Researching Derbyshire Canals

As long ago as the period of the Roman occupation, the Fosse Dyke from the River Trent to the River Witham had been constructed.  But, the first canal with locks was not cut until 1567 at Exeter.  There were no further major developments until the 18th century, when a series of technical innovations such as the substitution of coal for charcoal in the iron smelting process resulted the need to transport coal and manufactured goods large distances, so a cheap and efficient means of transportation was required.

Before the development of canals, goods were transported by packhorse, by wagon, or by rivers, very few of which had been improved by cuts.  Road transport was particularly expensive, especially in the winter when road conditions were poor.  River transport was much cheaper but suffered from the disadvantages of floods, droughts, shallows and with the notable exception of the Tyne, remoteness from the coalfields.

Dr Congreve of Wolverhampton had suggested building a canal linking the Severn with the Trent Navigation joining the Trent at Burton in 1717 but no work was carried out. A similar abortive plan in the 1755 by The Liverpool Corporation considered the possibility of a canal from the Humber to the Mersey, via Nottingham, Derby, Stafford and Chester.

In 1758, Derbyshire-born engineer James Brindley was recruited by Earl Gower of Trentham, Staffordshire, to survey a comparable route joining the Trent at Kings Mills. Although this was also aborted, it led the following year to Brindley being introduced to the Duke of Bridgwater, a wealthy Lancashire coal owner, and he was asked to survey a canal from the Duke’s collieries at Worsley to Manchester – the Bridgwater Canal, Britain’s first major canal.

Brindley was involved in schemes for canals through the country, including the Trent and Mersey Canal which was completed in 1777, but many others were not considered economically viable.  He died after catching a chill while surveying a canal in the Peak very near to his birthplace (Tunstead in Wormhill).

Men such as Benjamin Outram and William Jessop (both associated with the Butterley Company of Ripley, see collection D503) and Thomas Telford, succeeded Brindley as surveyors and builders of canals.  Outram is particularly remembered for the tramways he constructed to link mines and quarries with the canals. The use of iron reinforced rails was probably first devised by Reynolds of Coalbrookdale Ironworks in 1767, and they were used in 1787 in the Duke of Norfolk’s colliery in Sheffield – some of these flanged iron rails may have been supplied by Joseph Outram, a Ripley ironfounder and Benjamin’s father.  Benjamin himself used them on the Derby Canal Company’s line from Little Eaton to Denby, which opened in 1795, and on the line connecting Ticknall Limeworks with the Ashby Canal, laid 1799-1802.

William Jessop, Outram’s partner at what later became the Butterley Company, was engineer to the Trent Navigation and did much survey work for canals in many parts of England, including the Grand Western Canal, the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal, the Ellesmere Canal, the Grand Junction Canal, and locally, the Cromford, Nottingham, Nutbrook and Leicester Canals.

Derbyshire Canals

ChesterfieldOpened 1777Chesterfield – West Stockwith, Nottinghamshire
Trent and MerseyCompleted 1777Derwent Mouth at Shardlow – River Mersey, via Bridgewater Canal
ErewashOpened 1779River Trent, Sawley – Cromford
CromfordOpened 1794Cromford – Langley Mill
DerbyCompleted 1796Derby – Swarkestone
NutbrookCompleted 1796Shipley – Trowell, Nottinghamshire
NottinghamCompleted 1796Cromford – Beeston, Nottinghamshire
Peak ForestFirst section completed by 1799Ashton-under-Lyne, Tamseside – Bugsworth Basin, Buxworth
AshbyCompleted 1804Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire – Marston Junction, Coventry Canal, via Ticknall

Local Studies

The Local Studies collection contains lots of books and articles, and other items about canal building generally, specific Derbyshire canals, notable individuals and efforts in the last few decades to restore many of them (or sections of them). Many are described in our catalogue, and they are many more yet to be added, including:

