Derby Canal History

1777
The Trent and Mersey Canal was already open – the Erewash Canal was being built – the people of Derby were being missed out. For decades the River Derwent had been navigable to Derby but it was very difficult to navigate – not to mention incredibly long and meandering, looping the loop on itself several times.

1790
Two opposing sets of would-be canal owners came to the fore. The first wanted to build the Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Canal which would have by-passed difficult parts of the River Trent.

The main line would not have gone into Derby though a branch was proposed.The second group of promoters wanted to build the Derby Canal which would link Derby to both the River Trent (at Swarkestone) and the Erewash Canal (at Sandiacre). As well as linking Derby to its prosperous coal fields it would also provide a new through-route for Erewash Canal traffic as well as for traffic from the Cromford, Nottingham and Grantham canals which were all getting under way around this same time.

1791
Local businessman, Benjamin Outram, made the initial survey for the Derby Canal project. Later, his line was improved slightly by his more experienced business partner, William Jessop.

The chosen route was to run from the centre of Derby and would head off in two directions to make junctions with the Erewash Canal to east and the River Trent to the south (which included crossing the Trent and Mersey Canal to reach the river).

1793
The Derby Canal and the Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire Canal Acts went through Parliament on the same day. The Derby Canal was accepted while the Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire Canal was thrown out.

The Derby Canal’s Act was not as straight forward as it could have been however. For instance, the company were restricted to paying out dividends to shareholders of no more than 8%. All money left over after dividends were paid had to be held in reserve in order to preserve low tolls.

Another “agreement” forced on the company in order to gain its Act was to allow 5,000 tons of coal per year (bound for the poor of Derby) to be carried absolutely toll-free. These restrictions were bad enough in the early years but became a real problem for the company in later years when they had to try and compete with railways who never had any such restrictions. Many canal companies were put out of business because of similar restrictions.

Following the authorisation by Parliament, Benjamin Outram was appointed engineer and work began. The Derby Canal was to be almost 20 miles long with 9 broad locks capable of taking Trent barges. There was also to be a 3 mile branch heading north out of Derby to Little Eaton. At Little Eaton the branch was to connect with a tram-road (known locally as a “Gangway”) bringing coal from Denby and other local mines.

1795
The first section of the Derby Canal opened, starting at its junction with the Erewash Canal and heading west into Derby. The 3 mile Little Eaton Branch was also opened. The Derby Canal’s Act had included authority to buy the River Derwent Navigation which ran from the River Trent near Sawley to the centre of Derby. With the opening of the line from the Erewash Canal to Derby, the canal company now closed the River Derwent and it was never used again.

1796
The canal was fully opened with the completion of the line south from Derby to Swarkestone where the route crossed the Trent & Mersey Canal on the level and then dropped down through 4 locks to the River Trent.

The canal mainly carried coal (as had been planned) but it also carried stone, corn and cement (among other things). The route also saw a lot of through-traffic as it formed part of an east to west “cross country” link (along with the Grantham Canal, Nottingham Canal, Erewash Canal and with Trent and Mersey Canal). The Derby Canal’s success was not as instant as some of these neighbouring waterways however, though trade did pick up over the following years.

1817
The short, 4 lock stretch of Derby Canal at Swarkestone between the River Trent and the Trent & Mersey Canal was not proving to be a success. And it was most certainly not one of the Trent & Mersey company’s favourite stretches of water! This was because it allowed boats to travel along the River Trent and then up to Derby without using their canal at all. Thus they charged extortionist tolls on boats using the Swarkestone “cross-roads”. Because of this the link was proving to be a complete financial disaster to the Derby company, they closed it down and it was never used again. From then on the Derby Canal’s southern terminus was at a junction onto the Trent & Mersey Canal at Swarkestone.

1830’s
The Derby Canal, along with its local neighbours, had built up something of carrying monopoly which local traders were not happy about but could do little to stop. When Derbyshire mine owners began to suffer losses due to competition from the Staffordshire coal fields they felt they had to force the local canals to lower their tolls. The Derby Canal (along with its neighbours) reluctantly agreed to lower it’s coal carrying charges. However, when this had no effect on trade the canals went back on their agreement, annoying the mine owners who then began to look into the possibility of building their own railway line. Although this did not have an immediate effect it was the start of the end of the canal’s monopolising hold on the carriage of local goods.

