A long road to water
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.
Navigating the way
The nearest significant waterway which was navigable year-round 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 for local produce, for Derbyshire lead, Peak District grinding stones, and metal wares. Bawtry joined the River Idle for onward transportation to Hull and the Humber via the tidal River Trent.
A Humber keel on the River Don (Dun) Navigation at Hexthorpe, early twentieth century postcard
Work to improve the Don (River Dun Navigation) had begun in earnest in the mid-seventeenth century, but due to disputes with local landowners on water rights and fear of flooding, not to mention the huge costs involved, there was parliamentary dissent in granting the powers required, so 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.
By 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, although the Marquess of Rockingham also used a wharf at Kilnhurst.
Making the Cut
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, and their finished manufactures, commodities that drove the growing commercial and industrial might of the country. Canals met this new transport need – taking the navigable waterway to where it was needed, and linking towns and cities with rivers and ports to send goods seawards to regional, national and international markets.
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 out 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 this transport investment and his 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.
Detail from Charles Smith’s ‘New Map of Yorkshire divided into Ridings’, 1804 (South West), showing part of Dearne and Dove Canal (Courtesy of a Private Collection)
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.
Horse power: a horse draws a barge by rope down the Barnsley Canal (hand coloured postcard early 20th century)
The Dearne and Dove Canal Company
The proposed Dearne and Dove canal was described thusly:
“This canal commences from the cut which has been made for the accommodation of the river Dun navigation, between Swinton and Mexbrough, and proceeds by Wath, Wombwell and Ardsley, to near Barnsley; there to form a junction with the Barnsley canal, which joins the river Calder. There are two small branches, one parallel with Knolbeck Brook, to the iron works at Cobcar Ing, the other along the head stream of the river Dove, to Worsbrough Bridge; with a proposed extension of this branch near one mile and a half farther, to Rockcliff Bridge, adjoining the grounds of Earl Strafford, at Wentworth Castle.
The whole length of this canal from the junction with the river Dun, to Barnsley, is nine miles and a quarter with, one hundred and twenty-five feet rise, from the river Dun to Barnsley; viz. in the first four miles, forty-one feet; in the next two miles, twenty-four feet; and in the remaining three miles, sixty feet; principally between the sixth and seventh miles. The branch to Cobcar Ing, is one mile and three quarters, and is level, by means of some deep cutting at the extremity. The branch to Worsbrough Bridge is one mile five furlongs in length.”
Philips, J. 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. To which are added, practical observations. A new edition corrected, with two addendas, which complete the history of 1795. London, printed for I. and J. Taylor, 1795. Second Addenda, pp.60-61
Two Acts of Parliament helped to grant powers (and authorise the raising of money) for the new canal:-
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.
33 George III. Cap. 115 (Royal Assent 3 June 1793)
Authorised 211 members to raise £60,000 in 600 shares of £100 each to start the construction of the new navigation.
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
39 & 40 George III. Cap. 37 (Royal Assent 30th May 1800)
Authorised the raising a further £30,000 through existing or new shareholders, with permission to raise a further £10,000 through mortgage borrowing in order to complete the work.
Looking to local newspapers of the day, the scale of the labour required is evident:
CANAL CUTTING, &c.
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 DIGGERS, CARPENTERS, &c.
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 with its 6 locks:
Old series 1 inch Ordnance Survey map, published 1841 showing the Elsecar branch of the Dearne and Dove Canal to Elsecar (surveyed before Hemingfield Colliery was built)
Wombwell/Elsecar Junction of the main Dearne and Dove Canal/ Elsecar branch.
(Bold elements remain in 2020)
- Junction Bridge [Junction Pub only marker of this area remaining all canal infilled]
- Brampton Lane Bridge (Knollbeck Lane) – canal partially in water from this just after this point.
- Lundhill Bridge (or Intake Bridge)
- Birks Bridge and Wharf [no longer extant]
Gypsy Marsh Bridge [modern concrete and steel bridge carrying Dearne Valley Parkway]
1. Smithy Bridge Lock/Hemingfield Bottom Lock [remains of]
- Smithy Bridge
2. Storey Lock/ Hemingfield Top Lock [remains]
- Tingle Bridge [culverted]
3. Tingle Bridge Lock [cleared and stonework partly repaired in late 1980s]
- Elsecar Low Colliery Basin
– see special section below.
4. Cobcar Lock/Elsecar Low Lock [remains]
- Elsecar Bridge/Cobcar Bridge [culverted]
5. Limekiln Lock/Cobcar Lock [weired]
6. Elsecar Top lock [restored]
- Elsecar Basin
The original impact, in providing greatly improved means of movement of bulk goods, opening new markets for Elsecar coal and the new ironworks at Elsecar and Milton, 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
Elsecar to the Humber
Beyond the Elsecar branch, the Dearne and Dove provided transport connections to the Barnsley Canal and Aire and Calder Navigation systems, and also into the Don (Or Dun) Navigation system at Swinton.
