History of the Canals




The Barnsley Canal was the creation of the Aire & Calder undertakers. The prize was the rich coalfield developing around Barnsley and particularly north-west of the town, around Silkstone. If cheap transport by canal could be provided, there was a ready market available for this high quality coal.

The Aire & Calder undertakers were not without rivals. The powerful Don Navigation to the south and the Calder & Hebble to the north-west were also both very interested. The Don proposed a canal from their navigation at Swinton, north to Barnsley, and on to Barnby near Silkstone. The Calder & Hebble put forward a difficult route from Horbury, past Bretton to Haigh and Barnsley with 23 locks and a 1.5 mile tunnel.

It all began in July 1792 when the Aire & Calder asked their engineers to suggest a route and make an estimate. Aire & Calder engineers William Martin, John Gott and Elias Wright made the initial survey. They came up with a rough estimate of £50,000 to build what was eventually to be the Barnsley Canal. The eminent engineer William Jessop checked the route and estimate and began his close association with the project, which was to become the 3rd of his great canals, the Grand Junction, the Rochdale and the Barnsley.

At a public meeting on 15 October 1792 at the White Bear (now the Royal Hotel) in Barnsley the conflict with the Don Navigation was resolved. It was agreed that the Don would promote what became the Dearne & Dove Canal from Swinton to a junction with the Barnsley at Hoyle Mill and that the Barnsley's Act would provide certain assurances regarding traffic to the Dearne & Dove from the Barnsley's proposed line from Barnsley through Barugh to Barnby Basin.

The Calder & Hebble problem was not resolved until the Barnsley Act reached Parliament. The Barnsley included a proposed branch from Barugh northwards up the Dearne Valley to Haigh with 7 locks. Parliament agreed that the Barnsley should drop this branch and the Calder & Hebble should not be opposed if they applied to build their Horbury to Barugh line. This was not in fact ever built.

The Barnsley Act was passed in June 1793. Share capital was set at £80,000 with the Aire & Calder undertakers taking £20,000 to meet the estimated cost which Jessop now put at £72,000. William Jessop was the consulting engineer and Samuel Hartley the resident engineer, supervising the day to day work. The Company Chairman was Walter Spencer Stanhope of Cannon Hall, the owner of most of the land above the Silkstone coal.

The contractor was John Pinkerton who had worked on other navigations with Jessop. The Pinkertons, who came from Cawthorne near Barnsley, had become one of the biggest of the early canal contractors after starting in 1768 on the Driffield Navigation. The Pinkertons' relationship with the Barnsley Canal Company was not a happy one. They soon ran into increasing costs, particularly in Notton cutting, and were frequently in dispute with the resident engineer. They also unwisely trusted their long-standing relationship with Jessop who, in the event, was not able to convince the Company of his recommended payments. The result was that the Pinkertons lost on the contract and became involved in a long legal battle with the Company which was only settled, in favour of the Company, in 1812.

The first sod was ceremonially cut at Heath near Wakefield on 27 September 1793 and work began on building 16 miles of canal with 5' of depth. There were 15 locks between the River Calder at Heath and the summit at Walton. The summit level ran through Royston, Monk Bretton and Barnsley to Barugh. There, a further 5 locks were built to lift the canal to the terminus at Barnby Basin. All the locks were built to accommodate boats 58' long and 14'10" wide. A reservoir was built at Wintersett and the level above Barugh Locks was maintained by an engine pumping water back up the locks. The Barnsley Act expressly forbade the Company taking water from the Dearne system at Barugh or Barnby Basin.

The crossing of the Dearne Valley at Hoyle Mill south-east of Barnsley had originally been proposed by an embankment and a single arch over the river. Soon after work started Jessop changed his mind and proposed the aqueduct with 5 30' arches which became the most prominent structure on the completed canal. Jessop also applied an important principle to the locks. He designed them to have equal falls, 7.5' on the Walton/Agbrigg locks and 8' on the Barugh ones, and accurately similar dimensions so that one lock when emptied precisely filled the next, without waste of water, and lock gates were interchangeable.

The work from the River Calder to Barnsley took almost 6 years. This section was opened on 8 June 1799. The section from Barnsley to Barnby Basin was not begun until late 1798 and was finished in early 1802. The Dearne & Dove reached the Hoyle Mill Junction on 12 November 1804. The Barnsley Canal had cost £95,000.

Traffic on it started quietly and the Company soon ran into problems. Barnby Basin was somewhat distant from most of the Silkstone collieries and about half the coal in any case went down the Dearne & Dove. Then in 1807, Barnby Colliery itself failed. The main problem was that the Company had run out of money before it could build the proposed £4000 tramway from Barnby Basin up to Silkstone. In 1808 the Company obtained a second Act authorising increased capital and toll charges. This proposed an additional £60 call on each £100 share which induced some panic selling amongst shareholders. They need not have worried, because in 1809 the first dividend was paid and in 1810 the tramroad was completed.