1850’s
Following an Act of Parliament, the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock & Midland Junction Railway Company took over the running of the Cromford Canal to the north of Derby. The Nottingham Canal also sold out to a local railway, the Ambergate Railway Company. The railway take-overs effected coal carriage and through-traffic on the Derby Canal at a time when the company was already suffering badly from railway competition. The canal company tried hard to persuade a railway company to buy them out but it would appear that nobody was interested. Thus they stayed independent to the bitter end, an end which turned out to be a surprisingly long way off.

1908
After years of declining trade, the Little Eaton Branch, to the north of Derby, was closed down though the line was not totally abandoned at this stage. The bulk of the main line was not faring much better, suffering from little traffic and low income.

1930
The Derby Canal company wanted to officially close the whole canal as there were now virtually no boats using it at all. However, strong objections from ICI, who wanted the canal kept intact for its water supply, forced the company to keep the route open. This situation lingered on for decades with ICI constantly preventing the canal’s closure.

1935
The company officially abandoned the Little Eaton Branch which had stood mainly idle since its closure in 1908.

1948
Strangely, it would appear that the Derby Canal was not nationalised along with the rest of the country’s waterways and the original company continued to run the business.

1964
After many years of trying, the Derby Canal companyfinally managed to gain permission to close the canal down. Once it was closed they were determined to make sure that it stayed closed.Bit by bit, over the next decade, they sold off sections of the line to road builders and other construction firms. It seems very short sighted of the company not to have recognised the leisure potential of their canal, especially when the adjoining River Trent and Erewash Canals were seeing growing amounts of holidaymakers every year.

1971
Ronald Russell, in his book “Lost Canals”, described the Derby Canal as little more than a linear refuse tip. By then the main bulk of the route in Derby was virtually non-existent. Russell sarcastically suggested that this would at least keep car owners happy as the canal’s course was being used for numerous road improvements.

1974
The Derby Canal company was finally officially wound up having sold off and obliterated as much of the canal as they could.Over the next two decades many of the urban parts of the route were filled in and built on. Some of the more rural areas were simply left to become overgrown ditches while a small few sections were eventually converted into footpaths and cycleways.

1993
A feasibility study was carried out on the now completely derelict canal. The report said that restoration was feasible and even claimed that restoration could be done right through the centre of Derby rather than building a new route by-passing the city.

1994
The Derby & Sandiacre Canal Society and Trust was set up with the intention of making the Derby Canal fully navigable from end to end. Two main restoration sites were begun, one at Swarkestone near the junction with the Trent & Mersey Canal and the other at Borrowash to the east of Derby. Money was raised by the society and this included grants from local councils. At Borrowash the land on which the canal used to travel through now belonged to Redrow Homes who were building a housing estate in the area. The building company donated an 870 yards stretch of land (through which the canal once ran) to the canal society. This, of course, was a kind act though I’m sure the added attraction of a fully restored waterway will benefit both house sales and the new residents. Redrow Homes have also donated £15,000 towards the canal’s restoration.

1995
Using the money from Redrow Homes, along with a further £15,000 from a local enterprise scheme and £30,000 from English Partnerships, the society began to restore the Borrowash section.Redrow Homes helped with work which included the clearing of refuse tipped into the cut over many decades. Borrowash Bottom Lock was successfully excavated and there were other minor successes elsewhere on the canal which, when all put together, put the canal well on the way to restoration. These included bridges which local authorities agreed not to flatten or even agreed to rebuild where necessary.During the year the canal society applied for Millennium Funding to fully restore the first mile west from Sandiacre Junction.

1996
While all the good news was growing, a kick in the teeth arrived when the Department of Transport suddenly went back on their previous word and said they would not foot the bill for the building of a bridge on their proposed South Derby Bypass. Originally the DOT had said a navigable culvert would be constructed, now they had changed their mind saying they would not pay for the bridge, which was estimated (by them) at £500,000.

