Bradford Canal history
based on an article in Canals &
Waterways: Roots & Routes by Peter Hardcastle
1771 An Act was passed in Parliament to allow the construction of a canal
which would connect the town of Bradford in West Yorkshire to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, which was then into its second
year of construction. John Longbotham, who was
already engineer on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, was put in charge of
construction on the Bradford Canal.
1774 The Bradford Canal was opened within 3 years. It was
just 3¼ miles long with 10 locks built to Leeds & Liverpool Canal dimensions. It ran south from the
Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Shipley to the northern edge
of Bradford. Boats could travel from the Bradford Canal to Leeds (from where they could reach the north sea and other eastern cities) or to Skipton, but there
was no route over the Pennines via the Leeds & Liverpool Canal until 1816. The main cargoes on
the Bradford Canal were coal, stone and iron with
many ironworks opening up and developing along the canal as a direct result of
the canal's existence.
1820's Passenger travel was becoming popular on most canals in Britain and a packet boat service was
quickly established on the Bradford Canal. Within a few years there were
successful services to Leeds, Selby and Goole. By this time Australian wool had become
a very big cargo on the canal and the town of Bradford was fast growing into a large
city, spreading away from the canal basin which now found itself in the centre
of the town rather than on the northern edge as it had been when it first
opened. The canal's success had brought the town to it rather than it having to
extend into the town. Mills, factories, ironworks and dye works were all built
along the canal banks and many of these businesses used the canal for their
water supply as well as for transport.
Originally the canal drew its water solely from Bowling
Mill Beck but this was now proving inadequate. The company began to draw water
from Bradford Beck to top up supplies. This seemed the obvious thing to do
though the company never officially asked for legal permission to draw the
water. The beck ran right along the side of the canal for long stretches but it
was already badly polluted which in turn made the canal very badly polluted.
Things got many times worse by the time all the mills and factories had drawn
their share of the new canal water, used it and pumped it back into the canal
along with their other waste. Added to this was the little matter of Bradford's raw sewage which was also
discharged directly into the canal!
1840's Not surprisingly, the canal soon turned into a steaming, stinking
ditch. In summer it was worse than ever and was known to carry a number of
diseases. Bradford County Council wanted rid of it and proposed buying it
solely to close it down and fill it in. The canal company and virtually all
businesses connected with its use successfully opposed the proposal. However,
the canal company's reasons for fighting the closure were different to those of
the industries on its banks. Whereas the mills and factories needed the canal,
the company were hoping to make money by selling out to one of the numerous new
railway companies which were buying many of the canals around the country.
1844 Unfortunately the company's hopes were not realised. No railway
company attempted to buy the canal and they were now losing trade badly to the
Leeds & Bradford Railway Company who had built their line parallel to the
waterway! Pressure was now being put on the company to do something about the state
of the canal. The Bradford Observer described it as "that seething
cauldron of impurity"!
1853 A few days before the start of a Preliminary Enquiry into the Sewerage,
Drainage and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Conditions of the Inhabitants of
the Township of Idle in the County of York by William Ranger Esq, Superintending Inspector for the General Health Board,
a meeting was held in Windhill and the following Resolution passed:
considers the canal to be the greatest prevailing nuisance of the neighbourhood
and is of the opinion that until it be removed the
sanitary condition of the place cannot be much improved."
The Resolution was on
a Motion proposed by Joseph Pitts and seconded by George Bateson.
1866 A court order was obtained against the Bradford Canal Company
stopping them from drawing water from the polluted Bradford Beck. There was no
way the company could keep the route going without its main water supply. They
closed the last ¼ of a mile in the centre of town and offered the rest on lease
to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. However, the Leeds &
Liverpool company (who's own canal received all of the
Bradford Canal's murky water at Shipley
Junction) weren't the slightest bit interested in running Britain's dirtiest waterway and thus they
flatly refused the offer. They knew they could not afford to provide an
adequate (clean) water supply and weren't prepared to build the new wharves and
basins which the canal desperately needed to keep business growing.
1867 After being forced to cut off their main water supply, closing the
section nearest to the centre of Bradford and then finding themselves unable to give their canal
away, the Bradford Canal Company found it impossible to continue. They closed
the whole waterway and - to everybody's delight - it was completely drained.
The route, although rather smelly, was always a big
commercial success and its loss was immediately felt by local businesses. They
began to negotiate with waterway companies such as the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the Aire & Calder
Navigation in the hope that one of these would buy the canal. Meanwhile the
Bradford Canal Company sold the land where the terminus basin had been (Forster Square now stands on this land).
1870 After negotiations with other waterways had come to nothing, a group
of local men, mainly stone merchants, took over as a new Bradford Canal
1872 The new owners restored the canal and solved some of the water
problems by installing pumping engines to back-pump water at the locks (most of
which were 2-lock staircases).
1873 The whole of the canal was fully re-opened to a new length of 3
miles. The canal was soon in business again though the new owners clearly did
not intend to make the ownership permanent. The plan had been to re-open the
route and then sell it once it was up and running successfully.
1878 The Bradford Canal Company sold the whole route to a committee who
were made up jointly of men from the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the Aire & Calder
Navigation. It cost the new company £27,000 to buy the canal, just slightly
more than it had cost the previous company to restore it. Over the next few
years the new owners built lots of warehouses near the new terminus of the
route but their income never equalled their expectations despite trade
continuing to grow for some years.
1910 The canal saw its peak year in terms of tonnage but profits were
always low due to the high cost of running and maintaining the pumping engines.
