Spotlight: The Dearne and Dove Canal (or a considerable quantity of digging)

In the twenty-first century we enjoy excellent road and rail links. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, however, most goods and materials could only be transported inland by horsepower – whether by individual packhorse carriers, or by one or more horses drawing a waggon or cart. Existing roadways were poor – in extent and construction – and maintenance costs fell to the parishes through which they passed. Parliament later authorised the creation of toll roads which were managed by a mass of private turnpike trusts all over the country.

Transporting anything in bulk over significant distances was an expensive task, one which restricted the market for produce to a relatively small geographic area. To carry people and goods further afield required navigable waterways and boats which could carry bulky loads. The nearest significant waterway which was navigable for boats was the River Don (also referred to as the Dun), but it was not open to vessels upstream of Doncaster until the mid 1700s, leaving Rotherham and Sheffield rather landlocked for deliveries. Goods for trade had to be taken over to Bawtry, a now-forgotten town which for decades acted as a crucial inland port, joining the River Idle for onward transportation to Hull and the Humber via the tidal River Trent.

Work to improve the Don (River Dun Navigation) had begun in earnest in the mid-seventeenth century. Due to disputes with local landowners, the huge costs involved, and parliamentary dissent in granting the powers required, the development of the Don into a navigable waterway for commercial traffic was a slow process. Vested interests prevented cooperation; in Sheffield the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, and in Doncaster the Corporation and merchants undertook separate works to meet their own needs, and it was not until 1733 that an Act of Parliament established “The Company of the Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Don” to begin to coordinate action. At that point boats could travel as far down the river as Aldwarke; Rotherham was reached in 1740 at which point Swinton, near Mexborough became the main loading point for any inland traffic coming from the Barnsley area.

From the palatial seat of Wentworth Woodhouse, Charles Watson-Wentworth (1730-1782), the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, and later his nephew William Wentworth Fitzwilliam (1748-1833), the Fourth Earl Fitzwilliam, planned the expansion of their industrial and commercial interests, and continued to improve their landed estates. Transportation was key to achieving this. Alongside works to make existing rivers more navigable, the growth of trade demanded new links, new means of heavy goods transportation, particularly for metals and minerals, commodities driving the growing industrial might of the country. Canals met this new need – taking the navigable waterway to where it was needed, and linking towns and cities with rivers and ports to send goods seawards.

In 1769 and 1775 the Marquess commissioned surveys for a private canal branch to link his existing coal interests near Greasbrough with the River Don at Park Gate (Rotherham). Resurveyed in 1778, it was finally completed as a private branch – the Greasbrough canal – by engineer William Jessop in 1784. Rockingham rented the canal branch to the Fenton family who were major lessees of coal on the estate. At £500 per annum, the Marquess’s outlay was recouped within 8 years. The success of such transport investment and the Marquis involvement in the Derwent Navigation influenced the decision to develop the coal and ironworking concerns closer to home at Elsecar; still a small, relatively isolated rural village, albeit one close to the heart of a great estate.

The whole South Yorkshire coalfield shared the need for better transport links. Barnsley needed a link to the Don, to Sheffield and out to Hull and the Humber. A flurry of canal schemes appeared to support the growth of industrial areas, two schemes in particular transformed the Barnsley coalfield – The Barnsley Canal, and the Dearne and Dove Canal. The two schemes interconnected, and gave a through route for traffic from the Aire and Calder, via Barnsley, down the Dearne and Dove and on to the Don Navigation at Swinton.

Two Acts of Parliament helped to grant powers (and authorise the raising of money) for the new canal:-

1. An Act for making and maintaining a navigable Canal from the River Dunn Navigation Cut, in the township of Swinton, to or near, the town of Barnsley, in the parish of Silkstone, in the West Riding of the county of York; and certain collateral Cuts branching out of the said Canal. 1793. (Royal Assent 3 June 1793)

2. An Act to enable the Dearne and Dove Canal Company to finish and complete the said Canal, and the several Collateral Cuts branching therefrom; and for explaining, amending, and enlarging the Powers of an Act, passed in the Thirty-third Year of the Reign of His present Majesty, for making and maintaining the said Canal and Collateral Cuts; and for encreasing the Tolls thereby granted. 1800 (Royal Assent 30th May 1800)


To Be Lett,
At Mr Crossley’s, at Brampton Bull Head, in the Parish of Wath, near Rotherham, in the County of York, on Thursday the Twenty-seventh Day of March Inst. at Ten o’Clock in the Forenoon,

THE CUTTING, DIGGING and BANKING of the DEARNE and DOVE CANAL, through divers Parts of the Hill in Swinton and Adwick, near Rotherham aforesaid, containing about One Hundred and Thirty Thousand Yards.
Also, The CUTTING of various other PARTS of the said CANAL.

