Levelling up? The Dearne and Dove Canal

Illustration of the second Cutlers Hall in Sheffield, built 1725, demolished 1832, from Robert Eadon Leader [1839-1922], History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, in the County of York, Volume 1, Sheffield: Pawson & Brailsford, 1905, p.184

At 10 o’clock in the morning, on Wednesday 29th August 1792, the Company of Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Dun held a meeting at the Cutler’s Hall in Sheffield.

Red dot indicates Cutler’s Hall on Plan of Sheffield, based on William Fairbank’s survey of 1771, on revised 1775 Jeffreys map of Yorkshire. (Courtesy of a private collection)

Chairing the meeting that day was the Reverend James Wilkinson (1730-1805), a River Dun Navigation shareholder, and prominent public figure; Vicar of Sheffield and a Justice of the Peace for the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire.

Portrait of Reverend James Wilkinson, MA (1730-1805). Painted 1790s. Sheffield Magistrates’ Court, PCF1

The business before them was discussing how to connect inland centres of industry in South Yorkshire with the River Dun Navigation, and to extend the navigable sections to enable boats to transport minerals and manufactured goods out to the Humber.

Floating a deal: the unnavigable country between Barnsley and Swinton, with the River Dearne and feeding streams shown. Hemingfield at the centre. Detail of Jeffreys map of Yorkshire (Environs of Barnsley…, published 25 March 1775, courtesy of a private collection)

Connecting the River Don (historically also referred to as the Dun) at Swinton to Barnsley by creating a new canal would allow trade to flourish, and goods and minerals from the coalfield to reach new markets. The meeting resolved that:

“the making a Navigable Cut or Canal from the River Dun, up to Barnsley, will be of great public utility, as well to the trade carried on in and about Barnsley, as also, on account of the great quantity of Coal which may be got in that neighbourhood, and which would afford a regular supply to the towns and places, usually served from the River Dun; and that it is very proper for the Proprietors of the River Dun to use their best endeavours to forward the making of said canal.”

Resolution of meeting of company of Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Dun, 29/8/1792, published in The Sheffield Advertiser, No.1694, 14/9/1792

Empire of the Dun?

By the 1790s the Company of Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Dun were an affluent regional undertaking, having been established to improve the River Don, widening and deepening and engineering safely-navigable stretches of the river from above Thorne, up at the edge of the Humber, all the way down towards Doncaster, and on towards Rotherham, and, eventually, to Sheffield.

1793 map showing the River Don (Dun) from the Dutch River down to Rotherham (J. Cary Publisher, courtesy of a Private collection)

In many ways the River Dun company marked a shift in the funding of major transport improvements across the United Kingdom; away from towns and borough project, and over to larger companies with significant powers to borrow large sums of money from a wider body of willing investors. As T.S. Willan, historian of early inland navigation noted:

Men became aware that the individual no longer either could or would bear the strain of sole financing, and that in his place must be evolved a more complex form of capitalist enterprise. It was largely a transition from undertakers who had the money to those who borrowed it.

Willan, Thomas S., River Navigation in England, 1600-1750, London: Frank Cass, 1964

How did it come about? After many years of negotiations with riverside landowners, and seeing off oppostion from neighbouring navigations like the Trent and Ouse, in 1725 the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire and the Town Trustees of Sheffield succeeded in obtaining a local act of parliament entitled ‘An Act for making the River Dun in the West Riding of the County of York navigable, from Holmstile in Doncaster up to the utmost Extent of Tinsley, Westward, a Township within two Miles of Sheffield.‘ (12 George I, c. 38)

The Arms and Crest (in black and white) of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire with the latin motto 'Pour parvenir a bonne foi'.
Arms and crest of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire (from Industries of Sheffield and District, Sheffield Northern Caxton Pub Co., 1905)

This act gave powers to start to improve the River Don, allowing boats to sail down to Doncaster year-round, and gradually, through further expensive works, onwards down towards Rotherham. The costs to be recouped from taking dues from the hundreds of traders carrying goods on the managed waterways.

