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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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The History of the Cromford Canal

Posted Sunday, June 3, 2007

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The Cromford Canal – A Forgotten Artery of Industry

On March 13th 1937 the owners of the Cromford Canal finally declared their intention to close it. Sixty-five years later to the very day – March 13th 2002 the newly-formed Friends of Cromford Canal (FCC) declared their intention to re-open it! Now just nine months later the burgeoning membership of the F.C.C. has risen to almost four hundred and Chairman Mike Kelley has announced ambitious plans to help preserve this valuable national heritage and to turn the canal into one of the area’s top tourist attractions.

Having recently been granted World Heritage Status by UNESCO, (not the canal) the Cromford area already attracts thousands of visitors a year from all over the world and is famously known as `The Birthplace of The Industrial Revolution’ with the world’s first ever water-powered cotton mill being built beside the Derwent at Cromford by Richard Arkwright in 1771.

For centuries prior to this, long before the turnpike roads were built into the previously impenetrable interior, the yeomen farmers and tradesmen of Derbyshire’s Peak District relied on pack-horse trains to carry goods in and out of the area. But by the turn of the seventeenth century these were proving too slow and expensively inadequate to meet the demand for the sheer volume of goods, including coal, iron, cotton, lead and limestone that were needed by merchants throughout England to fuel the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

A system of man-made inland waterways or canals was constructed during the eighteenth century and these became the motorways of the age; arteries of industry connecting one region with the next through a series of interconnecting channels which ran almost the length and breadth of the land and provided faster and cheaper transportation of goods.

But the canals only came as far north as Langley Mill (Erewash Canal) - until in 1788 at a meeting in Matlock attended by Sir Richard Arkwright and Engineer William Jessop, it was proposed to build a canal to link the Erewash Canal with the Peak District.

The following year work began on the Cromford Canal with William Jessop as Engineer, assisted by Benjamin Outram and Thomas Dadford to build the fourteen and a half mile canal from Cromford to Langley Mill, where it would link up with both the Erewash and the newly proposed Nottingham Canal and eventually allow passage from the Peak District to both Derby and Nottingham.

The canal would serve several mines, quarries, lead works, the iron works at Butterley and Somercotes, Arkwright’s cotton mills at Cromford, and would include the 3,000 yard long Butterley Tunnel, one of the longest in the land.

Arkwright died in 1792 and did not see the completion of the canal, which was fully open, aquaducts, tunnels and all, in August 1794.

The Cromford Canal was a success right away and by 1797 Nathanial Wheatcroft was running a passenger service twice weekly to Nottingham from Cromford Basin. The fare for the 38-mile trip was five shillings (25p) first class, and three shillings (15p) second class!

In 1802 Peter Nightingale, father of Florence, opened a half mile channel known as the Lea Wood Branch just south of Wigwell aquaduct which provided access to a number of quarries, two lead-works, cotton mills and a hat factory. Such was the success of the canal that by 1814 dividends to shareholders reached 10%. A number of tramways connected to the canal at various points. They reached high into the surrounding hills, mostly drawn by horses or pulled up the inclines by a balance and gravity system.

At Crich the limestone quarries situated high above the canal were connected to the waterway at Bullbridge via a tramway, whilst at Riddings a donkey-drawn tramway was built and at Swanwick a steam-driven tramway was in operation. At Butterley ironworks an even more ingenious transportation method allowed the works cargo, mostly cannonballs and shot bound for navy use at Woolwich Arsenal, to be sent straight down shafts onto waiting boats inside Butterley Tunnel!

The Cromford canal was originally envisaged as the first step in a canal system to link the East Midlands with Manchester but the Trans-Pennine canal was never built due to the technical difficulties and costs involved. However the link was eventually created when the Cromford and High Peak Railway was opened in 1831, joining the Cromford Canal at High Peak Wharf with the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge.

Business boomed and by 1841 the ever increasing success of the route brought dividends to an all time high of 28% with the canal carrying double what it had done at the turn of the century. Coal carriage had doubled and the canal now carried substantial quantities of farm produce as well as ironstone, gritstone and limestone, and the amount of iron from Butterley works had increased considerably. Coal was mainly carried down to the Erewash Canal and on to the Soar Navigation, and then to Leicester. Limestone was shipped further south to the West Midlands and London.

Many of these materials were used in the construction of the growing railway network – and the ringing of hammers on steel rails eventually became the death-knell for the Cromford Canal Company, which in 1852 was taken over by what later became the Midland Railway Company.

In 1888 with most goods now carried by rail, canal traffic had declined to just 15% of it’s pre-railway levels and the glory days of the canals were over. When Butterley Tunnel collapsed for the third time in 1900 and was pronounced beyond economic repair by a Royal Commission in 1909, Cromford Canal went into steady decline, being little used, and eventually on March 13th 1937 it was officially closed to traffic.

The link with the last traffic to have any real association with the Cromford Canal ended when the last train crossed the Peak District on the Cromford and High Peak Railway in 1967. That railway is now the High Peak Trail, and in 1974 Derbyshire County Council also bought the northern-most five and a half miles of the Cromford Canal, which stretches through the beautiful countryside of the Derwent Valley from Ambergate to Cromford.

The towpath has been cleared and has become a popular and tranquil waterside walk and because of the abundance of wildlife it supports and its value as a natural habitat, the canal has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The southern end (Whatstandwell to Ambergate) is managed as a Statutory Local Nature Reserve by the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, whilst Cromford Wharf at the northern end has been restored and the canal from there to High Peak Junction is navigable.

High Peak Junction Workshops (1830) have been restored and house an Information and Exhibition Centre, and the latest issue of `The Portal’ magazine produced by the F.C.C announces that the Arkwright Society have requested and been granted corporate membership, and that the F.C.C. are committed to restoring the Cromford Canal to full navigation.

Chairman Mike Kelley writes, “I see an aspect of our project as having the potential to become one of the major tourist attractions of the East Midlands, not only that, but a unique feature of British tourism”.

He then refers to the success of the Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which was re-opened last year by Prince Charles and has since attracted thousands of visitors who come for the experience of travelling through it.

“Imagine this attraction for our own Butterley Tunnel (3,086 yds) coupled with a steam railway trip. Tourists would be able to enjoy the equivalent of the `Standedge Experience’ through the Butterley Tunnel, but return on the preserved steam hauled train the other way, courtesy of the Midland Railway Preservation Group at Butterley, Ripley. What a potential we have, and what an impetus to get the whole of the Cromford re-opened”.

Planning permission is already being sought to extend the southern end at Langley Mill by half a mile and to build a marina, so who knows? - perhaps the Cromford Canal, that forgotten artery of industry, is destined once again to pulse with the life-blood of a new industry – tourism!

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The History of the Cromford Canal
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