Yorkshire Transport

Yorkshire Transport


The rapid growth of industry in’ Yorkshire could not have occurred unless it had been accompanied by an improvement in communications. The road system which was a legacy of the Romans was supplemented during the Middle Ages by pack­horse tracks linking the market centres; and sometimes tracks would be made to navigable stretches of rivers. The drovers’ roads, used by the monks in the Middle Ages and by Scottish cattle herders in more recent times, traversed the open Pennine moorlands, away from the rising industrial centres.

When the West Riding woollen trade began to expand in the 16th century, a new network of pack-horse tracks was laid down, linking the upland areas of the Pennines with textile towns such as Halifax and Wakefield. The tracks were adequate for the transport of small quantities of cloth, but were not suitable for wheeled carts, and became increasingly inadequate when the iron industry began to develop, requiring heavier and more frequent loads of fuel and raw materials.

The great obstacle to safe wheeled transport was the condition of the roads, which were usually without any foundations or any means of drainage. Flooded roads, a particular problem in the low-lying areas of Holderness, isolated many villages in winter. People were loath to be responsible for improvements to a road passing through their village if the only beneficiaries were strangers making their way to a distant town. Long journeys were not only made hazardous by the conditions of the roads but also by the chance of being held up by highwaymen who bore no resemblance to the fanciful portrayals to be found in books and films. One famous 17th-century highwayman was Dick Turpin, alias ‘Swift Nick’, who was born at Pontefract and was credited with riding from Gravesend to York in a day.

There was no incentive to keep roads in good condition until the 17th and 18th centuries, when Parliament made local turnpike trusts responsible for the construction and maintenance of specified lengths of road. The trusts were formed by groups of people who were allowed to charge travellers for using the road. The income not only paid for the cost of the road and its upkeep but enabled dividends to shareholders. The first Yorkshire turnpike, opened in 1735, was on the BlackstOne Edge road linking Halifax with Rochdale in Lancashire, though turnpikes were established on parts of the Great North Road as early as 1663. The first turnpike in the East Riding linked Beverley with Woodmansey, Dunswell and Newlands, north of Hull, in 1774.

The increase in turnpikes was related to the growth of industry, especially in the West Riding, where improved roads were essential for the transport of wool and other goods. The road from Kendal to Keigbley and Halifax was improved by a turnpike trust so that larger quantities of wool could be transported more quickly from Westmorland and Craven to the clothiers at Halifax market. The road linked Skipton with Kirkby Lonsdale and joined the Halifax turnpike at Keighley, making the transport of wool more reliable and contributing to the growth of Skipton, which became the collection point for Craven wool.

Another town which grew as a result of a new turnpike was Scarborough, where spa wells had been discovered in the 1620s. The York-Scarborough turn­pike was established in 1752 and from then on the town grew as a spa and a seaside resort. The same effect could be seen on Whitby, which had little connection with inland areas of Yorkshire. In 1765 the town was connected to York by turnpike, enabling it to diversify its economy, which had previously been dominated by the sea.

Although the new turnpikes brought many benefits they did not please every­one. Hull and York gained at the expense of smaller market towns like Beverley and Malton, which could not compete with the expanding trade of the larger markets. The turnpikes were avoided by many people, such as drovers who ceased to use the Great North Road because of the expense. Often the creation of a turnpike was opposed by locals who dismantled the toll gates. After an attack on the turnpike at Harewood, where 30 people were arrested, an angry crowd marched to Leeds, where they fought troops who had been called from York. Before the riot was over eight people had been killed and many others injured.

The turnpikes encouraged experiments in different methods of road making. John Metcalf, known as ‘Blind Jack of Knaresborough’, was one of the most famous of the early road builders. Blinded at the age of six, Metcalf nevertheless continued to lead a full and active life. In 1765 he was employed by a turnpike trust to reconstruct the Boroughbridge to Knaresborough road. He supervised every aspect of the work, including the delivery of provisions for his workers. The method usually employed by Metcalf was to put down layers of heather, sometimes known as ‘ling’, to provide a foundation for stone and rubble quarried from the local area. This method was used to great effect in building the road across Pule Moss for the trustees of the Wakefield to Austerlande Turnpike, which forms part of the route from Wakefield to Manchester, where the usual stone foundation would have sunk into the mire. Metcalf constructed roads in many parts of Yorkshire between 1755 and 1780 and his methods influenced the work of George Stephenson when he built the Manchester to Liverpool railway over Chat Moss.

