The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Lenton Times Issue 2 - May 1989

The Story Of The Nottingham Canal

Given the focus of this Issue, it seemed sensible to provide the reader with a brief account of the history of the Nottingham canal. What follows leans heavily on The Canals of the East Midlands by Charles Hadfield (1966), with occasional dips into the original Nottingham Canal Minute Books now kept at the Public Records Office, London. (*)

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A busy looking section of the Nottingham canal in the 1930's. Most
readers will identify the scene as being between Wilford Street and
Carrington Street. The photograph is reproduced by courtesy
of Nottinghamshire County Library Service.

One of the early successes of the Industrial Revolution took place at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. Here in the early 1700s Abraham Darby established his ironworks. He clearly chose the site because of the coal and iron ore to be found nearby. One of the secrets of his success was that here he had a cheap means of transport - namely the river Severn. Moving goods by water was far less expensive than by road. Many of the other developing industrial areas of Britain were not so blessed. What they required were artificial water channels - canals - to link them to navigable rivers. Such constructions were already happening elsewhere in Europe, but in this respect Britain lagged behind the continent. The third Duke of Bridgewater had examined the canals of Briare and Languedoc while on the French section of his Grand Tour and was sufficiently impressed that on his return he set about the construction of a canal to link his coal mines at Worsley to nearby Manchester. This was opened in 1761 and by 1767 had been further extended to join up with the river Mersey at Runcorn. Effectively England's first, the Bridgewater Canal soon inspired others to get in on the act. The enthusiasm for canals quickly grew and by the 1790s had developed into a veritable mania. Most were built to serve local needs, which meant the canal system grew in a very piecemeal fashion. In countries such as France a national network was under construction; in England only incidentally did the canals form a trunk system.

In April 1777 an Act was passed to permit the construction of the Erewash canal from Langley Mill to the river Trent at Long Eaton, and little over a year later it was finished and open for business. Much of that business involved the transport of coal from the pits in the Erewash Valley. At the Trent the coal boats could make for the entrance to the Trent & Mersey canal just upstream of Sawley, head downstream to Nottingham and beyond, or simply cross the river and enter the now navigable section of the river Soar up to Loughborough where the coal could be sent on by road to Leicester and elsewhere. Stretches of the Trent, however, were still very difficult to negotiate and proved a problem to the increasing traffic that was now using the river. As a result in 1783 the Trent Navigation Co. was empowered to carry out improvements from Sawley right up to Gainsborough.

A copy of the original map deposited at the Local Studies Library, Nottingham

A canal from Cromford along the Derwent Valley to connect up with the Erewash canal at Langley Mill was given parliamentary approval in 1789. This meant further markets for Erewash Valley coal were opening up. Increasingly Erewash Canal - A copy of an original map deposited at the Local Studies Library, Nottingham. Click to enlarge this map. Nottingham collieries looked as though they were going to be at a disadvantage and it seemed that the Erewash pits would flourish at their expense. Eager to ensure the town didn't miss out, a number of Nottingham men called a public meeting in October 1790 to discuss the possibility of constructing a rival to the Erewash which would run from the Cromford canal to Nottingham and on into the Trent. Those at the meeting apparently thought the proposal highly beneficial and elected a committee of nine to pursue the matter. William Jessop was asked to act as engineer and select the best route between Nottingham and Langley Mill. He was also requested to survey the land across Beeston Meadows for a branch canal to the Trent from Lenton. Lord Middleton evidently had his own ideas on the way that the canal should go. It is not clear what these were but we do know that Jessop considered they would be impractical on account of the need for deep cutting and tunnelling. His own proposed line, however, didn't meet with Lord Middleton's approval. Jessop had suggested that the canal go round the western side of Wollaton Park. Lord Middleton said he would oppose the whole venture unless the canal was made to run along the eastern boundary, even though this would mean an additional expense of about 2,500. The line of the canal was moved accordingly.

Jessop submitted his suggested line and estimated cost of the venture to a public meeting which enthusiastically approved both, and a Bill was subsequently drawn up for submission to Parliament. The Trent & Mersey and the Erewash Canal Companies had plans of their own for a 'Trent canal' to run from Sawley, across the Erewash, past Beeston, Lenton and on to Nottingham and the Trent. Naturally enough they were opposed to the planned Nottingham Canal. The proprietors of the Trent Navigation Co. saw both sets of proposals as inimical to their own interests and wrote to the committee expressing opposition but suggesting that they were 'open to receive fresh proposals'. These duly arrived and it was agreed that Nottingham should drop the Beeston Cut from its Bill and allow Trent Navigation to apply to build it. This evidently did the trick Nottingham got its Act in May 1792 - news being received locally 'by ringing of bells, and other demonstrations of joy'.