  • D. D. Gladwin & J. W. White (1970) English Canals, Parts 1-3
  • C. Hadfield (1968) The Canal Age (1970) The Canals of the East Midlands (1978) British Canals
  • F. Nixon (1969) The Industrial Archaeology of Derbyshire
  • G. G. Hopkinson (1959) ‘The Inland Navigations of the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Coalfield, 1777-1859’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 59, pp. 22-41
  • P. Stevenson (1970) The Nutbrook Canal, Derbyshire
  • The Journal of the Railway and Canal Historical Society, available from DATE to the present

The Derbyshire Record Society have published selected records of Derbyshire canal companies:

  • Christine Richardson (1996) Minutes of the Chesterfield Canal Company 1771-80
  • Hywell Maslen (2014) Trent Navigation Company Gauging Books 1799-1919
  • Hugh Potter and Philip Riden (2015) Minutes of the Chesterfield Canal Company 1789-1799

For photographs of local canals see Picture the Past and the Derbyshire Historic Environment Record.


Canal Companies

Unfortunately survival of records for the companies is rather poor and varied, as this list of archive collections for Derbyshire canal companies. Of particular note, are the large number of permit books for the Cromford Canal recording the boats entering and leaving the cargo, including a note of cargo, tonnage and distance travelled.

Most of the surviving records we hold for the Nutbrook Canal can be found in the archive of the Miller Mundy family of Shipley Hall, see D517. Minutes for the Cromford Canal Co. 1789-1852 are held under series RAIL 819; and other records are also held at The Waterways Archive, Wakefield Local Studies Library, West Yorkshire Archive Service and even the Baker Library at Harvard University Business School – see The National Archives Discovery catalogue for more information.

Many canals were ultimately taken over by railway companies, so it may be worth looking at the archive collections of the relevant railways – see our Railways research guide for more information.

Acts of Parliament

We hold published copies of all Public General, Local, Personal and Private Acts from 1776 to 1973 (see ACT), plus copies of many acts relating to canals and other undertakings can be found amongst various family, estate and business collections.

County Quarter Sessions

Plans of public undertakings including canals were deposited from 1792. Usually the plans are accompanied by a book of reference, which will include a schedule of land and landowners affected by the proposed works, together with related papers such as orders, notices etc. It is important to remember that not all works were carried out. See Q/RP/1 for a list of deposited plans for public undertakings including canals, or search using reference Q/RP/1*.

Under an Act of 1795, vessels over 13 tons burden used on inland navigations were required to register with the Clerk of the Peace. The surviving register covers the period c1795-c1799 and includes the master’s name along with the number of men employed, see Q/RM/3/1.

Other records

There are also single items or bundles relating to canals found amongst various other collections, usually where a family member or business has had a particular interest in the canal (as with the Miller Mundy family and the Nutbrook Canal above). The following collections include a good number of records relating to different canals:

You can search for items in the catalogue, and the following may be of particular interest:

  • D1564/90 Plan of intended Derby canals and railways, surveyed by Benjamin Outram, 1792
  • D77/4/11/31 and D1564/91 Plans of all navigable canals in 1779 and c. 1832 respectively
  • D395/Z/Z/29 Bill for part of the expenses incurred in moving the property of Mrs Hancock from London to Derbyshire, 1809 – when Mrs Hancock died, her coffin and all her possessions were transported by canal
  • DCC/CA/5/22/1 Derbyshire County Council Cromford Canal Joint Liaison Committee minutes, 1981-1990.

National collections

Government supervision of inland transport (include canals and railways) began in 1840 with the creation of the Railway Department within the Board of Trade. Responsibility for inland waterways passed to the Ministry of Transport in 1919. Correspondence and papers relating to individual canals in the 20th century, including in relation to closures can be found in series MT 52 Ministry of Transport: Inland Waterways Division at The National Archives.

The canal network was in decline in the early 20th century, with increased competition from roads and railways. As the canals were known owned by the railway companies, when the latter where nationalised in 1948, so too were the canals, under the British Transport Commission. The BTC was succeeded in 1962 by various organisations including the British Waterways Board (BWB).

Records of the BTC are generally to be found at The National Archives, as are many records for the BWB. Other archives for the BWB and its successor British Waterways (now the Canal and River Trust) are held in The Waterways Archive at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmore Port.

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