–> For further Particulars apply to Mr John Thompson, Engineer, at Wath, near Rotherham.

Leeds Intelligencer, 3rd March, 1794


To be LETT,
Upon the Dearne and Dove Canal, leading from Swinton to Barnsley and Worsbrough,
A Considerable QUANTITY of DIGGING;
the MAKING OF SIXTEEN PAIR of LOCK-GATES, and the MAKING of a SOUGH, Four Hundred Yards in Length, the greatest Depth whereof will not exceed Eight Yards.
–> Good Workmen will meet with Encouragement by immediate Application to Mr Tho Wright, at Wath, near Barnsley

Leeds Intelligencer, 26 April, 1802

In total 100,000 pounds was required to complete construction of the canal, with its two principal branches to coal and iron concerns in Worsbrough, and Elsecar. Contemporary assessment of the acts, commented:

This canal in union with the Barnsley canal will be of immense importance to the trade of the West Riding of Yorkshire; by a short trip of 20 miles the Calder and Dun navigations are joined, and many mines of coal, iron, &c. on the line will be accommodated with a cheap and certain carriage for their heavy produce; which will encourage both domestic and foreign consumption.

Phillips, A general history of inland navigation, foreign and domestic (1803), p.295

…its general objects are the export of Coals, Iron, Grinding, Buildng, and Paving Stones; the import of Limestone, Deals (or Raff), and the forming of a communication for the great manufacturing districts of Sheffield and Rotherham on the Don (by means of the Barnsley Canal), with Wakefield, Huddesfield, Halifax, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, &c. &c.

Farey, General View of the Agriculture and Minerals of Derbyshire (1817), p.253

For our purposes we are interested in one short 2 and 3/4 mile long spur of the new Canal: the Elsecar Branch:


The impact, in providing greatly improved means of movement of bulk goods, opening new markets for Elsecar coal and the new ironworks at Elsecar can be assessed as follows:

“It was the opening of the Dearne and Dove Canal that enabled the bulk cheap movement of coal on the Wentworth estate. In 1810, for example, out of 73,384 tons of coal sent down the canal, 24,462 tons came from Elsecar. Coal and coke were delivered as far afield as Sheffield, Hull, Gainborough and Wisbech.

Medlicott (1987), p.113

Hemingfield Basin

As demand grew and the older collieries became exhausted, the Earls sunk new pits, including Low Elsecar, or Hemingfield around 1840. In order to transport the output, the new colliery would need loading facilities – these were provided in the form of a dedicated canal basin made of carefully dressed ashlar sandstone. From the 1840s until the pit’s closure in 1920, the canal was a key supply route, sending coal out to the Humber. Though its importance would be eclipsed by the coming of the railway in 1850, the canal trade continued to serve a separate market throughout the pit’s life, but the branch suffered considerably from subsidence, and so its long term future was always in doubt. Shortly after Hemingfield stopped coal winding, the Elsecar branch of the Dearne and Dove Canal was closed in 1928, with complete abandonment in 1961. The Hemingfield Basin is now a listed structure in private ownership.

In 2019 the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, working with Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council and the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery, erected an interpretation board about the colliery with historical information about its connection with the canal. The board is sited next to the canal basin.

Interpretation board on the history of Hemingfield Colliery in situ at Hemingfield basin (Photo credit: Andrew Jones)

Hemingfield Colliery Basin (Grade II listed, 1987, no.1151177)

Hemingfield basin today

Canal restoration work

In the 1984 the Barnsley Canal Group was formed, and in February 1990 they began work on physical restoration of parts of the Elsecar branch, supporting the work of the Cortonwood and Elsecar Project which had been established on the closure of Elsecar Main to retain what is now the Heritage Centre. Focusing on the Elsecar basin, closest to the Newcomen Engine, the group made huge progress in restoring the basin to be navigable once once, and by the mid-90s had restored the top lock. Through campaigning they also succeeded in specific changes to the plans for the Dearne Valley Parkway.


