Friday, 30 January 2015

Divers to search Lancaster Canal for wreck of 1920s diphtheria barge

Sunken wreck site?
Lancaster Canal at Field End Bridge
winding hole

Divers from the Kendal and Lakes Sub Aqua Club are making plans to search the Lancaster Canal for a sunken wreck that might have been used as an infirmary barge during the 1920 diphtheria epidemic.

Frank Sanderson of the Lancaster Canal Trust tells us that his organisation is in the process of locating the submerged wreck of what might have been an infirmary or morgue barge on the Lancaster canal at the Field End Bridge (169) winding hole, near Stainton ('winding hole' is canalspeak for a turning area).  This stretch is now full of Horse Tail weed, but Frank suspects that it may well be the site of a wreck.

The LCT and its working parties of hardy volunteers are planning to dredge the stretch in their ongoing project to restore the Northern Reaches of the Lancaster Canal to use.

Police given notice
Because there is a chance of finding a wreck as the next stretch of the canal is dredged, the local community police have been notified and local farmers have been consulted. As Frank says, it only an old canal story but he's confident that a wreck is located at the former turning area

Diphtheria epidemic
There was a Diphtheria epidemic in 1920, and it is thought that it was a hospital ship transporting victims from outlying areas to Lancaster, or possibly bodies intended for burial or cremation.  These would have been children for the most part. Before the advent of vaccination in 1942 there were around 60,000 cases of diphtheria each year in the UK, leading to 4,000 deaths. It was a much-feared, contagious childhood bacterial disease and the canal would have offered the most quarantined form of transport.

In the 1914-18 war, wounded soldiers were transported by canals, as this was a safe and smooth way, rather than by rickety carriages, or farm carts over rough roads, and it's thought that this practice may also have been adopted for diptheria victims, who would have needed to be quarantined.

Following a recent report in the Westmorland Gazette, Frank's story has created considerable response from older people in the community and an account has emerged about a little girl who may have died on board.

It is believed that the barge was sunk by the owners as there was no means of fumigating against Diphtheria in those days and it is a deadly and contagious bacterial disease.

Diving team investigates
Divers from the Kendal and Lakes Sub Aqua Club have been to photograph the site, and hope to explore it once necessary permits have been obtained. At present the water is very cold indeed and, although the water is only around 2m deep it is very muddy, so they will have their work cut out. On the plus side, they are enthusiastic about the project - and are not expecting to come across any bodies, as the canal would not have been considered a suitable place to leave them, at any time in its existence.

An old mud-dredger?
There's also a conflicting theory that the wreck may be turn out to be an old mud-dredger, although there doesn't seem to be much consistency in dumping a vessel in the very canal where it was dedicated to clearing obstructions.

Tell Frank 
Frank wonders if perhaps other canal communities have similar stories and he would be interested to hear them.

You can find out more about the Lancaster Canal Trust and contact them too via their website at

Newly-restored stretch of
Lancaster Canal 
Spring opening for newly restored stretch
The Trust is now completing the final stage of restoring the 280-yard Stainton to Sellet Hall length with help from the Waterways Recover Group . The transition walls adjacent to Stainton Crossing Bridge were rebuilt, the stop plank grooves refurbished and coping stones replaced. A Canal & River Trust employee unearthed some king posts and the Trust purchased and fitted new stop planks.

Further profiling and some relining of this section has been completed. Re-watering of this length has been approved by the Environment Agency and as minimal canal extraction and rain water causes the level to slowly rise, tests are constantly carried out. It's an outstanding achievement and an invaluable legacy for the area.
See our previous story 'Wildfowl welcome restored canal stretch'.

The IWA Trailboat festival, from 30 May to 1 June, hopes to be the first to use this section, if the restored stretch is sufficiently settled by then.

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