A toast (or 40) to the Carlisle Canal

The opening of the Carlisle Canal in 1823 was a cause (or excuse!) for great celebration. And a lot of people were keen to raise a toast to – well, anyone and everyone they could think of.

More than 20,000 people attended the official opening of the Carlisle canal in March 1823. Shops shut, mills workers had the day off – and there was not only the great spectacle of ships sailing through the city for the first time. There was also a lot of eating and a great deal of drinking!

The Carlisle Canal ran from a basin off Port Road, Carlisle, to the hamlet of Fisher’s Cross, on the Solway coast. In my book, Port Carlisle, a history built on hope I didn’t cover the opening in great detail (you can learn more about the book in this post). Because my book is about Port Carlisle and its pioneers, not just the canal, there simply wasn’t space to include the thousands of of words the Carlisle Patriot accorded to what was a momentous occasion for those involved – and an exciting and original spectacle for those watching.

So here’s more on that day of celebrations.

The Carlisle Canal opening

March 12, 1823. Four years after the first spade was sunk in the ground, the Carlisle Canal was ready to go. The canal committee started the great day with breakfast in the Bush Inn while a band played outside.

Soon after 9am the committee proceeded in carriages to Burgh by Sands, where eleven seagoing vessels and several small craft had assembled. They had all been highly decorated with flags, and hundreds of people had gathered there to see them.

Meanwhile, at the city end, crowds grew around the canal basin and along its banks, almost all the way to Burgh. 

The canal committee had built a large warehouse near the city basin, and opened two floors for refreshments: 1,000 people were admitted, by ticket, to enjoy wine and cake.

Shortly after 10am, the flotilla got under way, led by the Robert Burns. The committee were on board, along with ‘a large party of ladies and gentlemen’.

By 11am, she had passed the locks at Beaumont, the other vessels following. 

Dixon’s cotton mill

One of the leading lights in the canal committee was Peter Dixon, of Holme Eden (along with his brothers John and George). The whole point of the canal was that Carlisle manufacturers needed better access to the sea, to import raw materials and export their produce. 

In 1823, Dixon had a cotton works at Warwick Bridge (Shaddon Mill, with its famous chimney, wasn’t opened till 1836).

On March 12, 1823, all the employees of Dixon’s works followed two flags and a band from Warwick Bridge to the Bush Inn. There, they formed a column and marched to the canal, and along it. They met up with the ships at Beaumont, where the band leading them boarded The Irishman.

Guns galore

At Knockupworth, the vessels were saluted and cheered by a crowd, with drum and fife and flags belonging to the City guilds.

With all the flags, wiith sailors standing on the masts and rigging, and guns fired at regular intervals on the vessels, and a band (or two), the crowds had plenty to cheer as they went past.

The Robert Burns and the Rosina each flew a flag of the first pattern of silk-and-cotton gingham, made in Carlisle – gingham had first been made in the city by Messrs John Hewson some 20 years earlier and it was now a major industry.

The Board of Ordnance had loaned two six-pounder field cannon, and the men to fire them. These were sited ‘on a slight eminence’ near the city basin.

At about 2.50pm, the Robert Burns entered the basin, preceded by a band in an open boat. There was a second 21-gun salute, fired from the castle, and the band played Heart of Oak, Rule Britannia, and God Save the King.

The Robert Burns was followed by the Irishman; the Menai; the Crown; the Miss Douglas; the John; the Nancy; the Henry Brougham; the Sarah; the Rosina; and the Mary, followed by coal and peat vessels. When the last entered the basin, another royal salute was fired.

Toasts at the Bush Inn

At around 4pm, about 160 canal company share-holders, and visitors, sat down to ‘an excellent dinner’ in the Bush Inn, with a band. 

After they’d eaten, the chairman, Dr William Blamire, proposed toasts to the King, the Duke of York and the rest of the royal family, the Army, and the Navy.

He then gave a speech about the benefits of the canal to manufactures, to workers (employment) and to the poor (cheaper coal). Before wandering off topic a bit and talking about the Duke of Cumberland in 1745, then calling a toast to the canal.

