Calder and Hebble Navigation

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Looking towards the terminal basin of the Calder and Hebble Navigation, from a point near the junction with the Rochdale Canal

The Calder and Hebble Navigation is a Broad (i.e. with 14-foot-wide locks and bridgeholes) inland waterway in Yorkshire, which has remained navigable since it was opened.


By the beginning of the 18th century, the Aire and Calder Navigation had made the River Calder navigable as far upstream as Wakefield. The aim of the Calder and Hebble Navigation was to extend navigation west (upstream) from Wakefield to Sowerby Bridge near Halifax.[1]

The first attempt to obtain an Act of Parliament was made in 1740, as a result of a petition by the people of Halifax, Ripponden and Elland. John Eyes of Liverpool surveyed the route, and presented a scheme for a navigation which would use the River Calder from Wakefield to its junction with the River Hebble, follow the Hebble to Salterhebble bridge, and then follow the Halifax Brook to reach Halifax. It included the construction of 24 locks, 21 on the Calder and three on the Hebble, and nearly ten miles of cuts, including one of two miles at Horbury. The bill was defeated, due to opposition from local landowners who feared that it would cause flooding, from millers, who thought that navigation would disrupt their water supply, and from the promoters of several Turnpike Bills, who were intending to build roads which would follow a similar route.[1]

The second attempt followed a meeting of the Union Club in Halifax on 2 September 1756, which considered how to improve the import of wool and corn to the town. They invited the civil engineer John Smeaton to make a new survey, which he did in late 1757, and produced a scheme which involved dredging shoals, making 5¾ miles of cuts, the building of 26 locks, to overcome the rise of 178 ft between Wakefield and the Halifax Brook, and the construction of a reservoir at Salterhebble bridge. A committee raising subscriptions for the project in Rochdale insisted that the plans should be amended to include an extension to Sowerby Bridge, despite opposition from the Halifax committee.[2] An Act was obtained on 9 June 1758, for this extended route, and created Commissioners, who must own an estate valued at more than £100, or have a personal fortune of more than £3,000. Any nine of the Commissioners could make decisions.[3]


Construction started in November 1759,[4] with Smeaton acting as engineer.[5] By November 1764, the navigation was open as far as Brighouse, some 16 miles from Wakefield. Having borrowed £56,000, factions arose within the Commissioners, with some wanting to stop at Brooksmouth, where the Rivers Hebble and Calder meet, and others wanting to raise more money and complete the scheme. The second option gained most support, and a new committee was set up, who asked James Brindley to take over from Smeaton in 1765. The work was nearly completed by 1767, but serious floods in October caused some damage, with further damage caused by more floods in February 1768. Brindley appears to have left by mid-1766, and the Commissioners re-appointed Smeaton in 1768, to complete the work. Banks were repaired and floodgates built at the start of some of the cuts. The work was just complete when a further flood caused so much damage that the only option was to close the navigation again.[6]

By this time, £64,000 had been spent on the scheme, of which £8,100 had come from tolls and the rest had been borrowed. The Commissioners felt unable to borrow more money, and so a second Act of Parliament was obtained on 21 April 1769, which formally created the Company of Proprietors of the Calder and Hebble Navigation. This consisted of all of the 81 people who had loaned money to the original scheme, and these loans were converted into £100 shares. Additional shares could be issued, and the Company could borrow up to £20,000, with the future tolls used as security.[3] Before the Act, the scheme had been known as the Calder Navigation or Upper Calder Navigation, and this was the first use of the Calder and Hebble title. The Act was the first navigation act to include a clause which limited dividends, insisting that tolls should be reduced if the dividend exceeded ten per cent.[7] Construction of the initial phase was finished in 1770,[5] at a total cost of around £75,000.[7]

There were initial problems with the water supply to the Sowerby Bridge pound, which Smeaton was asked to address. He suggested a tunnel from Hollins Mill, similar to those used for draining collieries. Construction began in June 1772, and was completed in March 1794.[8] Other improvements followed, with a new cut between Shepley bridge and Mirfield started in December 1775 supervised by William Jessop, and the raising of water levels in 1776 to allow boats to carry additional cargo. A new cut at Brighouse was added in 1780, while the two staircase locks at Salterhebble and the single lock at Brooksmouth were replaced at Smeaton's suggestion by three new locks in 1782.[9]


The Navigation prospered, with dividends rising steadily from 5 per cent in 1771 to 13 per cent in 1792. Under the terms of the Act of Parliament, tolls were reduced when the dividend exceeded 10 per cent, and the first such reduction occurred in 1791.[10] Improvements continued, and were funded by making calls on the original shareholders. This provided a way to increase their income without exceeding the 10 per cent dividend limit. In 1798 a long cut at Thornhill was made, bypassing the town of Dewsbury. Trade with the town was maintained by the construction of a wharf and warehouse in what is now Savile Town basin Dewsbury, however this was not until 1877. Another stimulus to trade was provided by the Rochdale Canal, which opened up a through route from Sowerby Bridge to Manchester from 1804. A new cut and a lock were constructed at Brookfoot near Brighouse between 1805 and 1808, while the Elland cut was extended to link up with the Sowerby cut in 1815. There were further reductions in the tolls in 1801, 1804 and 1808.[11]

In 1806, the Company agreed with the Aire and Calder Canal to replace the lock at Fall Ings with a new cut (Fall Ings Cut) and a pair of locks, the work to be jointly funded. Legal challenges from millers resulted in some delay, but the cut was opened in 1812.[12] By 1823, as a result of pressure from carriers, boats were allowed to use the navigation at any time during the week, but the company refrained from authorising use on Sundays[13] as they could not "consent to so great a Deviation from established Custom".[14]