This inland waterway network ultimately ensured East-West passage of coal, limestone, iron, agricultural and general produce which for around 50 years 1798-1850 was the principal means of long distance transport for heavy goods into and out of Elsecar.
Detail from postcard showing Wath basin of Dearne and Dove canal
Often using Humber keels, no more than 57ft long and over 14ft wide, carrying loads in just over 4ft of water, the Dearne and Dove locks were short but a steady flow of keels kept traffic moving, passing locks and paying tolls until the coming of the railways.
A wider canal network, East to West, 1904
The coal traffic from the South Yorkshire coalfield made the Dearne and Dove a successful undertaking, although its connected sibling the Barnsley canal never quite enjoyed the same success, and with railway competition undercutting transport fees, canals now looked slow, expensive and old-fashioned.
Moves and Mergers
In facing the challenge of the railways with rapid massed wagon transport of coal, the water trade struggled on; the canal companies charging bargemen tolls for their individual loads slowly moving through the separate systems. As separate profitability and water tonnages dropped this led to amalgamations of canal companies to ensure survival. The railway companies themselves also sought to buy-out their water-based competition.
As local coal owner (and canal director) Walter Spencer Stanhope of Cannon Hall (who later served as an MP and was knighted) put it in 1871:
“… it is extremely difficult for canals to live at all by competition under the through rates the railways are establishing, and it is only by establishing the same sort of system upon the canals, getting the branches either leased or sold to the large navigation, and being able to establish through rates that canals can possibly exist in competition with railways.”
Mr Walter Thomas William Spencer Stanhope, 19th May 1871
In 1894 the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation was formed, bringing together the Dearne and Dove and Sheffield Canal and Don Navigation concerns under a single company.
At this time the network was substantial and guaranteed routes for out to coal to the Humber.
Plan of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation system in Dec 1894, including the Elsecar branch of the Dearne and Dove Canal (from The Engineer, vol.78, 28 Dec 1894, p.569)
As demand grew and the older collieries became exhausted, the Earls sunk new pits, including Low Elsecar, or Hemingfield from 1842. In order to transport a larger output, the new colliery would need generous loading facilities – these were provided in the form of a dedicated canal basin made of carefully dressed ashlar sandstone built with 2 loading and 2 waiting arms, by contractors Messrs (Thomas) Hague and Robinson. The Knoll Beck was culverted around the back of the new basin which disrupted its former path just as the original canal builders had done 40 years before).
Drone image of the pit in March 2016 showing the canal and basin (credit: James Marshall)
From the late 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, with its greater speed, volume and economy, the canal trade continued to serve other markets and provide keels with return cargoes of coal throughout the pit’s life. However the branch suffered considerably from continual mining subsidence, so its long term future was always in doubt.
1880s impression of the Hemingfield Colliery and basin viewed from the canal
After Hemingfield stopped coal winning, the Elsecar branch of the Dearne and Dove Canal was closed in 1928, with complete abandonment in 1961. Thanks to the efforts of the local authority conservation groups and local people Hemingfield Basin is now a listed structure (listed 1987) in private ownership.
View of the Elsecar branch, by the former entrance to the basin (now filled in). The original cornerstones marking the entrance can still be seen (indicated). Originally a hump-back bridge took the towing path over this entrance, May 2020
Slipping away: subsidence
Undermining of the canal branch at Elsecar became a progressively worse problem as the nineteenth century advanced, with increased working of coal close to and beneath the Dearne and Dove canal. This led to the loss of a navigable depth of water, the collapse of walling, and severe subsidence at locks and bridges.
Both the Worsbrough (closed 1906) and Elsecar branches (closed 1928) of the Dearne & Dove were allowed to suffer damage which was no longer worth the costs of restoration or ongoing maintenance as water traffic declined.
In addition the Barnsley Canal in 1911 and 1946 suffered spectacular collapses along its length, signs of the end as canals clung on and reduced rates in an already-lost war against rail and later road haulage.
Canal restoration work
In April 1984 the Barnsley Canal Group (BCG) was formed focusing on the possibility of restoring the Barnsley Canal. They expanded the scope to include the neighbouring Dearne and Dove Canal, publishing an ambitious restoration feasibility study in 1987, revised after additional survey work in 1991, The Dearne and Dove – The Vital Link.
In 1985 parts of the Elsecar branch of the Dearne and Dove Canal were tidied up and cleaned out by a team from Manpower Services working through the Barnsley Trades Union Council, improving the appearance of the branch after almost 60 years of neglect.
In March 1986, with the closure of local collieries, the Cortonwood and Elsecar Project (CEP) was established to create an industrial and social history museum linking Elsecar with Cortonwood and including plans for a steam railway service and restoration of the Elsecar Branch of the canal, bringing several interest groups together. In 1988 after further feasibility work Barnsley Council secured the old NCB Workshops and the Newcomen Beam Engine, they also secured the old railway track bed and the canal branch, so many elements came together to advance the CEP plans.
