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Chesterfield Canal History

History Summary of the Chesterfield Canal, by Christine Richardson

By 1766 the first canal-building boom had started and Chesterfield and Retford enthusiastically embraced the idea of a new waterway. The nationally famous engineer James Brindley was asked to lead the project.

The first public meeting was held at Worksop’s Red Lion on 24 August 1769. Brindley was present and he confirmed 266 3625 that a canal from Chesterfield to the River Trent was viable. Of all the proposed cargoes coal was considered the most important because the fledgling Canal Company aimed to undersell the rival south Yorkshire coalfields.

An Act of Parliament was sought. It gave powers to raise £100,000 in £100 shares, and £50,000 more if necessary. Shareholders were mainly local people, plus some investors in London. The capital was fully subscribed by July 1771.

Brindley’s assistant, John Varley, was make Clerk of the Works [Resident Engineer]. Work started in October 1771 at Norwood Tunnel, the digging of which was to be a four-year task. Meanwhile the canal was built eastwards towards Worksop and Retford.

Just as the work was making good progress, news was received in September 1772 that James Brindley had died. The Company really had no alternative but to allow John Varley to carry on for a while, even though this was his first large project. Later Hugh Henshall, Brindley’s brother-in-law, was made Inspector of the Works although Varley continued to bear the day-to-day responsibilities.

Construction Problems

In the summer of 1773 Henshall found that some of the work done in Norwood Tunnel was unsatisfactory; unfortunately for John Varley the culprits included his father and two brothers. Soon other examples of suspicious contractual arrangements and slack management came to light. The part played by John Varley in these deceptions is a matter of opinion he could have been too busy elsewhere on the canal to control the tunnel work; he could have been giving work to his family. Over 200 years later there is no proof either way, but it should be borne in mind that similar revelations dogged many projects in this very early phase of canal building. In 1774 Hugh Henshall was made Chief Engineer, but Varley remained Resident Engineer.

In May 1775 it was agreed that although the canal was to be narrow from Chesterfield to Retford it should, nevertheless, be built larger between Retford and the Trent so that it could carry wide-beam river-boats.

Norwood Tunnel was officially opened on 9 May 1775, and it was 2884 yards long, 9ft 3ins wide, and 12ft high. By that time work was also progressing towards Chesterfield. By August 1776 the canal was completed between West Stockwith and Norbriggs, near Staveley. The entire canal was officially opened on 4 June 1777.

During the 1780s the canal’s trading suffered from the national recession caused by the American War of Independence, therefore the first dividend to shareholders was not paid until 1789. After that the Canal Company was reasonably prosperous, and continued to be so until the middle of the 19th century.

The cargoes were varied, but the most famous item carried was stone to rebuild the Houses of Parliament in the 1840s. The quarry was in North Anston and the stone was loaded into canal boats at Dog Kennels Bridge, Kiveton Park. From there it was carried to West Stockwith, and transferred to Trent sloops for the rest of the journey to Westminster, via the Humber, North Sea, and Thames.


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