The Derby & Sandiacre Canal Society, backed by local MP Edwina Curry, lobbied the Minister for Transport, John Watts, insisting that the bridge would cost less than £200,000.Early in the year the restorers received more bad news when they found their application to the Millennium Fund had been turned down on the grounds that the restoration plan for one mile of canal was too small and lacked ambition! The society immediately reapplied – this time for funding of the whole canal!!

1997
The restoration of Borrowash Bottom Lock and the surrounding area began early in the year. Further east Railtrack, the new owners of the adjacent railway line, donated funds and manpower to restore the canal in the Draycott area. This was an area in which the railway line had suffered from flooding since the 1960’s when the canal was abandoned. Further restoration in the same area was begun with help from local youth opportunity schemes.

Meanwhile, the unresolved dispute over a navigable culvert under the new South Derby Bypass continued to rage on and was still going on when the DOT Minister and his Conservative government were voted out of office in May.

And so, the Derby Canal story is far from over. The next few years will bring great changes which, hopefully, will include the sight of narrow boats passing through Derby once again.

Derby Canal Route

The plans of the canal trust resemble more of a re-creation than a restoration with many stretches of the line being completely rebuilt. Below I will describe the route of the original canal and include information on the current proposals for brand new sections.

The junction of the Derby Canal with the Erewash Canal is at Sandiacre, just north of Long Eaton. At the junction is the Erewash Canal’s only surviving lock cottage, in the 1970’s it became the home base for the Erewash Canal’s restorers. The toll house here was shared by the Erewash and Derby canal companies until 1832 when the Derby Canal built their own house near to the junction on their own canal.

Access to this area is gained via the housing estate situated to the south of the A52 (though there is no access from this busy dual-carriage). Take the B6002 north from Long Eaton and turn right directly before going under the A52. This road leads down to the Erewash Canal and then south to the Derby Canal junction. The area around the junction is very pleasant with old buildings nearby and gardens of some newer bungalows reaching down to the waters edge. However, the water in the Derby Canal goes no further than the junction, beyond the junction bridge the route is completely filled in.

In 1971 the short stretch westwards between Sandiacre Junction and the B6002 was described as still being useful – to people needing to dump rubbish! However, when I visited the same spot in 1997 I found a narrow stretch of landscaped ground, a well kept footpath and a man happily walking his dog where boats had once travelled.

The two Sandiacre Locks were on this stretch, in 1971 they still had gates which were then rotting away but have now long since gone. The only evidence that locks ever existed here are in the slight inclines on the footpath. The new footpath passes right through the locks and restoration would appear to be easy enough, however, the pan is not to restore Sandiacre Top Lock at all but to continue the canal on the level of Sandiacre Bottom Lock. By doing this it will keep the canal low enough to pass under the motorway and a number of other bridges over the next 4 miles. Past Sandiacre Locks the canal’s route – and the new footpath – pass alongside the back fences of semi-detached houses.

In 1971 this stretch was described as a stinking muddy ditch full of abandoned cars, old cookers, mattresses and other household furniture. The B6002 bridge is not the original canal bridge. It was rebuilt in 1925 to full navigable dimensions and now is at least high enough for a 6 feet tall man and his dog! The next two roads to cross the route come very close together but are vastly different. The first is a minor road connecting the B6002 to the A52 and the second is the M1 motorway which completely blocks the canal. The best plan of action here for restorers is to realign the route to a point where a box culvert can more easily be built through the motorway.

To the west of the M1 is Breaston where the canal was being filled in when Ronald Russell visited in April 1970. The Navigation Inn still stands though, and it was to here that the canal trust hoped to restore the canal under the banner of the “Millennium Mile”. With the application for funding having been turned down, a new name may be necessary – but whatever the name, there is no stopping progress now.

Near the Navigation Inn was a winding hole and the pub will hopefully give boat users a good reason to travel along a restored canal to this point. Mind you, I visited this pub in 1997 and its current Landlord is most certainly against any plans to restore the canal. Why this should be I have no idea – he certainly looked like he could do with some customers! Next to the pub is a former canal bridge which has now been flattened. Worse still, opposite the pub is a factory with a car park on the former canal bed. Mr. Landlord laughed saying “they’ll never get permission to dig that up”.

