RETRO: Blue artery was quay to future

Artists impression of Sheffield Canal Basin from 1826
Artists impression of Sheffield Canal Basin from 1826
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IT was, in many ways, similar to today’s proposed HS2 railway scheme: a vast transport project which supporters said would turn Sheffield into an economic powerhouse while allowing passengers to travel direct to the heart of Europe. It also took decades to come to fruition.

This was the Sheffield Canal. Today, the 3.9 mile waterway running between the city centre and the River Don at Tinsley is a sleepy navigation home to anglers, walkers and Joe Scarborough’s houseboat.

But, as a city talk will explain next month, the blue artery was, nearly 200 years ago, considered absolutely key in improving communications and cementing Sheffield’s place as an industrial giant.

A word of warning, though, says Michael Spick, the city historian behind the presentation. “If we’re comparing it to HS2, it’s worth noting the canal took so long to be agreed on and built that within 20 years of opening, a new form of transport had overtaken it: the railway.”

Sheffield Canal was proposed as early as 1722 but, after long term opposition from 11th Duke Of Norfolk Charles Howard, was only built in the early 19th century. Some 60,000 onlookers attended the opening at the Canal Basin on February 22 1819 and by 1832 the waterway was generating £8,000 a year. In 1919 The Star confidently predicted it had been such a success it would be expanded to cater for ocean-going liners by 2019.

“Raw materials for the steel industry were brought in by boat,” says Mike, himself a keen barge boatsman. “So too was sugar and coconuts for the Basset’s sweet factory. Food wholesalers imported all kinds of exotic foods like nuts from central America. Coal from South Yorkshire went in the other direction.”

Even as late as 1951, more than 100,000 tons of goods were carried via the canal annually.

“But the rise of other modes of transport meant it was almost out of date as soon as it was built,” explains Mike, who worked for Sheffield Local Studies Library before retiring in 2011. “Boats had far greater cargo capacity than trains or, later, lorries, but they simply didn’t have the speed. The Sheffield Canal is a cul-de-sac really and, in 1965, it still took 24 hours to navigate to Hull by water.”

Commercial deliveries stopped in 1980 and the basin remained largely derelict until a regeneration scheme brought it back to use as a leisure facility (and renamed it Victoria Quays) in 1995. Work to improve the quality of the water has continued since.

“It’s lovely down there now,” says Michael, 60, of Ecclesall. “The waterfront buildings are all gems. It’s a great leisure facility for the city, But I do think it’s important to remember its past.”

n Up The Cut: Sheffield Canal Past And Present With Michael Spick will take place on October 12 at the Central United Reformed Church in Norfolk Street from 6pm. Tickets £5.