Halsall Navvy is a sculpture created from millstone grit by artist Thompson Dagnall. Dagnall is well known for his spectacular wood and stone carvings in Lancashire. Many will be familiar with his work at Beacon Fell Country Park, and more recently a World War I piece entitled The Messenger in Astley Park, Chorley. His design at Halsall was chosen from four proposals put forward by artists based in the north-west region. It is placed to commemorate the workers that constructed the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. It stands close to the place where the first piece of earth was dug on the entire route.
Merchants from Bradford, led by John Hustler, wanted a more effective way of transporting coal and limestone. A 1770 Act of Parliament allowed them to commence work on the project. On the 5th November 1770, the Honourable Charles Mordaunt, of Halsall Hall, ceremoniously cut the first piece of turf. The Halsall Cutting was one of only a few pieces of sizable excavation work on the route, as much of it would follow the natural contours of the land.
The people that did the digging were called cutters. Later, the term navigators was used and this was shortened to a more familiar term to us today – navvies. The tools of their trade were those for moving earth by hand: shovels, picks and wheel barrows. They worked alongside masons who specialised in laying the canal edging stones and building the bridges that would pass over the watercourse. The sites would also employ carpenters who specialised in scaffolding and tool repair.
The Halsall cutting was originally quite narrow and there was not enough room for two boats to pass alongside each other. A boatman would claim priority over an oncoming vessel by cracking his whip. In 1844, the cutting at Halsall Hill was widened to allow two boats to pass, but it still remains relatively narrow up to the present day.
Thomas Dagnall worked with the local community and some of their carvings can be seen on the stone back of the bench by the canal. They created images of things that had personal meaning for them. If you look carefully you can find a spider, a duck, and a fleur-de-lys. You can see more of Thomas Dagnall’s public sculptures on his website here.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
Halsall Navvy is on Summerwood Lane on the opposite side of the canal to the Saracen’s Head pub, next to bridge 25. There is a free parking next to the sculpture.
Leeds and Liverpool Canal: A History and Guide, Mike Clarke (1994) Carnegie Publishing
On site interpretation board
sculpturecarving.com. This is Thomas Dagnall’s website