.

The band of the 2nd Regiment, during all the time, played, in their superior style, a selection of admired music. Shortly after 4.00pm, the company broke up; and thus ended perhaps the most important day in the annals of the town of Newry."

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