Huddersfield Narrow Canal

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The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is an inland waterway which runs for 20 miles from the Aspley Canal Basin in Huddersfield to Ashton-under-Lyne where it joins the Ashton Canal. The canal passes under the Pennines through the 5,500 yard long Standedge Tunnel, and remains the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in Britain.

After being largely abandoned during the Second World War, campaigning led to the formation of the Huddersfield Canal Society and the canal was fully restored by 2001.


In the summer of 1793, a meeting was held in Huddersfield — reportedly at the George Inn — to "consider the propriety of applying to Parliament" for the powers to construct the canal. Reportedly £118,000 was subscribed at the meeting, with no individual permitted to subscribe more than £500.[1]

A meeting of the subscribers took place at 10am on Wednesday 2 October 1793 at the George Inn and was chaired by John Plowers. A report by civil engineer Benjamin Outram was read and accepted:[2]

I have carefully examiner the country between Huddersfield and Ashton-under-lyne, and traced the levels in carious directions, and I recommend, as the most eligible for the proposed Canal, a line to commence at Sir John Ramsden's Canal, near King's Mill, at Huddersfield, and pursue the Valley to Wasterside, near Marsden, there to enter the Hill, and proceed by a tunnel three miles in length, under Pule Moss and Brunn Top, to Broadbent's Mill in Brunn Clough, where it will excavate ; then pursue the Valley, and passing through the Hill opposite Scout Mill, by a tunnel two hundred-yards in length, by Stayley Bridge to the Ashton-under-lyne Canal, as described by the plan taken by Nicolas Brown the Surveyor.

The whole length of the Canal will be nineteen miles and three-quarters, which will be shorter than the turnpike road from Huddersfield to Ashton-under-lyne.

The ascent from Huddersfield to the east end of the tunnel at Marsden, will be 315 feet, and the descent from the tunnel to the Ashton-under-lyne Canal, 334 feet and 8 inches.

The line above described is in every respect practicable, and forms the shortest communication yet pointed out between Manchester and the Faltern Navigations ; it will pass through a country full of manufacturers, which at present are carried on under great disadvantages, from the great difficulty and expence of land carriages ; and by the vicinity of the proposed Canal to the Rivers, the Mills upon them would obtain their articles free land carriage.

The Lockage and Tunnel (unavailable from the nature of the hills which intersect with the country) make the expence of obtaining these advantages very considerable.

I estimate the expence of the whole Canal at £164,948 and of the proposed Reservoirs at £13,800 making a total of 178,748, exclusive of the expences of obtaining the Act ; and in this estimate the high price of labour and materials are fully considered, and ample allowances made for all incidental expences.

The Reservoirs proposed will contain 14,900 locks full of water, and will afford a supply of 100 locks per day, for four months together, exclusive of an ample allowance for evaporation and absorption of those Reservoirs ; and this supply, I conceive, will be more than adequate to answer the consumption that would be occasioned by the largest trade that can be expected to be carried upon this Canal. But I recommend the Reservoirs to be made thus capacious, that there may not be even the shadow or a temptation to touch the Mill waters in dry seasons : for I conceive it essential to the benefits of the Canal, that the property of the Mill Owners should not only be protected, but improved as much as possible, as from the increase of their trade must arise a mutual and general benefit ; and, fortunately, the country affords ample situations, if five times the extent of these reservoirs were wanted. The situations proposed are in large and deep vallies, where the collected waters frequently produce torrents of floods ; and the Reservoirs are proposed to be so constructed as to receive no water from the Brooks, but when there is an overflow by floods at the Mills, the intercepting of which will tend to the benefit of the Mills and Works below.

The hill through which the tunnel is proposed to be made appears favourable ; the strata consist of grit stone and strong shale, and the low ground, in the centre of Red Brook, will afford an opportunity of opening the works by means of steam engine, so as greatly to facilitate the completion of the tunnel, which, I conceive, may be accomplished in five years.

The soil, on other parts of the line, is favourable to the project, and will be subject to little leakage ; the embankments and deep cutting are very inconsiderable ; and stone for the Locks, Bridges, and other Buildings, will be found very convenient on most parts of the line.

As I do not think myself competent to form an accurate estimate of the trade to be expected, must refer to those Gentlemen, who, from their local situation, are more competent to form an estimate of the very extensive trade of the Countries with which the proposed Canal will communicate ; the carriage of Lime, Coals, Corn, Building Stone, and Timber, must be great ; and Manufacturers of the Country will produce an extensive trade in various other merchandise.

Benjamin Outram.
Huddersfield, Oct. 22, 1793.

It was subsequently proposed to increase the capacity of the reservoirs to 20,000 locks full of water "at the request of the mill owners" which it estimated would add £4,000 to the cost.

A petition for the canal was discussed in the House of Commons on 7 January 1894.[3] The first reading of the Huddersfield Canal Bill took place on 5 February.[4] At the second reading on 20 February, a petition against the Bill was presented.[5] The Bill was passed on its third reading on 19 March.[6]


Construction on the canal began in 1794 with the marking out of the route, but progress was erratic due to a periodic shortage of money and Outram's repeated illnesses between 1795 and 1797.[7]

Work on Standedge Tunnel proved more problematic than Outram had anticipated, due to the nature of the rock and the amount of water which was leaking into the works, and by the summer of 1796 only 795 yards had been excavated. The difficulties experience by the contractor Thomas Lee led to him withdrawing from the project. The company subsequently increased the rate per completed yard of the tunnel and allowed an extra year for it to be completed.

