River Don, Yorkshire

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The Don and the Block Street Bridge, Sheffield

The River Don (also called Dun in some stretches) is a river in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It rises in the Pennines and flows for 70 miles eastwards, through the Don Valley, past Penistone, Sheffield, Rotherham, Mexborough, Conisbrough, Doncaster and Stainforth. It is mixed in character; at first a bright river of the fine Yorkshire countryside, and in its lower stretches an industrial river; one that has supplied power and water to industry and been punished and poisoned by it.

The Don was originally a tributary of the River Trent, but its course was re-engineered by Cornelius Vermuyden as the Dutch River in the 1620s, and it now joins the River Ouse at Goole in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The Don can be divided into sections by the different types of structures built to restrict its passage. The upper reaches, and those of several of its tributaries, are defined by dams built to provide a public water supply. The middle section contains many weirs, which were built to supply mills, foundries and cutlers' wheels with water power, while the lower section contains weirs and locks, designed to maintain water levels for navigation. The Don's major tributaries are the:

Along the Sheffield–Rotherham stretch of the river are five weirs that punctuate a local walking and cycling route, the Five Weirs Walk. A further walk, the Upper Don Walk, is being developed that will make it possible to walk or cycle from Sheffield city centre up to Oughtibridge.


The name of the Don predates the English and is believed to be from the old British language. It is believed to come from a Celtic word for "water" or “river”. Others have is suggested that it derives its name from an ancient goddess named Dôn (or Danu in Irish mythology).

The river gives its name to the City of Doncaster and also gave its name to the Don River in Toronto, Canada. The river of the same name in Russia is unrelated, though Yorkshire industrialists settled there in the nineteenth century to work the same industry on that Don as they had on their own.


The hydraulic jump pool at the foot of Winscar Dam

The River Don rises in the Peak District, on Great Grains Moss, a millstone grit moorland area between 1,480 feet and 1,570 feet above sea level. A series of small streams, including Great Grains and Black Grough join up, and within a mile and a quarter enter Winscar Reservoir. Reaps Dyke rises within 500 yards of the source, and flows in a semicircle to the north, through Snailsden reservoir and Harden reservoir, to flow into another arm of Winscar reservoir. These headwaters are close by the watershed between the east and west coasts, for just 100 yards from the source of the Don, Withens Brook rises and flows westwards, to supply the reservoirs of Longdendale, and head eventiually to the River Mersey and the Irish Sea.

A series of reservoirs sits on the moor, those east of the watershed all built in the late 19th century for the Dewsbury and Heckmondwike Waterworks Board.

The Don flows from the foot of Winscar Dam, close to the eastern portal of the Woodhead Tunnel, through the Hamlet of Dunford Bridge, and continues, first east and then south east, on its way to Sheffield. Near Penistone, the river is joined by Scout Dike, which flows from the Ingbirchworth, Royd Moor and Scout Dike reservoirs.

The Little Don River or River Porter, on which there are three more reservoirs, joins the Don near Deepcar, while at Wharncliffe Side, the Ewden Beck joins, after flowing through Broomhead and More Hall reservoirs. By the time it reaches Oughtibridge, the river is below the 300-foot contour.

Industrial sites

Below Oughtibridge, the course of the river is marked by a series of weirs, which were used to impound water, so that it could be used to power mills, hammers and grinding wheels. The gradient of the river bed is less than that of most of the Don's tributaries, which required the weirs to be spaced further apart, to prevent water from one mill backing up and preventing the next mill upstream from operating. The river falls by 160 feet between Oughtibridge and Brightside, a distance of 8 miles, and by 1600, there were sufficient weirs that no new ones could be built.

Mills of many sorts were built up to the nineteenth century, driven by the River Don. Most of the mill buildings have long since gone, but the weirs remain.[1]

The section of the river from Lady's Bridge to Meadowhall and the junction of the river with the Sheffield Canal has been designated as the Five Weirs Walk, by the creation of a footpath which closely follows its course. It contains the final five weirs before the navigable section is reached.


