The Cromford Canal - a Brief History
This page describes in 'brief' the history of the Cromford Canal. We are indebted to Peter Hardcastle's "Canal Roots & Routes", on which this is based.


A new waterway, the Erewash Canal, opened at Long Eaton near the junction of the River Soar with the River Trent. It ran north alongside the River Erewash, through Sandiacre, past Trowell and Ilkeston to a point near Langley Mill - now better known as Great Northern Basin. The Erewash Canal was soon very successful and this led businessmen further north to look into ways of extending the line.


An extension to the Erewash Canal was being called for by many people. In particular mine owners around Pinxton were eager to have a navigable waterway as they claimed there were numerous unworked seams which were being left untouched due to lack of suitable transport. Eventually it was agreed to extend the Erewash Canal as far as Pinxton. However, before any work could be done, other businessmen further to the north of the Erewash Canal also began to show interest in a waterway which could serve their towns and villages. These included iron furnaces at Butterley and Somercotes, limestone quarries at Crich, lead-works at Alderwasley and cotton mills at Cromford.


At a meeting in Matlock a canal was proposed to link the southern side of the Peak District to the Erewash Canal. William Jessop, a local businessman himself, volunteered to do a survey. The canal was supported by numerous local businessmen but the strongest voice by far was Sir Richard Arkwright who owned the cotton mills at Cromford. He was the pioneer of the factory system and his Cromford mill was the first successful water-powered cotton-spinning works. Being situated well away from the machine breakers who had wrecked many businesses elsewhere, Arkwright was finding Cromford a very difficult place to get his goods in and out of. It was a very slow and costly process to send packhorses across the Peak District or to places like Derby and Nottingham so Arkwright desperately needed a reliable and cheap transport system which he hoped a canal could provide. A further meeting was held in Alfreton during December and Jessop reported his survey. He proposed a line from the Erewash Canal at Langley Mill to Arkwright's mill at Cromford with a branch line to Pinxton Mill. Interest was so great that half of the estimated cost was raised there and then with the other half being raised during the following two weeks.


In July the Cromford Canal's authorisation went through Parliament. Strangely, the company who had most to gain from the new canal, the Erewash Canal Company, was the only one that contested the Cromford Canal Act. The Erewash Canal Company feared water supply problems because up till then it had enjoyed exclusive rights to the River Erewash. Despite this objection the Cromford Canal was authorised and work began.

The new canal was to be engineered by William Jessop with Benjamin Outram (who was Jessop's partner in the nearby Butterley Ironworks) and Thomas Dadford employed as assistant engineers. The line was to be 14 miles long and would serve several mines, quarries, lead-works, the ironworks at Butterley and Somercotes and Arkwright's cotton mills at Cromford. It was to have 3 aqueducts and 4 tunnels of which one, Butterley, would be 2 miles long. There would also be 14 locks, all on the section south of Butterley Tunnel. Soon after work began it was realised that the estimated cost was going to be a long way short of the actual amount needed. Matters were made worse when the contractors, Kearsley and Roundford, resigned forcing Jessop and Outram to have to take full control over all work.


In September all the money ran out and the company were forced to take out loans and make calls on shareholders to raise more cash. Better news came for the canal when the decision (by a separate company) was made to build the Nottingham Canal to Langley Mill where it would join the Erewash and Cromford canals. This would give the Cromford Canal a second outlet to the Trent as well as an important link with Nottingham. Agreements had to be set up between the Cromford and Nottingham canals because the Cromford company feared that the Nottingham Canal would use up all of its water supply. The Nottingham company agreed to build extra reservoirs to serve both canals while Jessop built the Cromford Canal summit level much deeper than normal to act as an "on site" reservoir, holding the water which came from Cromford Sough. Jessop was also to be engineer in the Nottingham Canal.


