The Leven Canal

From the Archives: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2020

Joseph Boughey

Joseph Boughey provides insights into this little-known East Yorkshire waterway

<p>A painting of the basin at Leven shows the warehouses on the north and south sides of the canal, with a Humber keel moored up by the north bank. The offices were located at the head of the basin, and the distinctive Dutch-style gable can be seen to the left of the boat.</p>

A painting of the basin at Leven shows the warehouses on the north and south sides of the canal, with a Humber keel moored up by the north bank. The offices were located at the head of the basin, and the distinctive Dutch-style gable can be seen to the left of the boat.

The Leven Canal, running off the River Hull in East Yorkshire, is one of Britain’s more obscure waterways. Using mainly British Newspaper Archive sources, this article presents some insights into its more recent past. It supplements the excellent accounts in Charles Hadfield’s The Canals of Yorkshire and the North East, and Roger Butler’s article in the April 2013 issue of Waterways World.

In decline

The canal was 3 miles long, running across flat country from the River Hull to the village of Leven. Privately owned by the Bethell family of the Rise Estate, it opened in 1804 but was affected by railway development in the area. In 1905 the total tonnage carried to and from Leven was 4,546, of which 2,175 was coal, 1,000 roadstone and 800 grain – plus 76 tons of carrots and mangolds!

An article in the Beverley Recorder of 24th August 1901 stated that, “The canal sadly needs clearing of the growth which, in parts, almost chokes the fairway.” However, it expressed surprise that “someone does not turn an honest penny…by putting a boat or two on the canal”. This seems to refer to pleasure-boats, supplementing the fishing rights. The Hull Daily Mail of 14th August 1907 reported a successful prosecution of a local youth for fishing in the canal without permission; while notices were posted along the route, he declared that he had not read them.

The Yorkshire Post of 8th October 1897 reported an enquiry into a proposed Holderness Light Railway. Bethell was the only local landowner to oppose the scheme, fearing the loss of canal traffic. Robert Maxwell, a Leven seed and corn merchant, stated that “weeds prevented the use of the canal sometimes”. In the event, the line was never built.

The canal was formally closed in 1935 under the Land Drainage Act 1930, but it is unclear when the last traffic passed; the Draft Order was published on 10th August 1934, and any remaining traders would have objected. The Driffield Times on 28th September 1929 carried an advertisement for “Cheap Water Transport to Brigg” for sugar beet, including Driffield, Beverley Beck and the Leven Canal. A new sugar beet factory had opened in 1928 at Brigg, on the River Ancholme, across the Humber Estuary.


The Hull Daily Mail reported near-drownings at Canal Head in Leven, happily resolved. One was on the evening of 26th July 1899, when a child of ten fell from a keel but her father pulled her out. Earlier, on 18th November 1897 the same newspaper reported the presentation of a Royal Humane Society certificate to a 17-year-old man who had saved the life of a keelman’s son in September – the second time that he had been rescued.

A double drowning was reported by the Yorkshire Post of 6th June 1923: the sad case of William Blackstone, a Hull joiner and builder, and his wife Constance. They died after staying on The Bluebird, which Mr Blackstone had built about two years before. He had also constructed a sailing boat The Cheerio, “from a design which he saw in a book” which he sailed up the canal on Sunday 3rd. The Cheerio was found overturned and capsized about a mile away from The Bluebird, after a storm.


There are many references to ‘houseboats’ moored on the canal, both before and after closure. While we might now assume that a houseboat is static, the Hull Daily Mail of 21st May 1923 described them going out for short trips on the Hull, Driffield and Leven, and sometimes mooring overnight. Advertisements included one in 1930 for a “steel houseboat” that was 29ft long and 7ft wide, with two cabins, one 10ft long, and a 8ft-long bedroom. Other advertisements for boats appeared over the following years, including after the canal was closed in 1935. A dam was placed at the entrance lock of the Leven Canal shortly afterwards, so the boats must have been static or confined to the waterway.

The canal has been a Site of Special Scientific Interest since 1962, but its interest to naturalists goes back to the late 19th century. The Hull Packet of 2nd June 1882 recorded that the Yorkshire Naturalists Union had removed various species from its waters, while the Beverley and East Riding Recorder of 28th May 1904 noted plans for a visit by the East Riding Nature Study Committee.

The Rise Park Estate, owned by the Bethell family, was progressively selling off land, in 1929 and 1940-3, during which time Rise Manor itself was vacated. In June 1946 a further sale included the canal along with houseboat rents and bungalow rents, “of interest to Angling Clubs, Sailing Clubs or Amusement Caterers”. The Hull Daily Mail of 26th June 1946 reported the sale for £1,700 (perhaps £200,000 at today’s values). The curious suggestion was made that in its heyday, a railway company had offered the Bethell family £80,000. It would be interesting to know if there was anything in this story.

The Hull Daily Mail soon featured (3rd and 14th April 1947) an advertisement by one Geo Morgan of 23 Midland Street, Hull, who sought “Houseboats and Bungalows” on the canal, that featured good fishing and a decent bus service: “I’ll buy any sound ones anywhere,” it proclaimed. There were certainly houseboats in the 1950s, and the bungalows were probably shacks on the banks – like more modest versions of those at Potter Heigham on the Broads. All that now remains of this is a caravan site near Canal Head.