A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 14

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[ 128 ]



The earliest legislation applying to navigable rivers referred only to the taking of salmon or to restrictions on weirs and other hindrances to navigation. Regulations in regard to these matters began to be enforced in 1285, and numerous statutes relating more especially to the removal alike of weirs, jetties, mills, mill-dams, etc., causing obstruction to boats, were passed; though in 1370 and subsequently there were complaints that the said statutes were not observed.

The first Act for the improvement of an English river was, according to Clifford, as told in his "History of Private Bill Legislation," a statute of 1424 (2 Hen. VI.), which appointed a commission "to survey, redress and amend all the defaults" of the river Lea. Six years later there was a further Act which set forth that, owing to the number of shoals in the river, ships and boats could not pass as they ought; and the Chancellor was authorised to appoint Commissioners to remove the shoals. The Commissioners were further empowered to take tolls from passing vessels, though the Act was to be in force for only three years, and was, in effect, not renewed.

We have here the introduction, not alone of the improvement of river navigation by Act of Parliament, but of the principle of toll-collection on rivers as a means of raising funds for defraying the cost, on the principle that those who benefitted should pay. It will, also, be seen that this first legislative attempt at river improvement related only to dredging and deepening the channel of the stream to which it applied.

Next, as we are further told by Clifford, came the straightening of rivers, or their partial deviation by new cuts; and here, again, the Lea stands first in the Statutes. The preamble of an Act (13 Eliz., c. 18), passed in 1571, "for bringing the river Lea to the north side of the city of London," stated:—

[ 129 ]"It is perceived by many grave and wise men, as well of the city of London as of the country, that it were very commodious and profitable both for the city and the country that the river of Lea, otherwise called the Ware river, might be brought within the land to the north part of the city ... through such a convenient and meet cut as may serve for the navigation of barges and other vessels, for the carrying and conveying as well of all merchandizes, corn and victuals, as other necessaries from the town of Ware and other places to the city ... and also for tilt-boats and wherries for conveying of the Queen's subjects to and fro, to their great ease and commodity."

The Corporation of the City of London were authorised to construct and act as conservators of the new channel, and Commissioners in Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire were again entrusted with the duty of freeing the river from shoals and shallows.

A number of other Acts relating to the Lea followed, but mention need only be made here of one passed in 1779 which stated that, inasmuch as the trustees appointed under earlier enactments could not, without further advance in the rates they were already empowered to enforce, liquidate the charges falling upon them in respect to the outlay for works done on the river, they were authorised to increase those rates.

In the seventeenth century, especially in the period following the accession of Charles II. to the throne (1660), much attention was paid to river improvement. A rapid expansion of commerce, of industries and of wealth had followed alike the planting of colonies in the West Indies and on the continent of North America, the development of home manufactures, the reclamation of many waste spaces through the operation of enclosure Acts, and the improvements brought about in cultivation. The need for better means of communication in order to open up districts then more or less isolated, to provide better transport for raw materials and manufactured goods, and to facilitate the carriage of domestic and other supplies needed by the increasing population, thus became more and more apparent.

In many instances the condition of the roads and the prejudicial results upon them of heavy traffic were adduced as the main reason for a resort to improvements of river [ 130 ]navigation. An Act (21 Jas. I., c. 32), passed in 1624, for deepening the navigation of the Thames from Bercott to Oxford, stated that it was designed "for the conveyance of Oxford freestone by water to London, and for coal and other necessaries from London to Oxford, now coming at a dear rate only by land carriage, whereby the roads are becoming exceedingly bad." It was further stated, in the preamble, that "the said passage will be very behoveful for preserving the highways leading to and from the said university and city and other parts thereabouts" which, owing to "the continual carriages by carts," had become dangerous for travellers in winter, "and hardly to be amended or continued passable without exceeding charge." In 1739 there was passed an Act (14 Geo. II., c. 26), "for the betterment and more easy and speedy portage" on the Medway of timber from the woods of Sussex and Kent, which timber could not be "conveyed to a market but at a very large expense by reason of the badness of the roads in these parts."

Various far-seeing, patriotic and enterprising individuals took a leading part in pioneering the movement in favour of improved river navigation which, for a period of about 100 years—until, that is, the advent of the canal era—was to be developed with much zeal and energy, though not always with conspicuous success. Especially prominent among these pioneers were William Sandys, Francis Mathew and Andrew Yarranton; and it is only fitting that some mention should here be made of these three worthies, each of whom shared the fate of so many other pioneers, in so far as he was a man in advance of his time.

Sir William Sandys, of Ombersley Court, in the county of Worcester, obtained, in 1636, an Act of Parliament which granted powers for making navigable the Warwickshire Avon from the Severn, at Tewkesbury, to the city of Coventry, and, also, the Teme, on the west side of the Severn, towards Ludlow. Some of the works thus carried out are still rendering good service. In 1661 he secured further Acts for making navigable the rivers Wye and Lugg and the brooks running into them in the counties of Hereford, Gloucester and Monmouth. Here he anticipated much of what was to be done a century later by Brindley, in connection with canal construction, inasmuch as he obtained powers not simply to deepen the beds of the [ 131 ]rivers and to straighten their courses, but to construct new channels, to set up locks, weirs, etc., to provide towing-paths, and to dig new channels where required. This last-mentioned proposal constituted, as will be seen later on, the idea that led up to the eventual transition from navigable rivers to artificial canals, the new "cuts" on the former being the connecting link between the two.

