Hidden from View: The Bradford Canal

Our Curator for Social History & Technology, Liz McIvor has written a blog post on a part of Bradford  that’s not as obvious as some of the buildings, but no less significant to its history and development…

She writes:

In 2014, extension work was being undertaken to improve the route to Shipley from the centre of Bradford on the A6037, known as Canal Road. Motorists on the way to Shipley passing the North of England Wool Site (British Wool Marketing Board) might have noticed the brickwork of a tunnel to the left, underneath the road along the line of the Bradford Beck. The beck once led to what was the basin of the Bradford Canal at the present Forster Square.

The beck, part of a system of small linked culverts in the natural waterway network around the city, was responsible for vital sources of water for domestic and industrial use in the pre industrial period. Becks provided water for the earliest factory developments in the centre of the city by Goitside and Thornton Road.
The Bradford canal was a short one, just over 3 miles long , and the route it took ran parallel to the present canal road, past Frizinghall and the edge of Bolton Woods, to Shipley. The canal joined the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Windhill, where there was a single lock. All other locks had to be in what is called a ‘staircase’ or group, to raise narrowboats out of the ‘bowl’ of Bradford.

The canal began life as early as 1744 when a group of businessmen petitioned for the necessary Act of Parliament to get ‘improvements’ made to the river Aire for the purposes of trade. These were gentleman and landowners in Bradford, Bingley and Keighley as well as others in the Craven district. It was proposed that Cottingley would be the best place to load goods from the Bradford Road. Although the Act was not passed. It led to further attempts to ‘improve’ and a bill to for the Leeds and Liverpool canal.
Some of the members of the Leeds & Liverpool committee were Bradford based, and now pushed for another canal to link Bradford to the route being dug which would bring coal to Liverpool merchants and allow shipment of West Yorkshire goods both north and south via canal and river navigation.

Key figures in the company included John Hustler, Abraham Balme and Joseph Priestley (Superintendant) and they procured their act on 29th April 1771. The act allowed the company to create their canal and raise money through shares as well as construct a reservoir and take water for the canal from the Bowling Mill Beck by a place known as Hoppy Bridge Wharf (Forster Square).

The engineer on the Leeds and Liverpool, John Longbotham, from Halifax, also worked on the Bradford line and the canal opened to the ringing of the town’s church bells in March 1774.

Canals were considered the new step forward on the road to towns like Bradford becoming industrial powerhouses, and local publisher Joseph Bowling was very excited indeed about the prospect of canals in the area when he wrote the following in 1776, as part of his introduction to a book of General Thomas Fairfax’s memoirs.

“If we look into the history of these countries where canals have been for a series of years in use, we shall perceive in every page, the present glory of such people has had its source from that expedient. Canals will be a great and permanent benefit to agriculture and commerce, and serve to make the nation rich and populous.

Shall we not praise the promoters of such a laudable undertaking as this; admire and applaud their indefatigable assiduity in so arduous a task, such beyond a doubt are as instruments in the hands of the Almighty for the good of this nation in general, and for this town and its neighbourhood in particular”.

Memoirs of General Fairfax, with an introduction by J. Bowling on Bradford's technological advances
Memoirs of General Fairfax, with an introduction by J. Bowling on Bradford’s technological advances

The coal, iron and stone which was the primary trade of the canal meant that Bradford could expand it metallurgical base and supply first grade iron and steel to other industries. The town became as well known for mechanical engineering as it was for its wool and worsted products and the name of the Low Moor and Bowling Ironworks became known globally by the mid 19th century.

A quarry for sale, with a key selling point its access to the Bradford Canal, and through it to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.
A quarry for sale, with a key selling point its access to the Bradford Canal, and through it to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.

As the town expanded rapidly, shortly after the completion of the Bradford and Leeds & Liverpool canals, the centre became terribly overcrowded and polluted. Although warehouses and factories including chemical works sprang up along the route, getting to and from the basin became more difficult in the seething mass of the centre. Tenement housing had been ‘thrown up’ alongside older converted buildings teeming with thousands of millworkers from all over the country s well as other parts of Europe. Without access to a modern sewerage system and with no way to purify waste water, the becks, and the canal, quickly became dreadfully polluted.

The company had originally been permitted to use the water of the Bowling Beck, flowing from the southern point of the town, and the hills, but it had also made use of the Northern Bradford Beck. Supplying the canal with water was, as for many man-made waterways, a real problem.

Faced in the 1830s and 1840s with direct competition of railways, the canal was threatened with Council buy out when over 400 Bradford people died from water borne cholera in 1849. Local people joked that coins turned black in the atmosphere, and campaign groups lobbied the council and newspapers to end the ‘seething cauldron of all impurity, the Bradford Canal’. Attempts to take it over were resisted by powerful businessmen who leased the canal and operated quarries and other works using it and discharging into it.

Plan of Bradford Canal and its surroundings from 1867
Plan of Bradford Canal and its surroundings from 1867

Eventually, in 1866, a court order stopped the company from diverting the Bradford Beck and placed it under duress to clean up the waterway, excepting the tenement houses and the property of the Frizinghall Mill. The report in the London Gazette for November 16th reported that if the company flouted the law, it would be charged £10,000.

“To stop or restrict the construction of drains and sewers into the canal, and the maintenance and user of such drains and sewers now running into the canal”

Attempts to get the Leeds and Liverpool Company to buy out the canal failed, and the railways which had been built on either side of the centre, had no need to lease the land. Despite thousands of pounds of investment in the last years of operation, the canal was closed in 1867.

Those firms which had used the canal still needed a way to transport their stone and lime, so petitioned to re-open the route, with water supplied by the Leeds and Liverpool canal under the new owners group The Bradford Canal Company Limited. Although the 1875 reopening was hailed as a victory for local business, it was short lived. Canals by the late 19th century were no longer able to compete effectively with rail and developing road haulage and were not able to acquire the necessary investment for continued maintenance. Most of the money made by the 20th century was not in tolls on water carriage, but from the rentals of properties lining the canal.

By the end of the First World War, deficit was high and the cost of modernising unbearable. The canal finally closed for good in 1922 under an Act of Abandonment.

Today, most of the 3 miles of canal have been filled in and built over, but the name of the road, and the layout of Victorian warehousing hints at the original route, running parallel to the railway which was partly responsible for its demise.

In recent years a great many campaigns have begun to restore and revive traffic on a number of canals left derelict by the Abandonment Acts. Nationwide there are over one hundred groups of committed societies and interest groups working to bring some of these waterways back to life.

Early campaigners in the IWA (Inland Waterways Association) hoped that regeneration might allow the re-opening of the Bradford, although studies by the Canal and River Trust in 2006 suggested that such a project would cost upwards of £35 million, much of the land belongs to the local authority, but 37% remains in the hands of private individuals and businesses, whose necessity is now in access to haulage by road, rather than water.

Aerial view of barges on the Leeds-Liverpool canal c.1950
Aerial view of barges on the Leeds-Liverpool canal c.1950

Small groups of activists remain, such as the Friends of Bradford Beck, who regularly maintain the public parts of the waterway through the Aire Rivers Trust. Other canal enthusiasts can volunteer and fundraise through the Canals and Rivers Trust, as well as local history groups and societies.


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