Canal history

Rochdale Canal Company flat, Primrose. Photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.Rochdale Canal Company flat, Primrose. Photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.

The boats

The Rochdale canal is a broad canal, with the locks built to accommodate boats of a maximum length of 72ft and a width of 14ft2in. Canals, even at this time of the ‘Canal Mania’, were built with little regard to the dimensions of any connecting waterways. In part this can be ascribed to the lack of vision of the promoters. Although the Rochdale clearly shows that they intended to cater for the traffic from the West as well as the East. It is more likely that because a boat or barge would carry so much more than packhorses or carts, the increase in cargo carried was seen as sufficient, whatever the need for transshipment. Some effort was made on the Rochdale canal to make arrangements for the shorter Calder & Hebble boats to trade onto the Rochdale; the shorter boats could easily pass the locks, but to save water, the locks were designed to have two sets of bottom gates fitted, one set at the full ‘Rochdale’ length, and the inner set to allow 57ft 6in boats to fit closely. This was designed to save water when a shorter boat used the lock. Recesses for the ‘short lock’ gates can be seen on most Rochdale locks, but it is thought that only the first two or three in Sowerby Bridge were actually fitted with the extra gates. A similar arrangement can be seen today on Tuel Lane lock.

The size and style of the boats was based on a variation of the ‘Mersey Flat’, initially a sailing barge used on the Mersey and the river navigations. The Rochdale, Bridgewater and the other north-western canals had their ‘cut flats’ (cut being the common term for canal). These boats could carry up to 90 tons with a 5ft draught however that depth was never available on the Rochdale. Bradshaw (1907) states that the maximum draught from Sowerby Bridge to Piccadilly was 4ft 0in, and from there to Castlefields was 4ft 2in. It is unlikely that boats regularly operated at this draught and a “full load” would have been 50-55 tons.

Most of the boats for the Rochdale, at least until the yard at Sowerby Bridge was operational, would have been built in Stretford, at either Rathbone’s or Mugg’s boatyards.

There is clear evidence that both the Rochdale Company and the bye-traders used narrowboats on the canal. There were some boats built specifically to trade across the Rochdale or Huddersfield Narrow canals and onto the shorter waterways in Yorkshire. Photographic evidence shows one of these being launched at Sephton’s yard near Coventry. The narrowboat ‘Elland’ was built at Mirfield to be able to travel on the Calder & Hebble as well as the Huddersfield Narrow and Rochdale canals. This boat still exists and is owned by Sue Day and operated by the Horseboating Society.

A particularly interesting photograph shows a pair of horsedrawn narrowboats being towed, but with the boats facing in opposite directions. This seems mysterious, but was a technique often used by boatmen when there was not a turning point (winding hole) near to a wharf. The boatman would turn one boat at a convenient point and then this allowed the boatman to steer his pair of boats in either direction and to return to the winding hole.

The Rochdale Canal Company owned and operated its own boats, enabling it to make full use of the vessels and maximize its income. By 1892 the company had fifteen steam packets (named after rivers), fifteen keels and flats (many named after flowers) and thirty-eight narrowboats. Other boats on the canal were owned by individual boatmen, a practice more common on Midland canals, where the owner-boatman was often referred to as a ‘Number One’, in reference to a supposed fleet number.

Ordinary or ‘slow’ boats would not travel at night, but fly-boats ran a fast or express service to a timetable, with precedence over other craft and such privileges as permission to pass locks at night. Because of the speed with its demanding changes of horses, they were expensive to run, so they carried freight which paid a high toll.

Horsedrawn fly-boating meant a chain of stables, a large reserve of horses, and horse keepers on duty day and night. The Rochdale Canal Company was large enough to provide this for its boats. The company used flats only to 20 tons, drawing 3 feet, so they could travel faster, taking twenty-eight working hours to travel the length of the canal.

Probably the best known of the early bye-traders on the canal was the form of Jackson. In the 1840s, William Jackson was a successful trader leasing warehouses at Sowerby Bridge, Rochdale and Manchester. He also had a fly-boat service. By 1845 he had over thirty-two barges, six narrowboats and 120 horses, an average of four horses per boat. Many of the boats were given names of flowers or girls. In 1891 he sold out to the Rochdale Canal Company.

In 1894 two of the boats were bought by Albert Wood, a former clerk of Jackson’s at Sowerby Bridge. The first lock at Sowerby Bridge is now named after him. His company had eleven steam boats working between Sowerby Bridge and Liverpool, together with twenty-nine horse drawn Mersey Flats. These boats were too long to use the locks on the Calder & Hebble, so Mr. Wood had five Yorkshire keels (horsedrawn) which took goods transshipped at Sowerby Bridge as far as Wakefield. The chief items carried by his boats were cotton, wool, grain, flour, sugar, corn syrup and tinned foods.

Albert Wood had a system of boat control where the information came in daily from his offices at Hull, Goole and Manchester stating craft movements. He paid a regular weekly wage to the captain plus extra for tonnage and mileage. The crew of a boat normally consisted of the captain, the mate and the horseman. Pay was not high. In 1912 the basic rate was only 15 shillings (75p) a week and a working week of 70 hours was needed to bring this up to 32 shillings (£1.60). Although busy during the1914-18 war, Mr. Wood gave up carrying in 1919 due to high costs and competition from road transport. There were many army-surplus road vehicles available for carrying goods from door to door, with army-trained drivers. Also following the war, there was a general introduction of a shorter working week. These factors and higher costs eventually also caused the Rochdale Canal Company to give up the carrying business in July 1921.

A few of the redundant boatmen then hired some of the boats, and carried grain from Manchester Docks to the Co-operative Wholesale Mills in Sowerby Bridge. They averaged three boats a week with 40 tons of grain in each, and discharged their last cargo on 8 February 1927.
After 1927, boats on the Canal were a rarity. A newspaper cutting written many years later had the headline “Myrobalans brought by Canal” and said: “The final cargo to be worked through the Rochdale Canal was on September 13 1937 in the Yorkshire keel, Thomas (owners Calder Carrying Company, Halifax) carrying 23 tons of myrobalans (dried fruit of an Indian tree used in the chemical industry for dye and tan stuffs). The cargo was from Manchester Docks consigned to Dewsbury.”

However the newspaper report contradicts another source which states that the narrowboat “Alice” from Manchester carried wire to Sowerby Bridge n the 6th April 1939 and returned the following day. Travelling west, the boat, May Queen, was the last boat known to pass through to Manchester, on 12 June 1939. After that, only the Lancashire side saw some traffic.