A new Act of Parliament was obtained on 31 March 1825, which authorised the raising of £50,000[3] for the purpose of constructing a 1¾-mile branch along the route of the River Hebble, from Salterhebble to the centre of Halifax, teminating near the railway station at Bailey Hall.[15] The terminus was 100 ft above the level of the canal at Salterhebble,[16] and the branch required a total of fourteen locks.[17] In order to avoid disputes with the mill owners along the length of the River Hebble, water supply was obtained by building a tunnel from the basin at Salterhebble to a pit near the top lock. The tunnel was 1,170 yds long, and the water was pumped from the pit to the top pound by a steam engine.[3] The branch was opened in 1828, at a cost of £58,741, of which £20,000 was raised by loans, rather than calls to the shareholders,[16] and was abandoned in 1942.[17]

In later improvements, ever-longer cuts bypassed more and more sections of river. The mill owners prevented some of the more ambitious plans, but in many cases, the navigation company bought out the mills in order to remove the obstacles.[5] With the Aire and Calder Canal rebuilding its main line, the Calder and Hebble sought an Act of Parliament to effectively abandon the river, but this was modified, as the needs of mill owners and others who owned property on the river banks were recognised. Nevertheless, the Act, when it was passed in 1834, authorised the construction of major new cuts and the building of new locks, which would be 70 by 18½ ft as far at Brighouse. The Huddersfield Canal pressed for the remaining locks to be extended to a similar length.[18] A new cut between broad cut and the figure of eight locks, which included two large locks, and a new large lock beside the old one at Thorne were opened in 1838, but little more was done, despite the Rochdale Canal pressing for longer locks.[19]


The Manchester and Leeds Railway company, which had approached the Calder and Hebble in 1836, but had been rebuffed, opened their line between 1839 and 1841. It followed the line of the canal and that of the Rochdale Canal. A year later, with canal shares having lost 66 per cent of their value, the canal company approached the railway, who agreed to lease the canal for £40,000 per year for 14 years, commencing on 25 March 1843. The Aire and Calder Navigation objected to the lease, and in April 1847, the Attorney General and the Solicitor General ruled that it was illegal, and must cease. Soon afterwards, the Aire and Calder offered to lease the canal itself, and the agreement started in September.[20] After the Aire and Calder's lease expired in 1885, the Navigation Company again took charge, rebuilt many of the bridges, and established the Calder Carrying Company. Shareholders continued to receive dividends until the canal was nationalized in 1948, and the canal was used by commercial traffic until 1981.[5]

Current route

The Navigation starts in Wakefield, where there is an end-on junction with the Aire and Calder Navigation[21] and runs upstream through Mirfield, after which there is a junction with the Huddersfield Broad Canal, to arrive at Sowerby Bridge, where there is another end-on junction, this time with the Rochdale Canal. Other towns on the navigation are Horbury, Dewsbury, Brighouse, and Elland. The former branch to Halifax is no longer navigable, except for a stub now known as the Halifax Arm. A sign clearly signposts the Halifax Arm to the right, and onwards toward Sowerby Bridge as you emerge from the top lock.

Current use

The navigation is used almost entirely by leisure boaters, to whom it represents both an attractive cruising ground in its own right, and also a vital four-way link.

The importance of the Calder and Hebble as a through route makes one notorious feature of the canal very significant: its short locks. The canal is a "wide" navigation, meaning that its locks are wide enough for 14-ft wide-beamed boats, but its shortest locks are amongst the shortest on the connected network of inland waterways, with only the Ripon Canal having locks of a similarly restricted length. The canal was built to accept 57 by 14 ft Yorkshire Keels[5] coming up the Aire and Calder Navigation. The locks on the Aire and Calder and the lower Calder and Hebble (below Broad Cut Locks at Calder Grove) have since been lengthened, and can accommodate boats which are 120 ft by 17.5 ft,[5] but the shortest locks on the upper Calder and Hebble force boats longer than about 57 ft to lie diagonally in the locks. This is only possible for narrowboats, so 57 ft is the maximum length for a wide-beamed barge on the C&H. Even for a narrowboat (less than 7-ft beam) the maximum possible length is about 60 ft (which is 12 ft shorter than a full-length narrowboat). Narrowboats approaching 60 ft can only be squeezed through the shorter locks, even when lying diagonally, by expedients such as removing fenders, having shore parties pole the boat into position, and going down locks backwards. In particular, an inexperienced crew of any boat longer than about 57 ft might find it impossible to negotiate the middle lock of the "Salterhebble Three", which is the shortest of all. The C&H Navigation, and the Salterhebble locks in particular, thus define the maximum length of a go-anywhere narrowboat. (Note that other factors can restrict the places to which a boat can reach: for instance, boats with a high cabin top, or with insufficient tumblehome may not be able to fit into Standedge Tunnel at the summit of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal).

It was the disparity in boat sizes between the Calder and Hebble and the Rochdale canal which made Sowerby Bridge (at the junction of the two canals) so important: long boats coming over from Lancashire had to have their cargoes unloaded, stored, and transferred to shorter boats at Sowerby Bridge Wharf.

Another quirk of the Calder and Hebble locks is the handspike, a length of 2 by 4 inches timber shaped at one end to provide a comfortable two-handed grip. Calder and Hebble boaters have to carry these in addition to the more usual windlass, in order to lever open the simple lock gear which lifts the lock paddles to allow a full lock to empty or an empty one to fill.[22]

Points of interest