Richard Arkwright died at the age of 60. It is assumed by the general public that he was the driving force behind the canal, but in fact this was not the case. Contemporary sources suggest that his was a minor role, and that he was invited to be a shareholder because of his national fame, and in order to lend credibility to the scheme and encourage financial support. Arkwright had several disagreements with his colleagues and was generally uncooperative on most issues, even marginal ones relating to the canal. He complained of the inconvenience he would suffer by the canal crossing his lands, that 'The roads would be soiled during construction and the horses used on the canal will eat all the meadows'

Francis Beresford wrote, 'We have reason to believe that Sir Richard Arkwright and Mr. Hurt are becoming cool, if not adverse to the business.' Captain Gell once wrote that Arkwright at last seemed satisfied, saying, 'He even smiled today which he has never done before on this subject.' Outram had not been tactful in dealing with this difficult man, and had spoken out about his frustrating manner to others. He confided to a friend 'Arkwright ought to have his head cut off.' Someone made sure Arkwright was told of this, and he was not a man to forgive such indiscretions. He wrote to the committee that of the canal project, (that he was then the chairman of) that Jessop, 'Must recommend a proper person to superintend that part of the canal that goes through my property and that Mr. Outram's office shall not extend to the part of the canal that crosses my land.'

The committee allowed this malicious resolution, which was nothing but spiteful revenge. But Arkwright's action lost him the goodwill of the others. The fact remained that many who subscribed to the project did so because of Arkwright's connection with it. Yet the Gells became extremely concerned when 'The Knight' as they disparagingly referred to him was seen frequently fraternizing with the opposition to the canal In February the Cromford Canal was opened to the western portal of Butterley Tunnel. However, Bullbridge Aqueduct to the west of Butterley was already in need of repair. Jessop took full responsibility and paid for the 650 rebuild out of his own pocket. Jessop seems to have had an Achilles' heel when it came to masonry as later in the year the same problem occurred at Wigwell Aqueduct over the River Derwent just south of Cromford. Again Jessop accepted responsibility and repaired the structure personally.


Another new line, the Derby Canal was begun, engineered by Benjamin Outram. This, like the Nottingham Canal, would provide some competition for the Cromford Canal but more importantly both waterways would also provide better routes for Cromford Canal traffic, allowing shorter, quicker and cheaper access to certain areas.


In August the Cromford Canal - aqueducts, tunnels and all - was fully opened and became a success right from the start despite having cost twice the estimated cost to build it.


The Derby Canal opened linking the Erewash Canal (and therefore the Cromford Canal) to Derby. It carried on past Derby to Swarkestone where it met the Trent & Mersey Canal and then the River Trent.

Also during this year, the Nottingham Canal opened providing a much shorter route to that city and beyond. The Nottingham Canal made a junction onto the Cromford Canal at Langley Mill Basin next to the point where the Cromford and Erewash canals met each other head on.The Cromford and Nottingham canals were very helpful towards each other, realising from the start that good relations would yield better results than competing and squabbling over tolls and water.


The first passenger (or "fly") boat service began operating from Cromford Basin. It was run by Nathaniel Wheatcroft who made twice weekly trips to Nottingham, a distance of 38 miles, costing 5 shillings (25p) first class and 3 shillings (15p) second class.


The over-expenditure in building the Cromford Canal was soon forgotten by the company. The canal became more successful every year with most of the cargo being coal, coke and a good proportion of limestone. During 1800 the Peak Forest Canal opened on the far side of the Peak District, to the north west of Cromford, near Manchester. Although this was a long way from Cromford it was soon to have a lasting link with the Cromford Canal. As soon as the Peak Forest Canal was up and running, businessmen began talking about a canal that would cross the Peak District joining the Cromford Canal to the Peak Forest Canal. The Grand Junction Canal Company were strong supporters of this idea as it would greatly reduce the time and distance between Manchester and London. On the other hand, the Trent & Mersey Canal Company, who stood to suffer the biggest losses, were equally strong in their opposition. John Rennie was asked to survey a line across this most southerly part of the Pennines. He reported (not surprisingly) that the route would need dozens of locks and would be very heavy on water usage. His estimated cost was 650,000, much more than had been hoped, thus the plan was dropped - but not forgotten.


