1.1 The story of the origins, rise and eventual decline of the Chesterfield Canal is unique. Many of its features are distinctive and have given rise to distinctive attributes – even the boats used on the Canal were strikingly different from those used in other regions (cf. Paget-Tomlinson 1979, Richardson 2005).
1.2 The Chesterfield Canal runs west to east across the north-south grain of the country. This reflects the patterns of trade established in this area by the 1300’s. At that time the fledgling lead and iron industries of North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire found their main outlets via pack horse to the inland port of Bawtry at the head of reliable navigation on the River Idle. From Bawtry cargoes were dispatched to Hull and onward to eastern England, London and the Low Countries. In return imported goods came in from throughout Europe and Scandinavia. By 1350 Bawtry was one of the principal ports for South Yorkshire & North East Derbyshire.
1.3 The River Idle navigation underwent improvement during the late 1600’s but trade from South Yorkshire fell away with the improvements to the River Dun (Don) undertaken from the 1720’s onwards. Trade from Chesterfield and North East Derbyshire began to be hampered by the poor state of the roads to Bawtry and high tolls on the Dun Navigation. In Chesterfield thoughts began to turn to replacing the road with a canal and by 1768 there was sufficient local interest to engage the services of a civil engineer, James Brindley.
1.4 By 1768 James Brindley had an enviable reputation as a canal engineer. Many schemes were clamouring for his services and as a result he sent one of his assistants, John Varley, to undertake the initial survey. In early 1769 Varley surveyed a route from Chesterfield to Shireoaks that was almost identical to the route eventually constructed. At Shireoaks, following his brief to survey a “water way to Bawtry”, his proposed route turned north east across open country to reach the shallow valley of the Ryton which he then followed to the River Idle and Bawtry.
1.5 In December 1768 the notion of the canal began to circulate in Retford. Inspired by a visit to the Bridgwater Canal (designed by Brindley), the headmaster of Retford Grammar School, the Reverend Seth Ellis Stevenson, began a vigorous campaign to bring the canal to Retford. Approaches to the Chesterfield promoters brought a positive response and by June 1769 Varley was again in the field this time searching out a route via Worksop and Retford to West Stockwith.
1.6 In August when the first public meeting was held in Worksop to promote the canal Brindley supported the Retford route. At that same meeting parties from Gainsborough made strong representations that the canal should terminate on the Trent at Gainsborough not West Stockwith. There followed a brief but spirited campaign between the two camps which was settled by the intervention of the Reverend Stevenson. When, in January 1770, Brindley spoke to another crowded meeting at the Crown Inn, Retford, he was able to announce that the route would be Chesterfield — Worksop — Retford — West Stockwith.
1.7 The “Act for making a navigable cut, or canal, from Chesterfield, in the County of Derby, through or near Worksop and Retford, to join the River Trent at or near Stockwith in the County of Nottingham” was to finally receive the Royal Assent on Thursday 28th March 1771. The news reached Retford and Chesterfield on the 30th March and was greeted with great rejoicing.
2 Building the Canal
2.1 The Chesterfield Canal was the last waterway to be engineered by James Brindley the “father of English canals”. Brindley died in 1772 and the work was brought to fruition by John Varley and Hugh Henshall. It is a moot point if some of the innovations seen on the canal where designed by Brindley or were the work of his assistants. Whatever their origins, the civil engineering innovations on this canal warrant greater recognition.
2.2 Construction started in the summer of 1771 at the summit pound of the canal at Norwood End At first sight the Chesterfield Canal appears to be a typical early meandering contour canal. It also displays, however, civil engineering features which presage the later, straighter, cut and fill canals. These include the overall boldness of the route, the first extensive use of locks in multiple flights and the use of embankments and cuttings to shorten the line. In consequence the physical remains of the canal include several pioneering civil engineering features and unique survivals of late 18th century canal construction. Many of these structures are listed ancient monuments.
2.3 The canal opened throughout in 1777 although much of it may have been in use from 1775. The origins and history of the canal is summarised in Hadfield (1970) and explored in detail in Richardson (1992).
2.4 The early minute books of the canal company have survived and provide an almost unique insight into the construction of the canal (Richardson 1996). They show the struggles of local shareholders to come to terms with this new technology and to overcome the inevitable crises which followed the death of James Brindley in 1772.
3 Opened for Business
3.1 The Chesterfield Canal opened throughout in 1777 (although the majority of it was in use in 1776) and faced an early struggle caused by the economic recession which followed the loss of the American colonies the previous year. Nevertheless, within ten years the canal began to show a modest dividend and steady trade in all manner of goods was established including:
* Agricultural produce
* Sail Cloth
* Bricks and Tiles
* Coal and Coke
* Iron Ore
* Iron Bar and Cast Iron Products
The canal was built as a narrow canal from Chesterfield to Retford. At Retford the canal became wider and the locks from there to the Trent were built to broad beam (Trent Flat or Barge) dimensions. The intention was to have broad beam boats working to Retford but the presence of several pinch points and narrow bridge holes meant that this vision was not realised and broad or Trent boats were never to reach Retford.
