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Ashby Aspirations

Canals that never were: NarrowBoat, Spring 2015

Richard Dean

Richard Dean explores proposed schemes at the upper end of the Ashby-de-la-Zouch Canal

This map shows the upper end of the Ashby Canal with its branches, and the Burton & Moira scheme. Blue line - canal opened. Red line - proposed canals. Black line - tramroad under canal powers. Boxed numbers - height above sea level in ft.

© Crown copyright 2015 Ordnance Survey Media 003/15

A level canal from the Coventry Canal to the coalfield at Ashby Woulds, largely as later built, was first surveyed in 1781 by Robert Whitworth, with ideas of a continuation to Burton upon Trent. It was not then progressed, but with the ‘Canal Mania’ building up, the scheme was resurrected in 1792, extended into the heart of the coal- and lime-bearing area north of Ashby-de-la-Zouch. William Jessop approved the plans, and an Act for the proposed canal passed in 1794.

Work soon started, with Whitworth and his son as engineers, on the 26 miles of lower level canal from Marston Junction to Moira, which were built to barge width. From there the line was to climb 140ft by 20 locks to a summit level near Blackfordby where it threw off a level branch to collieries near Swadlincote, then on by Ashby, a 700-yard tunnel, and 12 falling locks, to Ticknall lime works. A lengthy branch from the foot of the locks followed the contour to Cloud Hill lime works, and a shorter one fell by a further four locks to Staunton lime works near Caulke.

These canals east of Moira were estimated to cost nearly £111,000 including a reservoir below Boothorpe that could only feed the summit by pumping – this was built later, but further west to supply the lower level. The company, perpetually short of money, delayed starting (although it is possible that some preliminary work was done on the tunnel and approaches), and soon came to the sensible conclusion that tramroads would be a better solution at one-third of the cost. Benjamin Outram built these for the company, seemingly by the end of 1802, but the canal itself was not opened throughout until 1804.

From the foot of the intended locks at Moira the company extended the canal as far as it would go on the bottom level, as had originally been proposed in 1781, but although the legality of this extension over common land was queried, they clearly felt that their statutory powers were wide enough to cover it. Similarly, by a rather liberal interpretation of the Act, their tramroad lines deviated significantly from the authorised canal routes by arrangement with landowners. The actual substitution of canal by rail was justified by reference to a section which permitted the conveyance of “Boats or other Vessels, Waggons or other Carriages” by means of “Rollers, Inclined Planes, or in any other Manner than by Water”. The same arguments were used for building a separate tramroad in 1827 from the canal head to Swadlincote.

The 1794 Act for the canal.

Canalmaps Archive

An early prospectus map showing the relationship of the Ashby to other canals.

Canalmaps Archive

The early idea of extending the Ashby Canal some five or six miles to the Trent or Trent & Mersey at Burton to create a shorter London/East Midlands through-route was periodically revived, but never implemented. The Burton & Moira Canal scheme of 1840 is typical, although promoted as a waterway response to the expanding railway system. It started from the Bond End Canal, made use of a millstream called Peel’s Cut, crossed the Trent on the level and locked up to the level of the Ashby Canal which was reached via a tunnel of 805 yards. The cost was estimated at £75,000, and if built the prospectus predicted that the Ashby proprietors would shorten their canal with improvements at Donisthorpe, Measham and Dadlington, with a new cut from Bramcote to the Oxford Canal at Brinklow, and they even hinted at an extension from Burton to Uttoxeter. Railway enthusiasm soon overtook the scheme, but with the current restoration activity at the head of the canal it might still be worth thinking about!

Extract from Whitworth’s plan showing the proposed upper levels of the canal as authorised in 1794, all of which were built as tramroads.

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The actual termination of the Ashby Canal as shown by the Ordnance Survey in 1900.

Canalmaps Archive