Below Doncaster, the main channel of the lower Don originally meandered in a north-easterly direction across the marshland of Hatfield Chase to enter the Trent just above its junction with the Ouse. A second channel flowed to the north, along a Roman channel called Turnbridgedike.[2] The eastern channel formed the boundary between Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

In the Hatfield Level drainage project which started in 1626, the Dutch civil engineer Cornelius Vermuyden diverted the Don northwards along Turnbridgedike. He built Dikesmarsh bank some distance to the east of the channel, so that the intervening land could be used as washlands. The main work was completed by 1628, but after flooding in 1629, a "Great Sluice" was constructed at the junction between the river and the Aire, with 17 openings which were 6 feet by 8 feet, probably by Hugo Spiering, who had assisted Vermuyden on the main project. The washlands had insufficient capacity, and in 1632 work started on a new channel, which would run for 5 miles from Newbridge, near Thorne, eastwards to enter the Ouse at the site of Goole, 9 miles upstream of the Trent. Water levels here were between 5 feet and 10 feet lower than at Turnbridge. This new channel was called the "Dutch River", and was finished in 1635, at a cost of £33,000. It ended in a sluice at Goole, and was never intended to be navigable, as boats could access the Aire at Turnbridge.[2] The sluice was later swept away in a flood and never replaced.[3]

The Dutch River was difficult to navigate, made more hazardous by shoals, three awkward bridges, and low water levels at neap tides. With the opening of the Stainforth and Keadby Canal in 1802, from the Don at Stainforth to the Trent at Keadby, most traffic for the Trent used that in preference to the Dutch River and the route around Trent Falls, where the Trent joins the Humber.[4] Construction of a railway from Doncaster to Goole in 1869 reduced traffic on the river, but the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation Company was formed in 1889, to buy back the River Don Navigation, the Sheffield Canal and the Stainforth and Keadby Canal from railway ownership, in order to keep them competitive. They acquired the waterways in 1895, but failed to raise sufficient capital for the major improvements they had planned. However, they succeeded in constructing the New Junction Canal from Stainforth to the Aire and Calder Navigation (Knottingley and Goole Canal) west of Goole, which was jointly funded by the Aire and Calder, and opened in 1905. The Dutch River reverted almost entirely to its original drainage function, and Stainforth lock, which connected it to the Stainforth and Keadby Canal, was closed in 1939.[5]


Navigation to Sheffield was made possible by the construction of weirs, locks and canal cuttings to avoid circuitous and unnavigable sections of the Don downstream of Tinsley, and then by a canal from Tinsley to Sheffield. The first serious attempts at improvements were authorised by an Act of Parliament obtained in 1726 by the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire to make the river navigable from Holmstile in Doncaster to Tinsley, on the edge of Sheffield, and another obtained by the Corporation of Doncaster in 1727 to improve the river below Holmstile, as far as Wilsick House in Barnby Dun. An Act of 1733 created "The Company of the Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Don", and authorised further cuts above Rotherham, while a further Bill of 1740 sought powers to improve the river from Barnby Dun to Fishlake Ferry, to avoid the shallows at Stainforth and Bramwith. The river was navigable to Rotherham in 1740, and to Tinsley by 1751.[6]

Stainforth was connected to the River Trent by the opening on the Stainforth and Keadby Canal in 1802 and to the Aire and Calder Navigation by the New Junction Canal, opened in 1905. There were plans to use compartment boats to carry coal on the navigation, but although some locks were lengthened around 1910, Long Sandall lock was not, and it was not until 1959 that it was extended to 215 feet by 22 feet and trains of 17 compartment boats could work through to Doncaster.[7] The navigation was the subject of one of the last major attempts in the UK to attract commercial freight to the waterways. In 1983, it was upgraded to the 700-tonne Eurobarge standard by deepening the channels and enlarging the locks as far as Rotherham. The expected rise in freight traffic did not occur, however.[8]

The cuts and navigable river sections, with the Stainforth and Keadby and the New Junction canals constitute the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation. Locks on the Bramwith to Rotherham section can accommodate boats which are 230 feet by 20 feet, but above that, boats are restricted to 56 feet by 15 feet by the short Rotherham lock.[9]


The Don has produced a number of notable floods. On the night of 26 October 1536 a sudden rise in the level of the river prevented the forces of the Pilgrimage of Grace from crossing the river at Doncaster, forcing them to enter into negotiations with Henry VIII's forces.[10][11]

The Great Sheffield Flood, which occurred on 11 March 1864 following the collapse of the Dale Dike Dam on a tributary of the River Loxley, destroyed 800 houses, destroyed or damaged most of the Don bridges upstream of Lady's Bridge (see "Bridges over River Don" section below) and killed 270 people.[12]

The Don was also one of the rivers that flooded during the 2007 floods. Following high levels of rainfall, huge volumes of rain fell on the Don Valley on 25 June 2007.[13] The river burst its banks in the late afternoon, flooding areas of Sheffield from the Wicker to Meadowhall, and two people died after being swept away by the water. Parts of Rotherham and Doncaster were flooded for the second time in 10 days.[14] Two days later, the army were called in to assist at Barnby Dun after the river flooded large areas near Thorpe Marsh Power Station.[15]


