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:

 

"This meeting 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 Company.

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 tolls.

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.

THE ROUTE

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 survived today?

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 confirm this.

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!