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Undertakers of the Navigation of the Rivers Aire and Calder


Records of the Undertakers of the Navigation of the Rivers Aire and Calder: Acts, Bills and Byelaws 1774-1930, stock and shareholding records 1884-1948, legal records 1823-1958, financial records 1797-1963, administrative records 1818-1970 engineering records 1872-1973, Traffic Department's records 1851-1957, machinery, plant and installations 1890-1959, maps, plans and sections of navigation 1772-mid 20th century, plans of land, estates and property owned/purchased by the navigation late 18th century-1930, plans of land and estates owned by other parties 1823-early 20th century, plans of the Port of Goole 1828-mid 20th century, premises alongside navigation 1826-1937, aqueducts and viaducts 1840-1904, bridges 1826-1945, dams 1827-1830, locks 1819-1938, water supply 1838-20th century, improvements and maintenance 1827-1935, vessels 1822-mid 20th century, roads and railways 1873-early 20th century, printed material, Acts and plans kept by the company 1768-1938.



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Administrative /​ Biographical history

In their natural state, the River Calder was unnavigable and the River Aire only navigable up to Knottingley. Several attempts to obtain Acts dating from the 1620s failed. The Bill that successfully got through Parliament in May 1699 was the result of surveys made by John Hadley on the River Aire, assisted by Samuel Shelton on the River Calder. The improvements suggested were made with the cloth trade in mind, namely the export of Leeds and Wakefield cloth, and the import of wool. The only opposition came from the Corporation of York who were fearful water supplies to the River Ouse would suffer. There were separate groups of undertakers for Wakefield and Leeds, working separately from each other. This arrangement lasted until 1705 when a ten-strong committee was appointed consisting of representatives from all groups. It existed alongside the original two but their capacity and responsibilities were reduced. Major changes were made in 1820 when an Act installed four trustees and twelve directors in place of the old committee. John Hadley was appointed engineer once the Act passed. Work began on the River Aire above Knottingley and a year later the river was navigable to Leeds. The River Calder took until summer 1702 to be completely finished although it was open before then. A few locks and weirs were added later but all work on the main line ceased after 1704. The Leeds line was finished in 1701 except for the 1 ½ mile long Crier cut that opened eight years later. There were approximately sixteen locks on the navigation, twelve on the Aire and four on the Calder. They were at least 58 feet long and 15 feet wide. Improvements had begun over eight miles below Knottingley, at Weeland. This caused some controversy, as this section of the river had previously been navigable and free of charge; from 1700 it was navigable and tolled. Landowners, too, were wary of the works, anxious that they would increase the risk of flooding. The disagreements rumbled on until 1714 when the landowners were placated with more weir sluices and the Knottingley inhabitants with large toll reductions. As with other navigations, mill owners proved querulous but the undertakers' solution was to control the mills, thus avoiding compensation payments for loss of water. As they did not manage to buy or lease all the mills until 1840, there were still the occasional conflicts with the independent mills. The tolls, and thus responsibility for maintenance and repairs, were leased almost as soon as the navigation was finished until the 1770s. Several of the early lessees were also undertakers for the navigation, including John Burton and George Dover. Often the same individuals applied which indicates that the navigation must have been a worthwhile investment for them. The lease drawn up in 1705 required the lessee to employ someone to inspect the goods transhipped at Rawcliffe, presumably because the undertakers received complaints from traders about damage. Trade increased on the river over the years, particularly in the 1760s. Maintenance and improvements had not kept pace with the volume of traffic. By 1766 the River Aire had not been adequately improved since the initial works almost seventy years before and was widely regarded as being out of date. This was the fault of the undertakers who were concerned that the rivers be kept in good repair, but who had not thought it necessary to reduce their profits with major improvement works. They did not seem unduly disturbed by proposals for a Leeds-Selby canal that would bypass the River Aire, or the continuing construction of the Calder and Hebble canal, and were so unconcerned by the general dissatisfaction with Peter Birt that they renewed his lease. A deluge of criticism did prompt them to take action, however, and they employed John Smeaton to report. His response, in 1772, was that the Aire and Calder Navigation needed, among other things, to be deepened, to have