[Photo: The start of the Dearne & Dove is now a working boatyard.]
Barnsley is no longer on the waterways map. But in the 1790s, three prosperous canal companies had their sights on the town, and more to the point, its important coal reserves.
The proprietors of the Aire & Calder, Calder & Hebble, and the Don Navigation (now the Sheffield & South Yorkshire) all saw their waterways pass within a tantalising distance of this lucrative coalfield. The Calder & Hebble would have faced the most geographic obstacles: sensibly, it abandoned the proposal.
[Photo: The Dearne & Dove's unnavigable locks at Swinton.]
Both the A&C and the Don, however, were keen to proceed. They met on neutral ground , Barnsley's White Bear Inn, on 20th October 1792. In a rare example of canal company co-operation, they agreed that their new cuts would converge at Hoyle Mill, near Barnsley. For the first time, there would be a direct water route between the heart of the West Riding and the industrial Don Valley - saving a long journey on tidal waters.
The Aire & Calder-inspired undertaking was first to the title of the Barnsley Canal, and the first to reach Barnsley, in 1799. Its canal was built to the standard local dimensions of 58ft x 14ft. Competently engineered by William Jessop, it rose through 15 locks to Barnsley, with a further flight of five on an extension to Barnby which opened in 1802. As on the nearby Rochdale Canal, on which Jessop had done some preparatory work, each lock had an equal rise. This made gate replacement easier, and reduced water loss.
The Don Navigation's party was not finding its task so easy. Jessop was too busy to help, so its new canal was forced to rely on less experienced engineers. With 18 locks, a tunnel, difficult terrain along the sides of the valleys which gave the canal its name - the Dearne & Dove - and two branches, construction was expensive and funds insufficient. In 1804, the new navigation finally reached Hoyle Mill and the Barnsley Canal. The route was complete.
[Photo: The canal can be easily followed along the signposted trails.]
The harmony between the two companies was not to last. The Barnsley Canal with its short summit at Barnby Basin, was vulnerable to water shortages in hot summers. The infant River Dearne was only a short distance away, and could theoretically be tapped for supplies - but not if the Don Navigation, whose main line was fed by the Dearne, had anything to do with it. Eventually, the Barnsley Canal Company invested in a series of reservoirs and pumping engines.
Most of the pits were sited near the first few miles of the Barnsley Canal, before the junction with the Dearne & Dove. The Barnsley Canal Company milked its monopoly, charging high tolls for this section: its rates were more reasonable after the junction, where carriers had the option of using the Dearne & Dove.
[Map: Barnsley Canal and Dearne & Dove Canal.]
But competition between the two waterways proved a mere sideshow to the threat posed by the railways, which first arrived in the 1840s. By then, the two canals were bringing so much traffic to the main lines that neither the Aire & Calder nor the Don trustees were willing to give up without a fight.
They started by assuming full control of the two canal companies in which they had long been the most influential shareholders. The Don Navigation bought the Dearne & Dove in 1846: the Barnsley Canal Company held out for more money, but finally fell to the Aire & Calder in 1854.
The A&C immediately began a remarkable programme of improvements. The Barnsley had already been deepened to 7ft; now the A&C lengthened the locks to 79ft, built more reservoirs, and as late as 1890, planned an inclined plane to bypass the long Walton Flight. The investment paid off, and the coal boats kept running.
[Photo: Much of the Barnsley canal is still in water, as here near Royston.]
The Don Navigation had fallen prey to railway interests, and soon lost interest in the Dearne & Dove. The mines which once made the canal so prosperous were to become its downfall; subsidence required costly repairs, which the toll income would not cover. The last through passage was in 1934.
The Aire & Calder was more willing to meet the cost of subsidence on the Barnsley Canal. But in 1945 the constant flow of worries became a torrent - literally. Jessop's stone aqueduct failed, followed by a nearby embankment, landing the owners with expensive bills for compensation from flooded factories. Abandonment seemed the only rational course. The aqueduct was blown up in the name of safety, and in time, industrial developments took over the route of the canals.
[Photo: A preserved bridge on the Barnsley Canal at Cold Hiendley.]
Despite this, much of interest survived. At Swinton, where the Dearne & Dove met the Don, trade from a glassworks just above the junction ensured the survival of the first flight of locks. Though this traffic ceased in the 1970s, the locks are still used as dry-docks by the celebrated carriers Waddingtons. A recent Landfill Tax grant has paid for further improvements above the flight.
Restoration work so far has centred on the Elsecar Branch, which - almost uniquely on the Dearne & Dove - survives in water. New lock gates have been installed, the terminus basin restored, and a slipway built.
It is perhaps the Barnsley Canal, though, which offers most hope for the future. Apart from a short section at Walton, the northern half of the canal remains in water, with a cycling and walking route along the towpath. British Waterways has floated ideas of a new marina at the junction with the Aire & Calder, where the first three locks would be restored.
Building on the work of the earlier Barnsley Canal Group, the Barnsley Dearne & Dove Canals Trust is now campaigning for full restoration. Last summer, it took local councillors on a tour of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal - holding up Stalybridge as a glowing example of how a restored canal can revitalise a run-down urban area. Restoring the Barnsley and Dearne & Dove is likely to prove even more of a challenge, but these canals have at last embarked on the long journey back to life.
For details on the Canals Trust, visit www.barnsleydearnedovecanals.org.uk, or write to 39 Hill Street, Elsecar, Barnsley S74 8EN.
Reproduced with kind permission from the publishers of
CANAL BOAT & INLAND WATERWAYS magazine.