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  • The history of the Aire & Calder Navigation in Castleford and the role it played in the economy of the village and, later, town.

The seventeenth century was a time of considerable growth both for the West Riding textile industry and, sixty miles to the east, for trade through the port of Hull. Although textile manufacture had yet to become a factory-based process and its size was only a fraction of what it would become 200 years later, nevertheless it was generating an ever-increasing demand for transport. For centuries, York had been the place through which most imports and exports from Leeds, Wakefield and elsewhere had passed (to and from other parts of the British mainland as well as Europe), with boats sailing up and down the River Ouse to connect with pack horse routes to and from the rest of Yorkshire.

However, as Hull became an increasingly important focus of maritime trade, the thoughts of West Riding merchants began to turn to ways of improving communications with the Humber. It was too great a distance to transport goods overland all the way, so the usual arrangement was horse carriage to Selby or Knottingley – by that time the inland limits of navigation on the rivers Ouse and Aire respectively – and transhipment to boats for onward transit. By 1690, some 2,000 tons of merchandise in each direction was travelling that route each year but it was not a convenient arrangement in an era when water was by far the most efficient mode of transport.

As early as 1621 and again in 1625, commercial interests in the West Riding had submitted parliamentary bills seeking permission to build short ‘cuts’ to bypass the various weirs along the courses of the Aire and Calder, including at Castleford. However, opposition from York Corporation, which understandably feared a loss of trade, was enough to see the bills rejected. A second attempt was made in 1698 by two groups of promoters based in Leeds and Wakefield, with the works estimated to cost £5,200, and this time York’s opposition was in vain as the proposals to create the Aire & Calder Navigation received royal assent, paving the way for Castleford to become an important location in the eighteenth century canal boom years.

The course of the first Castleford cut had little in common with the present course of the Aire & Calder Navigation through the town. It was much shorter and narrower, striking off from the River Aire via a lock opposite its confluence with the Calder but a few yards to the south of the present Castleford Junction Lock: the location of what was named Castleford Flood Lock and the first few yards of the cut survive in the shape of a short stretch of water, crossed by a wooden footbridge, which forms a cul-de-sac off the current canal and is separated from the river by a timber barrier. The recesses in the stonework where the lock gates were hung can clearly be seen, as can fragmentary remains of ironwork which comprised part of the gate hinges. From here the cut ran in an easterly direction – again, to the south of the present line of the waterway – passing beneath Lock Lane (then named Kippax Lane) midway between the present Griffin pub and the current bridge, before rejoining the River Aire at Castleford Dam Lock, more-or-less immediately behind the Griffin at the apex of an S-bend in the river. Another part of the line of this original channel is preserved by the dry dock in the present boatyard, the rest having long since been infilled and, in parts, built over so that not a trace remains: the timescale of these subsequent developments will be described later in this article.

Flood Lock 1Castleford Flood Lock looking east. The original 1699 cut continued straight on from here, through the line of trees in the background.  Note the recesses in the walls at each side where the lock gates were hung.

Flood Lock 2Castleford Flood Lock looking west towards the River Aire, which is behind the barrier just visible beyond the footbridge.

Flood Lock 3The former entrance from the River Aire to Castleford Flood Lock and the 1699 course of Castleford Cut. This is the barrier just visible in the preceding picture.

Old CutThe course of the 1699 Castleford Cut towards its eastern end is preserved by the dry dock and the stretch of water leading into it. Prior to 1830, this viewpoint would have been on the bridge over the canal on Kippax (later Lock) Lane.

This was the shortest (and presumably cheapest) course possible in order to avoid the weir and was in operation by the end of 1699. With its strategic location at the junction of the Aire and Calder – the point at which the routes to and from the textile trade powerhouses of Leeds and Wakefield diverged – Castleford became a key point for the collection of tolls from the boats plying back and forth laden with wool, cloth, grain and, increasingly, coal.

As traffic built up through the eighteenth century, the restrictive capacity of the locks along the Aire & Calder Navigation became an increasing impediment and thus, in 1774, a parliamentary act was passed for a series of improvements. A further obstacle to the efficient passage of vessels through Castleford was the awkward angle of the junction between the canal and river at Castleford Dam Lock, where the slow current meant the river channel was prone to silting and thus it was difficult to maintain a sufficient depth of water and an acceptable difference in water levels between canal and river. The rather awkward solution to this problem was to dig a new cut, branching off the existing canal at a ninety degree angle immediately to the east of the Kippax Lane bridge, heading north for around fifty yards before swinging sharply east and then south to a new junction with the river around seventy yards downstream from the original lock. This opened in 1775 and was known as Castleford North Cut and Middle Lock.

