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Huddersfield Canal Company


Records of the Huddersfield Canal Company: accounts 1797-1830, articles of agreement 1825, section of Standedge Tunnel early 19th century.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

Nicholas Brown surveyed for a narrow, trans-Pennine canal and Benjamin Outram prepared the report in 1793. They did so at the request of a group that consisted of many Ashton Canal shareholders, who were anxious to have a link across the Pennines, especially one that would bolster their trade. Several proposals had already failed, and the Ashton was alarmed that if one were successful, it would not benefit their canal. The Act of April 1794 authorised the Huddersfield Canal from Ashton, where it joined the Ashton Canal, to Sir John Ramsden's Canal at Huddersfield. Benjamin Outram's suggestion for a summit tunnel at Standedge was, at 656 feet above sea level, the highest summit in the British Isles. It would also turn out to be the costliest. Forbidden under the terms of the Act to take water from the rivers except during floods, to protect mill owners, the canal faced a serious water shortage. Eventually, ten reservoirs were built above Standedge. Drought still plagued the canal throughout the nineteenth century and it was forced to close several times. These closures lasted anywhere from 8 days to 3 months. With Benjamin Outram as engineer, work began on the summit tunnel. Nicholas Brown was his surveyor and superintendent. Standedge Tunnel was to become the most problematic piece of engineering on the canal. Between 1795 and 1798, John Evans was brought in to concentrate specifically on the tunnel; later, the company would create a tunnel sub-committee. Construction was extremely costly and time-consuming. Tunnelling from vertical pits sunk into the rock was abandoned in favour of just tunnelling from either end. This decision certainly saved the company many thousands of pounds, but added years to the construction time. Several of the shareholders were bankrupt, had emigrated or had died. Previous attempts to raise money had had limited success, with 43 shares being forfeited in 1796. The canal was opened in stages from November 1796. Wharves were built, but slowly, because the company's treasurers were beginning to exert pressure. Apart from the tunnel, the canal was open in 1799. Just a few months afterwards, when trade was just beginning to become established, floods devastated part of the canal, with one aqueduct being partly washed away. When the company called on shareholders for contributions for repairs, over 100 shares were forfeited as the calls were ignored. Due to a lack of funds, repairs were not completed before 1801 and Standedge Tunnel remained unfinished, low down on the company's list of priorities, until John Rooth became involved. Rooth encouraged trade and established a carrying business, and his energy and competence meant that he was quickly asked to be superintendent. Several months after that appointment, he was given charge of the tunnel. Work restarted, and it was formally opened in March 1811. It was just over 3 miles long. Celebrations were not impaired by thoughts of the Diggle Reservoir, which had burst 4 months previously and killed 5 people. The entire canal was just shy of 20 miles long, had 74 narrow locks for boats 70 feet by 7 feet, 5 aqueducts and three tunnels, including Standedge. The other tunnels were far shorter, both being about 200 feet long. The shorter of these, the Stalybridge, was later opened out. Standedge Tunnel had no towing path and traffic was delayed because it was only allowed through at set times of the day, which did not correspond to the hours the locks were opened. A steam tug using a chain laid along the bottom of the canal was introduced in 1824, but abandoned nine years later in favour of professional leggers. Steam had first been considered and tested in 1816, but was not put into practice. The dire financial situation probably influenced this decision, because the results of their experiments were favourable. In order to avoid transhipping cargoes at the junction with Sir John Ramsden's Canal, the locks of which were of a different size, the Huddersfield Canal had two boats shortened especially. Later on, vessels of 57 feet 6 inches by 14 feet 2 inches became the norm on the Huddersfield Canal. The opening of the canal resulted in more through-traffic and the company erected more warehouses. The Huddersfield was not a successful canal, though, despite their efforts. In 1813, they attempted a price-fixing arrangement with their competitor, the Rochdale Canal. The latter correctly supposed themselves to be in a stronger position and declined, much to the Huddersfield Canal's cost. Even in a good year, the Huddersfield Canal's income was less than half that of the Rochdale Canal. Revenue rose only sporadically and, unable to borrow any more money, it was a decade before the company could even consider paying dividends. John Raistrick replaced Nicholas Brown as engineer in 1819 and closed the canal for ten days. His immediate priority was to repair the locks, which were in a terrible condition. Following that were repairs to the banks and reservoirs, and the construction of a new reservoir. It seems to have successfully encouraged traffic, and over the following years the toll revenue increased. Although the Rochdale Canal and Sir John Ramsden's Canal were still unco-operative, the Ashton Canal was willing to make changes in the Huddersfield Canal's favour. Empty boats were allowed to pass free and night working was permitted. The Huddersfield Canal Company also built their second warehouse in Manchester, which meant dividends stopped between 1825 and 1830. Canal competition forced the Huddersfield Canal to cut tolls in the 1830s, but the railways posed a more severe threat. In 1835 a meeting of several canal companies was called, the result of which was to reduce tolls and collectively tempt trade away from the railways. Jubilation from a record income in 1838 was short-lived, as the Manchester & Leeds Railway opened in 1841. Repeatedly, the Huddersfield Canal cut tolls but from 1842 was not in a position to pay dividends. Tolls on Sir John Ramsden's Canal were reduced in 1843, by which time it was too late to be of any real benefit to the Huddersfield Canal. The Huddersfield & Manchester Railway, the canal's biggest threat, agreed to buy the canal company in 1844. The name of the new company was the Huddersfield and Manchester Railway and Canal Company, with canal shareholders choosing either a cash sum or railway shares. Once this share exchange had been completed, the canal company was formerly dissolved in 1845. The tunnel continued to cause difficulties for the new owners. Accidents and closures for repairs were frequent, with the longest closure period during the tunnel's extension in the 1890s. Traffic continued to be steady throughout the nineteenth century, although the number of boats using the summit declined and stopped in 1905. The twentieth century saw fewer and fewer boats using the canal, until the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company abandoned it in 1944. A half-mile section was kept open for a further nineteen years, the Calder and Hebble Canal assuming responsibility for it. That was finally abandoned in 1963. The canal was not filled in, but was kept as a water channel. A restoration programme for the Huddersfield Canal was begun in the mid 1970s and the whole length became navigable again in 2001. For further information on the Huddersfield Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield and Gordon Biddle's 'The Canals of North West England Volume 2'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain any original structure of record-keeping from the small number of records held for this company. The fonds has therefore been arranged in chronological order.