3.3 From the outset the canal had several short branch canals or arms of which the Norbriggs Cutting at Mastin Moor was the longest at 1¼ miles. Shorter arms led to coal wharfs at Killamarsh (Church Lane) and Staveley (Bellhouse Lane, Lowgates), to limestone quarries at Cinderhill (near Shireoaks) and a stone quarry at the end of the Lady Lee Arm, near Worksop.
3.4 The canal was also fed by other minor canals which did not physically connect with it. At Hollingwood near Staveley, the “Hollingwood Common Tunnel Canal” operated a 1 ½ mile long underground canal from mines on Hollingwood Common to a transhipment wharf on the Chesterfield Canal. The boats operating in the tunnel were of “tub boats” of narrow width and short length, they brought the coal out in large iron bound wooden crates which were transhipped by crane (an early form of containerisation) onto the standard width narrowboats of the Chesterfield Canal. This type of mine canal was common in other areas (e.g. at Worsley Delph on the Bridgewater Canal) but rare in Derbyshire. Parts of the tunnel arch survive and were located in archaeological studies in the 1980’s.
3.5 Another short isolated Canal ran from the Adelphi Ironworks to the south of Staveley to a wharf on the Inkersall Road where it had a transhipment wharf. Carts then took the goods to the Chesterfield Canal were they were again transhipped. This canal has been entirely lost to opencast mining and reclamation works.
3.6 Much of the trade in Derbyshire reached the canal via an intricate network of feeder tramways, plateways and railways, including the earliest known “raile way” in Derbyshire. This was built at the behest of the Canal Company in 1789 and ran from Norbriggs Wharf to Norbriggs Colliery. These tramway feeders mostly brought coal to the canal although the tramway from Whittington, which terminated at Dixon’s Wharf, near Bilby Bridge, brought iron castings and glass to the canal as well. These tramways flourished from the 1790’s through to the 1830’s and 40’s when several appear on the first Ordnance Survey maps. Practically all had gone by the 1850’s but one, from Whittington to Dixons Wharf, continued in use until the 1870’s.
4 The Coming of Modern Railways
4.1 Once the early trade depression had concluded, the canal became a commercial success and was instrumental in the development of the iron, chemical and glass industries of North East Derbyshire. It settled down to a steady if not spectacular life with a steady stream of modest dividends.
4.2 Long distance railway competition arrived in the 1840 with the opening of the North Midland Railway (a constituent of the Midland Railway (MR)) from Derby through Chesterfield to Leeds. This was rapidly followed by a bill in the 1846 Parliamentary session to construct a railway from Sheffield to Lincoln. The “Sheffield & Lincoln Junction Railway” was promoted by the Sheffield, Aston-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway as part of their plans for a through route from Manchester to Lincoln.
4.3 The proprietors and shareholders of the Chesterfield Canal were alarmed by the prospect of a railway running parallel to their route through Worksop and Retford and the prospects for loss of long distance and river trade. In response they quickly promoted their own scheme, the Manchester & Lincoln Union Railway. The Sheffield & Lincoln Junction Railway wisely entered into talks with the M&LUR which led to the establishment of a joint board of Directors. The price of M&LUR support was the inclusion of the Chesterfield Canal in the amalgamation. Incorporated on 7th August 1846 as the “Manchester & Lincoln Union Railway & Chesterfield & Gainsborough Canal Company”, the whole awkwardly named undertaking was vested in the new “Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway” on 9th July 1847.
4.4 In addition to the main Sheffield-Lincoln line, the M&LUR&C&GCC did gain powers to build a new line from Worksop to Staveley but this was never constructed. The final link in the main line of the new Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway was completed with the opening of the line from Woodhouse to Gainsborough on the 17th July 1849. The station alongside the canal at Kiveton Park opened the same day.
4.5 Initially this stimulated additional activity on the canal. With the failure of the Worksop to Staveley branch proposals, the railway company instead treated the canal as a branch line and constructed an interchange wharf to the east of Kiveton Park Station. Attempts were made to compete with the Midland Railway on through tariffs to Chesterfield and Staveley. Certainly the canal receipts for the period from c.1840 to around 1860 remain relatively buoyant, but by the late 1860’s revenues had begun to seriously decline and it was clear that the canal was unable to compete with the speed of the railways. By the 1880’s the MS&LR had begun to think of expansion southwards and the creation of what became its “Derbyshire Lines”. The Ironmasters of Staveley were strong supporters of the MS&LR southward expansion, hoping it would break the Midland Railway’s near monopoly and reduce freight tariffs. Once the Derbyshire lines were completed, the majority of canal side customers were connected to the railway system or had a very local station and as a result trade on the canal fell away quite dramatically.