North CutThe western end of Castleford North Cut of 1775, looking towards its junction with the original cut which ran at right angles across the picture in the distance. The roof of the dry dock, which stands on the line of the earlier cut, can be seen above the white boats in the centre of the picture.

Castleford continued to be a key location on the Aire & Calder Navigation and in 1791 a ‘gauging station’ was established there, where boats could be stopped and their goods weighed to combat fraud, since tolls were charged by weight. In 1819 a weighing dock was created on the south bank of the new cut and, reported the company’s engineer John Timperley, “a large and commodious building erected over the same, with a crane and weighing machine”. This open-fronted building still stands and is now used for boat repairs (and as a nesting site by swallows every summer – how long might they have been using it?). It was also reported at that same annual general meeting that “the Corn Mills on the south side of the River have been put into a complete state of repair and enlarged” and that “the Public House at the upper end of Castleford Cut, which was very small and in bad repair, has been enlarged a brought into a tenantable state”. These were references to the building which preceded the present Queen’s Mill and to the former Navigation Inn.

At this time, Castleford was also an interchange point for passenger traffic on the Navigation, where coaches from Leeds connected with boats to Goole and Hull. In 1830 a coach named the George IV was advertised as leaving the Rose & Crown Inn, on Briggate, for Castleford each day (except Sundays) at 5.00am to connect with a steam packet for Goole and Hull. The coach proprietors claimed “The Route taken by this Coach is particularly deserving the Attention of the Public, as it prevents the very considerable Delays attendant upon the Packets so frequently grounding between Selby and Goole”. A flight of stone steps on the south bank of the River Aire immediately below Castleford Bridge, traditionally known as Packet Boat Steps, recall this traffic. Although logic suggests it might have been more convenient for passengers and boat skippers to make the coach-to-boat transfer on the wharves of Castleford Cut – especially since the deeper water there would have made navigation easier – perhaps the steps were preferred by the coach companies as it meant they would not have to pay the toll to cross Castleford Bridge.

PB StepsPacket Boat Steps.

By 1832 the coach from the Rose & Crown had been renamed the William IV (since he had by then replaced George IV on the throne) and, instead of connecting with a boat at Castleford, continued from there via Pontefract to Knottingley, where passengers transferred to a packet boat drawn by four horses. The Knottingley–Goole boat, it was boasted, travelled at seven miles per hour and was “neatly fitted up with every Requisite for the Accommodation and Comfort of Passengers; Refreshments, &c. are provided in a superior Style”. The fare from Leeds to Castleford was 3s inside the coach and 2s for an outside seat: way beyond the means of most of the villagers who, in any case, would have had little reason to travel. By this time, too, there was competition on the route, for a coach named The Liberal left the White Horse, on Boar Lane in Leeds, half an hour earlier to connect with a boat at Castleford: the fares were the same as on the William IV, as they also were on the coach which left the Boy & Barrel, in Wakefield Market Place, at 4.30am to make the same connection at Castleford. Passengers were advised that the coachmen “being liberally paid for their Services, are expected to do their Duty with Politeness and to their utmost, without being allowed to accept of any Thing more than the above fares”. Unfortunately for the Navigation’s passenger trade, 1834 saw the opening of the Leeds & Selby Railway, which would soon put an end to the coaching business in favour of Leeds–Hull travellers taking a train to Selby for onward conveyance along the River Ouse.

PB Steps bridgePacket Boat Steps, showing their position just downstream of Castleford Bridge.