Between 1802 and 1813 coal traffic increased from 5,093 to 109,945 tons and corn traffic (up the canal to Barnsley mills) from 4,219 to 36,107 quarters. The long standing practice of "coal down and corn up" was thus established. Another arrangement which was to last a long time was the imposition of a toll from Barnby to the Dearne & Dove junction which was greater than that for the much longer journey from the junction to the River Calder.

Various improvements were made to the canal. In 1816 the line of the canal near the River Calder was moved to the west from the Oakenshaw Beck and a new entrance lock built by the River Calder to replace the old one further inland. Between 1828 and 1830 bridges were raised to accommodate "billy boys, coasting and other vessels". In 1836 the depth of the canal was increased to 7' by raising the banks.

Water supply was a great problem. The Don Navigation had repeatedly to prevent the Barnsley Canal Company taking water from the Dearne system at Barugh and Barnby Basin. A pumping engine was installed in 1803 below Wintersett Reservoir which was used to pump surplus water from the canal into the Wintersett Reservoir and eventually water from the Cold Hiendley reservoir, which was at a lower level, up into the canal. The Wintersett Reservoir was enlarged in 1807. In 1821 John Rennie was asked to survey a proposed reservoir in the Silkstone valley which was never built. In 1840 the Company bought land at Cold Hiendley for a second reservoir. This Cold Hiendley Reservoir, between the canal and the Wintersett Reservoir, was finally built in 1854. In 1874 the reservoirs were increased by 55 acres.

In 1817 toll revenue reached a peak of £16,687; £13,688 from the canal and £2999 from tramroads. Then the new railways began to have an impact. First to arrive was the North Midland in 1840 from Derby to Rotherham to Leeds, which followed the canal closely from Cudworth to Agbrigg. The Barnsley Coal Railway, which passed under one of the arches of the aqueduct, was another serious rival after 1863. Another, rather strangely, was the Darlington and York Railway.

The Silkstone collieries had built up a lucrative trade sending coal by boat to Ripon, Boroughbridge and York, amounting to about 50,000 tons a year. The railway from Darlington was able to supply Durham coal to these areas much cheaper. Finally in 1846 the Silkstone mine began to send coal to Oxspring, on the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railways.

Between 1845 and 1854 there was a series of involved negotiations over the future of the Barnsley Canal between the Company and various canal and railway interests. The Company proved particularly stubborn and, in the end, foolish. On 1 December 1854 the canal was leased to the Aire & Calder Navigation for £2880 per annum, far less that their original offer 8 years before.

The Aire & Calder made strenuous efforts to make the canal pay and, conversely, the Barnsley contributed much to the Aire & Calder's survival. Barnsley coal was sent to Goole for shipping by coaster or for export. Between 1855 and 1863 coal traffic on the Barnsley increased from 179,295 to 291,313 tons. In 18B9, 9 firms were still shipping coal from 10 collieries above the Dearne & Dove junction but very little was coming from above Barugh.

The canal was finally transferred totally to the Aire & Calder on 17 August 1871. The Transfer Act also authorized, if required, an inclined plane from near the southern end of the 3rd Walton lock (from the top) to the northern end of the lowest, bypassing 10 of the 12 locks. This was not built. In 1874 a new pumping engine was installed at the reservoirs. This was built by Harveys of Hayle and worked until 1946. Between 1879 and 1881 the locks, except those at Barugh, were lengthened to take craft 79' long and 14'10" wide. In 1889 the inclined plane powers were renewed. By an Act in 1893, 5 locks and 2 miles of canal above Barugh wharf were abandoned.

Traffic held up well until 1914, when 192,406 tons were carried, but then began to decline steadily as rail and road took over and canal side collieries were worked out and closed. However, even in 1943, 856 craft passed Royston electric lift bridge, installed in 1934 by the West Riding County Council. Traffic was brisker than on many similar canals. The Dearne & Dove was closed in 1934.

The biggest problem was the cost of repairs caused by subsidence, inevitable on a canal running through and depending on a coal field. As early as 1866 there had been problems with the aqueduct and in November 1911 part of the aqueduct and its embankment failed altogether. The canal was closed until July 1912. The banks of the canal in affected areas had to be continually built up at considerable expense.

In June 1945 a large leak at the aqueduct flooded a nearby colliery and cost £2375 in compensation. Finally, on 22 November 1946 the canal burst at Littleworth, a mile below the Dearne & Dove junction. Fifty three million gallons of water escaped leaving a gap 43' wide and 11' deep and compensation of £3500 to pay. The canal was not repaired and the end was in sight.

The owners of the canal decided that it would be cheaper to close it and compensate existing users rather than keep it in existence. In May 1947 provisional consent was given to total abandonment.

On 7 December 1950 the last boat passed Royston Bridge. On 10 June 1952 the last boat used Heath Lock. In 1953 the final abandonment warrant was obtained and the aqueduct was demolished as potentially unsafe in 1954. For 150 years the canal had depended for its prosperity on coal. The mining of that coal finally brought about its downfall.


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