In 1989 CEP secured Urban Programme funding, which went towards half of the costs of commissioning a survey of the whole of the Elsecar Branch (Barnsley Council paid the other half). Engineers Ove Arup Associates were appointed in September 1990 and handed over the finished report in July 1991.
Working together with CEP group members, BCG arranged a regular campaign of weekend working parties (first and third Sundays) at Elsecar from February 1990 onwards, steered by Roger Glister. In March 1990 the first boat for many years was launched into the basin to help start the clear-up.
British Waterways donated some lock gates from Rotherham, and BCG and CEP received fantastic assistance from the energetic volunteers of the Waterways Recovery Group, led by Martin Johnson, who spent many weekends for several years camping out in Elsecar and undertaking the hard, smelly and heavy work of cleaning up the head of the Elsecar basin, removing rubbish, trees and years of silt in the canal and between Top Lock and Cobcar Lock.
CEP/BCG work continued. After digging a rough slipway in 1990, by Summer 1991 a reinforced concrete slipway had been constructed at Elsecar Basin, allowing easier launching facility for boating events. The first BCG trail boat rally took place at Elsecar in September 1991, with CEP’s own boat Elsa being on hand for pleasure trips.
In late 1991 CEP again applied and succeeded in securing funds from the Urban Programme to extend the dredging of the canal and basin over the coming years. A Kubota digger and heavy duty dumper truck was purchased, together with a second-hand motor workboat, the Dolphin – a 50ft canal barge that had been built for Sheffield-sized locks in 1945 by Dunstons of Thorne.
By 1993 Elsecar canal was a hive of restoration activity, with five areas seeing works in progress beyond the basin:
- Elsecar Top Lock chamber
- Cobcar Lock cascade
- Cobcar Lock pound
- The reach below Cobcar Bridge
- Elsecar Low lock
The result of several further years work was to restore a navigable depth of water in the top 300 yards of the branch at Elsecar.
Through their campaigning, the Barnsley Canal Group (which later became The Barnsley, Dearne & Dove Canals Trust) succeeded in securing specific changes to the plans for the Dearne Valley Parkway – a key dual carriageway link road, ensuring navigable breath and height over the branch by the new Gypsy Marsh bridge on the TransPennine Trail.
Sadly in April 2020 the Barnsley, Dearne & Dove Canals Trust announced their closure – with the longer term aim of restoring the Barnsley Canal to navigation now looking increasingly unfeasible:
“a project that was estimated to cost between £127 million and £235 million at 2006 prices is unlikely to find favour for some years to come”
Barnsley, Dearne & Dove Canals Trust Closure Notice, 28th April 2020 (see: http://www.bddct.org.uk/downloads/closurenotice.pdf)
Safeguarding the past, navigating the future?
In more recent times some of the canal branch maintenance progress has been lost as nature begins to reclaim the canal once more, and over time a number of significant flood events (such as in June 2007, January 2008, and November 2019) contributed to the erosion and re-silting of sections of the Elsecar branch which had been dredged in previous years. Nevertheless the Elsecar branch itself continues to be a much-loved and popular stretch of canal for nature lovers, dog walkers, hikers, cyclists and others.
Working with Barnsley Council, members of the local community in Elsecar and Hemingfield as well as organisations like Barnsley Biodiversity Trust have done much to raise awareness and develop conservation and biodiversity plans to bring the significance of the habitats to light. Nature lovers are always on guard against annual invasive species like Himalayan Balsam spreading down the canal side or around the former reservoirs of the Dearne and Dover Canal at Worsbrough and Elsecar.
Barnsley Council applied for Elsecar Reservoir to be recognised as a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) – a statutory designation made under Section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, as amended by Schedule 11 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.
From June 2014 to June 2019 the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership worked on a number of projects at sites across the Dearne Valley to protect, preserve and enhance the unique and varied landscape, including along the Canal.
Sharing the stories
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)
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: http://www.bddct.org.uk/
Clayton, Arthur K. [1901-2002], Hoyland Nether, Hoyland Nether: Hoyland Nether Urban District Council, 1973, Ch. VIII, pp.45-47
Cortonwood & Elsecar Project Newsletter, No.13 (May 1987) – No.75 (July-September 1998)
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 and 5 [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
Priestley, Joseph, Historical account of the navigable rivers, canals, and railways, of Great Britain, as a reference to Nichols, Priestley & Walker’s new map of inland navigation, derived from original and parliamentary documents in the possession of Joseph Priestley, Esq. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, 1831 [see 1969 David and Charles reprint with introduction from Charles Hadfield]
Smith, Peter L., ‘The Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation’, Transport History, Vol.11, No.3, Winter 1980, pp.228-232, 241-243