However, as the industrial revolution gathered pace, the Aire & Calder Navigation’s gains in freight tonnage dwarfed its losses of passenger trade and prompted the trustees to consider further improvements to their waterways. A number of surveys were commissioned, the first by Scottish civil engineer John Rennie, who reported in August 1819 and whose main proposal was the building of a canal all the way from Knottingley to Goole, which was completed (along with docks and a new town at the latter location) in 1826. In consideration of Castleford, he remarked that “the cut has in general good water but its entrance to the River Aire is badly laid out and should be altered whenever a new flood lock is required”. He also reported that “the old lock is in very bad repair”. The Navigation’s own engineer, George Leather, undertook a second survey in the first half of 1824 and was equally critical of conditions at Castleford. “Castleford South Cut [i.e. the earliest section from the flood lock to beyond the Kippax (now Lock) Lane bridge] is in some places less than 5 feet deep … and the North Cut although it has been dredged … is not more than from 5 feet 3 inches to 6 feet 10 inches deep”. He noted that “the entrance from the South Cut to the North Cut is made at right angles immediately after passing through the bridge in Kippax Lane, and appears to have been done to save the expense of another bridge” and reported that boats negotiated the junction “with considerable inconvenience and the vessels frequently receive damage in making this passage”. He also pointed out that the position of Castleford Middle Lock was hardly any better than the one it replaced in respect of access to and from the river – and that the stretch of river from the lock to a point around half a mile downstream, where it was joined by the stream named Bullholme Clough, was shallow and prone to silting.

To eliminate this catalogue of natural and man-made obstacles, Leather recommended works (and estimated their prices) as follows:

Excavation of a New Cut from the River to the west end of Castleford North Cut — £410 13s 4d
Ditto in extending the North Cut to the River below Bullam Clough — £555 18s 4d
Building two Locks, one Arch Bridge and one Culvert — £10,676 7s
Stoning the sides of the Canal and Towing Path and fencing — £339 16s 6d

What these figures show, as much as anything, is how cheap labour was at that time in comparison with materials, with the locks and road bridge estimated to cost more than ten times as much as excavating around half a mile of new canal.

John RennieJohn Rennie

George LeatherGeorge Leather

Once Leather had completed his surveys and made his recommendations, the Navigation’s trustees returned to John Rennie who, after considering Leather’s report, suggested the following additional improvements at Castleford. “The entrance into the North Cut … is placed above the present junction with the Calder and is better adapted for navigation of the Aire, but as probably some improvement will ultimately be made in the present circuitous course of the Calder, in constructing the above entrance, it should be contrived so as to assure the navigation of both Rivers as near as possible”.

Rennie’s reference to the likelihood of alterations to the course of the River Calder was probably alluding to another survey which George Leather was about to undertake of that river between Castleford and Wakefield, the results of which were presented to the trustees on 19 November 1825. Between those two locations, the river meanders so sinuously across its flood plain that Leather estimated the Castleford–Wakefield distance by boat was 12 miles and 31 chains (just under 12½ miles) – almost twice the straight line distance. He therefore suggested a new canal should be built, starting from a lock more-or-less opposite the west end of Castleford Cut and following the line of the Calder on the north side of the river: for the full Castleford–Wakefield route he estimated a cost of £35,030, while if the canal were to run only as far as Altofts the bill would amount to £33,974. Faced with such figures – and with big expenditure being made on the Knottingley–Goole canal project – it seems the trustees decided they needed a second opinion and so they appointed master canal builder and civil engineer Thomas Telford to carry out the third survey of the Aire & Calder Navigation system in less than eight years.

Thomas TelfordThomas Telford

Telford’s report was dated 17 July 1827 and among the improvements it proposed were a canal from Fairies Hill (between Whitwood and Altofts) via Stanley Ferry to Wakefield. He rejected Leather’s plans for a canal all the way from Castleford to Wakefield and, instead, recommended straightening the course of the Calder between Castleford and Fairies Hill. In particular, he suggested “cutting off 2 short bends” just before it joined the Aire but also noted that “by preserving the present reach adjacent to the Potteries, they would not be incommoded”. It was these works – cutting a straight channel through a winding stretch of river, which at one point it doubled back upon itself so far it almost met itself coming back – which created the two ox-bow lakes on the north bank of the present river opposite Whitwood Mere and also the now partly-dried-up Pumphouse Pond/Pottery River to the south. This latter stretch was left connected to the new channel at one end, as Telford suggested, to allow boats access to what eventually became Clokie & Co’s pottery, though it is now blocked off. Of the navigation at Castleford itself, Telford’s observations were as follows.

At Castleford the Cut and Floodbank are very imperfect, the Road Bridge is unfit, and the Old Lock is not only ruinous, but in an improper situation, being exposed to being silted up by the Gravel &c, which is washed over the Weir or Dam; it is therefore necessary to make a New Cut, flood Lock and Roadbridge of proper Dimensions, in the direction of the present Basin, and from its eastern extremity construct a New Lock to enter the River beyond Ash Tree Shoal.