several locks replaced, cuts, a towing path to the River Ouse, and a canal to bypass the River Aire below Haddlesey. His assistant William Jessop re-surveyed a year later and decided the new canal should be longer, to reach the River Ouse at Selby. John Smeaton and Parliament agreed and work began on the Selby Canal in 1774. William Jessop was engineer with John Gott as resident engineer. The 5 1/4 mile canal had two locks, at Haddlesey and Selby. It opened in 1778 and was successful, but it was one of William Jessop's earliest projects and it showed. It was too shallow and a section of sandy banks kept the dredger busy, so the old river route remained well-used. Meanwhile, the undertakers had recognised the extent of Peter Birt's unpopularity and bought him out in 1774. By 1785, all the old locks had been rebuilt, almost all of John Smeaton's other recommendations had been implemented and Peter Birt had become a largely absent and ineffective committeeman. With Peter Birt gone, his carrying business was taken over by the Aire and Calder Navigation and reduced its size, therefore ending its monopoly. Manager William Martin, appointed in 1775, had to work hard to re-establish a working relationship with the customers Peter Birt had alienated. Trade flourished, as did towns along the route. In 1744 Airmyn became a transhipment port, strategically placed as it was only a mile from the junction with the River Ouse. Eventually, there were facilities for weighing and inspecting cargoes and boats, a woolshed, a yard for the sale of coal and a horse for the staff permanently based there. The Aire and Calder's own carrying fleet was based there as well. Until 1785 warehousing and wharfage were free. Once the Selby Canal was opened, that became the transhipment centre and the Airmyn offices and boat repair were closed in, or shortly after, 1779. Now the company were interested in developing the navigation, especially around Selby. Land there was leased and John Gott drew up plans for warehouses, cranes etc. Building work continued through the 1780s as Selby grew busier. So much traffic was passing through that the company employed an assistant lock keeper in 1788. Much of the population of Selby had already been employed in related trades such as rope making and shipbuilding, so the actual town of Selby certainly did very well from the Selby Canal. The assistant lock keeper at Selby was not the only new staff member appointed as a result of increased business. Some were employed part time, for example Sir John Ramsden's Huddersfield agent became the company's part time freight collector. A gauge station was opened in Castleford in 1793 and more staff appointed to reduce fraud and check crew levels. Improvements and expansion of facilities were needed and suggestions included doubling Castleford Lock, a graving dock at Selby and granaries at Leeds and Wakefield. William Jessop approved and recommended work begin immediately. It did not quite happen that quickly and plans ended up being scaled down considerably, because there was not enough time or money for them and the new canal the company wanted, a situation exacerbated by flood damage in 1795. This initially generated opposition from the Don Navigation. The Aire and Calder Navigation promoted the Barnsley Canal and the Don favoured the Dearne and Dove Canal. A mutual agreement was made not to oppose the other's plans or any future extensions from the new canals to Manchester. The company's carrying trade had, for many years, made a loss. In 1796 it made its first profit. William Martin, who had worked hard to encourage trade in the early years after Peter Birt, died the following year and was replaced by manager/accountant William Rooth. By 1804 the company had 48 boats and were carrying merchandise on the Barnsley, Calder & Hebble and Leeds & Liverpool canals. Rather than pay for their vessels to be privately repaired, the company determined to build their own repair yard at Lake Lock, near Stanley Ferry, a site chosen by their engineer Elias Wright. The depot opened in 1802 and the new lock cut was built, but the lock itself was not constructed until 1807. Meanwhile, John Lee and Shepley Watson, former landowners at Lake Lock and railroad owners, became perpetual thorns in the Aire and Calder Navigation's side. The disagreements rumbled on for decades over if and where new cuts should be made, by whom, and whether one company would find part of their line redundant or disadvantaged as a result. Despite inflation caused by war with the French and the introduction of income tax, the company was very profitable in the last decade of the eighteenth and first decades of the nineteenth centuries. There were significant staff changes in 1816; Thomas Wood succeeded Elias Wright as engineer, William Rooth was replaced by Joseph Priestley as head clerk, who stayed with the company until 1851, and Daniel Maude took over as head of finance a year later. They made sweeping reforms. Passenger services on steamers were introduced between 1815 and 1818; first Hull to Selby, then calling at York and Gainsborough. These