Abell, Paul Henry, Transport and industry in South Yorkshire, Elsecar: P.H. Abell, 1977 [ISBN: 0901182028]

Barnsley Canal Group, Dearne and Dover Canal – the vital link. A survey of the Dearne & Dover canal, its condition, history, and its possible future, Second edition, revised. Barnsley: Barnsley Canal Group, 1991

Barnsley, Dearne & Dover Canal Trust [formerly the Barnsley Canal Group], The Barnsley Canal – a forgotten waterway? A survey of the Barnsley canal, its condition, history, and possible future, 3rd edition. Barnsley: Barnsley Canal Group, 1995

NB These publications, now out of print, are available from the website of the Barnsley, Dearne & Dove Canals Trust:

Clayton, Arthur K. [1901-2002], Hoyland Nether, Hoyland Nether: Hoyland Nether Urban District Council, 1973, Ch. VIII, pp.45-47

Farey, John, General View of the Agriculture and Minerals of Derbyshire with observations on the means of its improvement. Drawn up for the consideration of the Board of Agriculture, and internal improvement. Vol. III, London, 1817, pp.352-355

Glister, Roger, ‘The Dearne and Dove Canal’, Waterways world, Vol.19, No.10, October 1990, pp.58-62

Glister, Roger, ‘The Dearne and Dove Canal’, in Elliott, Brian (ed.) Aspects of Barnsley 3: discovering local history, Barnsley: Wharncliffe Publishing Limited, 1995, pp.116-132 [ISBN: 1871647274]

Glister, Roger, ‘Development and Decline of the Barnsley Canal’, in Elliott, Brian (ed.) Aspects of Barnsley 5: discovering local history, Barnsley: Wharncliffe Publishing Limited, 1998, pp.41-55 [ISBN:1871647452]

Glister, Roger, The forgotten canals of Yorkshire: Wakefield to Swinton via Barnsley. The Barnsley and Dearne & Dove canals, Barnsley: Wharncliffe Books, an imprint of Pen and Sword Books Limited, 2004. Chapters 2-3 [ISBN:1903425387]

Hey, David, Packmen, carriers & packhorse roads: trade and communications in North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. 2nd edition, Asbourne: Landmark Publishing Limited, 2004 [ISBN: 1843061325]

Hopkinson, Geoffrey Gill [1911-1962], ‘Road development in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, 1700-1850’, Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society, Vol.10, Part 1, 1971, pp.14-30

Jones, Melvyn, ‘The mapping of unconsidered trifles: a Yorkshire example’, The Local Historian, Vol.14, No.3, August 1980, pp.156-163

Medlicott, Ian R., ‘The development of coal mining on the Norfolk and Rockingham-Fitzwilliam estates in South Yorkshire 1750-1830’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol.59, 1987, pp.103-118

Medlicott, Ian R., ‘Coal mining on the Wentworth estate 1740-1840’, in Jones, Melvyn (ed.) Aspects of Rotherham 3: discovering local history, Barnsley: Wharncliffe Publishing, an imprint of Pen and Sword Books Limited, 1998, pp.134-152 [ISBN:1871647444]

Medlicott, Ian R., ‘Elsecar: the making of an industrial community, 1750-1830’, in Elliott, Brian (ed.) Aspects of Barnsley 5: discovering local history, Barnsley: Wharncliffe Publishing, an imprint of Pen and Sword Books Limited, 1998, pp.149-172 [ISBN:1871647452]

Paget-Tomlinson, Edward, The illustrated history of canal and river navigations, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994 [ISBN: 185075277X]

Phillips, John, A general history of inland navigation, foreign and domestic: containing a complete account of the canals already executed in England; with considerations on those projected. Abridged from the quarto edition and continued to the present time, by J. Phillips. The Fourth Edition. London, 1803

Smith, Peter L., ‘The Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation’, Transport History, Vol.11, No.3, Winter 1980, pp.228-232, 241-243

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