However, “they” don’t intend to dig it up – their solution? – build a tunnel! It would be 120 yards long and would go right under the car park to emerge beyond the road bridge beside the pub. Because the restored canal will be lower than the original line (due to missing out Sandiacre Top Lock), the building of a tunnel will be a lot easier than it sounds.

From Breaston the canal continued slightly south of west towards Derby. On its way it past to the north of Draycott where the cut was again just a muddy ditch in 1971 (but did not have household rubbish in it). Isolated accommodation bridges crossed over the mud at intervals as the canal crossed fields on a small embankment. The new (lower) canal would be built at the same level as the surrounding landscape.

Near Borrowash the canal curved north west and came fairly close to the River Derwent, though the railway arrives in between the two waterways. It has been said that the re-opening of the canal here will greatly please Railtrack as they (and their predecessors, British Rail) have suffered great problems from flooding since the canal was filled in and its land drainage uses were no longer available.

At Borrowash, a new lock will be built to lift the canal up to its original level. Past the new lock, the canal’s route will pass over Ock Brook via a small new aqueduct. Just to the west of here in 1971, on a barely recognisable canal, Ronald Russell found a lock chamber with its masonry smashed. Presumably this was Borrowash Bottom Lock, situated a few hundred yards to the east of the B5010 road bridge. Sadly, this stretch also provided locals with a rubbish dump back in 1971 though it is faring much better today.

There is a footpath along the former canal bed and new houses are being built all around. Where as this is often the last thing restorers would want, here it has proved a great bonus as the housing contractors have donated money and manpower towards the canal’s restoration. I saw Borrowash Bottom Lock in a state of part restoration though the cut to the west of it will have to be completely re-dug. Just before the B5010 road bridge the canal bed has already been cleared.

Beneath the rubbish water was found – the only water anywhere on the whole canal! The B5010 road bridge carries Station Road though the station is long gone. The road bridge will need a new box culvert to allow navigation and the next lock, Borrowash Top Lock, will need to be found! It used to be somewhere just beyond the road but it has been filled in and grassed over. A lock cottage and other buildings have also gone without trace.

The route now runs very close to the railway and the A6005. At Spondon there has recently been good reason for optimism as the Highways Authority have re-decked the bridge which crosses the dry canal carrying another station road, this one from Spondon Station to the A6005. Approaching the centre of Derby the canal, even in 1971, was already filled in and covered by new roads and buildings. I have no description of the course into the city centre but my guess is that the new A52 dual-carriageway was built along or very close to the canal’s route.

In Derby there used to be a junction where the Little Eaton branch left and headed north. At the junction, or nearby, the main line changed direction and headed south. It is sad enough that the Derby Canal has been so thoroughly destroyed but even more sad is the fact that the centre of Derby was once home to the world’s first ever cast iron aqueduct – known as Holmes Aqueduct.

It was built, by Benjamin Outram in 1796, to cross a small stream right in the centre of the city though for over a century it stood partly concealed by a Victorian road bridge. The aqueduct, which was 44 feet long, was demolished as recently as 1971. It was built with cast iron from Outram’s own works at Butterley on the Cromford Canal and it pre-dated the Telford iron aqueduct at Longdon-on-Tern by just a few weeks.

The only other iron bridges anywhere in the world at the time were Abraham Darby’s road bridge on the River Severn and Wearmouth Bridge in Sunderland. During the final years of the aqueduct’s life its trough was full of earth and rubbish and only parts of the iron parapets were visible. Although the aqueduct only crossed a stream, the canal also had to cross the River Derwent in Derby. Surprisingly, it did this on the level, i.e. boats entered the river and sailed straight across, rejoining the canal on the far side. The crossing point must have been very close to Holmes Bridge which now carries the new A52 across the river.

In 1971 the canal reappeared on the south east side of Derby disguised as yet another rubbish dump though most of this stretch – if not all – has now gone. It’s course passed close to Derby Railway station, travelling south easterly. Restoration of the canal through the centre of Derby has been looked into and a possible route has been drawn up. However, none of the route is secured and sites could easily be built on before the canal trust could afford to begin restoration.