The following year, 1726 the incorporated Borough of Doncaster secured ‘An Act for improving the Navigation of the River from a Place called Holmstile, in the Township of Doncaster in the County of York, to Wilsick House in the Parish Barmby Dun in the said County.‘ (13 George I, c. 20)

Detail of seal used by the incorporated borough Doncaster (amended from Tomlinson, John, Doncaster from the Roman Occupation to the Present Time, Doncaster, 1887, Facing p.191

A measure to secure Doncaster’s own maritime commercial interests, the two towns mutually agreed to improve and manage the stretches  of the river Don navigation below each town. A position later formalised when they agreed to combine their interests as undertakers, obtaining a further Act in 1733 ‘An Act to explain and amend Two Acts of Parliament, One made in the Twelfth, and the other in the Thirteenth, Year of His late Majesty’s Reign, for making navigable the River Dun, in the County of York, and for the better perfecting and maintaining the said Navigation, and for uniting the several Proprietors thereof into One Company‘  (6 Geo II c.9)

Limiting the direct exposure of each town to the capital demands on the thousands of pounds worth of improvements needed, the newly united Company of Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Dun was, from 24th June 1733, composed of 150 shares, each of £115, drawing The Company of Cutlers of Hallamshire, Sheffield’s Town Trustees, the Corporation of Doncaster, together with many private landowners and wealthy merchants.

Ennobled River! Now the sail 
Expanding shivers in the gale;
The streamer wanton flies; -
The busy hum is heard around, The stately vessel quits the ground And to thy bosom hies.

Thence to old HUMBER's parent breast
'Tis thine to guide the gallant guest,
And bid it dare explore
What Ocean shows of great or good,
From DUN's green margin, HUMBER's flood,
To Earth's remotest shore.

From 'Stanzas to the River Dun', Barbara Hoole, Poems, Sheffield: James Montgomery, 1805, pp.10-11

The Teaming of rivals: The Aire and Calder & the Barnsley Canal

Emblem of the Aire and Calder Navigation
Company emblem of the Aire and Calder Navigation

Shortly before the Dun Navigation Company’s meeting in Sheffield, their main regional competitor, the Aire and Calder Navigation Company had also come forward with its own plans to unlock Barnsley’s landlocked coal by building a connective canal from their own navigation in Wakefield down to Barnsley.

The Don Navigation was quick to respond Tuesday 16th October 1792, at another General Meeting of the Company at the Cutler’s Hall. This meeting was chaired by Richard Ellison, from a Lincolnshire family who had largely made their fortunes from investments in inland navigation. He had traveled from the family mansion at Sudbrooke Holme to attend to business as part of the Committee appointed for managing the business of the intended canal from Swinton to Barnby Bridge and Haigh Bridge. They resolved:

…in order to avoid the obvious impropriety of paralel lines, to prevent a useless waste of land, and an unnecessary expenditure of money, to propose to the promoters of the said Wakefield Canal, that a junction of the two intended Canals should take place at some convenient point at or near Barnsley, and that a Canal so united, should be extended upon Terms afterwards to be settled, up to Barnby and Haigh Bridges, by which means an equal accomodation would be afforded to the Country and the Public, on a less burthensome system of Tonnage.

From Minutes of Proceedings for the effecting a canal navigation from Swinton to Barnby Bridge, and to Haigh Bridge, &c.’ [1792-1823] Wakefield, WYAS, C299/8/4/1, p.1

On Saturday 20th October 1792 at the White Hart Inn in Wakefield a joint meeting was held between a Committee of Proprietors of the Rivers Aire and Calder and of a Committee of Proprietors of the River Dun.

A Committee of the Proprietors of the Aire and Calder Navigation:

  • John Smyth [Gentleman, of Heath Hall, Wakefield, 1748-1811],
  • Walter Spencer Stanhope [MP of Leeds, 1749-1822],
  • John Lee [Lawyer of Wakefield, 1759-1836];
John Smyth, M.P. of Heath Hall, Wakefield (1748-1811), by Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787). 1773 oil painting now at York Art Gallery, York Museums Trust (YORAG: 1482). Purchased with the assistance of the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of York Art Gallery, the York Civic Trust, the York Georgian Society, and an anonymous benefactor, 1996.
Walter Spencer Stanhope M.P. (1749-1822), by John Hoppner (1758–1810). 1784 oil painting in the collection of Cannon Hall Museum, Barnsley Museums, (BMBC.CH.2355). Donated by the Fraser Family. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence (CC BY-NC)

Committee for the Dun Navigation:

Detail of bust supposed to be of Samuel Shore (1738-1828), sculped by Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey (1781-1842) in 1817. Victoria and Albert Museum, A.66-1965. Given by Rupert Gunnis, Esq.
  • Richard Ellison [Gentleman of Sudbrooke Holme, Lincolnshire, 1754-1827]
  • Samuel Shore [Gentleman of Norton Hall, formerly Derbyshire, now in Sheffield, 1738-1828],
  • Thomas Walker [?]
  • John Ellison [Banker, of Thorne, brother of Richard, 1764-1810]
  • Reverend Francis Cripps [Minister of Leeds Trinity Church, 1763-1801]
  • Gamaliel Milner [Gentleman of Attercliffe Hall, Sheffield, 1747-1825]
  • Robert Cutforthay [Gentleman of Rotherham, 1749-1799]

