Retro: Sheffield’s vital canal trade

“Undeniable proof that a new canal stretching from Tinsley to the Sheffield Basin would answer its purpose, was shown on Monday, 22 February 1819, by the arrival of eleven vessels in the city where around 60,000 watched the spectacle,” reported the Sheffield Mercury of February 27 that year.

A large sloop named the Industry, belonging to Messrs R. Pearson and Co. of Thorne, festooned with flags and streamers led the flotilla. On board the Industry were the Sheffield Canal Committee and some of their friends.

The proprietors and a number of prominent city folk occupied the vessels that followed. The military band, belonging to the Sheffield Local Militia, was placed prominently and added much pleasure and enjoyment.

Preparations for entering the basin began as soon as the last vessel had passed the last bridge. This included raising the masts, spreading the sails, elevating the flags, loading the cannon, the fire of which was returned by that of two others, conveniently sited at Park Hill.

“The entrance of the whole into the basin, the decorations, and those of numerous clubs that flanked the south side of it, the thunder of the artillery, and shouts of the populace, had the most exhilarating effect, which was further increased by the sun’s cheering influence, and the mildness of the day,” is how the Sheffield Mercury summed up the day’s event.

Plans to link Sheffield to the navigable River Don at Tinsley (and so to the Rivers Ouse and Trent, and to the Humber and the North Sea) were mooted as early as 1697 but these came to nothing.

During 1815, the Sheffield Canal Company was formed by Act of Parliament in order to construct a canal. Passed on 7 June 1815, the Act had over 180 subscribers, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl Fitzwilliam being the largest contributors.

Civil engineer, William Chapman prepared the plans, and was the engineer for the undertaking, amounting to approximately £76,000.

Hugh Parker laid the foundation stone of the canal basin on 16 June 1816. Stretching 3.9 miles the Sheffield & Tinsley Canal navigation originally passed through 12 locks.

The opening was a victory for the burgesses, industrialists and cutler. Afterwards, festivities were adjourned to the King’s Head and the Tontine in Sheffield’s Haymarket.

In the ensuing years, services connected to the Hull and London steamers. Other services ran to Gainsborough and Leeds and from the early days coal was brought to the Sheffield Canal basin by wagon-ways for onward shipment by canal.

The Sheffield & Tinsley Canal underwent ownership changes throughout the 19th century. The navigation was taken over by the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway in 1864 and formed part of a new company the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation (S&SYN) in 1895. This included the River Don Navigation and the Stainforth & Keadby Canal. The (S&SYN) was joined by the New Junction Canal in 1905, accessing the Knottingley and Goole section of the Aire & Calder Navigation. Hard times were endured on Britain’s canals in the First World War when they were nationalised and little maintenance work was undertaken. Early in the Second World War, lock six of the Tinsley flight suffered considerable bomb damage but was quickly reconstructed under difficult wartime restrictions.

Nationalisation of the waterways occurred in 1948 but this did little to increase traffic as it slumped in the Post War years. Yet, in 1969 the glory of 150 years earlier when Sheffield was linked to the Britain’s waterways and beyond was marvellously celebrated on Saturday May 17, 1969.

A 28-year-old coal barge, the Victory, carried an assorted band of councillors, local authority officials, librarians, and canal conservationists along the S&SYN to Sheffield Canal Basin. Around 50 voyagers were seated on hard planks, dodging perilously low bridges, for nearly four hours - half of this in pouring rain.

Organised by the campaigning Mrs B. J. Bunker, secretary of the Inland Waterways Protection society, the crews had the double aim of celebration and of canvassing support for their drive to keep open and modernise the city’s link with the sea.

In 1969, the route was not one for scenic beauty, surroundings being mostly on the lines of derelict sites, scrap yards, nondescript backs of steelworks, Holmes Farm sewage works and Sheffield Corporation’s dustcart depot. The most interesting aspect of the scene was the water itself, changing from a healthy dark blue of the Don at Rotherham, growing progressively green on the way to Tinsley and a darkening brown with rust and refuse on the way to the Sheffield Basin.

But the weekend sailors remained cheerful on the passage through locks and bridges with Percy Bunker providing a guide to landmarks, and skipper Joe Batty shouting, ‘Mind your heads.’

A barge captain since the age of 18, 41-year-old Joe, worked for Swinton barge operator Victor Waddington, who lent the barge to the society. Unfortunately there was no band playing, cannon fire, people cheering as there had been 150 years earlier as the Victory chugged leisurely into the Sheffield Basin, then only staffed by one British Waterways employee. Shortly afterwards the Basin ceased operation as a cargo port and fell into a forlorn pitiful state with the warehouses presenting an awful sight to the observer.

But, in the 1990s, the Basin was restored, including the ‘Straddle’ warehouse, the terminal and grain warehouses and merchants’ houses.

New office and business space and leisure facilities were provided as well as berths for leisure canal boats. Renamed Victoria Quays, the area is presently a busy waterfront destination with a variety of facilities available.