services also carried light goods and were served by road transports that were the source of anxiety at the Aire and Calder, again facing accusations of running an antiquated waterway. Meanwhile, a new basin was built at Leeds to deal with the extra trade from the recently-built Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The basin was opened in 1818. There were three private branches from the navigation. Staniland's Canal, Fairburn Canal and the 300-yard cut made by the Haxby brothers all went to nearby limestone quarries. Fairburn was built in 1824, seven years or so after the other two, and was disused by about 1850. After the Haxbys went bankrupt in 1829 their cut was no longer used. Following independent schemes to make a better route from the lower Ouse to the River Trent, the Aire and Calder company instructed George Leather junior and John Rennie to assist Thomas Wood in making surveys. Thomas Wood was dismissed for malpractice shortly afterwards and John Timperley filled the vacancy. John Rennie's Knottingley-to-Goole line with a branch to the Dutch River was the preferred route, although that branch was dropped in favour of one to Wormersley, and the terminus later moved from Knottingley to Ferrybridge. Once the Act passed in 1820, George Leather junior was put in charge. John Rennie proposed new plans for Goole, including a basin, but he died that year. George Leather junior took over and work began in 1822. Elsewhere on the navigation improvements were made, for example a new flood-lock at Knostrop, widening that at Crier cut and new warehouses at Leeds, but the priority was the new canal and other work had to fit around that. Goole's port, the company hoped, would threaten Hull's pre-eminence and also surpass Selby. Selby was extremely busy, more so after the steamer service was expanded in the 1820s. It continued to run for forty more years. Destinations now included Grimsby and Yarmouth. This led to an increase in fly-boats operating on the river and the Aire and Calder company decided to run their own fly-boats from 1821 whilst selling off their older, obsolete, fleet of vessels. Within a few years, however, the carrying service again began to make a loss, as it was unable to compete against road transport. The number of vessels they owned declined, as did the destinations carried to. Drought pushed back the opening of the Knottingley (Ferrybridge)-Goole Canal until July 1826, just a year after Thomas Hammond Bartholomew started work as the company's engineer. It was 18 3/4 miles long, had four locks and had a branch to the Selby Canal, but the Womersley branch had not been built. At Goole there were warehouses, offices, staff houses and an inn. It was capable of handling the foreign trade that would arrive after it was granted port status in 1827, with its own Customs facilities, much to Hull's disgust. A new passenger service immediately began running between Ferrybridge and Goole, and from 1827 it was possible to travel direct from Goole to Hull. The old line down the Aire was kept open and remained busy. Moving the canal line to Ferrybridge necessitated improving the navigation above. Francis Giles and John Rennie's earlier suggestions had only been partly carried out, for example only some of the locks were enlarged. The majority of the work had still not been started by the 1820s. Traders at York and Selby residents were also impatiently waiting for improvements to be made on the Selby Canal. Both the Leeds and Wakefield lines required canalising to ensure a uniform depth of 7 feet and plans drawn up by George Leather were deposited in preparation for a Bill. In 1827, John Lee and Shepley Watson (they of the Lake Lock disagreement) took advantage of the Aire and Calder Navigation's delay and promoted a Bill for their own Wakefield-Ferrybridge canal. It failed but the Aire and Calder company heeded the warning. Thomas Telford was consulted over the proposed works and suggested changes to George Leather's line including an aqueduct over the River Calder at Stanley Ferry. George Leather's plans were chosen for the River Aire, to Leeds, and Thomas Telford's for the River Calder, to Wakefield. The Aire and Calder company did get their Act in 1828, but discovered in the process that Thomas Wood had revenged his dismissal by providing John Lee and Shepley Watson with confidential engineering information. George Leather supervised the works, which were completed in 1835. A 10 mile canal ran parallel to the River Aire from Hunslet to Allerton Bywater near Castleford. It was specially designed so steamers could use it without damaging banks and had seven locks of 18 feet wide. Another new basin was constructed at Leeds and was in use from 1843. Improving the River Calder proved more difficult and work was not finished until 1839. The new canal alongside the river, complete with Stanley Ferry Aqueduct, was 7 ½ miles from Wakefield to Castleford and was five miles shorter than the river route. By this time Goole was indeed developing as a port but the facilities there were inadequate to cope with the Continental trade, so the