Waterways of the Humber

Waterways of the Humber

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Humber Canals Across the Ages

One of the reasons this country has an intricate network of canals is that it also has many navigable rivers that are not geographically far apart.

Those rivers were the “motorways” of the past so it was natural that canals were built to provide a water link to them  -  then the second phase was to link the canals to each other.  It’s for those reasons that the Humber area, rich in major navigable rivers, is also the region with the widest historical range of canals.

This is an overview of them, and where each fits into the Humber network.  The map at the head of the blog shows their locations.

The Fossdyke is generally labelled “Roman”, which is a catch-all phrase because we don’t know exactly when in that era it was built.  Between the years 71 and 74 the Roman 9th Legion advanced from Lincoln to a new base at York, so that may a pointer.  It’s now accepted that waterways were crucial transport routes for them, carrying building materials, food, and other bulk supplies.  Therefore, the Fossdyke linking Lincoln to the Trent would have greatly helped in the expansion of the Roman occupation.



Torksey  -  above the lock which is the Fossdyke's junction with the River Trent.


Torksey  -  the lock-gates and the short arm to the River Trent, which has safe moorings off the main stream of the tidal river.

The Fossdyke is the area’s earliest canal that is still navigable, but it was probably preceded by the Turnbridgedike and the Bycarrsdike.  There is a well-researched theory that the three Roman waterways linked local rivers to make a route between the Roman cities Lincoln and York  -  but to do that justice it will be covered in a separate post.  [I know the're not on the blog's map, but their locations and routes need some research before I can include them.]

On the A1041 there's a bridge which crosses a small ditch, all that remains of the route of the Roman waterway now known as the Turnbridgedike

Chesterfield Canal
It was a considerable number of years after the Romans, about 1,700 of them, before the Chesterfield Canal was completed in 1777  -  but the motivation was similar, to provide a water-transport link to a major river, again the Trent, just downstream from the Fossdyke.

However, the technology available was very different.  This was the energetic, resourceful, organised, powerhouse that was England in the second half of the 18th century.  Before now single canals had been built as and when required by a landowner or an industry  -  now the burgeoning industrial revolution was a shouting, wriggling infant that screamed its need for a national transport system for bulky and heavy goods  -  principally coal (“black gold”).

One engineer personified that pioneering era of canal construction in the 1760s and 1770s, James Brindley.  The canals created by him formed the strategic strands of the network which would eventually spread across the country  -  and one of Brindley’s waterways was the Chesterfield Canal.

Although early the Chesterfield is the longest, most intricate and geographically challenging of the Humber’s canals.  Crucially it crosses a watershed, accomplished via a very long tunnel and complex flights of locks.  In addition to those engineering marvels it has aqueducts, wide and narrow locks, a loading/unloading basin on the banks of the Trent, and a tidal lock into the river.  This 46-mile canal was pushing the limits of what could be achieved in the 18th century.

Currently this lovely canal is navigable in two sections at either end of its route, with a nine mile gap still to be restored  -  but the closing of that gap is actively in hand, with the banner of the cause flown by the enterprising, energetic and successful Chesterfield Canal Trust.  http://www.chesterfield-canal-trust.org.uk/ .  Meanwhile the canal’s towpath is walkable for the whole length, and signed as the Cuckoo Way.

Boats on the River Trent approaching the entrance lock to the Chesterfield Canal at West Stockwith.


West Stockwith basin, where cargoes used to be trans-shipped between river and canal boats.

Part of the historic Thorpe flight of locks.

Selby Canal
On the other hand the Selby Canal, completed in 1778, was an echo of an earlier age.  The River Aire had been used for centuries to transport the output of Leeds and Wakefield, even though the river had all the frustrating limitations which had motivated Brindley’s canal promoters to bypass such waterways by going across country  -  too much water, too little water, bendy courses, no engineered towpath, low bridges, etc, etc.  Now that the Yorkshire towns were rich and booming with the wool trade they looked for an alternative  -  but only as far as another river, the Ouse, which was larger than the Aire, straighter and deeper, although still leaving much to be desired as a transport route.  Because of the Brindley achievements there were many different proposals to bypass using the Aire,  but a cut to avoid the river’s tortuous lower miles was all that could be decided upon  -  it was what people were used to.

So a weir was built across the Aire to keep the tide out, and above it the straight and short Selby Canal, only 5¼ miles long, was built to cut across from the Aire to the Ouse at its name-town.

At Selby, the canal's only permanent lock  -  down into the tidal River Ouse.

Boats leaving the lock  -  going upstream on the River Ouse, towards York.

West Haddesley - at the western end of the Selby Canal.  Normally the water is at the same level as the River Aire and the gates are left open, but if the river's levels are high the gates are closed, as seen here.  The gates form a flood-lock, but boats usually wait in the canal for the Aire's water- levels to normalise.

Market Weighton Canal
After the previous three decades of boom the 1780s were years of depressed trade.  trading problems, therefore little was done about building canals.  One of the few that were completed at this time was the Market Weighton, although it was a project of the 1770s.  This is a typical example of canals as planned prior to the Brindley networked era  -  it was to solve local problems, namely land drainage in the plain of York, better transport, and agricultural improvement.  It was a piecemeal effort, done at various times, delayed by financial problems, compromised, and re-sized before it was finished in 1782, all 9Fundamentally this was because some pesky colonists in America had, late in the previous decade, eventually declared themselves an independent country.  The reverberations of this act caused widespread ½ miles of it.  And it never reached its name-town, ending two miles short.