The High Sheriff the proposed a toast to the health of Dr Blamire. Who proposed a toast to the Lord Lieutenant, who couldn’t be there. 

Captain Halton RN proposed a toast to the the Canal Committee. 

John Dixon proposed a toast to the mayor and corporation. The mayor (William Hodgson) proposed a toast to His Majesty’s ministers (over taxes), the Duke of Wellington, and the Board of Ordnance for the salute.

It’s not clear who, but toasts were then proposed to Lord Exmouth. And ‘The Port and Trade of Carlisle’.

Mr Rowland Fawcett proposed the health of canal committe secretary William Nanson. 

William Nanson proposed toasts to The Plough and the Sail, Inland Navigation, and Sir James Graham and those members of Parliament who’d supported the canal.

William Halton then thought of one they’d missed, and proposed a toast to the ship owners (may they prosper in their voyages). 

More toasts

And then the band played Banks and Braces. Possibly to give those assembled a chance to recover before…

There was a toast to The Bonny Lasses of Cumberland, and particularly those present.

John Dixon then proposed a toast to the health of ship owner George Head (even though George had just left the room). William Halton proposed a toast to Messrs R Ferguson and sons, who had built the first vessel for the canal: the Irishman. He was sorry ‘domestic calamity’ had prevented Joseph Ferguson from attending.

The High Sheriff (Edward Stanley, of Ponsonby Hall) got up again, saying a few people round him had asked him to raise a toast to the vice-chairman, John Dixon. 

John Dixon then gave a lengthy speech about what could be achieved by unanimity and the best fellowship (bit of ‘brotherly love’ creeping in after all the toasts?!) and how they’d ‘brought vessesl from the sea to our walls’. 

John Dixon concluded with toasts to: the coal trade; the land we live in, and; Mr Justice Holroyd.

Before Mr Pearson proposed a toast to ‘the strangers who have honoured us with their company on this occasion’. And: ‘may the Carlisle Canal soon extend to the Tyne’. 

At this point, Mr Halton thought of another toast and proposed: Joseph Lazenby and the Peat Trade.

Mr Lazenby said thank you, and proposed: ‘The Rose, Thistle and Shamrock’. 

And more toasts

Mr Dixon raised the subject of names. The new port needed one, and he thought ‘New Port Carlisle’ had a nice ring to it. Mr Pearson thought the basin should be called Port Cumberland, or Port William. Mr Halton said no, it should be Port Carlisle.

And they all drank a toast to that.

Mr Halton then called for a toast to the health of Mr Jackson and Mr Nanson, the collector and comproller at the Custom House. And Mr Buck, the engineer. Who said the credit should go to William Chapman (see my book!). Before proposing: the Lord Chancellor.

The mayor proposed: the sub-committee. A toast which was drunk ‘with strong approval’. 

And members of the sub-committe said thanks. Before Mr Dixon proposed, to loud cheering: ‘the great cause of Spanish independence’.

After a quick verse or two of God Save the King, there followed toasts to ‘the health of Mr Ferrier’; Dr Blamire (again, but they’d probably lost track!); ‘absent subscribers’, and; ‘the captains and seamen of the vessels in the basin’. 

At this point, the Patriot’s valliant reporter gave up on detail and simply recorded: ‘a few other toasts followed’.

A lot of those present left after that, but some of the gentlemen stayed in the seats a further hour.

The Patriot said: ‘We have never witnessed a more-harmonious meeting’.

Into the night

In the evening, Messrs Dixon and Sons stood every man in their workforce ale, plus bread and cheese, to the value of two shillings in ten public houses. 

And 90 ladies and gentleman attended a ball at the Coffee House.

Mr Slater, of the New Mill, gave each of his workman one shilling and the woman sixpence. Messrs J, R and J Ferguson gave their weavers one shilling each; the warpers and warehousemen dined at the Crown, in Botchergate, and; the women had a tea party. And Paul Nixon ‘also treated the people in his employment’. 

And one can only imagine that on the morning of March 13, 1833, pretty much everyone in Carlisle, and all its leading lights, had a monumental hangover.