RETRO: Canal backwaters that were once vital to city

Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigational Canal'  22nd July 1979
Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigational Canal' 22nd July 1979
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At one time they were part of a vital trade network between Sheffield and the world but now our canals are, at best, somewhere to stroll beside and, at worst, forgotten backwaters.

However, there are some dedicated people who are raising money to improve the area’s waterways and preserve their history.

Like the rivers that run through Sheffield, the canals once playeda vital part in creating the city’s wealth.

The Friends of the Blue Loop have just won £18,000 to help restore sections of the River Don and Sheffield Canal between Sheffield city centre and Meadowhall.

The River Stewardship Company has spent the past year working with volunteer groups to keep footpaths free of rubbish and vegetation and look after the areas around the canal, which connects with the river.

That prompted us to have a look back at the history of South Yorkshire canals in this Midweek Retro.

The Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation runs more than 40 miles from the city centre at the Victoria Quays canal basin to the Don Valley, then on to Rotherham and past Doncaster.

It is made up of the Sheffield and Tinsley Canal, the River Don Navigation and Stainforth and Keadby Canal.

The Stainforth and 
Keadby Canal links the River Don Navigation at Bramwith to the River Trent.

Victoria Quays, dating to 1814, boasts restaurants, bars, a hotel and health club these days plus a pleasant canal-side walk that runs through to Meadowhall.

Some of the old warehouses have been converted into apartments and a few intrepid souls live in the canal basin on narrowboats.

At one time the quay was used as a railway coal depot and some of the warehouses stored grain.

By the 1970s all the cargo trade had stopped and the buildings fell into disuse until restoration work started in the 1990s.

A lot of work has gone into changing the view of the area from the famous early scene in The Full Monty where Robert Carlyle’s character balances precariously on the roof of an old car sunk in the canal near Bacon Lane, having just ‘robbed’ some metal from a disused steel mill.

The South Yorkshire Navigations were built to cope with Yorkshire keels that at 15 ft (4.6m) are more than twice the width of many narrowboats.

They were powered by sail or hauled by the families that owned them if there was no wind. There were also ‘horse marines’, a man and horse who could be hired to tow the boat.

In the mid 18th century the Don was improved upstream to Tinsley by the introduction of locks.

The Cutlers Company pushed for the building of Sheffield Canal to reach the city centre, which was completed by 1819.

By this time, the Stainforth and Keadby Canal had already been connected with the Don, meaning goods could reach the Humber ports via the Trent.

According to the Canal and River Trust website,, the canal’s business was hit hard when the railway reached Sheffield in 1830.

However, “the larger payloads the boats could carry helped ensure that the navigations survived longer than many of their smaller counterparts: indeed, such was the Don Navigation’s traffic that its owners were able to command a position of strength in their dealings with the developing railway companies.”

These days, although there is still some commercial traffic on the region’s 
waterways, many remain sadly disused.

Who knows, maybe in future the canals will resume their vital role in moving goods and take some pressure off the roads?