Canal history

Littleborough Church school annual trip. © The Waterways Trust Archive (Ellesmere Port) / The Waterways TrustLittleborough Church school annual trip. © The Waterways Trust Archive (Ellesmere Port) / The Waterways Trust

Canal mania

It was the success of the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal which set in motion the first ‘Canal Mania’ which swept the country in the late 1700s.

Halifax merchants, concerned about the hilly carriage routes to Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, had promoted a scheme for their area, to extend the Calder navigation to, or near to, Sowerby Bridge and to make navigable the Hebble Brook to Halifax. Surveys were carried out in both 1740 and 1751. Each time the opposition proved too strong, but the scheme was resumed in 1756 and an Act was passed in 1758. Traders from Rochdale were already considering a canal scheme because they urged Halifax people to extend the navigation to Sowerby Bridge.

Many problems were experienced before the completion of the Calder and Hebble Navigation including a great flood which stopped work for a year, but it was even later, in 1825, before Halifax had a branch canal from Salterhebble.

Meanwhile, as early as 1766 a group of men led by Harbord Harbord, Richard Townley and Roger Sedgwick had met in Rochdale and subscribed £237 towards making plans and estimates for a canal across the Pennines. This would connect the Calder and Hebble Navigation at Sowerby Bridge with the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal at Manchester. These plans never went any further.

The 1874 Todmorden and Hebden Bridge Almanack describes the difficulties: ‘The manufacturers in Bury strongly solicited Mr. Townley to allow the canal to go that way.’ Mr. Townley did not want a route through Bury as it would add an extra eight miles on the journey from Rochdale to Manchester but he directed the engineer, Brindley, to prepare a plan of that route also. The pro ‘Bury’ group enlisted the Derby family and Lord Strange, Colonel of the Lancashire Militia, to their cause.

Mr. Townley was the Lieutenant-Colonel, but despite divided loyalties felt that, ‘doing a lasting injury to Rochdale and the densely populated districts on the Todmorden side, for whose joint benefit he had taken no little pains, and incurred considerable expense’ would not be acceptable. The ‘Bury’ faction could not promote an independent scheme as they lacked a sufficient water supply, but they placed innumerable difficulties in Mr. Townley’s way; and he eventually gave up the project.

Further meetings were held in 1790 and 1791; eventually at an additional meeting held at Rochdale in February 1791, it was decided to go ahead with a revised plan and Mr. Rennie of London was appointed surveyor. On receiving Mr. Rennie’s plans and estimates, another meeting was called at Rochdale to raise a subscription. £60,000 was subscribed in an hour – money appeared plentiful, but then this was when ‘canal mania’ had gripped the country for the first time, reaching a peak in 1793 with the passing of twenty canal acts.

The 1792 bill was rejected as a result of strong opposition from millowners on the proposed line, proprietors of existing canals, and other interested individuals, with the Duke of Bridgewater leading the opposition.

Many of the objectors were those who used the water in the valley, both in the main river Calder and the streams which ran into it from the steep hillsides, and they were naturally antagonised by the initial proposal of the canal promoters to acquire the right to intercept and use all streams within 1000 yards of the proposed line of the canal.

Despite the formidable opposition, the subscribers made a second application with a modified bill, this time with the support of the Duke of Bridgewater. The 1793 bill was again rejected. At this time, Rennie was involved with canal schemes elsewhere and so the noted engineer William Jessop was approached by the promoters. Jessop had a great reputation as an engineer at that time but despite being much occupied elsewhere agreed to take on the role of principal engineer to the proposed Rochdale canal. With his support, the third bill was successful, and an Act was obtained in April 1794, when a committee was appointed to turn an Act into a real and working canal.