4.6 The construction of the MS&LR’s “Derbyshire Lines” in the late 1880’s had marked consequences for the Chesterfield Canal; the planned railway route south followed a straight course and was to cross and re-cross the original line of the canal. Initially the MS&LR attempted to close the canal but the Act of Parliament for the Derbyshire Lines had a clause inserted which prohibited closure. To avoid the cost of numerous bridges a number of diversions were carried out. These were:-
Killamarsh to Renishaw (the Long Straight or Railway Mile); the original canal line to the west of the new railway was abandoned but can still be traced today.
Renishaw to Hague Lane; here the cut-off sections were largely removed or buried by the construction of the Goods Yard at Renishaw Central Station.
Hounsfield Bridge to Staveley Works; the isolated section was again west of the new railway and ran around the margins of the Stanton and Staveley Works. Any trace of the Brindley route has been destroyed through a combination of works redevelopment, opencast coal extraction and land reclamation.
Chesterfield Wharf; the first canal Wharf was cut off from the canal by the Railway and a new wharf was constructed upstream on the edge of the new railway goods yard. This became known as the “Railway” or “Great Central Wharf”.
4.7 All of these new sections were constructed quickly and probably came into use several months prior to the official opening of the railway from Beighton Junction to Staveley Central and thence to Chesterfield in June 1892. Eventually this railway was to become part of a new route to London and in recognition of enhanced status on the 1st August 1897 the MS&LR changed its name to the Great Central Railway.
5 Decline, a Fall and Revival
5.1 The arrival of the parallel MS&LR railway route accelerated the inevitable decline in trade. By the early 1900’s most manufactured goods and sundries trade had been lost and the cargoes which remained were low-value and high-bulk; coal, coke, stone, bricks, aggregates, timber and grain.
5.2 The western end of the canal was isolated by the partial collapse of the Norwood Tunnel in October 1907 and all trade on the isolated section west of Norwood ceased around 1914-19. For some time after the war the canal remained in water to supply various industries but in many places became overgrown and neglected. Some sections began to acquire other uses – for example, in Killamarsh for many years rowing boats where hired out on the length of canal near Bridge Street. By the 1950’s the canal was no longer required for water supply and from the late 1960’s through the 1970’s sections were sold off and gradually infilled.
5.3 To the east of the tunnel the decline was more gradual and regular cargoes continued from Shireoaks Colliery, Worksop and Gringley to the Trent until the early 1950’s with the last sporadic commercial carrying being in 1956. Fortunately this coincided with the rise of the preservation movement and attempts to downgrade the entire canal to remainder status or to close it entirely where defeated. In 1976 the Chesterfield Canal Society was formed to promote the use of the canal and its eventual restoration.
6 The Canal Industries and their Communities
6.1 The arrival of the Chesterfield Canal helped to shape the landscape and communities through which it passed.
6.2 This effect is most marked in Rotherham and North East Derbyshire where towns and villages expanded dramatically or where entire new communities came into existence as industries sprang up alongside the canal. The pattern of settlement it helped shape was built upon by the railways and to a great extent persists today.
6.3 The origins of the canal are closely tied to the Derbyshire lead industry and the iron foundries at Staveley and Renishaw. The presence of the canal encouraged the growth of these ancient industries and led to the expansion of the Derbyshire coal industry; feeder tramways from pit to canal include the first record of Newcastle style “raile way” in Derbyshire. A similar tramway led to the glassworks at Whittington. The arrival of the canal and the relatively breakage free transport which it offered resulted in the expansion of the glass industry and its associated chemical industries.
6.4 To some extent the canal in North East Derbyshire entered an already partially industrialised landscape and, through providing cheap transport, permitted the rapid growth of ancient industries and the appearance of many new industries. As a result the canal served practically all the key heavy primary manufacturing industries of the industrial revolution.
6.5 In contrast the eastern reaches of the canal initially traversed an almost entirely rural landscape. The arrival of the canal occurred at a time of major reorganisation of the landscape and many of the new model farms constructed by the larger estates at this time had their own wharfs and used the canal to export their produce.
6.6 Throughout the Nottinghamshire length the canal again permitted local craft activities to expand and industrialise where raw materials existed. For example the growth of the brick and tile manufactories at Misterton and Gringley can be tied to both the ease of export of the finished product and to the ease of importing Derbyshire coal as fuel. One unique trade brought cargoes of Trent silt or warp to brickworks like those at Walkeringham for drying and grading to produce polishing powders used in the Sheffield cutlery finishing trade. Some of these industries were ephemeral and have left scant record bar a few entries in a boat book; others proved long lived – the last cargo from Walkeringham Brick Works was carried in 1954 – and have left a rich archaeological legacy.
6.7 The canal therefore runs thorough two regions with very different histories and in consequence landscapes.
6.8 The waterway was also used for more than transport. Water power was a vital element in the rural economy until the twentieth century and, especially on rivers, conflicts between mill and navigation interests were common. In such a low lying district the waterways also played a key role in land drainage. Conversely, waterways were often key water suppliers with water being abstracted for industrial purposes as varied as brewing, irrigation, chemical works and brick making. All these activities have left a further archaeological legacy along the water corridor.