Good alternatives have also been looked at, the best of which would see the route changing course west of Borrowash and heading south west parallel to the railway instead of north west along the new A52’s route. However, the canal would need to pass under the large road junction of the A52 and A5111. Currently the railway already goes under the junction and it is thought it may be possible to realign the railway slightly to allow a narrow canal channel to run alongside.

However, the word “slightly” seems rather inadequate for the closure, removal and rebuilding of a main line railway! Past the road junction the canal would continue to run alongside the railway towards the River Derwent and the route would necessitate the building of a new aqueduct over the river.

The whole of this new line from Borrowash to the south of Derby would be on one level giving the canal a very useful summit level. However, there are problems with the Environment Agency (formerly the National Rivers Authority) who insist on a clearance above flood level which would mean the canal would have to be lifted higher, creating a very short summit level and, therefore, creating water supply problems.To the south west of the river there is currently (1997) a large piece of wasteland which the local council hope to turn into the Derby Pride Development. The council have applied for Millennium Funding and if successful the money would also go towards building a stretch of canal along the southern edge of the development, alongside the railway.

On the far side of this stretch the canal would meet its original route and turn south to go under the railway. If this new canal line is built, some of the original route through the city could then be restored as a branch line into Derby centre.

South of Derby, the canal route used to run through what are now the grounds of Wilmorton College. The canal has completely gone from here but London Road bridge, carrying the A6, is still intact. Just before the next main road bridge, Harvey Road (the A5111 Derby Ring Road) a brand new lock is to be built. Similar to the Sandiacre stretch, this will make the next 2 mile section of the canal lower than the original bed, making it possible to build a bridge beneath the ring road.

On the original route the canal swings from south to south west as it approaches Shelton Lock which gave the local village its name.However, the new lock at Harvey Road and the new lower stretch of canal will make this lock redundant. This is quite a shame as the lock is in good condition. Just beyond it, the A514 crosses the route on Chellaston Road bridge. Below the bridge the original canal bed has been restored as a cycleway and footpath.

The final lock on the Derby Canal was Fullens Lock but it, and the stretch immediately below it, has been virtually destroyed since the closing of the canal due to the installation of sewers. The best solution this time would probably be to miss out Fullens Lock and continue the new line above the old course to a brand new Fullens Lock about 50 yards further south. This would keep the height of the canal well above the new sewers.

Past Fullens Lock the canal sings south again for its last mile to Swarkestone. Within ½ a mile is the most contentious point concerning the restorers. The line of the new Derby Southern Bypass can clearly be seen to the east and west, it crosses the path of the canal on an embankment but not at a height which would allow room for a navigable bridge.

Annoyingly, the builders have created a culvert large enough for farm vehicles, cyclists and walkers but the canal restorers did not arrive on the scene soon enough to negotiate a bridge for boats. While the argument over the building and cost of a bridge on the original course continues, the idea of re-routing the canal to a point where the headroom would make a bridge easier to build is being looked at. However, this would then not fall into the jurisdiction of the road builders and therefore would have to be paid for by the restorers.

The last ½ mile of the canal approaching Swarkestone is clearly visible as it heads across the fields. It can be followed easily as the towpath is well used by walkers and cyclists. The last bridge to cross the canal is just before the junction with the Trent and Mersey Canal. The bridge was in a very dangerous state of dilapidation until recently (1995) when the Waterways Recovery Group began to restore it.

The junction at Swarkestone is just to the west of Swarkestone Lock on the Trent & Mersey Canal. During the canal’s heyday market boats used to run from the junction to the centre of Derby every Friday morning. Today, the last few yards of the Derby Canal are used as a mini marina for Swarkestone Boat Club and the canal cottage at the junction, which was once a toll house, is now used as the boat club’s headquarters. This is the one and only surviving Derby Canal building. Restoration of the Derby Canal would mean the loss of safe moorings for the boat club though a new mooring site is planned nearby.

Originally, the Derby Canal continued from Swarkestone Junction into the River Trent. From the junction at it shared the route of the Trent & Mersey Canal for about 400 yards towards the west.

It then made another junction and headed south for ½ a mile into the river near the ancient Swarkestone bridge. This short stretch contained 4 locks but it was used only for a short time. The restorers have no plans to reopen this short stretch because the River Trent is not navigable at Swarkestone.

Visit the new Derby Canal website.