Canal history

The Rochdale Canal at Copprashouse Bridge, Todmorden c1900. Photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.The Rochdale Canal at Copprashouse Bridge, Todmorden c1900. Photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.

Todmorden and the Rochdale Canal

Transport links have had a huge impact on the development of the Calder Valley, increasing trade and altering the layout of towns and villages.

Joshua Fielden’s Todmorden textiles business began on a small scale. In 1782 he was producing hand-woven wool using hand-operated spinning jennies in a converted cottage. In 1804, the opening of the Rochdale Canal facilitated supply of raw cotton to Todmorden and cloth back to Manchester, helping Fielden to expand his business and move his company to a small factory.

After Joshua Fielden died in 1811, ownership passed to his four sons. Fielden Bros became one of the largest textile companies in the country, and in 1829 became the first in the Calder valley to install power looms. Transport was further improved with the completion of the Manchester and Leeds Railway (later the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway) in 1841. The construction of the railway required a giant retaining wall to be built alongside the canal to carry the train lines along the valley edge. One of the biggest engineering feats faced by the Manchester and Leeds Railway Company, 4 million bricks were used in the construction of the ‘Great Wall of Tod’, and it remains one of the town’s most iconic features.

By the 1850’s there were some 100,000 spindles and 1600 looms in production at the Fielden Brothers’ Waterside Mill, and 1925 workers were employed as weavers. It has been estimated that, at their peak, at least 20% of Todmorden’s population were dependent directly or indirectly on the Fielden Brothers, who accumulated more capital in business than any other cotton firm in Britain before the watershed of the American Civil war.

One of the brothers, John Fielden, also became an influential politician, and worked to improve working conditions in his factories. With William Cobbett he led the Reform movement in the House of Commons and supported the Chartist demands. He also helped promote the Ten Hours Act which reduced the working day for children.

The Fielden brothers did a great deal for Todmorden. They funded the construction of Todmorden Unitarian Church, and the town hall which officially opened in 1875. In recognition, the town erected a statue to John Fielden which is now in Todmorden’s Centre Vale country park.

Fielden Wharf is also named for the family, and has historically been a busy part of Todmorden. The Golden Lion pub on the corner of the wharf was built around the same time that the turnpike from Littleborough to Halifax was authorised in 1758. The pub was one of the staging points for the twice-weekly Manchester to Halifax coach service and its landlord, David Cawthorne, was the service’s promoter. With stabling for forty horses, the square in front of the inn was already a busy place when the Rochdale canal opened between Sowerby Bridge and Todmorden on 24 August 1798.

By the 1820s, there was daily coach service to Manchester and Halifax, and additional services to Wakefield, Burnley, Blackburn and Preston, and even to Blackpool in the summer. With the increase in road traffic, the turnpike was improved in the 1820’s and a new stone bridge built over the canal at the point where the canal towpath changed sides. Horses were uncoupled from their barges and walked through the new horse-tunnel and across this bridge before being re-attached at the other side, saving them from having to cross the busy road.

When the road was widened again in 1864 an extension to the bridge was built on the eastern side over the canal, with the parapet cast by local iron founders Astin & Barker. Further widening on the western side, in 1831, meant that to allow the lock next to the bridge to remain at its full length, a vertically rising or ‘guillotine’ gate, was installed. Guillotine gates are not very common on inland waterways, but there are other examples nearby at Salterhebble on the Calder & Hebble Navigation and at Slaithwaite on the Huddersfield Narrow canal.

Todmorden’s guillotine lock remained in place until the Rochdale Canal was abandoned in 1952. A concrete dam was built to replace the upper gates on 14 July 1955. This was removed and replaced with mitred gates when the canal was restored. However, mitred bottom gates were also installed in the short lock gate recesses which only allowed shorter boats (up to 60ft) through. This allowed restoration of the then landlocked canal to continue successfully. With continued progress of the restoration, a new guillotine gate was installed in 1997.

Fielden Wharf was restored in 2002 under Todmorden Pride’s Market Town’s Initiative and now offers moorings and sanitary facilities for boat users, flower beds, picnic tables, and a number of sculptures designed by a local artist and school children. The restoration project received a commendation in the ‘Community’ category at the 2008 British Urban Regeneration Association Waterways Renaissance Awards, which commend best practice in sustainable waterway regeneration and development throughout the UK.