By the end of the 1780s, the backbone of the English canal system was in place, linking the four main river basins and their sea ports: Severn, Mersey, Trent and Thames. From the Trent near Long Eaton, the Erewash Canal led northwards to Langley Mill.
The Cromford Canal was an extension of the Erewash Canal north to Cromford, with a branch to Pinxton. It gave access to the main canal system for collieries higher up the Erewash Valley and across the watershed in the Derwent Valley and also for the lead smelters at Lea, limestone and gritstone quarries around Crich and Lea, and the ironworks at Alderwasley.
The Act was passed on 15th July 1789. William Jessop was appointed principal engineer, and Benjamin Outram became superintendent of works. Thomas Sheasby and Thomas Dadford were appointed contractors for the whole canal, but were insolvent by 1791 and Outram was called in to complete the work using a direct labour force.
The canal was open to Pinxton by June 1792, but the opening to Cromford was delayed. Butterley Tunnel was behind schedule, and the long earth embankment and aqueducts across the road and river at Bullbridge were found to be unstable early in 1792. It opened throughout in 1793, but almost immediately the spandrel walls of the stone aqueduct over the Derwent at Leawood partially collapsed. A second massive buttress was added to the south face to rectify this and the canal finally opened throughout in August 1794.
Several of the promoters, namely Benjamin Outram, William Jessop, Francis Beresford and John Wright, formed what became the Butterley Company, to exploit the reserves of coal and iron ore beneath Butterley Hill, through which the canal was to pass in an almost 3,000-yard-long tunnel. The only ingredient missing to convert the iron ore into iron was limestone flux, and this was available at Crich, close to where the canal passed. It was brought by tramway down to the canal at Bullbridge and loaded into boats for transport to Butterley. The company continued to operate from the same site at Butterley until 2009, making similar large-scale iron and steel products, including the iconic Falkirk Wheel for the Scottish Lowland waterways in 2002.
The private Leawood Arm was opened in 1802 linking mills, lead smelters and stone quarries at Lea with the main canal just south of Leawood Aqueduct. On the opposite side of the canal, from 1831, the Cromford & High Peak Railway effectively made the canal a through route, with considerable trade to and from Manchester.
The canal flourished and traffic soon built up to around 300,000 tons per year, a figure maintained until the 1850s. However, from the 1840s competition from railways caused the canal company to lower its tonnage rates (the amount charged per ton per mile) so that toll income began to fall rapidly – from £12,086 in 1841 to £7,588 in 1850. Share dividends dropped by half from their peak of over 20 per cent. As a result, in August 1852, it was decided to sell the canal to the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock & Midlands Junction Railway for £103,500. Trade immediately began to decline, halving by 1870, when the whole became part of the Midland Railway. It had fallen to less than 46,000 tons by 1888, with an increasing proportion of traffic being local rather than long-distance.
Through traffic ceased in 1889 following a collapse in Butterley Tunnel, which was not repaired until 1893. Some 180 boats a year then used it, until a second collapse in 1900 closed the tunnel for good. However, traffic continued between Pinxton and the main canal system, and coal was still carried on the now-isolated upper section from Hartshay to Lea and Cromford. The whole canal – apart from the half mile above Langley Mill which was still in use – was officially abandoned in 1944.
In the late 1960s British Waterways, who were then responsible for the derelict canal, began selling off sections: north of Langley Mill and between Hartshay and Buckland Hollow for open casting; at Sawmills to local householders and businesses; at Bullbridge to Stevenson’s Dyers; at Ambergate to East Midlands Gas; and the section between Ambergate and Cromford to Derbyshire County Council (DCC) for use as an amenity waterway.
Today, a public footpath follows the whole route from Cromford to Langley Mill. The most interesting sections to visit are: the bottom lock at Langley Mill, reopened in 1973 thanks to the Erewash Canal Preservation & Development Association; from the bottom of Ironville locks near Jacksdale to the eastern portal of Butterley Tunnel; the western tunnel portal to Hartshay; from Buckland Hollow to Bullbridge; and the 5.5 miles between Ambergate and Cromford, restored by the erstwhile Cromford Canal Society and now owned and maintained by DCC. An accolade to the canal’s historic importance is the inclusion of this last section in the UNESCO Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.
In 2013 FCC introduced the historic narrow boat Birdswood onto the canal on which over 5,000 passengers a year now enjoy a leisurely cruise along the scenic length between Cromford and High Peak Junction.
A more complete, illustrated, history of the canal is available in FCC Archivist Hugh Potter’s book The Cromford Canal available through the FCC Sales Page.