A Brief Introduction to the History of the Chesterfield Canal

The story of the origins, rise and eventual decline of the Chesterfield Canal is unique. Many of its features are distinctive and have given rise to unique attributes – even the boats used on the Canal were strikingly different from those used in other regions.

Nevertheless, it also it encapsulates in microcosm many of the key developments and contributions made by water transport to the Industrial Revolution throughout England.

These notes provide a very brief, and necessarily abbreviated, introduction to this fascinating waterway. For more complete information readers are encouraged to seek out the published histories listed at the end.


The Chesterfield Canal runs west to east across the north-south grain of the country. This reflects the patterns of trade established in this area by the 1300’s. At that time the fledgling Lead and Iron industries of North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire found their main outlets via pack horse to the inland port of Bawtry at the head of reliable navigation on the River Idle. From Bawtry cargoes were dispatched to Hull and onward to eastern England, London and the Low Countries. In return it imported goods from throughout Europe and Scandinavia. By 1350 Bawtry was one of the principal ports for South Yorkshire & North East Derbyshire.

The river Idle navigation underwent improvement during the late 1600’s but trade from South Yorkshire fell away as a consequence of the improvements to the River Dun (Don) undertaken from 1720’s onwards. Trade from Chesterfield and North East Derbyshire began to be hampered by the poor state of the roads to Bawtry and high tolls on the Dun Navigation. In Chesterfield thoughts began to turn to replacing the road with a canal and by 1768 there was sufficient local interest to engage the services of a civil engineer; James Brindley.

By 1768 James Brindley had an enviable reputation as a canal engineer. Many schemes were clamouring for his services and as a result he sent one of his assistants, John Varley, to undertake the initial survey. In early 1769 Varley surveyed a route from Chesterfield to Shireoaks that was almost identical to the route eventually constructed. At Shireoaks, following his brief to survey a “water way to Bawtry”, his proposed route turns north east across open country to reach the shallow valley of the Ryton which he then followed to Bawtry and the River Idle.

In December 1768 the notion of the canal began to circulate in Retford. Inspired by a visit to the Bridgwater Canal (designed by Brindley) the headmaster of Retford Grammar School, the Reverend Seth Ellis Stevenson, began a vigorous campaign to bring the canal to Retford. Approached to the Chesterfield promoters brought a positive response and by June 1769 Varley was again in the field this time searching out a route via Worksop and Retford to West Stockwith.

In August when the first public meeting was held in Worksop to promote the canal Brindley supported the Retford route. At that same meeting parties from Gainsborough made strong representations that the canal should terminate on the Trent at Gainsborough not West Stockwith. There followed a brief but spirited campaign between the two camps which was settled by the intervention of the Reverend Stevenson. When, in January 1770, Brindley spoke to another crowded meeting at the Crown in Retford he was able to announce that the route would be Chesterfield -- Worksop -- Retford -- West Stockwith.

Building the Canal

The early records of the canal company have survived and provide an almost unique insight into the construction of the canal. They show the struggles of local shareholders to come to terms with this new technology and to overcome the inevitable crises which followed the death of James Brindley in 1772.

At first sight the Chesterfield Canal appears to be a typical early meandering contour canal, however, it also displays civil engineering features which presage the later, straighter, cut and fill canals. These include the overall boldness of the route, the first extensive use of locks in multiple flights and the use of embankments and cuttings to shorten the line. In consequence the physical remains of the canal include several pioneering civil engineering features and unique survivals of late 18th century canal construction. Many of these structures are listed ancient monuments.

Brindley’s death in 1772 resulted in the works being carried to completion by his assistants John Varley and Hugh Henshall and it is a moot point if some of the innovations seen on the canal where designed by Brindley or were the work of his assistants. Whatever their origins, the civil engineering advances on this canal warrant greater recognition.

