Home  / BW20


Company of Proprietors of the Rochdale Canal


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Rochdale Canal: general administrative, legal and financial papers 1811-mid 20th century, plans of the canal 1791-1975, engineering drawings 1904.



Reference code


Access Status

These records are available immediately for research

Administrative /​ Biographical history

A direct route between Manchester and the West Riding of Yorkshire to the Calder & Hebble Navigation was initially suggested in August 1766 at a meeting convened by Richard Townley in the Union Flag Inn, Rochdale. James Brindley twice surveyed for the proposed canal; however nothing came of the scheme until 1791. An extension to the Calder & Hebble was under consideration, which gave the Rochdale Canal supporters a sympatheric audience for their suggestion. Initially reluctant to agree to a junction at Manchester with his own canal, the Duke of Bridgewater became more amenable when he realised that his rivals had also been approached. The proposed route had been surveyed by John Rennie, assisted by William Crosley senior. John Rennie had no canal-building experience and was the third choice, behind William Jessop and Robert Whitworth, who were much in demand. The first two Bills for the proposed canal were rejected in 1792 and 1793 due to the objections of mill owners who claimed the canal would leave them with insufficient water supplies. For the third, successful attempt in April 1794, William Jessop took responsibility for the surveying in certain areas in an attempt to soothe the mill owners' concerns, and Crosley completed the plans under Rennie's direction. Once the Act had passed, Rennie had no further involvement in the scheme. William Jessop became the principal engineer, with William Crosley senior as resident engineer until his death in 1796. Henry Taylor was briefly engaged as joint resident engineer with William Crosley senior, but left almost immediately. Thomas Bradley and Thomas Townshend were separately appointed as resident engineers but both left before William Crosley junior took over his father's old position in 1802. The Act authorized the building of a broad canal from Manchester to Sowerby Bridge, joining with the Calder & Hebble. The choice of a broad canal was a minor source of controversy. The Duke wanted it narrow to protect his trade to Liverpool; the promoters wanted it narrow because it was cheaper. Work progressed as fast as the finances would allow; from Sowerby Bridge it reached Rochdale by means of a 1/2 mile branch in 1798. The money ran out in 1799 and 1803. Acts in 1800 and 1803 allowed the Company to raise more funds. In 1800 the Rochdale joined with the Ashton Canal in Manchester. The first trans-Pennine canal was opened just before Christmas 1804 although carrying between Hull and Manchester had been using sections of the canal for five years by then, even though twelve miles of the journey had to be completed by road. Rochdale Canal had a large number of locks for its length; ninety-two in a canal of 33 miles. They were broad enough to take boats 74 feet x 14 feet 2 inches, such as Mersey flats, and had a standard 10 feet rise. The Sowerby Bridge Tunnel and Deansgate Tunnel were 40 and 336 yards respectively. Water supplies were always going to prove difficult and the number of reservoirs was eventually increased from three to eight. Most of the cargo consisted of grain, stone and coal. For a brief period from 1807 to 1811, the Proprietors of the Rochdale Canal experimented with carrying between Manchester and Rochdale, but the results were disappointing and the idea was scrapped. Apart from this, the canal was extremely successful and did not suffer after the opening of the Huddersfield (1811) or Leeds & Liverpool (1816) canals. Traffic at Sowerby Bridge was plentiful.Trade was encouraged by waiving certain wharfage and warehousing tolls and working to improve facilities. Gas was installed in two warehouses in Rochdale and fire doors fitted in Manchester warehouses as a result of a fire which destroyed one warehouse and killed a staff member in 1829. A short branch of 1½ miles was built to Heywood in 1834 and that decade saw the Liverpool & Manchester Railway bring further trade. In 1841 the Rochdale Canal was forced to cut rates. Their trade had shifted to the recently-opened Manchester to Littleborough, and Leeds to Hull railways. Rochdale Canal's shares prices had tumbled from £150 to £40 in two years as a result of the competition. Rochdale was one of several canals which entered into rates agreements with the Manchester & Leeds Railway in 1843 and again in 1849. Throughout the 1840s, the tolls on railway and canal traffic were almost constantly being discussed or changed. The Manchester & Leeds Railway's 1847 Bill to take over the Rochdale Canal had been defeated by the Aire & Calder Navigation. Despite the talk of conversion to a railway in the 1840s, even going so far as to have James Thomson survey the canal for possible conversion, it took until 1855 for anything to happen. Then, four railway companies leased the Rochdale Canal for a period of twenty-one years: the Lancashire & Yorkshire leased 73 per cent; the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire 12.5 per cent; the North Eastern 8.25 per cent and the London & North Western 6.25 per cent. The lease was continued until 1890, although by then the North Eastern Railway was no longer involved. Tolls and tonnages had been reasonably stable. In 1860s the reservoir at Hollingworth had become a pleasure resort with trips on steamers available. The Ship Canal Act in 1885 authorizing the construction of Manchester Ship Canal also removed the right of the Bridgewater to take compensation tolls from the Rochdale Canal; a condition which had been crucial to gaining Bridgewater's support for the initial Acts of the 1790s. Two years later, Rochdale Canal gained Castlefield Lock in Manchester, until then owned by the Bridgewater Canal. A second carrying department was established, modestly starting with two steamers purchased in 1888. The canal did well, in part bolstered by the trade brought by the Manchester Ship Canal, although the decline in carrying was temporarily halted rather than reversed. By 1896, the company owned a fleet of craft but begun getting rid of some as they were no longer required. The trend for the inter-war period was one of decline for canals, and the Rochdale was no exception. The carrying business was unsustainable by 1921 and the pre-World War One peak of carrying 30 per cent of traffic on their canal had fallen. The Rochdale Canal Company (as it became known after an 1894 Act) was not nationalized after World War Two and consequently the company retained control over the navigation. It was increasingly dependent on property and investments for its income. No commercial traffic used the canal after 1958, almost twenty years after the last commercial journey of the full length of the canal had been made. An Act was passed in 1952 resulting in the closure of the canal except for a 1½ mile length from Castlefield to the Ashton junction, although a provision in a 1965 Act meant that this section could be closed if the Ashton Canal was closed. It remained open, however, because of the Cheshire Ring pleasure cruising scheme, and in 2000 the Rochdale Canal was sold to The Waterways Trust. The canal was restored and in 2002 the whole length was re-opened. For further information on the Rochdale 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 Volumes 1 and 2'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain any original structure of record-keeping from the records held for this company. The fonds has therefore been arranged in three series: general administrative, legal and financial papers, plans of the canal, and engineering drawings. Within each series the records have been arranged in chronological order.