William Jessop had been the committee's first choice, but soon after completing the initial survey he fell ill. Jessop wrote to the committee 'I am still obliged to the continual use of fermentations, and there is formed a lodgement of matter on the cheekbone which is out of the reach of the surgeon'. He therefore asked to be excused and recommended that a local man from Wollaton, James Green, take over the job. Jessop was at that time considered one of, if not the best canal engineer the country so the committee were loath to lose his services; instead they preferred to bide their time. But after the illness had continued for some six months they reluctantly agreed to Green doing the work under Jessop's overall supervision.

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The narrowboat 'Kegworth' moored outside Fellows, Morton &
Clayton warehouse, which eventually became the Canal Museum.
Date Unknown. Photo courtesy of Nottinghamshire County Library

Work on the canal's construction began on July 30th 1792. Exactly one year later the first section of the canal from Trent Bridge up to the town wharves was officially opened. An account in the Newark Herald (7.8.1792) stated 'a vessel ornamented with streamers was drawn up by a number of navigators amidst the acclamations of some thousands of spectators. Wharfs are now forming, and as soon as they are finished Nottingham will enjoy the greatest of blessings to a populous town, a water communication by which the price of coals and other necessities of life will be considerably lessened.

By April 1796 the entire length of the canal had been completed There doesn't appear to have been much if anything in the way of an opening ceremony, but perhaps by now the enthusiasm had waned a little. There had been 'erroneous construction of many of the works on the canal' and 'a very large expenditure' had been incurred. The canal had cost about 80,000, far more than the original estimate. It was probably little consolation to the Nottingham Canal Company and its shareholders, but most of other canals built during this period came in over budget. From 1793 onwards the Country found itself at war with France; one consequence being the economy suffered a rapid inflation, which led to ever rising costs for the canal makers of that period.

From the river Trent up to Langley Mill, where it joined the Cromford just above that canal's junction with the Erewash, the Nottingham canal was fourteen and three quarter miles long. The route selected required the construction of twenty locks. The first was at the Trent and the second just below the Castle Rock. The next three were in Lenton - one by Abbey Street, the second just beyond Derby Road and third positioned half way between the Derby and Wollaton Roads. On the far side of Wollaton Road was the sixth lock, the first in a flight of fourteen which took boats up to the summit of the canal just beyond Wollaton, after which it ran level all the way to Langley Mill where a set of stop locks were positioned.

The Trent Navigation Co. obtained permission to build the Beeston Cut and this opened in early 1796. The Cut enabled boats to come off the Trent at Beeston and use the Nottingham canal to by-pass the shallows near Clifton Grove and the old Trent Bridge, through which navigation was notoriously difficult. The Beeston Cut joined the Nottingham canal at Lenton. This junction was known as Lenton Chain. A toll house was built here and the name, Lenton Chain, referred to the chain which toll collector could drape across the Cut and so ensure boats didn't slip into the Nottingham canal without paying the appropriate fee. Within Nottingham two short branches were built off the canal, one near the Castle led up to wharves belonging to the Duke of Newcastle, the other known as the Poplar Arm went towards Sneinton and was further extended by Earl Manvers in 1835-6. Out at Wollaton the Bilborough Cut was dug and a wharf made in 'Bilborough Wood' to which coal was brought from the Strelley and Bilborough pits by means of a tramway. Further short cuts for the convenience of collieries at Greasley and Cossall were also constructed.

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The canal looking east towards the Navigation Inn and the Wilford
Street bridge. No date given, but most likely the photograph was
taken in the 1930's. Photo courtesy of Nottinghamshire County
Library Service.

At much the same time as the Nottingham canal was under construction, across on the other side of the Trent, work was proceeding on the Grantham canal. All 33 miles of this canal were finally opened in 1797 and gave local colliery owners access to new markets further afield.

The money raised from the original shareholders had not been sufficient to cover all the costs of the Nottingham canal and the company had needled extra monies to complete the construction work. These loans had to be repaid before shareholders could begin to receive anything on their investment. It had been initially agreed that payment should be at the rate of 12 per share whenever funds permitted. (Each share had originally cost 150). These payments began in 1804 and continued to be made two or three times a year throughout the period of the canal company's independent existence.