Who all agreed:

That a Canal from the River Dun at or near Swinton to some convenient place of junction with the above proposed Canal at or near Barnsley be put in Execution by the River Dun Company and those who may become subscribers thereto.
That the said junction be formed on the principle of a level canal to be contrived by Mr Jessop and Mr Milne the two Engineers for the respective canals…

Agreement 20th Oct 1792, at Wakefield, from Minutes of Proceedings for the effecting a canal navigation from Swinton to Barnby Bridge, and to Haigh Bridge, &c.’ [1792-1823] Wakefield, WYAS, C299/8/4/1, p.3

Enter the Engineers

Portrait of William Jessop, Engineer to Barnsley Canal, from Quarterly papers on engineering, Volume 1, 1864
Robert Mylne (1733-1811) Architect and Engineer (figure from The Master masons to the Crown of Scotland and their works, Edinburgh, Scott & Ferguson, 1893, facing p.261)

In December 1792 Robert Mylne left London bound for Yorkshire. He rode out to Thorne to meet the Dun Navigation’s own engineer Mr John Tompson and to survey the prospective route for the proposed Dearne and Dove Canal.

By 5th April 1793 the House of Commons Journal records the Dearne and Dove engineers’ representations to Parliament in support of the Petitioners for the new canal Bill.

To prove the Allegations of the said Petition, Mr John Thompson, an Engineer, being examined, said, That from a Survey he has lately taken, it is practicable to make a Canal for the Navigation of Boats and other Vessels, from the River Dun Navigation Cut, in the Township of Swinton, to or near to Silkstone, in the West Riding of the County of York; with Two Collateral Cuts to extend to certain Places in the Townships of Barnesley and Hoyland, described in the Petition; and that the making and maintaining of such Canal and Collateral Cuts, with proper Towing Paths, Railways, and other Roads leading to the same, will open and easy Communication between several valuable Coal Mines and the Towns of Rotherham and Sheffield, the Port of Hull, several Parts of the Counties of York and Lincoln, and the Country with which the said intended Canal and Collateral Branches will communicate, by means of the River Dun; and will facilitate the Conveyance of Timber, Stone, Limestone, Lead, Iron, Corn, Groceries, and other Articles, and tend to the Improvement of the adjacent Lands, and also be of Public Utility

– Then, Mr Robert Milne, Engineer, being examined, confirmed the Evidence of Mr. Thompson, with respect to the Practicability of making the said proposed  Canal and Collateral Cuts.

Ordered, that Leave be given to bring in a Bill for making and maintaining a Navigable Canal from the River Dun Navigation Cut, in the Township of Swinton, to or near the Town of Barnesley, in the Parish of Silkstone, in the West Riding of the County of York, and certain Collateral Cuts branching out of the said Canal; And that Mr Wilberforce and Mr Duncombe do prepare, and bring in, the same.

Journals of the House of Commons
Volume 48, p.652 (17th April 1793)

Joining the company – 1792

The Dearne and Dove Canal company was initially formed at a meeting held on 22nd Oct 1792, when the first call for subscriptions for shares was made, and the monies needed to proceed in the surveys and plans as well as petition for an Act of Parliament.

After the passage of the Dearne and Dove Bill into law in June, the first General Meeting of the Dearne and Dove Canal Compay took place on 4th July 1793 at the Red Lion Inn in Rotherham. The Chair was taken by Richard Ellison, and the officers of the company were appointed officially (the same gentlemen performed the same roles before the passing of the Act), and their pay was set out as the real business of canal building began:

  • Mr William Stanley – Treasurer and Agent Accountant, £100 per annum (Stanley unfortunately died later that year)
  • Mr William Hoyle – Law Agent to the Company, £50 per annum
  • Mr John Tompson, engineer – also working for the Dun Navigation and the Stainforth and Keadby Canal Co.

After the first General Meeting, the first operative meeting of a Committee of the Dearne and Dove Canal Co. Took place on 12th July at the Bull’s Head in Brampton Bierlow, in the Parish of Wath upon Dearne. On that occasion the engineer was given the green light:

Resolved, that Mr Thompson the Engineer, do, as soon as he possibly can stake out the Land necessary to be used for the intended Canal and towing paths from the River Dun Navigation Cut at Swinton, to the Lands of Joseph Marshall in the Township of Wombwell, and from thence along the Branch up to Cobcar Ing.