Ouse or Steamship Dock and entrance were built. The Leeds and Selby Railway opened in September 1834. By October the Aire and Calder Navigation had price cuts in force but quickly realised the railway's prospects were modest at best. Six years later a railway connecting Hull and Selby opened. Both threatened the passenger steamer services that nevertheless continued running for the next twenty years. The Aire and Calder Navigation was more willing to negotiate with traders, for instance over night working of locks. Although tolls and tonnage in some areas were falling, tonnages on other parts of the navigation rose and the overall position of the navigation was still strong and secure. Several important staff changed in the early 1840s. Samuel Hailstone, law agent since 1804, resigned and John Hope Shaw became the company's attorney. A Finance Committee was established at the same time as the new auditor/accountant, Thomas Wilson, was appointed. It was from the North Midland Railway and Manchester and Leeds Railway, opened in 1840 and 1841 respectively, that the greatest threat came, at least until an agreement was reached in 1845. The Aire and Calder Navigation were not only faced with carrying competition, but with warehousing competition too as the railway companies built their own premises. The situation at Goole deteriorated so much that a soup kitchen was opened there in 1843. The company was prepared to co-operate with the railways, especially the Lancashire and Yorkshire line to Goole. A railway dock at Goole became operational in 1848, and the navigation company built the lines and sheds. The construction was partially financed by the railway company, which then leased them. Most other railways in the area had traffic agreements with the company by 1853. The negative impact of the railway at Goole was only slightly lessened by an agreement regarding trade distribution. The passenger packet stopped. The Aire and Calder Navigation saw Goole's tolls fall by a third. Pressure from the railways only increased during the 1850s. Tolls were cut again after the rates agreements with the railways ended in 1855. An offer to jointly lease the Aire and Calder Navigation was made by two railways but one dropped out two years into the negotiations. Unwilling to let to the single railway company, the North Eastern Railway, the navigation refused. They did, however, manage to secure another rates agreement. The company leased the Barnsley Canal from December 1854 and ten years later had the Calder and Hebble navigation, too. Between them, they contributed a third of the Aire and Calder's income. Until the situation had stabilised, these navigations were important to the Aire and Calder Navigation. Many of the members of the United Body of Canal Proprietors were connected to the Aire and Calder. It was set up to watch for any Bill that could have a detrimental affect on the canals, particularly railway Bills. Two if its chairmen and its secretary were among the most prominent members from the Aire and Calder Navigation. Developments were made in the company's carrying trade. Repeated attempts to boost Goole's continental trade failed dismally. Initially the steam tugs and modified fly-boats with steam engines and capable of towing other fly-boats were the preserve of Aire and Calder company's own carrying fleet. In 1857 tugs were provided on the Knottingley-Goole Canal to tow bye-traders boats. It was one of the company's more successful experiments, providing a cheap yet fast means of carrying goods. The locks on the Goole Canal were the first to be altered to take longer trains: up to thirteen (although usually no more than ten were towed) instead of a maximum of six or seven. The lock enlargements were carried out between 1859 and 1867 from Goole to Castleford, and to Wakefield and Leeds by 1873. Woodstock lower lock on the Wakefield line was got rid of altogether. No locks on the Selby line were improved until the 1880s. W H Bartholomew, having succeeded his father as engineer upon the latter's death in 1853, put forward plans for a compartment boat system in 1861. That was credited with saving the Aire and Calder Navigation's coal trade after they were introduced into regular service in 1865. So pleased were his employers that they paid him roughly a year's salary for the non-exclusive right to use his patent and the models, then in 1876 promoted him to general manager as well as engineer. Dredging near Goole commenced in 1864 to assist their growing foreign trade. In 1871 the Aire and Calder company bought a depot at Hull for their carrying fleet, which numbered 100 vessels in total but which still made a loss. Trade on the navigation was still healthy overall. Building work on a wooden jetty at Blacktoft was started in 1874, where ships could wait for the tide to Goole. Just a year later, Goole became independent from the Aire and Calder Navigation. Generally, though, the 1870s brought expansion for the company. In 1878 they bought the Dewsbury old cut and began work on the new Savile Town basin. Recently re-opened, the Bradford Canal was jointly