A privately owned branch line named the Lea Wood Branch was opened just south of Wigwell Aqueduct. Its owner, Peter Nightingale was the father of Florence Nightingale. This new branch, built jointly by Nightingale and the Cromford Canal Company, was just ½ a mile long but it provided access to a number of quarries, two lead-works, cotton mills and a hat factory. The extra traffic caused by the new branch and the growing prosperity of the whole canal in general led the company to open Butterley Tunnel 24 hours a day to alleviate congestion. Another branch line was talked about during this year which would have connected the main line to Bakewell though in the end nothing was ever done. However, the line would have been more of an extension than a branch as Bakewell is over 10 miles north of the terminus in Cromford. As well as canal branches, over the following years, numerous connections were made to the canal from quarries and mines but most of these were not water routes.

Derbyshire, and this area in particular, became famous for its tramways and a number of them connected to the Cromford Canal at various points. One of the main engineers in the area was Benjamin Outram who appears to have had the perfect name for the job! Most tramways were less than 2 miles long but could reach high into the hills, usually drawn by horses or pulled up the inclines via a balance and gravity system. At Crich, for instance, the limestone quarries situated high above the canal were connected to the water at Bullbridge via a tramway, at Riddings a donkey-drawn tramway was built while at Swanwick and Birchwood a steam-driven tramway was in operation. At the ironworks in Butterley there was an even more ingenious transportation method. Cargo from the works was sent straight down shafts onto boats inside Butterley Tunnel. Most of this cargo was ammunition such as cannons, cannon balls and shot bound for Woolwich arsenal.


Such was the success of the canal that dividends to shareholders reached 10%.


Twenty five years after the idea was first looked into, a new proposal was made to link the Cromford Canal to the Peak Forest Canal on the far side of the Peak District. This time the proposal was to link the two waterways by rail rather than by a canal. In May, an Act of Parliament was granted and the Cromford & High Peak Railway Company was born with William Jessop's son, Josias, appointed as engineer on the building of the line.


The increasing success of the canal continued to bring steady increases in dividends which were now just under 20%.


The Cromford & High Peak Railway opened in July from just north of Wigwell Aqueduct to the terminus basin at Whaley Bridge on the Peak Forest Canal. To cross the Peak District, nine inclined planes had been built with stationary engines used to haul wagons up the steep hillsides while a more conventional railway was used across the summit. The railway was very successful from the start and continued to do well even after the arrival of many other railways in the area.


Most of the coal carried on the Cromford Canal was taken south, from local Derbyshire mines, towards Leicester. Staffordshire coal, carried on the Trent & Mersey Canal, had also been competing for this same market and more competition had now arrived with the building of a railway from Burton, through Ashby and Swannington, to Leicester. As a result of this the Cromford Canal began to carry much less coal and the reduction in traffic was biting into their profits.After a meeting with the other local canals and the local colliery owners the canals reluctantly agreed to lower their tolls on coal carriage to Leicester. However, it soon became evident that the reduced tolls had no effect on the level of traffic on the canal and were only resulting in even less profit for the company so they dropped the toll concession. The colliery owners were very unhappy and began to look into building a railway line to carry the coal themselves and thus avoid the monopolising canals.


Traffic continued to increase at such a steady volume that the canal was carrying double the amount it had done at the turn of the century. The ever increasing success of the route brought dividends up to an all time high of 28% during the early 1840's. As well as carrying twice as much coal as it did in the early years, the canal now carried substantial quantities of farm produce as well as ironstone, gritstone and limestone. Iron from the Butterley works had also increased considerably since the canal's early days. Coal was mainly carried down the Cromford Canal to the Erewash Canal and onto the Soar Navigation and then to Leicester. Limestone was shipped further south to the West Midlands and London. This was not quite the great news that it initially seems to be however as most of it was to be used for the building of the new railways which were soon to put all canals in jeopardy. The canal quickly realised the threat from railway competition and reduced its tolls in order to keep cargoes on the waterway.


