Derby Canal - Origin


Although the River Derwent had been used for transport from the Trent since ancient times, it was winding and shallow in many places, silting frequently. The right to use it for navigation was conferred upon the citizens of Derby by King John in 1204. The engineer George Sorocold was involved with plans for improvements, although it is uncertain whether he was involved in the actual work. Plans had been first proposed in 1664, and bills had been presented to Parliament in 1696 and 1698. In 1703, Sorocold attended Parliament to give evidence for a scheme which involved four new cuts, with weirs and locks, on a 10-mile (16 km) stretch of the river. The bill failed, but the map for a similar scheme presented in 1717 was said to be drawn by Sorocold. This became the Derwent Navigation Act in 1720, and the work enabled boats to reach Derby in January 1721, but it was still difficult to navigate in periods of flood or dry weather. Indeed the Trent itself was little better.

In 1770, James Brindley had brought the Trent and Mersey Canal to the Trent near Shardlow. He proposed a canal from Swarkestone through Derby to join the Chesterfield Canal, but he was resisted by the Derwent Navigation and the Trent Navigation companies, and the matter was not raised again until 1791. Two schemes were then proposed by rival groups, one from Swarkestone to Derby, and the other from Derby to the Trent and Mersey Canal at Shardlow. By August 1792, the first scheme had grown to include a branch to Smithy House near Denby, another to Newhall and Swadlincote, and a third to Cheadle in Staffordshire, following a route through Sudbury and Uttoxeter. When Benjamin Outram was asked to carry out surveys later that year, it had been reduced to a more sensible size, and he estimated that the construction of a broad canal from Swarkestone to Smithy Houses, with a branch from Derby to the Erewash Canal at Sandiacre, including the purchase of the Derwent Navigation Company, would cost £60,000 (£6 million as of 2012).

The costs of the length from Derby to Denby would account for a third of this, and the plan included an aqueduct across the River Derwent at Derby, costing £8,160. Initially Outram suggested a narrow canal as an alternative. William Jessop was asked to give his opinion and he suggested a tramway from Little Eaton to Denby. This, the Derby Canal Railway, but known locally, as the Little Eaton Gangway, was therefore one of the first to be publicly subscribed, and would save the construction of six locks.

Outram also proposed to save some £4000 by dispensing with the aqueduct and, instead, building a weir to raise the river level to form a basin adjacent to the Morledge, with locks connecting it to each branch of the canal. A bridge would carry the towpath across the basin. A small aqueduct would still be needed to cross the mill race on the west side of the Holmes.

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