Opened for Business

The Chesterfield Canal opened in stages from 1775 on and was finally opened throughout in 1777 with the completion of the Staveley “Puddle Bank”. Initial returns were poor and the Company struggled in the face of the economic recession which followed the loss of the American colonies the previous year. Nevertheless, within ten years the canal began to show a modest dividend and steady trade in all manner of goods was established, including:

The canal was built as a narrow canal from Chesterfield to Retford. At Retford the canal became wider and the locks from there to the Trent were built to broad beam (Trent Flat or Barge) dimensions. The intention was to have broad beam boats working to Retford but the presence of several pinch points and narrow bridge holes meant that this vision was not realised and Trent boats never did reach Retford!

From the outset the canal had several short branch canals or arms of which the Norbriggs Cutting at Mastin Moor was the longest at 1.25 miles. Shorter arms led to coal wharfs at Killamarsh (Church Lane) and Staveley (Bellhouse Lane, Lowgates) and to stone quarries at Cinder Hill and Lady Lee (Hilthe Lady Lee Arm), near Worksop.

Much of the trade reached the canal via an intricate network of feeder tramways, plateways and railways, including the earliest known “raile way” in Derbyshire from Norbriggs Wharf to Norbriggs Colliery and dating from 1789. These tramway feeders mostly brought coal and local ironstone to the canal although the tramway from Whittington which terminated near Bilby Bridge also brought iron castings, chemicals and glass to the canal. These tramways flourished from the 1790’s through to the 1830’s and 40’s when several appear on the first Ordnance Survey maps. In the coalfield and iron working areas most went out of use by the 1850’s with only one or two lingering on until the 1870’s. In the limestone areas tramways continued to carry stone to the canal until the 1920’s.

The Coming of the “Stephenson” Railways

Once the early trade depression concluded the canal settled down to a steady if not spectacular life with a steady stream of modest dividends. Long distance railway competition arrived in the 1840’s with the opening of the North Midland Railway from Derby to Leeds. During the late 1830’s the company sought powers to convert the canal into a railway and when this was seen to be impracticable to build their own lines along side the canal route. These attempts floundered in the railway politics of the day and by 1842 the canal company had settled on an agreed sale to what was become the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway.

Ownership by the railway company initially stimulated additional trade on the canal; the MS&LR opened an interchange siding and wharf near Kiveton Park Station and attempts where made to compete on through tariffs with the Midland Railway. Certainly the canal receipts for the period from c.1840 to around 1860 remain relatively buoyant, but by the late 1860’s revenues had begun to seriously decline and it was clear that the canal was unable to compete with the speed of the railways. By the 1880’s the MS&LR had begun to think of expansion southwards and the creation what became its “Derbyshire Lines”. Once the Derbyshire lines were completed the majority of canal side customers were connected to the railway system or had a very local station and as a result trade on the canal fell away quite dramatically.

The construction of the MS&LR’s “Derbyshire Lines” in the late 1880’s had marked consequences for the Chesterfield Canal. The planned railway route south followed a straight course and was to cross and re-cross the original line of the canal. The MS&LR wanted to close the canal but Parliament, keen on competition, inserted a clause into the Act of Parliament for the Derbyshire Lines requiring the MS&LR to keep the canal open. In consequence, and to try and avoid the cost of numerous bridges, a number of canal diversions were carried out. These were:-

Killamarsh to Renishaw (the “Long Straight” or “Railway Mile”); The length of canal to the west of the railway and cut-off by its construction was abandoned but can still be traced today.

Renishaw to Hague Lane; here the cut-off sections were largely removed or buried by the construction of the Goods Yard of Renishaw Central Station. One small fragment of channel remains in woodland on the west side of the former yard.

Hounsfield Bridge to Staveley Works; the isolated section was again west of the new railway and ran around the margins of the Staveley Pipe Works. Any trace of the Brindley route has been destroyed through a combination of works redevelopment, opencast coal extraction and land reclamation.

Chesterfield Wharf. The original 1777 Wharf was isolated from the canal by the Railway and Chesterfield Central Station. The River Rother adjacent to the East side of the railway was straightened and deepened and a new wharf was constructed upstream on the edge of the new railway goods yard. This was an unprepossessing brick basin approximately 100ft by 30ft known as the “Great Central Wharf” – it had a very short life opening in 1892 and closing by around 1905 due to the decline in trade.