Quoted from p.54 of ‘Minutes of Proceedings for the effecting a canal navigation from Swinton to Barnby Bridge, and to Haigh Bridge, &c.’ [1792-1823]  Wakefield, WYAS, C299/8/4/1 (12th July 1793)
Detail from ‘A Plan of the intended Dearne and Dove Canal, describing the Branches from it with the adjacent Rivers & Brooks. John Tompson Engineer, & William Fairbank, Surveyor, 1793’ (CC BY – Museo Naval – Colección Mendoza, MN 142-19, BVPB, Spain)

Power to the (wrong) people?

Despite becoming an Act, there was still local opposition to the new canal. The opponents appealed to the small land owners affected. It was a political as well as economic appeal, as those small owners also constituted the (male) voting electorate, in a period before significant parliamentary and electoral reform in the United Kingdom.

The small landowners none-too-subtly pointed out the inequities of Canal legislation, providing compulsory purchase powers to support the Canal promoters’ aims. They contrast the vested interests of the landed aristocracy, the Peers of the realm, who might also just happen to be the major coal and mineral owners locally; significant financial beneficiaries of inland navigation, both from the expansion of their own trade as well as the dividends from canal shares. Silently pointing the finger towards Wentworth, they protested:

To the smaller Proprietors of Land in Great Britain, and particularly those of the Parishes through which the Dearne and Dove Canal is intended to be cut.

[…] This act has now passed the Legislature, and powers are granted in it not only to enable the Company of Proprietors to force the land-owners to sell them their property, but to give every coal owner within a certain distance of the canal, a right to demand the sale of land from every proprietor between the coal and the canal, for the purpose of a rail-road, by which his coal is to be transported from the mine to the water.

[…] Thus the land-owners of Wath are to have their estates invaded to double the extent of the land owners of any other township. And why? Because it would seem the Lord of the Manor is a Peer of Parliament – Equality of Rights! …

A YORKSHIRE FREEHOLDER.   Doncaster, July 20, 1793

The Patriot, 17th July 1793, pp.267-276

Making the cut

Navigator’s grafting spade and shovel

And so the digging began, the cutting of the canal, embanking the sides from the excavated material; working suitable loamy soil and earth into an impermeable mass of puddled clay, which could be used in lining the canal.

Level cutting a canal, by excavating between E-L and down to E-F and L-G, to create embankments A-B-C-E and L-I-K-P (figure from Rees Encyclopaedia)
Wheelbarrow used by labourers working on canals and river navigations (known as navigators, or ‘navvies’) (Rees Encyclopaedia)

On time and on budget…

Progress was slow. 1793-1796 was a period of frantic canal building – Canal mania. Engineers where busy, skilled labourers in great demand. The Swinton end of the canal, where it joined the Dun Navigation (River Don) made progress, but the first branch, towards Elsecar had still not got going. An impatient Canal Committee resolved:

The line of the Canal from Knollbeck to Cobcar Ing, not having been yet set out, Ordered that Mr Tompson do set out the same without further delay and that the Locks and Bridges on that Line be also proceeded in immediately.

Resolution of an impatient Committee on the Dearne and Dove Canal, 12 Feb 1795

Unfortunately Tompson was ill at this time and did not return to the work before his death, leaving the Dun Navigation and the newly-cutting Dearne and Dove without a resident engineer. The Committee asked Robert Whitworth who was too occupied with other works, but who recommended George Pinkerton as an alternative, the Pinkertons being major Canal Contractors of long standing, and he came with testimonials from other engineers.

However George evidently did not provide satisfaction, as he was discharged from his post not long afterwards in December 1795, and Robert Whitworth took on superintendence of the canal’s engineering work, including the Elsecar Branch, until his own death in 1799, from when his son William Whitworth provided expert advice, although much of the resident engineering planning, contracting and supervision was being carried out by Thomas Wright, of Wath, who saw the completion of the whole Dearne and Dove, with its branches to Elsecar and Worsbrough by 1804. Thomas was perhaps the most actively engaged clerk of works and eventually resident engineer for much of the early history of the canal. His son, Thomas Wright Jnr also worked for the Canal Company.

Gravestone of Thomas Wright, and Thomas Wright jnr, engineers to the Dearne & Dove Canal Company, at the front of Wath Parish Church.

This article stems from volunteer archival research into Hemingfield’s Hidden History, planned and delivered as part of our National Lottery Heritage Fund project to provide new interpretation materials and insights. We thank National Lottery players without whose support we would not be able to save what remains of our shared industrial heritage, and because of whose support we are able to share and celebrate the wider stories of Hemingfield.