The Sankey Viaduct

Eccleston Tickles, Mersey Flats, and the Sankey Canal

The UK censuses of 1841, 1851, 1861, and later show a number of families with the surname Tickle living in Eccleston, Lancashire, England. I was interested in the area as my own g.g.g.grandfather was baptised in Portico Chapel, near Eccleston, in the late 18th century, although his descendants had moved to Liverpool by the time of the first census.


There are two places called Eccleston in what was formerly the county of Lancashire . This can be confusing, as they are only 18 miles apart. The Eccleston I refer to here is part of the modern-day borough of St Helens. It lies just west of St Helens itself. In the 19th century censuses it is shown as Eccleston, Prescot, Lancashire. Today it would be Eccleston, St Helens, Merseyside. You can read more about it here. (the other Eccleston, to the north, is in the borough of Chorley)

Eccleston has fertile green countryside to its north and west, while to the south and east are the built-up urban areas of Prescot and St Helens. Liverpool is about 12 miles to the south-west..

The 15th Prime Minister of New Zealand, Richard Seddon (22 June 1845 – 10 June 1906) was born and educated in Eccleston. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1866.


When I first started investigating these Tickles I was struck by the fact that the censuses showed several of the mens’ occupations as shipbuilders or ships’ carpenters. I was intrigued by this. Although there was a tremendous amount of shipbuilding on Merseyside, Eccleston is inland, some distance from the River Mersey – probably too many miles to walk each day. I couldn’t understand where they were employed.

Further research uncovered the fact that there was a canal, the Sankey Canal (sometimes called the St Helens Canal) that ran close to Eccleston. One possibility is that the Tickles were involved in building ships called Mersey flats, which operated on the canal.  

Mersey Flats

Mersey flats were double-ended sailing barges used for transporting goods to and from the Mersey in the 18th and 19th century. They had a single mast rigged fore and aft with a gaff mainsail and large jib. The mast could be lowered or lifted out for upriver work. The barges were between 60 and 70 ft in length (19 – 21m) and could carry up to 80 tons of cargo.

Traditionally, the hull was built of oak, and the deck was pitch pine. There would certainly have been work for a ship’s carpenter building them.

By the end of the 19th century, most Mersey flats had been converted from sail to be towed by horses or by steam tugs.

The Sankey Canal

It’s very likely that our Tickle shipbuilders were employed building or repairing Mersey flats on the Sankey Canal, which ran close to Eccleston.

The Sankey Canal was originally known as the Sankey Brook Navigation and later as the St Helens Canal. It was opened in 1757 to connect St Helens to the River Mersey. It lays claim to being the first modern canal in England, as it was opened before its more famous neighbour, the Bridgewater Canal. The Bridgewater Canal is often called the firt canal, as part of the Sankey Canal consisted of widening an existing waterway, the Sankey Brook, rather than building a new waterway. The canal was constructed principally to carry coal and iron ore down to the Mersey. It later serviced the industries that had established in St Helens. The canal had wide locks and swing bridges to accommodate the Mersey flats and their masts. A towpath ran along its length.

When the railways were built, they also had swing bridges to cross the canal. The exception was George Stephenson’s Sankey Viaduct. This viaduct carried the first purpose-built passenger railway in the world, the Manchester to Liverpool railway, over England’s first industrial canal, which passed beneath the third archway.. The viaduct’s arches were 70 feet high, giving plenty of headroom for the boats’ masts. I can remember my father taking me to see the viaduct as a child.

The image at the top of the post shows a steam train crossing the Sankey Viaduct, with a Mersey flat sailing up the canal below it. The etching below is of the viaduct, looking in the opposite direction.

Etching of Sankey Viaduct – By Percival Skelton – Smiles, Samuel (1868)

I’ll write about the Eccleston Tickles and what I know about them in my next post.

4 thoughts on “Eccleston Tickles, Mersey Flats, and the Sankey Canal”


    1. These Tickles are unrelated to the German Tickles, who only took the name when they emigrated to America. The Tickles in England have been there for centuries, mainly in Lancashire, Cornwall & Devon, and the Midlands.

  2. Gregory John Tickle

    Melody – You are posting some amazing Tickle information. Really enjoy reading it.
    My youngest brother (Randall Brooks T.) does not have a Facebook account. Is there a way for him to see your posts.
    Gregory J. T.

    1. Hi Greg
      Yes, there is. If he goes to the website and clicks on BLOG in the top menu, he can read all the posts. There should be a Follow button at the bottom of every new post. If he fills in his email he’ll be notified when I add a new post (He only needs to do this once) On the right hand side there’s also an option to join my mailing list. I’ve been ignoring this a bit recently but I’m about to send out an email this week. Hope that is helpful.

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