All of these new sections were constructed quickly and all were in use by the opening of the railway from Beighton Junction to Staveley Central and thence to Chesterfield in June 1892. Eventually this became part of a new route to London. On 1st August 1897 the MS&LR changed its name to the Great Central Railway.

Decline, A Fall and Revival

The arrival of a parallel railway route accelerated the inevitable decline in trade. By the early 1900’s most manufactured goods and sundries trade had been lost and the cargoes which remained were low-value and high-bulk; coal, coke, stone, bricks, aggregates and grain.

The western end of the canal was isolated by the partial collapse of the Norwood Tunnel in October 1907. All trade west of Norwood ceased around 1914-18. For some time after the war the canal remained in water to supply various industries but in many places became overgrown and neglected. In the interwar years in Killamarsh, rowing boats where hired out on the length near Bridge Street. By the 1960’s the canal was no longer required for water supply and sections were sold off and gradually infilled.

To the east of the tunnel the decline was more gradual and regular cargoes continued from Shireoaks Colliery, Worksop and Gringley to the Trent until the late 1950’s with the last sporadic commercial carrying being in the early 1960’s. Fortunately this coincided with the rise of the preservation movement and attempts to downgrade the entire canal to remainder status were defeated. In 1976 the Chesterfield Canal Society was formed to promote the use of the canal and its eventual restoration. In 1998 the society became a registered Charitable Trust.

The Canal Industries and their Communities

The arrival of the Chesterfield Canal helped to shape the landscape and communities through which it passed.

This effect was most marked in Rotherham and North East Derbyshire where towns and villages expanded dramatically or where entire new communities came into existence as industries sprang up alongside the canal. The pattern of settlement it helped shape was built upon by the railways and to a great extent persists today.

The origins of the canal are closely tied to the Derbyshire lead industry and the iron foundries at Staveley and Renishaw. The presence of the canal encouraged the growth of these ancient industries and led to the precocious expansion of the Derbyshire Coal industry; feeder tramways from pit to canal include the first record of Newcastle style “raileway” in Derbyshire (1778). A similar tramway led to the glassworks at Whittington. The arrival of the canal and the relatively breakage free transport which it offered resulted in the expansion of the glass industry and its associated chemical industries.

To some extent the canal in North East Derbyshire entered an already partially industrialised landscape and, through providing cheap transport, permitted the rapid growth of ancient industries and the appearance of many new industries. As a result the canal served practically all the key heavy primary manufacturing industries of the industrial revolution.

In contrast the eastern reaches of the canal initially traversed an almost entirely rural landscape. The arrival of the canal occurred at a time of major reorganisation of the landscape and many of the new model farms constructed by the larger estates at this time had their own wharfs and used the canal to export their produce.

Throughout the Nottinghamshire length the canal again permitted local craft activities to expand and industrialise where raw materials existed. For example the growth of the brick and tile manufactories at Misterton and Gringley can be tied to both the ease of export of the finished product and to the ease of importing Derbyshire coal as fuel. One unique trade brought cargoes of Trent silt or warp to brickworks like those at Walkeringham for drying and grading to produce polishing powders used in the Sheffield cutlery finishing trade. Some of these industries were ephemeral and have left scant record bar a few entries in a boat book; others proved long lived – the last cargo from Walkeringham Brick Works was carried in 1955 – and have left a rich archaeological legacy.

The canal therefore runs thorough two regions with very different histories and in consequence landscapes.

The waterway was also used for more than transport. Water power was a vital element in the rural economy until the twentieth century and, especially on rivers, conflicts between mill and navigation interests were common. At Norwood for example the bywash water from the flight drove a sawmill and woodworking shop.

In such a low lying district the waterways also played a key role in land drainage. Conversely, waterways were often key water suppliers with water being abstracted for industrial purposes as varied as brewing, irrigation, chemical works and brick making. All these activities have left a further legacy along the water corridor.


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