The section of the canal from Huddersfield to Marsden was reportedly completed by 1796.

In August 1797, miners working on the Standedge Tunnel decided, for their own amusement, to blow up "a very large rock" at Greenfield, Saddleworth, known as the Raven Stone. After several failed attempts using explosive black powder, it exploded into several large pieces. According to some newspaper reports, "one man was killed on the spot, and others so much wounded, that they are not expected to recover".[8]

In August 1799, heavy rains led to flooding and the collapse of some of the canal banks.[9]

An amended Huddersfield Canal Bill was passed in the House of Commons on 14 May 1800.[10]

Benjamin Outram resigned in 1801 and died of a stroke in May 1805, aged 41.

In February 1801, notices were placed to let the contract for "finishing, and making complete for navigation, the tunnel of the Huddersfield Canal, near Marsden [...] of which about 3475 yards are yet to be cut, and about 1000 yards more are in part cut, and are to be enlarged and completed."[11] Reportedly the company was unable to find a contractor willing to take on the task and work was scaled down.

In May 1803, several newspaper reported that miners working in the canal "found a stratum of curious polished stones". The stone was light grey but, when split open, the inside was "as black as ebony" and highly polished, reflecting "objects nearly as well as ordinary looking-glass".[12]

The Huddersfield Canal Company sought a further Act in 1806 "to raise a further sum of money to discharge their debts, and to complete the canal, and for amending the several acts before passed respecting the said canal".[13]

By 1807, noted civil engineer Thomas Telford had been hired to produce a plan for completing the tunnel and work restarted. On 9 June 1809, the two ends of the tunnel were connected. Over the following two years, work continued on brick-lining sections of the tunnel wall. Reportedly, other sections were through such solid rock that no arching was required.

On the night of 29 November 1810, Swellands Dam — one of several large upland reservoirs built to supply water to the canal — failed after heavy rainfall and flooded the Colne Valley. Due to the amount of peat washed down off the moorland by the waters, it became know as the "Black Flood" and several people were killed.[14]

With the completion of Standedge Tunnel, the canal was declared complete on 26 March 1811.


According to contemporary newspaper articles, the canal was formally opened on Thursday 4 April 1811, "in the presence of a vast number of spectators". A boat carrying committee members of the canal company entered Standedge Tunnel just after 10am and emerged at the Marsden end 100 minutes later.[15]

The following notice was also placed in the press by the Huddersfield Canal Company:[16]


The Public are hereby respectfully informed that the Whole Length of the Huddersfield Canal is completely Navigable for the Conveyance of Goods, Merchandize and all other Materials, of which it is hoped all Merchants, Traders, and Others, whose interest it is have their Goods conveyed in the most expeditious Manner betwixt Manchester and Huddersfield, and the intermediate Places ; as also betwixt Liverpool and Hull, and all other Towns on the Line of Navigation, will avail themselves, this being the shortest Water Conveyance by Ten Miles betwixt Wakefield and Manchester, and consequently so betwixt Hull and Liverpool.

JOHN ROOTH, Agent to the Company.
4th April, 1811.

In May 1812, Edward Redfern (aged 28) and Nancy Hirst (49) were charged with leading a mob to the canal company's grain stores at Stalybridge and "breaking open and entering the same, and stealing and destroying large quantities of flour and meal, to the amount of upwards of 1000 bushels".[17]

[ be continued ]

Further Reading


The approximate route of the canal is shown below:


Notes and References

  1. Lloyd's Evening Post (07/Jun/1793). The date of the meeting was either Thursday 30 May or Thursday 6 June.
  2. "Intended Canal" in London Star (15/Nov/1793).
  3. "House of Commons" in London Chronicle (25/Jan/1794).
  4. "House of Commons" in Public Advertiser (06/Feb/1794).
  5. "House of Commons" in General Evening Post (20/Feb/1794).
  6. "House of Commons" in General Evening Post (18/Mar/1794).
  7. Lloyd's Evening Post (23/Jan/1797) reported that the Huddersfield Canal Company had so far made four calls on their subscribers for payment of their pledges.
  8. "Country News" in True Briton (01/Sep/1797).
  9. "Floods" in London Star (24/Aug/1799).
  10. "House of Commons" in Morning Post and Gazetteer (15/May/1800).
  11. Notice in The Times (05/Feb/1801).
  12. Newcastle Courant (14/May/1803).
  13. Lancaster Gazette (12/Apr/1806).
  14. It is usually stated that five people died, but some contemporary articles gave the death toll as six: the wife of James Scoldfield and their four children, and the wife of miller James Balmforth. The burial register for St. Bartholomew at Marsden contains "drowned" entries in the first week of December 1810 for Thomas Haigh and Joseph Haigh (sons of James of Great Clough), Betty Schofield (assumed daughter of Joseph Schofield of Dale Rise?), and Esther Schofield (wife of James Schofield of [...?] Bottom). Betty Schofield (daughter of James Schofield) was buried on 22 January 1811 with a note of "drowned".
  15. Lancaster Gazette (13/Apr/1811).
  16. Manchester Mercury (16/Apr/1811).
  17. Chester Chronicle (29/May/1812).