by Christine Richardson, on behalf of the Chesterfield Canal Trust
By 1766 the first canal-building boom had started and Chesterfield and Retford enthusiastically embraced the idea of a new waterway. The nationally famous engineer James Brindley was asked to lead the project.
The first public meeting was held at Worksop’s Red Lion on 24 August 1769. Brindley was present and he confirmed that a canal from Chesterfield to the River Trent was viable. Of all the proposed cargoes coal was considered the most important because the fledgling Canal Company aimed to undersell the rival south Yorkshire coalfields.
An Act of Parliament was sought. It gave powers to raise £100,000 in £100 shares, and £50,000 more if necessary. Shareholders were mainly local people, plus some investors in London. The capital was fully subscribed by July 1771.
Brindley’s assistant, John Varley, was make Clerk of the Works [Resident Engineer]. Work started in October 1771 at Norwood Tunnel, the digging of which was to be a four-year task. Meanwhile the canal was built eastwards towards Worksop and Retford.
Just as the work was making good progress, news was received in September 1772 that James Brindley had died. The Company really had no alternative but to allow John Varley to carry on for a while, even though this was his first large project. Later Hugh Henshall, Brindley’s brother-in-law, was made Inspector of the Works although Varley continued to bear the day-to-day responsibilities.
In the summer of 1773 Henshall found that some of the work done in Norwood Tunnel was unsatisfactory; unfortunately for John Varley the culprits included his father and two brothers. Soon other examples of suspicious contractual arrangements and slack management came to light. The part played by John Varley in these deceptions is a matter of opinion he could have been too busy elsewhere on the canal to control the tunnel work; he could have been giving work to his family. Over 200 years later there is no proof either way, but it should be borne in mind that similar revelations dogged many projects in this very early phase of canal building. In 1774 Hugh Henshall was made Chief Engineer, but Varley remained Resident Engineer.
In May 1775 it was agreed that although the canal was to be narrow from Chesterfield to Retford it should, nevertheless, be built larger between Retford and the Trent so that it could carry wide-beam river-boats.
Norwood Tunnel was officially opened on 9 May 1775, and it was 2884 yards long, 9ft 3ins wide, and 12ft high. By that time work was also progressing towards Chesterfield. By August 1776 the canal was completed between West Stockwith and Norbriggs, near Staveley. The entire canal was officially opened on 4 June 1777.
During the 1780s the canal’s trading suffered from the national recession caused by the American War of Independence, therefore the first dividend to shareholders was not paid until 1789. After that the Canal Company was reasonably prosperous, and continued to be so until the middle of the 19th century.
The cargoes were varied, but the most famous item carried was stone to rebuild the Houses of Parliament in the 1840s. The quarry was in North Anston and the stone was loaded into canal boats at Dog Kennels Bridge, Kiveton Park. From there it was carried to West Stockwith, and transferred to Trent sloops for the rest of the journey to Westminster, via the Humber, North Sea, and Thames.
The Railway Years and Decline
The Chesterfield Canal Company was one of the few to embrace the new railway age, which most other waterway interests kept at arms length. They formed the clumsily titled Manchester & Lincoln Union Railway and Chesterfield & Gainsborough Canal Company (M&LUR/C&GCC). That concern was swallowed up by the giant Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR) on 9 July 1847. The canal therefore passed into railway ownership.
In 1890-91 the MSLR built a new railway between Beighton and Annesley, the line of which cut across the canal. As a result the canal was straightened in the Renishaw area, and half a mile chopped from its length.
In October 1907 the roof of Norwood Tunnel fell in and it was not re-opened. As a result the canal was cut in two, and eventually working boats went no further than Shireoaks. The coal cargoes from Shireoaks colliery ceased after the Second World War. Then the only boat traffic was occasional cargoes to Worksop, and the carrying of bricks from the kilns at Walkeringham. The brick cargoes ceased in 1955. The last working boats on the canal carried silt from the Trent to Walkeringham where it was dried and sieved, the finished product (warp) was used to polish silver. This traffic ceased about 1962. To the end, all the working boats on the Chesterfield Canal were horse-drawn.
The canal was saved by the 1968 Transport Act which said the 26 miles between Stockwith and Worksop were to be maintained as a “Cruiseway”. This success was the result of vigorous campaigning by the Retford & Worksop Boat Club. However, some people felt that the other 20 miles of the canal should be restored and in 1976 the Chesterfield Canal Society (CCS) was formed to achieve that end. In 1998 the organisation became the Chesterfield Canal Trust (CCT) One of the ways in which public awareness of the canal is heightened is the operation by the CCT of two trip-boats, one of which has a wheelchair lift.
Years of campaigning have now resulted in major restoration projects taking place. There is also the exciting possibility of giving the canal a second outlet for the first time in its history – by making the River Rother navigable between Killamarsh and Rotherham, thereby linking the Chesterfield Canal to the South Yorkshire Navigation.
- A guide to the Chesterfield Canal – available from our Shop by clicking here.
- The Waterways Revolution – From the Peaks to the Trent, 1768-1778. Christine Richardson. 1992. ISBN 1-85421-161-7. A social history of the construction of the Chesterfield Canal – the people involved, their problems and successes.
- The Chesterfield Canal. 2014.Concise history and guide to the canal. Available from our Shop by clicking here.
- Minutes of the Chesterfield Canal Company, 1771-80. Editor, Christine Richardson.1996. ISBN 0-946324-20-4. Transcription of the Company’s only surviving minute-book. The only one published of an 18th century canal.
- The contentious subject of Norwood Tunnel’s length is covered in Brindley’s Triumph, issue 4, Jan 1996.
There has been significant restoration done on the Chesterfield Canal over the years. Some of this work was captured in annual updates which are reproduced in this section.