Following 1910 the maintenance costs were higher each year than the income from
1917 During WW1 there was next to no traffic on the canal.
1921 An attempt was made (presumably by the owners) to close down the Bradford Canal. The local authorities, who had themselves attempted to close the canal in the 1840's, now
successfully battled to keep the route open despite it hardly being used.
1922 A Bill past through Parliament allowing the canal to be shut down and
sold off. The line was officially closed though it was many years before most
of its land was reclaimed. Eventually some stretches were filled in and built
while other parts were left to decay. In the last few years new roads have
finally blocked the route - possibly forever.
In "Lost Canals of England & Wales", published in 1971, author
Ronald Russell said there was very little of the Bradford Canal to be found. Lots of the route
had already been built on and most of the remaining land around the canal was
about to be redeveloped. Apparently, odd bits of the canal could still be found
then though it only appeared as scrubby waste ground. I have not walked the
canal's full length but I guess it is very unlikely that much of it has
The Bradford Canal began at Shipley where it made a
junction with the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The junction was just north of
the main street (Leeds Road) which runs parallel to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. Bridge No.208 on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal gives the game away as its called
Junction Bridge. Around the junction are a number
of old buildings, including what I guess was a canal
company building though it currently stands derelict. The junction itself is
easy to spot although it is just a few yards in length between the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and a railway embankment. To
reach the junction on foot walk west along the Leeds & Liverpool towpath
for 100 yards from the swing bridge on Dock Lane.
The Bradford canal headed south west and its line can be seen on the
far side of the railway embankment - accessed from Dock Lane. When I was here in 1997 I found a
lone house being extended and its garden being landscaped. The garden was wide
and grassy and obviously built on the canal bed, in the garden were some huge
stone blocks. It suddenly dawned on me that the house is a former lock cottage
and the stones could well be lock masonry. It would be nice to think that they
were planning to reinstate the lock but somehow I think the opposite was taking
place. I believe this lock was called Windmill Lock, if so it was the only
single lock on the route, all others being staircases.
Just a few yards further south the canal line runs through
a car park.The old building (now used as offices)
which stands beside the car park is a former canal side mill. The bridge beside
the mill carries the canal under the busy main street, Leeds Road (A657). On
the far side of the road the canal travelled south westerly for ½ a mile
between the railway station and some mills on Crag Road. Today the line can be clearly
seen as it has been grassed over, stretching into the distance away from the
main road. I am unsure at what level the canal ran here, the grassy area
appears to be much higher than the level of the canal line as it emerges from Leeds Road bridge.
At the end of the fairly straight grassy stretch (running
behind Crag Road) the canal curved right and then arced around on a long left
bend until it headed south alongside the busy Valley Road. The next section has
vanished from the Leeds & Bradford A-Z street map but there are two fairly
good clues to the former canal route. The first is Bradford Beck which ran
close to the canal and the second is the very busy A6037 which just happens to
be called Canal Road! Assuming the canal stayed on the
east side of Canal Road it must have run under bridges at Poplar Road and Gaisby Lane as both of these run east off Canal Road. The
canal could still be seen on the 1978 A-Z as it hugged Canal Road between Gaisby Lane and Stanley Road. However, it is not marked here
in the 1993 A-Z. In 1971 Ronald Russell said there was still water in this section
- probably very, very still!!
For some way south of Stanley Road there is no sign of the canal or
of Bradford Beck. The A6037 meets the A6177 at a large junction which may have
been built directly on the former canal bed. I think that the junction now
covers what were once Oliver Locks. Ronald Russell said the derelict housing of
a pumping station stood at the foot of the locks though the locks themselves
had been filled in and Gypsies were living on the land around them.
On the far side of the road junction, on the south side of
King's Road, the A-Z marks the line of the canal and shows "Lock
(dis.)" behind a works on Canal Road. These could well be Spinkwell Locks which could still be seen in 1971 near a
gas works. However, it was obviously not a pretty sight, the lower lock stood
in isolation in an area of desolation near a coal tip, the
lock was full of rubble though its lower gates were still there - firmly shut.
In a recent (1995) magazine restoration roundup it was rumoured that Spinkwell Locks may be restored and included in a new park
area. This could have happened by now though I have not seen any reports which
On the 1978 A-Z, the canal line lasts for less than ½ a
mile south of King's Road and Bradford Business Park is now just south of here,
possibly on top of the canal. In the 1978 A-Z the route was still marked just
before the point where it squeezed between Canal Road and Wharf Street. In 1971 Canal Road was still
lined with large decaying warehouses but it is marked in the 1993 A-Z as part
of the inner city by-pass, the canal bed and warehouses have now been replaced
by the A650 dual-carriageway. Wharf Street was still cobbled in 1971,
presumably it was this area that became the new head of navigation when the
first company closed the top ¼ of a mile and the second company took over.
After Wharf Street the canal swung sharply south
west under Canal Road and ran along the back of Leeming Street. The few hundred yards between Canal Road and Holdsworth Street is still marked on the 1993 A-Z
and appears to have had a number of wharves on both sides. Past the road
junction of Holdsworth Street, Mill Street and Valley Road is Forster Square and Bradford railway station.
This area was the original terminus of the Bradford Canal.
As one can clearly tell from the
route description, there isn't a hope in hell's chance of this waterway ever
being restored. Perhaps this isn't such a bad thing.
Where as many other canal companies of the 1800's would rightly be proud to see
their waterway restored and used today, the original owners of the Bradford
Canal were little short of disgraceful and their waterway should probably not
be remembered as a monument to Bradford's industrial past, despite it being
partly responsible for Bradford becoming a prosperous city. Having said that,
if a restoration was possible, a navigable waterway, complete with pleasure
boats, could turn Bradford into something that nobody could previously have
ever imagined - a tourist attraction!