Reducing cargo rates soon took its toll! Revenue went down by 25% in just two years and dividends were cut by half. Also during this period the canal lost its original water supply. Since the canal opened it had taken water from Cromford Sough which ran through Arkwright's mills and entered the canal at Cromford Basin. This water came from local lead mines but when mining moved to lower levels the water supply dried up. The company were forced into building a pumping station near Cromford to supply the canal's summit level. Water was drawn from the River Derwent which passed under the canal at Wigwell Aqueduct.


The Cromford Canal Company was one of the first to conclude that it was pointless to try and fight the railways. The Erewash Valley Line was under construction and another line was planned to run from Cheadle to Ambergate. These and competition from other railways already in existence in the area were enough to see the canal company sell out to the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock & Midlands Junction Railway Company. A deal was agreed upon but it was 5 more years before the canal changed hands.


In August, following an Act of Parliament, the MBM&MJR took over the running of the Cromford Canal at a cost of 103,000.This has since said to be much more than the canal was worth and to have been a marvellous piece of salesmanship by the canal committee. Soon after taking control, the MBM&MJR leased out the canal in a joint agreement with the Midland Railway and the London & North Western Railway. As soon as the railways took control of the waterway it saw an immediate decline in traffic. Midland Railway owned the line which ran parallel to the waterway along the whole of its route and virtually all carrying was moved onto the railway. However, while the canal lost its traditional cargoes it gained some others - though never in such great quantities. These included corn and groceries bound for Manchester.


The Cromford Canal's near neighbour - and useful ally - the Nottingham Canal also sold out to a local railway, the Ambergate, Nottingham, Boston & Eastern Junction Railway Company, which in turn was bought out by the much larger Great Northern Railway. Being owned by two completely different and very large companies meant the sudden end of good relations between the two waterways.


The Midland Railway Company took full control of the Cromford Canal. By this time tonnage had dropped to lower than half of what had been carried in the years just before the railway take-over.


After 35 years of railway ownership the tonnage carried on the canal had dropped to just 15% of its pre-railway level. Even this was mostly local traffic with very few boats travelling onto the adjoining canals. All long distance cargoes now went by train.


Subsidence caused the canal's owners to temporarily close Butterley Tunnel. The repairs took four years to complete and cost over 7,000. The money loss was not just the cost of rebuilding but also a loss of income due to boats being unable to pass through the tunnel.


Traffic had been low before the subsidence in Butterley Tunnel but after the tunnel re-opened the trade was very slow to pick-up and never reached even the low pre-subsidence levels. Most of the carriers who had "discovered" the advantages of the railway while the tunnel was blocked never returned to the canal.


In July, a second collapse within Butterley Tunnel caused its closure once again, but this time the closure turned out to be permanent. The owners (Midland Railway) refused to repair the tunnel a second time, claiming (probably correctly) that the amount of traffic using the tunnel did not warrant the cost of repair, especially when there was a very adequate railway line running parallel to the canal.To keep the few existing carriers "sweet" the railway company allowed them to use the railway at no extra charge.


The very few carriers who still wanted to use the tunnel were of course very unhappy about its loss. Their pressure to have the tunnel re-opened was backed by the Erewash Canal Company and eventually a survey was made by Rudolph de Salis and paid for by the government. Unfortunately, Salis reported that the headroom inside the tunnel had become very low in parts and the brickwork lining was in a very dangerous state. He also reported that the canal to the west of the tunnel was in an equally poor state.


To the east of the tunnel traffic had always been fairly good and this continued long after the tunnel's closure. On the west side, a small amount of local carrying continued for some time. Coal, in particular, was still taken to High Peak Wharf where it was transferred onto rail. Most of this came from near by on the privately owned Lea Wood Branch.