These latter proposals were identical to George Leather’s suggestions. Telford also recommended that Castleford Dam Lock (what he called the Old Lock) should be abandoned but that the Middle Lock, despite its inadequacies, should be retained so the improvement works “may be accomplished without interrupting the Trade”. Leather estimated that cutting out the bends in the Calder would cost £6,150 and that the new cut to Bullholme would total £12,370.

By the time the trustees came to consider Telford’s plans, two external factors must surely have been influencing their decision. The first was a rival proposal for a canal running directly from Wakefield to Ferrybridge via Whitwood and Cutsyke (to be the subject of a separate article); the second was the launch of the prospectus for the previously-mentioned Leeds & Selby Railway. Consequently, Telford’s proposals were adopted and, once the necessary parliamentary act had been secured, in June 1828, the following notice appeared in newspapers across the north of England in January 1829.

To Excavators, Masons, and Canal Contractors.

TO be LET, the Excavating and Completing of a New Cut or Canal, from and out of the Rive Aire, a little above the present Castleford Flood Lock, to join and communicate again with the same River near to Bullholme Clough, in the Townships of Allerton Byewater and Ledsham; also of a New Course or Channel for the River Calder, in the Townships of Whitwood and Methley.
And also, the Building and Completing of Two Locks, and One Public Road Bridge, upon the above-mentioned Cut or Canal.
Plans, Sections, and Specifications may be seen, and further information had, at the Office of Mr. GEORGE LEATHER, Civil Engineer, Park Terrace, Leeds, until Saturday, the 17th January inclusive; after which the Plans, &c., will be lodged, and attendance given, at the Ship Inn, in Castleford, until the 22nd January, on which day Persons wishing to contract, must deliver in Proposals before Twelve o’clock at Noon.
Security will be required for the due performance of the Work.

Leeds, 30th December, 1828.

A report in the Leeds Mercury of 7 February 1829 said the contract had been let “and that in the course of weeks several hundred men will be at work on this undertaking”. The winning contractors were named as Nowells and Hamer & Pratt, and their hundreds of navvies – equipped with no more than picks and shovels – evidently worked quickly, too, because the opening of the first new section of the straightened River Calder took place on 22 June that year, while the remainder of the new course of the river was completed by the end of 1829. Not surprisingly, work on the new cut, locks and bridge took a little longer and thus it was not until his report to the trustees’ annual general meeting on 1 August 1831 that the Navigation’s chief clerk could report that capital expenditure of £14,336 in the preceding twelve months included “the Completion of the Improvements at Castleford, which are now thrown open to the Trade”. He noted the old and new north cuts had been joined and dredged, “the new Offices and Houses for the Collectors are in progress, as well as the converting of the old Cut and flood gates into a Dry Dock”. To maintain the continuity of the towpath along the straightened course of the River Calder, he stated that “a wooden Bridge across the old course of the River Calder has been erected” and that the new river channel was lined with stone. The ‘collectors’ referred to were the men to whom tolls were paid and their offices and houses were the buildings which still stand alongside Castleford Junction Lock, while the wooden bridge would have crossed the old bend to the south of Calder, left to give access to the potteries, where it met the new river channel. The dry dock remains in use within the boatyard on Lock Lane and, as mentioned earlier, is one of only two parts of the original Castleford Cut not to have been drained and filled so that not the slightest trace of its course now remains.

Castleford A&CNThe development of the Aire & Calder Navigation in Castleford. Right-click to open full-size map in a separate window.

With the completion of these works, the Aire & Calder Navigation at Castleford assumed the form which it retains to this day, the only substantive change since then being the closure of Castleford Middle Lock, the stonework of which can still just about be seen in the river bank beneath the rampant vegetation. Despite the looming threat posed by the railways, which would be up and running by the end of the 1830s, Castleford maintained its position as a thriving hub of the company’s operations. Something of the busy scene at that time was captured by the civil servant and writer Sir George Head who, in his book A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835, published (in New York) the following year, wrote: “Castleford occupies the point where the Aire and Calder converge, the latter river proceeding to Wakefield, and the former to Leeds, from which place it is distant nine miles: here the river dues, both for Leeds and Wakefield, are collected; and here the lightermen, bound either way, leave their skiffs till their return; of these small craft may be seen from fifty to a hundred in a row, made fast at the bank of the river.”