Yorkshire's road system
Yorkshire’s road system

Another road builder who worked in Yorkshire was John Loudon Macadam, who first built roads for the Board of Agriculture so that the transport of food could be improved. Macadam laid a foundation of rubble on which a layer of angular blocks of stone was compressed. This method was used on the White Cross turnpike in 1820. Both Metcalf’s and Macadam’s methods produced 4 firm convex surface, facilitating drainage. As a result of these improvements both the volume and the speed of traffic increased, aided by the invention of the ‘flying coach’ with sprung suspension. The fastest of these were mail coaches which could travel at an average speed of eight m.p.h. A journey from York to Leeds took three hours compared with eight hours before road improvement. At the beginning of the 18th century travellers from Leeds to London would be on the road for a hazardous four days, riding by horseback to Wakefield, where they would board a coach travelling down the Great North Road. By 1785 this journey had been reduced to 26 hours—the time it took for the first Royal Mail coach to reach the Bull and Mouth in London from the Old King’s Arms in Leeds.

The heyday of the coaching trade was the 1830s, but within 10 years it was ruined by competition from the railways. The opening of the York to Scarborough railway in 1846 and the building of a line to Pickering to link with the railway to Whitby destroyed the turnpikes which had first realised the trading and tourist potential of seaside towns. The York-Scarborough Turnpike trustees ceased collecting tolls in 1865 and the toll bars were dismantled. While some turnpike trustees were astute enough to hold shares in competing railway schemes, others attempted to protect their turnpikes by combining with others in a union of trusts which levied a common toll. However such efforts could only delay the abolition f turnpikes, at which point local parishes once again took responsibility for their upkeep. In 1888 the parishes handed over maintenance of ‘main’ roads to the newly formed county councils.

The next major development of roads in Yorkshire occurred after the Second World War. In 1946 proposals were put forward for a ‘comprehensive reconstruction of the principal national routes’ which included a motorway crossing the Pennines from south Lancashire to Hull and the conversion of parts of the Great North Road into motorways, with by-passes taking the road away from town centres. When the roads were finally built, in the 1960s and 1970s, they significantly altered the landscape in many parts of Yorkshire. The Ml motorway was extended northwards to Leeds and when the M62 motorway was opened it followed the original trans-Pennine route, making it the country’s highest motor­way, opening up glorious views of the Pennines to millions of travellers. One of Britain’s first urban motorways was the Leeds Inner City Ring Road, which illustrates how a city landscape can be radically altered through road development. However, there is an increasing awareness of the effects of road building on the environment. The Secretary of State for the Environment summed up the change in attitudes and policy when, in 1975, he overruled the report of a public enquiry which had recommended acceptance of a proposal by the City of York for an inner ring road running close to the City’s Roman Wall. However the architecture of modern road construction, particularly in the case of bridges, can sometimes be pleasing to the eye. The Humber Bridge, with the world’s longest bridge span of 4,626 ft., is a spectacular example of modern road engineering.

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.


Although railways began to supersede the canal transport system in the 1840s, a rail network had in fact begun to emerge much earlier. The first ‘railway’ in Yorkshire was built by Charles Brandling, a Leeds colliery owner, who secured an Act of Parliament in 1758 to construct a waggonway on an incline connecting his colliery in Middleton to Old Staithes on the river Aire, via Hunslet Moor. The waggons were originally hauled up the incline by horses, which were later replaced by a fixed steam engine, until John Blenkinsop, an employee of Brandling’s, experimented with a steam engine design by Richard Trevithick. The engine used a rack and pinion method to haul the coal waggons and began regular service in 1812 with two steam engines, the Salamanca and the Prince Regent, hauling 38 fully laden waggons at a speed of three m.p.h.