Profits must have dropped a little in 1818 following the 'most distressing catastrophe' of September 28th. A ton of gunpowder had been unloaded at the company's wharf near Wilford Street and was awaiting the boat that would carry it up the Nottingham and Cromford canals to various Derbyshire lead mines. A small amount of the gunpowder had leaked on to the ground from one of the barrels and, thinking to have a bit of fun, one of the boatmen dropped a piece of hot clinker on to the loose gunpowder. Instead of the small 'flash' he had expected the whole lot went up killing eight men and two boys and causing damage to most of the properties between the canal and the town's market place. The man responsible for the explosion was thrown over 120 yards yet amazingly was still sufficiently alive to tell his sorry tale. The insurance company refused to pay for the Canal Company's warehouse that had been totally destroyed, so an action was brought against the man's employers, the Nottingham Boat Co. The case was won and the canal company were to receive 1,000 compensation, but the Boat Co. simply didn't have that sort of money so eventually the settlement was reduced to 500.

If there was plenty of coal, building stone, grain, raw materials and the like to be moved, canal companies such as Nottingham made plenty of money. Those with goods to be transported might balk at the scale of the canal tolls but they paid up because it was still cheaper by canal than by road. But once the railways appeared the situation began to change. Here was a chance to break the canal companies' virtual monopoly on the transportation of heavy goods and coal owners in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire were some of the most ardent enthusiasts for the creation of the Midland Counties Railway. Formed in 1836, the railway company opened a line from Nottingham to Derby in May 1839, and a month later added a line from Nottingham to Leicester. Traffic began to move from water to rail almost immediately and from 1840 the Nottingham Canal felt impelled to reduce its rates. Receipts fell and in May 1845 the Nottingham Canal Co. opened negotiations with a projected railway company with a view to amalgamation. The company eventually known as the Ambergate, Nottingham, Boston & Eastern Junction Railway Co. agreed to buy out the canal company once its railway had been open for six months. A similar offer was made to the Grantham Canal Co.

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This new picture, taken by Paul Bexon in Spring 2000, shows the
same view as the first photograph on the page. Following the recent
redevelopment of the area, the building now plays host to wine bars
and a club, and is part of the new thriving canal side area.

The railway company opened its Nottingham to Grantham line on 18th July 1850. So six months later the Nottingham Canal Co. served notice on the railway company that it was time to settle up. But no money was forthcoming. It seems that the railway was reluctant to pay because it was rather short of funds and also had hopes of linking in with the Great Northern Railway, which apparently had no desire to inherit any canals. The Grantham Canal, supported by the Nottingham, took legal action. The case dragged on for three years ending up in the House of Lords. Finally the railway company gave in and paid up partly in money with the balance in railway mortgages. On the 2nd January 1855 the railway company became the formal owners of the Nottingham canal. That ownership changed hands six years later when the railway got its wish and became part of the Great Northern.

The Nottingham canal remained a constituent part of Great Northern Railway's empire but rather an unimportant part. By 1916 the annual amount collected in tolls was little over a 1,000. Most of this had come from traffic going to the Nottingham wharves from the Trent or into the Beeston Cut. These boats had mainly carried merchandise, coal, gravel, road stone and manure. In 1928 the company announced that commercial traffic would cease on all but the City section of the canal and in 1937 it finally abandoned the canal transferring the Trent Lock-Lenton section to the Trent Navigation Co.

With no one to care for it, the Nottingham canal became overgrown and gradually silted up. The water level was prone to rise after heavy rain and that on occasion that would flood the adjoining land. After receiving frequent complaints, Nottingham City Council agreed in 1952 to purchase that portion of the disused canal that came within the City boundary. Infilling and culverting began in 1955. The section of canal from Lenton Chain to Derby Road was eventually commandeered for the re-routing of the river Leen. Elsewhere, once it was filled, the land was built upon and virtually nothing now remains to indicate where the Canal used to run. Back in the 1950s it had been proposed to convert the line of the canal into 'a pleasant green walk with pools reserved for fishing and cascades in place of the locks'. Sadly nothing came of the idea.

(*) G.Y. Hemingway has produced a useful digest of the contents of these minute books; a copy can be examined at the Local Studies Library, Angel Row.

Anyone eager to learn more about the Nottingham Canal may be interested to know of a current publication. Click here for more details.

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