purchased by the Aire and Calder Navigation and Leeds and Liverpool Canal companies. Tolls had to be reduced on the Barnsley Canal in the 1880s after the opening of the Hull and Barnsley Railway and some inter-rail price-cutting. Even so, the navigation was increasingly prosperous and no longer needed to maintain traffic and tolls on the Calder and Hebble navigation, so the lease was not renewed when it expired in 1885. From 1884, under the terms of The Ouse (Lower) Improvement Act, the Aire and Calder company became responsible for 9 ½ miles of the River Ouse from above Goole to Trent Falls. Improvement works including training walls were begun but ended up becoming a major undertaking for the company, the final stages being completed in 1935. The 1890s saw the authorisation and construction of the 5 ½ mile long New Junction Canal linking the Knottingley-Goole Canal to the Don navigation. W H Bartholomew was the engineer in charge, despite having formally retired the year before work began. Costs were shared equally with the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation. Once it opened in 1905, the new canal brought more traffic to the rest of the Aire and Calder Navigation. After W H Bartholomew's semi-retirement, Thomas Marston was appointed general manager. A new engineer, Gerald Fitzgibbon, was not employed until 1899, replaced eight years later by Henry Pickard. Both were expected to work with W H Bartholomew. The railways were not the company's greatest enemy in the 1890s. The winters of 1893/4 and 1895 were very cold and frost closed the waterway for several months. In between was a six-week dock strike and 3 ½ month miners' strike. The cost to the company topped £10,000. The Aire and Calder company's headquarters moved to Leeds in 1906 after the structure of the company was modernised. The navigation, too, was updated. Overall tonnages carried continued to rise, especially those of coal and foreign timber. Docks and basins were being enlarged at the turn of the century, grabs to tranship cargoes and boat hoists were ordered. Yet more lock enlargements were underway, this time to allow a train of nineteen compartment boats to pass through locks between Castleford and Goole. Right up until the outbreak of World War One in 1914 the company was extremely successful, more so than some railway companies. There was some air-raid damage in 1915, and naturally toll revenue plummeted. There was major disruption to continental trade. The company was in a strong enough position to ride out the decline and to recover afterwards, even maintaining their carrying fleet with the assistance of the railways. It was no longer tenable to keep the Bradford Canal, still co-owned by the Aire and Calder company, and so its abandonment was sought in 1922. Annual pre-war toll revenue was usually six-figures and only in the late 1930s could the company state they had virtually fully recovered; just in time for the outbreak of another war. The Second World War in 1939 saw the fly-boats taken out of service. Again foreign trade suffered and many of the men were called up. In 1948 the company was taken over by the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, seven months after the application to abandon the Barnsley Canal. The Government took over a prosperous, if bruised, navigation. As coal trade declined, smaller compartments boats were gradually withdrawn from service. Merchandise traffic was promoted as an alternative to coal and in 1958 a depot at Knostrop opened, although others were closing at the same time, to be replaced by road services. Overall, the navigation was still healthy. Bank protection work was carried out and several of the locks were mechanized. By the time the new Stanley Ferry Aqueduct was built in 1981, traffic had begun a steady decline but is still used by commercial and pleasure craft. For further information on the Aire and Calder Navigation see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of Yorkshire and North East England Volumes 1 and 2'.

System of arrangement

The company's original filing system could not be ascertained for the majority of records, but where possible the original filing system has been recreated. This has resulted in the fonds being broken down into the following series: Acts, Bills and Byelaws, stock and shareholding records, legal records, financial records, administrative records, engineering records, Traffic Department's records (although there are records for other departments within this collection, this was the only department that could be clearly defined due to the number and types of record held for it), machinery, plant and installations, maps, plans and sections of navigation, plans of land, estates and property owned/purchased by the navigation, plans of land and estates owned by other parties, plans of the Port of Goole, premises alongside the navigation, aqueducts and viaducts, bridges, dams, locks, water supply, improvements and maintenance, vessels, roads and railways, printed material, Acts and plans kept by the company.

Associated material

[See also: BW15, BW17 and BW78]