The canal is said to be navigable for over four miles to its junction with the Foulness River, the waters of which are diverted into its course for discharge into the Humber  -  but few boats visit.

The Market Weighton Canal, just over a mile from its entrance lock on the Humber's north bank.

Stainforth & Keadby Canal
Eventually the shock of the loss of the American colonies faded and the 1790s were the first decade of what can accurately be called the Canal Age.  There were so many authorising Acts of Parliament sought (required to raise public funding) that Westminster had to make special arrangements to deal with the volume of them all.

Many had been planned during the earlier Brindley era but had been lost during the 1780s recession.  Now the confidence typical of the second half of the 18th century had returned and all over the country those schemes were dusted off and progressed with vigour.  They often bore the names of the towns at each end of the route  -  typical was the Stainforth & Keadby Canal  -  providing an obvious link from the navigable River Don to the Trent.  Its 12¾ miles were completed in 1802 and it meant boats sailing between the Ouse and the Trent did not have to go via the sometimes dangerous waters at Trent Falls, where the two rivers merge into the Humber.

Thorne is the major centre on the canal for shops and boating supplies, boat repairs and public transport.

From 1858 to 1987 Thorne was also a busy boat-building centre, not just canal boats, but tugs, fishing boats, tankers and many other types.

Pocklington Canal
Entirely different in nature were the motivations to build the Pocklington Canal which, like the Market Weighton, sought to provide water-borne transport from its isolated name-town to a navigable river, this time the then-tidal Derwent.  Completed in 1818 the cargoes along its 9½ rural miles were always sparse.  It’s now navigable for its first five miles, up to Melbourne  -  with the Pocklington Canal Amenity Society campaigning for complete restoration.

The Pocklington is famous for its distinctive circular lock-operating gear.  The used to be found elsewhere in the region but have been replaced.

Although walkable for its entire length, boats can only get to the basin at Melbourne.  However, the end of the canal near Pocklington is a well-maintained and pleasant spot.

Sheffield & Tinsley Canal
The canals of the Humber Waterways include widely various types  -  the nature of the rural and agricultural Pocklington having nothing in common with the Sheffield & Tinsley Canal.  Through indecision, prevarication, trade rivalries, and objections from various bodies Sheffield became the last major city to have the benefit of a canal  -  having to wait until 1819.  Of course Sheffield had the River Don but that was only navigable to Tinsley, both because of its diminishing size and the city’s use of the river to power vast mills and factories.  So, the output of Sheffield’s heavy industry was lugged by road the four miles down to Tinsley to be loaded onto boats  -  a ludicrous situation, but at least progress was downhill, whereas incoming raw materials had to be pulled up the valley.

Eventually the almost 4-mile Sheffield & Tinsley Canal was completed, bringing water-borne transport into a basin near the city centre, a complex of buildings now known as Victoria Quays.

Part of the Tinsley flight of locks in Sheffield, climbing up to the summit level.

The basin at Sheffield, now known as Victoria Quays.  The warehouse in the background straddles the waterway, and there is another, even older, behind it.

Aire & Calder
Changing character again, the Aire & Calder in the Humber region is one end of a major waterway, the history of which goes back to 1621.  As early as that the prosperous towns of Leeds (on the Aire) and Wakefield (on the Calder) were scheming to improve those rivers for navigation.  The name goes back to 1699 when commissioners were appointed to continuously improve water-borne access to/from both towns, and over the centuries they did, always keeping up with the engineering abilities being developed for waterways and the capabilities of boats.  As mentioned above the Selby Canal was part of their achievements.

Eventually the final part was constructed, which is the section in the Humber area.  It was a wide 17-mile canal, completely bypassing the lower reaches of the River Aire, and accessing the River Ouse at Goole.  Completed in 1826 it included at Goole a basin, and barge and ship docks.

The Aire & Calder was just in time.  During the 1830s the newly-developed railways started to make an impact and as a consequence investment in canal building was limited.  However, the Aire & Calder had been designed very efficiently  -  it still carries commercial cargo-carrying vessels, and Goole docks are still busily in use, the furthest inland in the United Kingdom.

Part of Goole docks, at the eastern end of the Aire & Calder.  Locks link the docks to the tidal River Ouse.

New Junction Canal
There’s only one more to cover.  Completing the historical range of the Humber’s canals, and one of the very few finished in the 20th century, is the New Junction.  Absolutely straight, and 5½ miles long, it is a tribute to the success of the Aire & Calder, built to give River Don boats access to that booming waterway.  The Aire & Calder also benefited by a new route to more  collieries to assuage its appetite for transporting coal.  The New Junction opened in 1905 and was further modernised in 1983, along with the River Don, as part of a scheme to give large vessels the ability to navigate to Rotherham, a little downstream of where the River Rother joins the River Don.

The resultant route, part of what is now known as the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation (SSYN), is one of the most modern in this country, completing almost two thousand years of canal building and trade on the Waterways of the Humber.

The New Junction Canal crossing a tidal section of the River Don.  There is a guillotine gate at each end of the aqueduct, which are lowered when the river levels rise and threaten to overflow into the canal.

Commercial vessels use the canal, and bridges such as this are power operated to assist their passage.


And this is the type of vessel now using the SSYN  -  Humber Princess taking oil from Hull to Rotherham.

It all fits together  -  natural and man-made waterways all link into a network.  An isolated waterway is as rare as an isolated road.

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