Mark’s History: The curious case of the sunken icebreaker near Armley Mills


Along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Botany Bay near Armley Mills is a sign that at first glance appears to be Cyrillic characters but is in fact a message that reads in the reflection of water, “THE REMAINS OF A WOODEN ICEBREAKER LIE SUBMERGED“, writes MARK STEVENSON.

A cold spell of weather could bring the canal to a standstill if the ice was not broken.

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The remains of a sunken icebreaker near Armley Mills. Photo: Mark Stevenson

Most canal companies would have specially built icebreakers to help keep the traffic flowing.

Unlike the traditional narrowboat, icebreakers were shorter and of a more rugged construction from iron (or at least have their wooden hull covered and reinforced with metal).

The crew would stand, holding onto a longitudinal rail running the length of the boat and, as a team of horses heaved away, would rock the boat quite violently from side to side to break through the ice.

Lock keepers had the job of breaking up the lumps of ice that would form behind the lock gates, stopping them from opening this could close large sections of the canal and everyone would then have to wait for the ice to thaw.

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Many boat operators were only paid on a job by job basis, with no retaining wage to support their families in times of hardship. A bad winter could see entire boating communities reduced to the point of destitution. This only goes to show just how important the Icebreaker was to this community and the country as a whole.

The vulnerability of the canal network to the weather was to help lead to the decline of the canal network as the main method of carrying freight in the country.

Goods, particularly perishable goods that needed to reach their destination within a specified period, would simply rot and become unusable. This could cause businesses to struggle and cause unemployment.


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