Although pressure remained on the company to re-open Butterley Tunnel, all hopes ended when a third collapse occurred during February.


Butterley Tunnel was finally pronounced beyond economic repair by a Royal Commission.


The great railway Grouping took place leaving the Cromford Canal in the hands of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company.


The Erewash Canal was taken over by the Grand Union Canal Company. If Butterley Tunnel had been open the Grand Union Canal may well have taken over the Cromford Canal too though of course this did not happen. The take over of the Erewash Canal will have made little difference to the Cromford Canal at this stage as it was now used very little with virtually all trade now being carried on the railway.


The privately owned Lea Wood Branch was closed.


On March 13th the owners of the Cromford Canal announced their intention to close down the whole the canal. This raised a few objections, not enough to change the plans of the owners, but enough to persuade them to offer the line to the Grand Union Canal. However, it would appear that the Grand Union Company were not interested and there was no take-over. The railway company also announced the closure of the Nottingham Canal.


The whole of the Cromford Canal, except for a mile stretch at the southern end, was officially abandoned. Following this, most of the southern section of the canal was filled in though to the north of Butterley it was mostly left untouched - neither maintained or destroyed. It slowly but surely became weeded over and hidden by undergrowth.


The last remaining mile of the canal, near the junction with the Erewash Canal, was officially closed. The top 4 miles of the Erewash Canal were also closed at the same time.


The last traffic to have any real association with the Cromford Canal ended when the last train crossed the Peak District on the Cromford and High Peak Railway. However, interchanging with the canal had of course ended many years earlier.


"Meetings of Interested Persons" to discuss the possibility of restoring the Leawood Pump. An approach made to Derbyshire County Council (DCC) to gauge their interest.


Cromford Canal Society formed as a registered Charity to take on restoration work of BOTH pump and canal. DCC involved. Restoration begins on Leawood Pump.


Legal formalities completed between DCC and British Waterways: DCC is given the canal (and thus pump) plus a sum of around 18,000 by BW. Serious work begins on canal.


With canal restoration proceeding a purpose-built horse drawn passenger boat is ordered from Wakefield Boat Co, it is named "John Gray" after one of the key volunteers at the pumphouse.

Mid 1977

First 1 1/2 miles of canal between Cromford and Leawood sufficiently restored to begin boat operation.


In the first full season of horse-drawn operations the boat carries 3000 passengers. Demand from schools, private parties etc grows rapidly.


CCS becomes a Company Limited by Guarantee on 4th January and takes on full-time restoration and operation of the canal and pumphouse. John Gray is lengthened by 10ft to meet passenger demand. Job Creation teams organised with DCC to carry out restoration work. Passenger numbers rise to 8,000 in that year. Leawood Pumphouse comes into full operation and is officially opened by the Duke of Devonshire.


John Gray lengthened for a third time to 60ft. Second passenger boat added to service (Marjorie A) for a short time. Passenger numbers rise to 15,000.

1987 - 1988

Continuous work on canal below Leawood Aqueduct allows section to be reopened through Gregory Tunnel to Gregory Dam beyond. New swingbridge installed on Leawood Aqueduct. John Gray makes first (and last!) passage through the tunnel.

Spring 1989

Storms and flash flooding cause overtopping on newly opened section and substantial damage to embankments on newly opened section which is then closed and largely de-watered.

Late 1989

CCS Ltd closes down


Although the towpath near Ambergate on the southern part of the rejuvenated section is now restored, the canal itself is still completely weeded up and very shallow. However, the northern part of this section, near Cromford, has been fully restored and turned into a popular linear country park. The section includes many of the best sites on the canal including Wigwell Aqueduct, Leawood pumping station, High Peak Junction and Cromford Basin. Although the water is still shallow, it is possible to navigate the canal in this area.

13th March 2002

The Friends of the Cromford Canal hold their first meeting at Ironville Parish Hall - the future starts here!