History of the Canals




Before the arrival of the canals, Barnsley was served by transport along very poor roads. One route ran from the wharf at Swinton on the Don Navigation, which had been completed in 1751, through the villages of Wath and Wombwell, up the Dearne Valley to Barnsley. Good coal seams had been found around Barnsley, particularly in the valleys running westwards from the River Dearne, around Elsecar, Worsbrough and Silkstone. Quite suddenly, in 1792, competing proposals were made to exploit this coal by the construction of canals.

In August 1792, the Don Navigation Company resolved to try and make the River Dearne navigable up to Barnsley. This navigation would have left the Don below Mexborough and followed the river valley, through the Darfield gap, to Barnsley and on up the valley to Barugh and to Haigh. Simultaneously, the Aire and Calder Navigation in the north put forward proposals for what became the Barnsley Canal from the River Calder at Wakefield to Barnsley and up the valley to Barugh. Very soon, the Calder and Hebble Navigation joined the fray, with a very difficult proposal for a canal from Horbury over the high watershed at Bretton and down into the Dearne valley at Haigh.

On 20 October 1792, the rival promoters from the Don and the Aire & Calder held a famous meeting at the White Bear Inn (now the Royal Hotel) in Barnsley and agreed to join their canals just south of Barnsley at Hoyle Mill and go forward with separate but complementary proposals. The Dearne & Dove proposals had now Changed radically. A canal from the transhipment wharf at Swinton was suggested. This Climbed over the high ground above Swinton through a 472 yard tunnel, into the Dearne Valley. It then clung along the valley side, climbing eventually to the summit at Stairfoot before emerging again into the Dearne Valley, high above the river, to reach the junction with the Barnsley Canal. There were two long branches, each with a reservoir, in the valleys leading to Elsecar and Worsbrough. The promoters of the Barnsley Canal agreed to extend their line northwards from Barugh up the Dearne Valley to Haigh. This extension, which was never actually built, was partly put forward to forestall the Calder & Hebble proposals.

The two Acts, for the Dearne & Dove and the Barnsley, were passed by Parliament on the same day in June 1793. The Calder & Hebble had been persuaded to withdraw their proposals. Share capital of £60,000 was agreed for the Dearne & Dove and the demand for the purchase of shares was so high that a split was agreed of one third to landowners on the line of the canal, one third to residents within seven miles and one third to Don Navigation shareholders. A further mortgage facility of £30,000 was incorporated in the Act.

Construction started immediately in the charge of engineer Robert Mylne. Engineers involved at an earlier stage included John Thompson, William Fairbank and Robert Whitworth. William Jessop, who had overall charge of the Barnsley Canal proposals, declined an invitation for involvement in the Dearne & Dove because of lack of time. On 3 December 1798 the canal was opened from Swinton to the end of the Elsecar Branch. This Branch was partly financed by £5000 lent by the colliery owner, the Earl Fitzwilliam. The proposal in the Act for a lockless Elsecar Branch involving deep cuttings was changed in 1796 to a more realistic line with six locks.

Construction costs by August 1797 had used up the share capital of £60,000 and the company was unable to persuade anyone to lend them money on the authorised mortgage. They staggered on until 1800 when a further Act authorised an extra £30,000 call on shareholders and mortgage facilities of £10,000. Construction was continuing slowly. On 1 January 1799 the canal was opened to the foot of Stairfoot Eight Locks at Aldham, three miles from Barnsley. It was not until 12 November 1804, eleven years after construction began, that the canal was completed to the junction with the Barnsley Canal. The latter had reached Barnsley five years earlier in 1799.

The dimensions of the canal provided locks big enough to accommodate typical Don Navigation vessels (58 feet x 14 feet 10 inches) and a rather miserly average depth along the canal of 4 feet 6 inches. The main line from Swinton to Hoyle Mill was slightly under 10 miles long with 18 locks in three groups, 6 at Swinton, 4 below the Elsecar junction and 8 below the Worsbrough junction. The total rise was 127 feet, an average of 7 feet at each lock. There was also a stop lock at the Barnsley junction. The Elsecar Branch, slightly over 2 miles long, had 6 locks rising 48 feet and a reservoir. The 2 mile Worsbrough Branch had no locks and a much larger reservoir to feed the summit. The final cost was £100,000.

The main traffic down the canal was, of course, coal. A thriving market for this coal was developed in Lincolnshire. Other merchandise included lime, limestone, pig iron, timber and, particularly, corn which increased considerably as the population increased. In 1810, 73,384 tons were carried, of which 22,395 tons (30%) came off the Barnsley Canal, 26,462 tons (36%) off the Elsecar Branch and 20,312 tons (28%) off the Worsbrough Branch. The remaining 4215 tons (6%) were presumably picked up along the main line. By 1830 the Canal was carrying 181,000 tons each year. This represents the passage of about 70 fifty ton boats along the canal each week or, put another way, some 12 boats might pass along the canal each day in each direction.

To provide water for this traffic, the Worsbrough reservoir depth was increased in 1826 by 42 feet and its acreage from 20 to 42. However, all was not well. In 1833 the Don Navigation complained of the lack of depth in the canal compared with the Barnsley Canal. Then in 1840 the first railway arrived, the North Midland from Rotherham to Normanton. This had one benefit for the Dearne & Dove. The railway cutting alongside the Adwick canal tunnel necessitated the realignment of the canal and the replacement of the tunnel by a joint canal/railway cutting.

As a consequence of the railway competition, the Canal Company reduced their tolls by one third in 1841. Then in 1846 the Don Navigation bought out the Canal Company. Four years later, in 1850, the Don Navigation was amalgamated with the South Yorkshire railway which in turn became part of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway in 1874. Finally, in 1894 the canal interests were split off to form a new company, the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation.

The Dearne & Dove Canal was always, after the arrival of the railways, a liability to whoever owned it. In 1884 a 25 yard breach occurred on the Worsbrough Branch which cost £19,000 and 6 months to repair. The whole canal was expensive to maintain because of mining subsidence and traffic was continually declining. This contrasted with the Barnsley Canal where, under Aire and Calder control, the locks were lengthened to 79 feet and the headroom and depth increased to successfully encourage sufficient traffic to offset the heavy maintenance costs.

Although the Dearne & Dove's decline was continuous, small sections of it remained in existence for longer than the Barnsley Canal. Abandonment began in 1906 with the closure of the Worsbrough Branch to navigation, although water was still fed to the summit. Also in 1906, the S & SYN formally abandoned the attempt to maintain any more than 42 feet depth on the summit. By 1909, the canal owners began to permit the mining of coal from under the canal. Vain attempts to prevent subsidence were thus ended. In 1928 the Elsecar Branch was closed following subsidence. In 1934 the last boat navigated through to Barnsley and the main line was closed except for almost a mile at Barnsley and the same distance at the other end from Manvers Main Colliery to Swinton. In 1934 the S & SYN obtained an Abandonment Bill but did not put it into effect. It was reported that 10 feet of coal had been taken from under the Canal.

In 1942 the remaining section near Barnsley was closed but up to 1952 there was coal and tar traffic from Manvers Main Colliery to Swinton. Finally, in 1961, by a British Transport Commission Act, the canal was abandoned except for the last half mile and four locks at Swinton. These were maintained to supply materials and water to the glassworks at Swinton. Water can still be pumped up from the S & SYN and the locks still exist, the first two forming Waddington's boatyard. The last boat up the locks to the glassworks, at the end of 1977, was Ablen, Captain 'Deafy' White.


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