The Derwent and the Canals


Life in the Spondon of the middle ages and up to the nineteenth century was fairly serene. Even a Golden Age some might think, when we consider today's complexities. The village was nearly self-supporting, as it had been for centuries. Not only corn and meat, but clothing, furniture and other necessaries of life were produced according to the local demand. Small farmers, yeomen, peasant proprietors and craftsmen, working largely with ancient customs and traditional methods, moved about in their allotted spaces and relationships without haste and fret. If it was a stagnant and settled life, it had in it also the satisfaction that comes from independence and fulfillment from a variety of occupations.
King John's charter granted to Derby in 1204 gave the townsmen the right to use the "Darent, navigable from ancient times." In 1268 and 1270 Simon, the Abbot of Dale, built mills near Borrowash and blocked the river with weirs, and in 1281 so obstructed the channel that no boat could pass. Edward I (1272-1307) seems to have ended this interference, but later the river once more became unnavigable, because in April 1638 Charles I wrote to Derby corporation asking them to accommodate Sir Cornelius Vermuyden 'Who, with his partners, has undertaken a work very acceptable to the King about the lead works at Wirksworth, and to make the river of Derwent to be navigable till it fall into the Trent."
John Houghton, writing in 1693, during the reign of James II, says "Great endeavours have been made to bring the navigation to Derby, and as far above as Darley in the peak, ... although Nottingham for its own interest always opposes". The plans of George Sorocold in 1702 showed four new cuts and nine locks to overcome the 50 foot fall, but many years passed before they were completed. The Hanoverian dynasty began in 1714 when George I came to the throne. A bill passed in 1719 empowered Fox, Crompton and others to make the river navigable for ten miles from Derby to the Trent, the maximum toll to be one shilling. The first boat reached Derby on 17th January, 1721, with a cargo of "Dale-Boards, Tobacco, Fish and other Merchandize, &c.,which ... was received with Ringing of Bells, and other Demonstrations of Joy." By 1755, periodic shortages of navigable Derwent river water had been overcome and large quantities of loose corn from Lincolnshire were sent by boat to Derby. In spite of competition after 1782 from the Trent-Mersey canal, in 1791 there seems to have been 5,000 tons of traffic on the river towed, as always, by boatmen. One of them was John Porter of Borrowash, Spondon, my great-great-great grandfather.
The reign of George III coincided with a frenzy of canal building. Between 1794 and 1797 five more canals were opened including the Derby Canal in June 1796. The canal as built was 3 furlongs from the Trent to Swarkestone, with four locks, thence to Derby 5 miles 2 1/2 furlongs, with two locks. The canal after crossing the Derwent above a weir went north to Little Eaton or east to Sandiacre via Spondon and Borrowash, falling through four locks before reaching the Trent. All these Derbyshire canals together provided carriage by water from the collieries, ironstone mines, iron works, brickyards and quarries of the Derwent and Erewash valleys to Nottingham and Derby, and onwards to the Trent for connection south to Birmingham or west to Grantham. The canal infra-structure also provided the means whereby farming and feudal agriculture could be gradually superseded by industry.
In 1801 the population of Spondon had reached 865 and continued to grow rapidly. George III died in 1820. By 1821 there was a population of 1,583 in Spondon and ten years later this had grown to 1,867. Lace making and weaving were being carried on and the character of the farming community had dramatically changed. On old Mill Row, off Locko Road, there was a steam engine driving a common line shaft, with belts and pulleys in each of the cottages for the weaving machines. The windmill across the field, once the principle source of energy for the village other than handwork, had become obsolete.
Mrs. Borrington, a good friend of my mother, showed me where the opening for the line shaft once came through her living room wall. Yarn was collected by villagers at the White Swan, woven into cloth in homes, and collected by carters for transport to Nottingham, the nearest textile centre. My maternal Hunt ancestors in Nottingham were lace mill workers, and other ancestors, the Browns, were weavers in Stapleford supplying the Nottingham factories.
In Borrowash, two miles away from Spondon, another weaving mill was situated alongside the canal which brought the coal for the steam engines of the Derby mills. The canals prospered until the coming of the faster railroads. First came the Cromford and High Peak Railway in 1831, then the Leicester and Swannington Railway in 1832. The canal age inevitably began to decline as speedier rail transportation increased and the economic benefits of other machine-based industries multiplied.
Queen Victoria began her long reign in 1837. Between 1839 and 1840 the Birmingham and Derby Junction, the Midland Counties, and the North Midland Railways all were opened. The railway lines came to Spondon on June 5th 1839 when a passenger and freight station was opened a mile south of the village, alongside the canal. Locomotive and carriage building began in Derby workshops, attracting workers from Spondon. There were four trains a day between Derby and Nottingham, and two on Sundays. The superior service, ten times faster, attracted more of the canals' traditional customers, although the Market Boat took passengers from Spondon to Derby each Friday for a fare of threepence each way.

Gradually the numbers of barges decreased, even the Canal Tavern became the Station Inn, and the canal system began to fall into disuse. In the late 1930's one could see the occasional coal barge on the Derby-Sandiacre canal, pulled slowly along by a horse, but most coal was then carried by road or rail and this water traffic was a rarity. The reed beds thickened, the silt accumulated, and the towpath gradually became just a place for a peaceful afternoon or evening stroll. The placid canal also provided recreational fishing for many anglers and contained trout, pike, roach, bass and bream. When I was about ten years old, a portion of the canal bank gave way near Borrowash, and all the water flowed away leaving small pockets of water where the fish frantically congregated. I recall seeing many fish gasping and struggling while people just waded in the shallow pools and captured them by hand. Three of us boys killed a large stranded pike with clods of earth and my friend Frank Holmes carted it home triumphantly for his mother to cook.
My great-great grandfather William Porter was the last boatman of the family and lived on the Nottingham Road at Borrowash, near the canal. Today the canal has disappeared, long since drained and filled, and although its route now forms the roadbed for a highway, I still remember the water, the reeds, the barges, the boatmen and the horses who plied their leisurely trade along the towpaths. As children, we learned to swim in the cool and calm waters. We fished for minnows with homemade lines of thread and bent pins, we floated our toy boats and made others by twisting the narrow leaves of reeds and water grass. As teenagers, strolling on long and drowsy summer evenings, we watched the brilliant dragonflies hovering among the tall bulrushes and quickly darting off to skim the blue mirrored surface before hanging motionless once more in the deepening twilight. Even yet, in mind's eye I skim a pebble and the ripples on the tranquil canal return, along with nostalgic memories of youthful companions.

link to the Derby Canal Society