Yorkshire Transport: Navigations & Canals

Yorkshire Transport: Navigations & Canals

Although improvements to Yorkshire’s road network enabled traffic to travel faster with heavier loads, the transport of materials was still severely restricted. The growth of industry in Yorkshire necessitated the transportation of large amounts of raw materials and manufactured goods which led to the improvement and extension of the navigable stretches of rivers and also the development of a canal system.

Yorkshire is well endowed with a great river system, including the Aire, Calder, Don, Hebble, Ouse and Wharfe, which drains into the Humber. These rivers had provided a means of transport since the earliest settlements and often determined the location and development of towns and cities. The rivers were very important in medieval Yorkshire and were used, for example, for the trans­port of stone for York Minster and for many of the great monasteries located near the banks of rivers. The river Ouse was used to import materials for local industries—alum, madder and woad for the production of cloth; iron and lead for smelting —and the produce for domestic consumption, including grain, spices, wine and salted fish, and also coal for fires.

Five-Rise Locks, Bingley. Opened in 1774, they raise the canal level by 59 feet
Five-Rise Locks, Bingley. Opened in 1774, they raise the canal level by 59 feet

Most of the river improve­ments occurred in the 18th century when good transport became a major factor in the industrial development of the West Riding, and by the end of the century most of the river traffic had shifted to the south and west of Yorkshire at the expense of rivers further north. Under an Act of 1699 the proprietors of the Aire and Calder Navigation were empowered to improve the Aire as far as Leeds anØ the Calder to Wakefield, connecting both towns with Hull via the Ouse and Humber. The river Derwent was made navigable under an Act of 1702, which allowed shipments of corn to reach Hull from Malton. In 1726 an Act permitting improvements to the river Don enabled the Sheffield cutlers to import high grade Swedish iron ore.

River navigation could not solve all the transport problems of industrial Yorkshire, and so artificial waterways—canals—were cut into the landscape. The canals were the largest engineering constructions ever seen in Yorkshire and required materials and labour on an unprecedented scale. Three canals, the Leeds Liverpool, the Rochdale and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, cross the Pennines into Lancashire. The most impressive of these is the Leeds-Liverpool canal, which took 46 years to complete from the time work started in 1770. The line of the canal, over 108 miles long, was laid out along the Aire Valley by James Brindley, one of the greatest of the canal builders, who also designed the flights of locks which raised or lowered the canal boats on to different levels. One of these flights, the Bingley Five Rise lock, alters the height of the water by 59 ft. 2 ins, and is the most impressive in Britain. The canal crosses the Pennines through the 1,640-yard Foulridge tunnel at Come (the 5,456-yard Standedge tunnel, carrying the Huddersfield canal through to Lancashire, is the longest in Yorkshire) and the water level of the whole system is maintained by supplies from seven specially-built reservoirs, holding a total of 1,200 million gallons. The canal was linked to Bradford by the Bradford Canal which, although only measuring three miles, made an enormous difference to the development of Bradford as the centre of the worsted textile industry. The Leeds-Liverpool canal joined the Aire and Calder Navigation at Leeds, enabling traffic to continue through to the East Coast via the Ouse and the Humber. The lower Aire, however, could not deal with the increasing volume of trade and so a canal linking Knottingley with Goole was opened in 1826. This canal greatly improved the means of exporting coal from the rich south Yorkshire coal seams and led to the rapid expansion of the Yorkshire coal industry. Goole had previously been a small hamlet at the lower end of the Ouse, close to the Humber; it now became the focal point of most of the Yorkshire navigation and canal system, achieving the status of a foreign trade port in 1828.

The river Don Navigation—named the Dutch River after the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden who drained and reclaimed tracts of land in the area in the 1620s—also flows into the river Ouse at Goole, providing a link between Sheffield, Doncaster and the Humber. The river Derwent, flowing through Malton and reaching the Ouse between Selby and Goole, was made navigable as early as 1720 and enabled the export of corn from the East Riding, with lime and coal being taken upstream. Most goods were transported by the Yorkshire Keel—a small sailing barge which could be seen on the river Ouse until the Second World War. The Market Weighton canal and the Driffield Navigation were also built in the East Riding, but these, like many other stretches of inland waterways in Yorkshire, are no longer used by goods traffic.

The great age of canal building—the period of ‘canal mania’—was between 1750 and 1830, when most of the Yorkshire canals were completed. The workmen engaged on the construction of the canals were known as ‘navvies’ because they built ‘navigations’, and were often engaged in dangerous work. The report of ‘a stranger called Thomas Jones supposed from Shropshire, having been unfortunately killed in the works near Gannow by a fall’, which was made to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Company in 1800, was an indication of the risks the men often had to take. Many of the navvies came from Ireland and Scotland seeking jobs and lived a nomadic life travelling from one construction site to the next, often living in primitive conditions.

The canals provided employment for people who lived as well as worked on the canal barges. Life on the canal was not easy; men often had to tow the barges themselves if there was no suitable tow-path to allow horses to do the work. The tow-path did not continue through tunnels, so men called ‘leggers’ had to lie on a plank extending from the side of the barge to the tunnel wall. In this position the legger would ‘walk’ along the side or roof of the canal, to propel the barge.

The canals and navigation system of Yorkshire
The canals and navigation system of Yorkshire

The canals were especially suitable for the bulk transport of raw materials, since a barge drawn by a horse could carry 30 tons compared with two hundred­weight by a pack horse or half a ton by waggon. Cheaper and more regular food supplies were made available to the rapidly expanding urban populations of the West Riding, while lime and building stone, in great demand for the building of mills and houses, could be transported from quarries further afield. The Leeds-Liverpool canal became the arterial route for the movement of textiles in and out of the West Riding. Imported raw wool destined for Bradford was loaded onto barges at Liverpool, whence consignments of finished woollen cloth were shipped abroad. In 1834 the Yorkshire section of the canal carried over 100,000 tons of coal, compared with 17,500 tons in 1784. The first barge to arrive in Skipton on the opening of the Bingley-Skipton section of the canal in 1773 carried coal which was sold at half its normal price.

The development of the railway system was to bring an end to most of the commercial traffic on Yorkshire canals. While barges could carry more weight than packhorses, they could not compete with the loads and speed of the train. The Leeds-Liverpool Canal Company tried to restrict the effects of competition by giving railway companies the right to collect certain canal dues in return for a fixed income. However such measures could only delay the end of the canal age. By the 1840s all three trans-Pennine canals were suffering from railway competition. The canal traffic to Selby and Goole was affected by the building of the Leeds-Selby railway line which connected with a fast river steam packet service to Hull. The line opened in 1834 forcing the Aire and Calder Navigation to reduce canal tolls by an average of 40 per cent.

The canals in Yorkshire continued to decline, though it was not until after the First World War that the full impact of the railways and, later, motorised road transport, began to be felt. The Bradford Canal was still handling over 100,000 tons of freight a year in the 1900s, but this had fallen to only 28,000 tons by 1920, and two years later it was closed and later filled in. However, many of the canals in Yorkshire still continue to be used, though most of the traffic, such as that on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, consists of leisure craft. It could be argued that the great age of canal building has left us with the only transport system that actually enhances our appreciation of the landscape; certainly the great canals that can still be seen in Yorkshire are appreciated by Yorkshire people and visitors alike.