Canal history

Piccadilly Basin, Manchester, 1880. The Waterways Trust Archive (Ellesmere Port) / The Waterways TrustPiccadilly Basin, Manchester, 1880. The Waterways Trust Archive (Ellesmere Port) / The Waterways Trust


There are several stages in the process of creating a canal, after the Act has been passed. It is important to remember that the profession of civil engineer was only just developing and that such sciences as soil mechanics or geological survey were unknown.

Stages of canal construction:

1)    Surveying the route: this was done by triangulation, using the surveyors’ equipment of measuring chains, theodolites (which had been developed by about 1720), and staffs. The resulting line was marked out on the ground using level markers. The building of a canal involved the compulsory purchase of land, the diversion of roads and streams, and similar encroachments on private and public rights. Where a canal divided the landowner’s property, a bridge had to be provided, for example, at Mayroyd Mill. At Mayroyd Mill, the company was also not allowed to alter, make or vary the course of line of the canal as already laid down … ‘or to dig, take, or carry away any Sods, Soil, Stones, or Earth from the Lands or Grounds called May Royd Holmes save and except such as shall arise in the making or forming the said canal’.

2)    The line gave the course of the canal and the depth to be dug (from the height of the markers above ground). From this, holes were dug at intervals to mark the width of the canal and the slope of the cut. The holes were joined into narrow trenches and then the spoil excavated between these, ‘reaching back’ towards the centre.

3)    On level ground, the canal would be excavated as described above. However, it was more common to have to cross sloping ground. This would be done by excavating back into the higher side and using the spoil to build up the lower side as a raised bank. Sometimes the canal level needed would be below or above the existing ground, so cuttings or embankments would have to be made.

4)    When the canal channel was formed, the whole had to be made watertight. This process used ‘puddle clay’, a type of clay which when soaked with water and compacted, became waterproof. The clay on the sloping sides of the trench would be up to 1ft thick, but would be applied to the bed in a thick layer of up to 3ft. It has sometimes been suggested that herds of cattle were driven up and down the canal to consolidate the puddle, but there is little documentary evidence of this. Finally a coping or wash-wall would have to be built to form the edge of the canal, and the towing path formed.

5)    Whilst all this digging was taking place, masons would be building the locks and bridges, in the case of the Rochdale from local stone; carpenters would make the lock gates and blacksmiths and iron founders made all the ironwork associated with the locks.

Fortunately for the Rochdale, Jessop’s skill in laying out the line of the canal ensured that there was little need for cuttings or embankments. It has been said that, “The most remarkable major engineering feature of the canal is that there are no major engineering features.” On the whole line, there are only 2 short tunnels (Sowerby Long Bridge, 43 yards, and Knott Mill, originally 336 yards, now 78); two aqueducts of significance (River Calder and River Irk) plus four much smaller; and little in the way of cuttings (a short length of 50ft depth at Sowerby Bridge). Much of the line between Luddendenfoot and Hebden Bridge is terraced into the hillside.

This should be compared with the other transpennine canals: The Leeds & Liverpool with 8 sets of staircase locks, several large aqueducts, two tunnels and a vast embankment; or the Huddersfield, again with several aqueducts, two tunnels including one of 5456 yards.

Water Supply

The water available to a canal is its most important resource and considerable effort was expended by the promoters and engineers of the Rochdale Canal to ensure a good supply. Water was also vital to many other users, notably millowners.

Many of the objectors were people who depended for their livelihood on 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 first proposal of the canal promoters which was to acquire the right to intercept and use all streams within 1000 yards of the proposed line of the canal.

The original proposals were then modified to meet the opposition, and then further modified to placate a group of twenty-five millowners in the Upper Calder Valley. As a final compromise, the canal promoters confined themselves to taking water from twelve streams feeding into the Calder, and then only the excess water from a gauge fitted at each clough. As a substitute, the Act gave them power to obtain most of their water from reservoirs upon the Moors or Commons called Blackstone Edge.

Although the promoters thought that they were being penalized by having to find their water in this way, in fact these water rights were eventually the most precious things the canal company possessed. In 1794 no one could foresee the enormous increase in the demand for water and the fight for almost every square yard of the moorland catchment areas. This would come later.

Eventually, eight reservoirs were built to feed the canal: Blackstone Edge, Light Hazzles, Whiteholme, Warland, Hollingworth, Upper and Lower Chelburn and Gaddings dam. Of these, the largest, Hollingworth Lake is 40’ below the summit level and therefore can only feed the Lancashire side, unless water is pumped up to the higher level of the Summit. A steam powered pump was installed at Hollingworth Lake to pump water up to a feeder channel or ‘leat’ which connected to the summit level. In times of drought therefore water could be raised to the summit whence it could feed both the Yorkshire and Lancashire sides. Pumping would be expensive, so no doubt it was not used more than essential.

The feeder streams occur at various places along the canal, a good example being Beaumont Clough, where the measuring weir can be seen. This weir only allows water to flow into the canal when the specified quantity is flowing into the stream. These streams are usually equipped with settlement tanks or ‘catch pits’ to trap sediment brought down by the streams. The rest of the stream flows into the river, culverted under the canal if necessary.

Even with this supply of water, the canal could run short of water during a dry summer. The summit level was built deeper than normal to alleviate this, but the company would have to impose restrictions on trade in very dry times. These could include such measures as restricting the load that boats could carry, ‘waiting turns’ where boats were required to use locks alternately up and down, and by chaining shut the gates at night. With each passage of a boat using about 73,000 gallons of water, it was important to make sure that any leakage or misuse was minimized.

As trade declined, the Rochdale Canal Company sold the water rights to the water undertakings of local corporations. Increasing quantities of water was also sold to waterside industries; some still take water from the canal today, often as process water which is later returned to the canal. By an Act of 1923, the reservoir system was sold to the Joint Water Managing Committee of Oldham and Rochdale Corporation for £396,667 of which 25% had to be paid to the Manchester Ship Canal as compensation for loss of water rights. The rights of people making use of the water from the canal were safeguarded, and in 1952, when the Act of abandonment was passed, mills and factories were still taking 21 million gallons from the canal every day.


The final stage of building the Rochdale Canal was the official opening, on 21 December 1804. The report that appeared in the Manchester Mercury went into great detail:

“Two elegant Yachts containing the Committee of the Canal Company and other proprietors preceded by ice boats came down from Rochdale to Manchester, a distance of twelve miles, and arrived at the wharf in Piccadilly at half past three in the afternoon.”

Music from a band accompanied the boats for the latter part of the journey and bells were rung in Manchester.

The following extract gives a flavour of the grand occasion:

“The banks of the Canal were lined on both sides for a long way together with many thousands; the bridges, the roofs of the factories, the neighbouring houses, up every elevated situation were crowded with vast numbers; and exhibited a scene uncommonly curious and striking … The Committee having landed from their Yachts at Piccadilly, were received by many respectable Gentlemen of this town, who accompanied them in regular procession to the Bridgewater Arms, preceded by the band, and followed by the workmen carrying their different tools … At the Bridgewater Arms about eighty Gentlemen partook of an elegant dinner provided for the occasion, many appropriate toasts were given, and the warm thanks of the company were presented to the Committee and Agents, whose active and persevering exertions had brought this undertaking to a successful termination.”

One short sentence suggested that all had not gone to plan:

Vessels from London and other posts were expected to arrive about this period and would have followed in the train of Yachts, but were prevented by contrary winds.”