1) A History of: The Chesterfield Canal
First published: September 2011
Author: Dave Cook, Priories Historical Society
The tranquil setting of the Chesterfield Canal is a familiar sight as it meanders its way through North Nottinghamshire but why was it built and what purpose did it serve?
The need for a cheap and quick route to get goods from Derbyshire to the Trent was a major consideration for companies operating around Chesterfield in the 1700’s. For centuries packhorse routes provided transportation but this was slow and in bad weather delays were common. The solution was to build a new waterway with direct connections to inland ports where goods could be transhipped to larger vessels. The Chesterfield Canal was conceived with three initial routes suggested. This was modified as different landowners wanted the canal to boost their trade. Building permission was granted on 28th March 1771. The contract was awarded to James Brindley (b.1716-d.1772), a civil engineer from Tunstead. The initial cost was estimated at £95,000, raised by selling 1,000 shares at £100 each. Extra shares were sold when shareholders decided to widen the canal between Retford and the Trent to allow larger wide beam vessels to navigate the otherwise narrow canal. Work commenced on 1st October 1771, the first section was navigable in 1774 and formally opened on the 4th of June 1777.Profits were hindered due to a recession caused by the American war of Independence and the first dividends were not paid until 1789. Several extensions to the canal were proposed but none came to fruition leaving the canal isolated.
The lack of natural waterways meant reservoirs such as at Pebly were needed. Later reservoirs at Woodhall and Killamarsh were built to correct the problems of underfeed. The dramatic change in topography between the Peak District and the Humberhead Levels gives two very distinct appearances. It was the first canal to use extensive flights of locks in order to negotiate hilly terrain such as Norwood flight which lowers the canal by 76 feet in 3/4 of a mile. Other parts follow the geography, commonly known as a contour canal.
The canal had a big impact on local communities - jobs and industries developed alongside of the canal and housing for the bargee’s families and warehouses to store goods were essential to its success. Dozens of buildings survive such as the neat terraced houses at Turnerwood and the yellow bricked ‘Pickfords Canal Depository’ near Victoria Square in Worksop.
Coal was important to the canals success. In 1861 a new basin at Shireoaks was dug to transport coal from Duke of Newcastle’s colliery as far away as London. 42,379 tons of coal were transported in 1789 but after a peak in the 1800’s reduced to 15,408 tons by 1905. Shireoaks basin still survives and converted to a marina.
The Barley malting industry grew up around Worksop due to the canal. In 1831 there were 40 maltsters and by 1860 29 separate kilns were noted mainly concentrated along the canal. Most of these were owned by the Worksop & Retford Brewery Company, a major employer in the town. To accommodate the vessels Worksop had a basin but this was filled in and now provides the car park for the Priory Shopping Centre. Several of these buildings still survive and used for a variety of uses.
The most famous loads to come down the canal were magnesian limestone blocks from Anston used for the Houses of Parliament, designed by Charles Barry which replaced the original medieval building that burnt down. Nearly half a million tonnes were quarried and transported from Dog Kennels Bridge to London.
The decline of the canal was a long protracted affair, it came under railway ownership and by 1847 became an asset of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway. They wanted to fill the canal in and convert it into a railway but this was rejected by parliament. The railways removed most trade as transportation times were greatly reduced and greater quantities could be carried. Between 1858 and 1888 freight halved and only 45,000 tons were carried by 1905.
Mining subsidence caused the Norwood Tunnel to collapse on 18th October 1907, effectively cutting the route in two. It had been plagued by problems due to poor construction methods and as early as 1777 the tunnel was sagging due to lack of pressure on the walls. Repairs cost
around £21,000 between 1871 and 1906 and it was deemed too expensive to fix again.
Regular freight up the canal ceased in 1955 and the following year the Committee of Inquiry into Inland Waterways deemed the canal ‘only fit for closure’ noting its bad condition and the overgrowth of weeds. It was agreed to keep the section west of Worksop for water supply purposes only but soon afterwards British Waterways decided to fill in and sell the section between Kiveton and Spinkhill. In 1961 British Waterways formally abandoned the canal. Local fans held a protest cruise and after seven years of campaigning the section between Worksop and the Trent was saved as a cruiseway in 1968.
The future looks bright; The Chesterfield Canal Trust was formed in 1976 and is actively restoring the canal to its past glory by re-digging the missing sections, removing the silt which has built up and restoring the locks and towpaths. The canal is currently navigable between West Stockwith to Norwood Tunnel and Tapton to Chesterfield. Many obstacles have to be negotiated to join both sections such as a new tunnel under the M1 and the new cutting around Norwood Tunnel so barges can once more complete the route to Chesterfield. Their most recent work has been a new basin and town lock at Staveley. The trust has also started work on a replica of one of the original horse drawn narrow barges used on the canal.
The canal is provides a great walking route as well as a cycle path and plenty of places for angling and viewing the local scenery. The Chesterfield Canal Trust provides pleasure barges cruises for the public at Retford and Chesterfield. Volunteers are always welcome. Their website is www.chesterfield-canal-trust.org.uk.