Brandling’s railway aroused great interest and was visited by George Stephenson, who was later to build the world’s first passenger railway, and by the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. The economic value of the railway was quickly realised and Brandling was able to secure control of the coal supplies to Leeds. One of the drawbacks was that a great deal of iron-30 lb. for every yard—was used to construct the rack and pinion rail, resulting in a cost per mile almost as great as the total cost of a steam engine (the Prince Regent, built at Hunslet, cost £380). Other coal owners in Yorkshire began to follow Brandling’s lead and many waggonways were constructed, sometimes on inclined wooden tracks. In Bradford, for example, several waggonways carrying waggons hauled by horse and pulley were constructed in the 1780s, connecting coal pits and iron works with the Bradford canal.

A viable public railway system did not exist until 1825, when George Stephenson built a railway running from Stockton to Darlington. An extension of this railway was opened to Middlesbrough in 1830, making it the first public steam-worked railway in Yorkshire.

We have already noted how, by the 1830s, the industrial expansion of the West Riding was being held back by increasingly inadequate transport facilities. The building of the Knottingley-Goole canal had eased some of the problems but at the same time had damaged the trading status of Selby. A railway from Leeds to Selby had been advocated as early as 1802 and the first detailed plan for the line was put forward in 1821; this plan was shelved, mainly because no-one could resolve the question of what sort of locomotive power should be employed. The plan was resurrected in 1829, by which time the steam engine was being successfully used on a number of lines. Even so the promoters of the line con­sidered using horses to pull the railway waggons, before choosing steam engines. The Pickering-Whitby line, opened in 1836, continued to use horses as a means of locomotion until 1847. When the Leeds-Selby line opened in 1834 it was the first public railway to operate wholly within Yorkshire. The building of the railway and its operation highlighted the competition taking place between canals and railways, although the relationship between the different forms of transport was at first ambiguous; the Leeds-Selby line, while competing with the Knottingley­Goole canal, nevertheless only existed because of its dependence on the river trade from the Ouse and down the Humber to Hull. The railways, carrying thousands of passengers each week by the 1840s, also competed with the turn­pike, though stage coach operators benefited by transporting passengers to and from the railway stations. Passengers on the Leeds-Selby line were the first in the world to travel by steam locomotive through a tunnel—the 637 m.-long (700 yds.) Richmond Hill tunnel at Marsh Lane. By 1840 the line had been extended to Hull, thus eliminating the need for connecting river transport.

Yorkshire's railway system
Yorkshire’s railway system

People quickly began to realise the importance of railways; not only were they a better form of transport—heavier loads could be carried faster at cheaper rates than by road or canal and the public could travel in greater comfort—they also opened up new markets for goods and created a great demand for iron and steel and other products in their constructicn. They also required a great deal of labour, both in the building and maintenance of the railway system and in other industries which benefited from improved transport. By the 1840s finance for new railway lines was easier to find, and thousands of small investors were placing their money with schemes which had little hope of making money. The greatest rush to build, between 1845 and 1847, was known as ‘railway mania’. In 1847, 76 Bills were presented to Parliament for schemes affecting Yorkshire and by 1860 most of the modem railway network in the county had been completed. By the end of the 1840s both York and Leeds were connected to most major towns and cities in the country. Bradford, by means of two rail links to Leeds, was also connected to the network.

The railway competition was so fierce that some towns in Yorkshire were served viaduct n1thSettle by several lines. Leeds had three stations, Sheffield and Bradford had two each and even Pontefract had three to itself. The largest scheme to be proposed was the Great Northern Railway running from London to Doncaster which aroused intense opposition from George Hudson, the ‘Railway King’, who rose to fame when he successful  tried to establish York as a major railway centre. Hudson, who already had an East Coast route which would be affected by the Great Northern, strongly objected but to no avail. The Great Northern then had to contend with the four major companies in the West Riding—the London & North Western, the Lancashire & Yorkshire, the Midland, and the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway—which combined to try to force it out of business. This attempt also failed and the Great Northern became one of the foremost railway companies in the country.

