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


The promoters of the canal were the initial instigators of a scheme, usually men of business as landowners often objected. On the Rochdale the most notable of the early promoters was Richard Townley, although ultimately the support of the Duke of Bridgewater was needed to obtain the enabling act of 1794.

The most important name associated with any canal and usually the name which attracted investors was the principal engineer, in this case initially John Rennie, but probably crucial to obtaining consent for the canal, was then William Jessop. Once work had started on building the canal, the principal engineer was in many cases seldom seen at the workings, save perhaps for major constructions such as an aqueduct. Such men were scarce and in great demand for other projects. Instead, the work devolved onto the Resident Engineer. For the Rochdale canal, he was William Crosley (senior) until his death in 1796. Thomas Bradley, from the Calder and Hebble, took over until William Crosley (Junior) was appointed in 1802.

Working under the resident engineer would be a number of Contractors, each responsible for the actual construction of a section of canal. Each contractor employed ‘Gangers’, who in turn engaged a group of workmen – the famous Navigators, or ‘Navvies’, a term still used today.

The navvies at first came from all parts of the country; displaced agricultural labourers, miners, anyone not afraid of hard work and attracted by good pay. Navvy work was quite different to what these men would have been used to, and it was often said that it took six months to turn a man into a navvy. Many were Scots, or Irish, unable to find work at home. The men would live in shanty towns and had prodigious reputations for wild behaviour, drinking and fighting.

Nothing seems to have been recorded about the behaviour of the navvies on the Rochdale canal, but the following extract from Charles Hadfield’s book ‘British Canals’ may be assumed to be typical. He quotes an account of a mob of navvies terrorising a village in Lincolnshire in the early 1800s:

“They attacked the “Bottle and Glass” public house – fetched the barrels of beer out of the house… and drank the ale… The constable of the village was called out, but he alone was of no use, as they would have attacked him at once; he made his escape with difficulty. Thirteen constables were sent for from Horncastle, they also were useless, and had to go home again – one of them so much injured that he died from the effects afterwards; the cavalry were then sent for and they filled three carts with the rioters, whom they carried away with them”.

References & descriptions of navvy life in song: