During the 17th century shipping could travel up river from the sea only as far as the inland ports of Knottingley, Selby and York. Leeds merchants, in order to export goods through the port of Hull, had first to transport them by road to Rawcliffe or Selby. This was costly, and the roads were sometimes impassable.
Transport of goods by water was both cheaper and easier than by road, and several attempts were made to obtain an Act of Parliament which would allow the Rivers Aire and Calder to be made navigable as far upstream as Leeds and Wakefield. There was fierce opposition to this from the City of York Corporation, who feared that the navigation of the River Ouse would be adversely affected. A report by Trinity House gave assurance that this would not be so, and on 4th May 1699 'An Act for the making and keeping navigable the Rivers Aire and Calder in the County of York' was given Royal Assent.
The promoters of the Act were wealthy woollen merchants who were also members of the Leeds Corporation, and local landowners who wanted new markets for the coal mined on their estates. The Act gave eighteen 'Undertakers' or proprietors, the authority to make the Rivers Aire and Calder navigable from Leeds and Wakefield to the junction of the Aire with the Ouse at Weeland. They were to clear, enlarge or straighten the course of the rivers, and to make new cuts, build locks, and make a towing path. John Hadley was employed to supervise the works, for a fee of £420. By 1720 around £30,000 had been spent on the Navigation. Tolls were levied on boats using the rivers, to reimburse the undertakers. A priority was to build the 'New Cut' a short stretch of the canal which by-passed Leeds dam which was an obstacle to boats travelling upstream. A pound lock was built here, and is shown in the drawing made by Francis Place in 1815.
On 20th November 1700 the navigation was open to Leeds Bridge, and a new Town Warehouse had been built on the north bank of the river. Cloth loaded onto river-boats in Leeds could now go directly to Hull, where it was transferred to larger vessels and shipped on to London and Europe. Corn, wool and a variety of other goods were imported into Leeds. Coal was carried upstream from local pits to the town, and downstream to other Yorkshire towns and villages, and on by coaster to London and the south-east. The busy waterfront is shown in a painting by Joseph Rhodes in 1830. By this time the town Warehouse had been replaced by a huge new warehouse.
The Navigation was very profitable, and river traffic increased, despite problems with flooding, and the failure of the Undertakers to make much-needed improvements. This caused resentment, and in 1771 there was a proposal for a new canal linking Leeds and Selby, and by-passing the Navigation. This was successfully opposed by the Undertakers, who obtained an Act of Parliament to build a new canal between Haddlesey and Selby, and to improve the Navigation by building new locks, and making five new cuts. William Jessop was the engineer. The new canal was opened in 1774, and other improvements completed by 1785.
Priestley, writing in 1831 tells us that the length of the Navigation from Leeds to the junction with the Calder at Castleford was 11 miles, with a fall of 43 feet and six locks. There is a further 18 miles of waterway between Castleford and Weeland, with four locks and a fall of 34 feet
Between 1828 and 1845 major improvements were carried out, by-passing some of the more difficult stretches of the river, and enabling larger boats to use the Navigation, and goods to be transported to and from Leeds more quickly. Proposed improvements to the Navigation are shown in George Leather's plans of 1828.
A modern photograph shows the Aire and Calder Knostrop Cut on the left, and the River Aire on the right.
The Aire and Calder Navigation offices were built in 1906, and were used by British Waterways until the offices were closed.
|Click images to enlarge|
Map of the Aire and Calder Navigation, 1712
Leeds Bridge and the Aire and Calder Navigation warehouse, 1830
Aire and Calder Navigation, 1828
Leeds Dam and Lock, 1916
Leeds Dam, 1999
Aire and Calder, 1999
Leeds Lock, 1999
Aire and Calder Navigation Office Building, 1999