George Hudson confused his private business interests with his public office (he was three times Lord Mayor of York) and went to extraordinary lengths to outwit competitors. He paid £470,000 to the 6th Duke of Devonshire for his 12,000-acre Londesborough estate in the East Riding to prevent all other railway companies from building lines to Hull, before selling part of it back to his own company so that he could build his own line. When he took charge of the North Midland Railway objections were raised that he cut wages and salaries; he responded by sacking the protesters without notice on Christmas Eve. Such tactics did not endear him to the public, but as long as his companies paid good dividends few would complain. When railway profits began to fall, Hudson’s methods were more carefully scrutinised and his corrupt practices were exposed. The lasting benefit of George Hudson’s work was the amalgamation of many small lines into larger companies, culminating in the formation of the North Eastern Railway in 1854.

By the end of ‘railway mania’ Yorkshire had a comprehensive railway system, but it was established as much by the principles of greed and avarice as by the need to provide a rational system of transport and communication. The services offered by the railway companies gradually improved; open third-class carriages were no longer to be seen; upholstered seats and improved suspension and brakes became quite common. More lines were built in Yorkshire in the 1860s and 1870s extending into more rural areas. When the line along Wharfedale was opened in 1865 the villages and towns along its route began to expand, especially Ilkley, where many Bradford businessmen began to build their homes. In 1866 the Midland company applied for permission to build a line from Settle to Carlisle via Ribblesdale and the Eden valley. When the line was opened in 1875 it had cost a total of £3,500,000 and involved great feats of engineering, including a one-and­a-half mile tunnel cutting 500 ft. under Blea Moor and also the Ribblehead viaduct. It is perhaps the most interesting and certainly the highest main-line in England, rising to 1,169 ft. at the Aisgill summit. lhe Hull and Barnsley Railway, opened in 1885, linked the south Yorkshire coalfields with Alexandra Docks in Hull, and also provided improved passenger access for villages in the Yorkshire Wolds and Howdenshire. The Hull and Barnsley Company was amalgamated with the North Eastern in 1922 and the line was closed in stages between 1959 and 1964. A small section of the high level line through Hull remains open to convey Hull City Football Club supporters from the city centre to their team’s home ground at Boothferry Park.

The building of the railways attracted thousands of navvies to Yorkshire, many of whom came from Ireland. When the Settle to Carlisle line was built the men were housed in shanty towns named after far away places—Sebastopol, Jericho, Salt Lake City etc.—which sprang up along the route. The navvies left when the building work was complete, leaving behind the farming communities which must have experienced quite a shock on their arrival.

The subsequent history of Yorkshire’s railways is one of amalgamation, consolidation and, finally, contraction. The North-Eastern Railway Company had absorbed over 50 smaller companies by 1914. A Railways Act of 1921 divided the companies into four groups, the Great Western, the Southern, the London & North-Eastern, and the London, Midland & Scottish, the latter two operating most of the lines in Yorkshire. A Railway Rates Tribunal fixed charges based on earnings in 1913, although none of the companies achieved their pre-war levels of income.

The First World War was in fact a watershed for the railways. Motorised road transport enabled motor-buses and private cars to compete with short-distance rail passenger traffic, while road hauliers, able to deliver goods straight to the door, began to take business away from railway goods traffic. By the mid-1930s road transport had taken half the traffic away from the railways and the total workforce had fallen 18 per. cent. The railways were nationalised after the Second World War and in 1963 the Beeching report recommended a major reorganisation of the network involving the closure of thousands of miles of track. Many of the rural lines in Yorkshire were closed and the emphasis was placed on rapid urban and inter-city services.

The railway network in Yorkshire is now much reduced from the vast array• of tracks laid down in the 19th century. Diesel Multiple Units are a common sight on most lines in the region and inter-city services link the major towns and cities with the rest of the country. The travel time from Leeds to London has been reduced to 2 hours 9 minutes. Some steam trains, however, still run, carrying rail enthusiasts on special excursions, such as those from Leeds and York to Scarborough. The importance of York as a railway centre is remembered in the Railway Museum which attracts thousands of visitors each year. In the summer months special Dalesrail excursions are organised from Leeds and Bradford along the Settle-Carlisle line and tourists and hikers fill the trains each weekend. Some of the disused lines have been taken over by preservation groups which run them as tourist attractions. The Worth Valley railway, running from Haworth to Keighley, is sometimes used by film companies because of its scenic qualities, and steam trains are run on the line across the North York Moors between Pickering and Grosmont.