Castleford’s location on the Navigation’s system also made it a favoured location for the establishment of boat-owning businesses. There were twenty-one ‘vessel owners’ in the village according to an 1822 trade directory (and there may well have been more, since entries in such directories had to be paid for and not all traders would have chosen to do so) – easily the most numerous business in Castleford at that time. An 1838 directory listed just eight, probably reflecting a low uptake of entries rather than a drastic reduction in numbers, with seventeen named in 1857 and twelve in 1866. Thereafter the numbers fell away, most likely due to the consolidation of the canal transport trade into fewer, bigger companies rather than a multiplicity of single-boat independent operators, as well as a falling-off in overall carryings as the railways took more and more of the canals’ former business.

Boat building – although on nothing like the scale that was seen at Knottingley – was also a feature, the earliest record dating from 1808, when a vessel by the name of Traveller was built in Castleford for William Atkinson of Knottingley. Various members of the Leake family (Thomas, David and James) were building boats from at least 1818 into the 1850s, while an 1861 trade directory listed Richard Cliffe as a boat builder (the family’s canalside timber business surviving well into the twentieth century on the site where the Butler Fuels oil depot now stands). The last recorded Castleford-built vessel appears to be one named Hyperion, launched in 1874 by Perfect Brothers – a long-established family of mariners in the town – although, of course, a thriving repair and maintenance tradition has continued through to the present day.

The breadth of canal-related occupations which would have been present in Castleford throughout most of the nineteenth century is revealed by the 1851 census, which listed the following.

Mariner, sailor or boat owner: Martin Appleyard, William Atkinson, Thomas Connell, Samuel Darling, John Davison, John Ezart, John Gledill, Joseph Gledhill, Samuel Holmes, Charles Masterman, George Squires, David Taylor, Richard Ward, George Wright, Mark Wright.

Waterman: Samuel Appleyard, Robert Bucktrout, Thomas, William and John (brothers) Carr, George Driver, John Glover, Joseph Glover, Richard Gray, Henry Harrison, William Harrison, William Hill, Isaac Hodson, John Holmes, Benjamin (father) and William (son) Johnson, William Longfield, George Milton, William Milton, John Owen, James Parlington, James Pearson, Thomas Prince, John (father) and John (son) Rhodes, Edwin Sutcliffe, Joseph Taylor, William Taylor, John Thompson, Thomas Walker, Charles Wardingley, George (father), Edward and Matthew (sons) Winn.

Boat liverer (i.e. painter): David Belcher.

Labourer at boat landing: Richard Davison.

Ropemaker: John Barrow, Joseph Smeaton, Joseph Williamson.

Retired mariner: Valentine Townsley (listed as vessel owner in 1822 directory).

Keel man: John Bucktrout.

A waterman, as opposed to a mariner or sailor, was someone who worked on a boat but did not own the vessel; possibly a keel man was similar. Interestingly, watermen Edward and Matthew Winn, along with their brother Thomas, had become vessel owners by 1857.

Additionally, Maria Ramskill, Elizabeth Bennett, Mary Brook and Mary Milton gave their occupations as ‘captain’s wife’ or ‘mariner’s wife’, while seventeen-year-old Ann Wainwright was listed as a ‘mariner’s daughter’ and was acting as head of household with three younger siblings: in all these cases it is likely that their husbands or parents were away from home on the day of the census, afloat somewhere on the canal or river system. Four of the residents in the almshouses, which stood opposite the parish church, were described as ‘former waterman’s wife’ (i.e. widows), namely Ann Cox, Sarah Walker, Ellen Johnson and Ann Pennington. In all, the number of Castleford people and families relying upon the canal for a living in 1851 was exceeded only by those working in the glass and pottery industries, demonstrating the fundamental impact the Aire & Calder Navigation had on the fortunes of the community for, perhaps, 150 years.


General background information on the development of the Aire & Calder Navigation can be found in the books ‘The Aire & Calder Navigation’ by P Smith (Wakefield Historical Publications, 1987) and ‘The Canals of Yorkshire and North East England’ by Charles Hadfield (David & Charles, 1972), both available in Castleford Library local studies section. The records of the company, including the John Rennie, George Leather and Thomas Telford surveys, are in the Public Record Office, Kew, in file RAIL800/29, and plans showing the various layouts at Castleford are in file RAIL800/94. Copies of the Leeds Intelligencer and Leeds Mercury are on microfilm in Leeds Central Library, while Castleford Library has the 1851 census return on microfilm and copies of the Castleford pages from a range of nineteenth century trade directories.