The River Don, together with its main tributaries, the River Rother and the River Dearne, form a river system with a catchment of 714 square miles, which held a population of around 1.4 million in 1997. Much of the region has an underlying geology of carboniferous rocks, containing coal measures, which have resulted in pollution of the river system where the coal has been mined. The headwaters rise on the moorlands of the Pennines, where the rocks are largely millstone grit, while the lower reaches pass through areas of alluvial and glacial material, up to 66 feet think, which lies on top of strata of Magensian limestone and Sherwood sandstone.[16]

The impact of industry and new cities have polluted the river severely, with sewage, mining waste and run-off from metal processing in Sheffield: large parts of the Don contained no fish until concerted efforts to improve quality bore fruit in the mid-1980s.

Abandoned mines continue to spew wate into the stream, for example near Penistone, ochre discharged into the river from old ganister mine workings, giving it an orange colour for about six miles, eventually remedied, while at Beeley Wood, the ochre comes from a pile of waste metal on the river bank. A nearby paper mill has also been a significant polluter of the river. Some of the problem has been mitigated by the construction of lagoons, into which mine discharges have been diverted.

Water quality on the Dearne and the Rother has not improved as much as on the Don, and pollution of the lower reaches is compounded by the fact that the pollutants, which include dioxins]], are locked up in the river bed sediments. Despite the steady improvement in water quality, restocking of the river with fish, attempted on several occasions between 1981 and 1994, was largely ineffective, caused by intermittent discharges of pollutants.[17] In November 2011, the Environment Agency announced that they had recently re-stocked the Don with 1,000 barbel. A spokesman said that the fish in the river were now at a sustainable level with a breeding population and these would be the last fish added as part of a 10-year programme to help the Don recover from an industrial heritage that had depleted fish stocks.[18]

Towns and villages on the River Don

The largest city on the river is Sheffield. From the source to the mouth, the towns found on the river include:

Winscar Reservoir
Joined by the Little Don River

River Ouse

Flowers, birds and beasts

Fig trees grow on a stretch of the river bank in Sheffield. The seeds do not normally germinate in the British climate, but the use of river water for quenching hot metal in some of the foundries resulted in water temperatures rising above 20 °C. At these temperatures, germination occurred. Most of the trees are over 50 years old, and the demise of such industry along the river has reduced water temperatures, so that there is no evidence of new trees growing.[19]

The industrial nature of the region led to a severe pollution problem for the river, but efforts to improve the water quality and habitat have met with some success, as salmon have been reported in the river near Doncaster.[20]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about River Don, Yorkshire)


  • Amisah, S.; Cowx, I.G. (1999). Response of the fish populations of the River Don to water quality and habitat improvements. Elsevier: Environmental Pollution, Issue 108. http://www2.hull.ac.uk/discover/pdf/Amisah00.pdf. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  • Ball, Christine; Crossley, David; Flavell, Neville (2006). Water Power on the Sheffield Rivers: Second Edition. South Yorkshire Industrial History Society. ISBN 978-0-9556644-0-3. 
  • Cumberlidge, Jane (2009). Inland Waterways of Great Britain 8th Ed.. Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-1-84623-010-3. 
  • Hadfield, Charles (1973). The Canals of Yorkshire and North East England (Vol 2). David and Charles. ISBN 0-7153-5975-4. 
  • Harman, R (2004). Sheffield: Pevsner City Guides. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10585-8. 
  • Harrison, Samuel (1864). A Complete History of the Great Flood at Sheffield on March 11 & 12, 1864. Sheffield: S Harrison, Sheffield Times Office. 
  • Hunter, Joseph (1819). Hallamshire. The History and Topography of the Parish of Sheffield in the County of York. London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mayor & Jones.  (Hallamshire. The History and Topography of the Parish of Sheffield in the County of York)
  • Nicholson (2006). Nicholson Guides Vol 6: Nottingham, York and the North East. Harper Collins Publishing. ISBN 0-00-721114-7. 
  • Rennison, Robert William (1996). Civil Engineering Heritage:Northern England. Thomas Telford. ISBN 978-0-7277-2518-9. 
  • Skempton, Sir Alec (2002). A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland: Vol 1: 1500 to 1830. Thomas Telford. ISBN 0-7277-2939-X. 
  • Smith, Martin (2007). The Great Flood. At Heart. ISBN 978-1-84547-150-7. 
  • Willan, Prof T S (1965). The Early History of the Don Navigation. Manchester University Press.