The Wye was found to be an exceptionally difficult stream to tame and control, and Sandys' attempt to make it navigable by locks and weirs on the pound-lock system was a failure. The scheme was, however, afterwards carried through on different lines; and in summing up the results John Lloyd, Junr., says in "Papers Relating to the History and Navigation of the Rivers Wye and Lugg" (1873):—

"Although, through the uncertainty of its stream, the Wye was never brought to answer the purpose of a regular conveyance, its navigation has proved of great service throughout the county of Hereford. Throughout the last[1] century most of the coal consumed in Hereford and its neighbourhood was brought up in barges after a flood. Various other heavy articles, such as grocery, wines and spirits, having been first conveyed from Bristol to Brockweir in larger vessels, were carried up thence in barges at a much easier rate than by land carriage. In return the boats were freighted with the valuable oak timber, bark, cider, wheat, flour and other produce of the county. The opening of the towing-path for horses by the Act of 1809 gave a further impetus to navigation, and especially to the trade in coal from Lidbrook, and while every river-side village could boast of its quay and its barge, the quay walls at Hereford were thronged with loading and unloading barges....

"Since the opening of the Hereford, Ross and Gloucester Railway, in 1855, and the consequent dissolution of the Towing-path Company, nearly all navigation on the Wye above Monmouth has ceased."

Francis Mathew addressed, in 1655, to Oliver Cromwell, "Lord Protector of the Commonwealth," a powerful argument in favour of "The Opening of Rivers for Navigation," the benefit thereof which he sought to show being, as his title-page said, "exemplified by the Two Avons of Salisbury and Bristol, [ 132 ]with a Mediterranean Passage by Water for Billanders of Thirty Tun between Bristol and London." The writer described his little book as a plea that "England's fair valleys and rich Inlets through which so many noble Rivers insinuate themselves might with the imitation of the industrious Netherlanders be made in many places docible of Navigation, to the inestimable comfort, satisfaction, ease and profit of the publick." "Rivers," he further observed, "may be compared to States-men, sent abroad; they are never out of their way so they pass by great Cities, Marts, Courts of Princes, Armies, Leaguers, Diets and the like Theatres of Action, which still contribute to the increase of their Observation; So Navigable Rivers, the more places of Note they pass by, the more they take up, or bring, still gleaning one Commodity or other from the Soyl they pass through, and are supplied by every Town they touch at with imployment."

Into the details of his scheme for establishing direct water communication between Bristol and London there is now no need to enter. Suffice it to say that the two cities had to wait many years before the idea he foreshadowed was carried into effect. But I must not omit to mention one of the arguments advanced by Mathew in support of his general proposals, since it has a direct bearing on the conditions of road transport at this period, and the reasons based thereon in favour of improvements in river navigation. Thus he urged, among other things, "the facility of Commerce from one place to another, and the cheapness of transportation of Commodities without so much grinding and plowing up our high-wayes, which maketh them now in so many places impassable. You shall see," he continued, "Western Waggons, which they call Plows, carry forty hundred weight; insomuch as between Bristol and Marlborough they have been enforced at a Hill they call Bagdown-hill, to put twenty beasts, Horse and Oxen, to draw it up: This great abuse by this means would be taken away, by keeping our high-wayes pleasant; and withal, by this transportation of Commodities by River, the price of Commodities would fall."

Oliver Cromwell had other matters than roads and rivers to engage his attention, and Francis Mathew got from him no favourable response to his proposals. But in 1670 he dedicated to Charles II. and "the Honorable Houses of [ 133 ]Parliament" a new edition of his scheme under the title of "A Mediterranean Passage by Water from London to Bristol, and from Lynne to Yarmouth, and so consequently to the City of York for the great Advancement of Trade and Traffique." In the course of his Dedication he said:—

"Observing by traversing this island, that divers Rivers within the same may be moulded into such Form as will admit of Vessels of thirty Tun burden, or upwards, to sail in, unto the great Relief of divers Countryes in this Island, by means of the same, at less than half the Rates now paid for Land carriage ... and considering at how easy a Charge ... the same may be brought to pass ... I humbly presume ... to become Importunate to your most Excellent and Royal Majesty for the enterprize of and ready effecting this Work, being an Undertaking so Heroick, that 'tis beyond the Level of any others to attempt."

Among the reasons he now advanced in favour of removing the obstructions and difficulties to be met with in the making of rivers navigable were the "Wonderful Improvement to much Trade," and especially the trade in coal; "the great Ease of the Subject"; increased public revenue—

"And what is well and worthy of Observing, the Highwayes hereby will be much preserved, and become a very acceptable work to the Country, which now notwithstanding their great cost, is a grievous Toil as well to Man as beast, being now so unnecessarily plowed up by Waggons of Prodigious Burthens, which in this Island are dayly travelling."

Andrew Yarranton, who brought out in 1677 a remarkable book, entitled "England's Improvement by Land and Sea," might be described as a Pioneer of Protection as well as an early champion of improved inland communication. He considered that the best way of fighting the Dutch, who were then a source of trouble to the country, would be, not to go to war with them, but to capture their trade and commerce. To this end he elaborated a scheme under which, instead of importing every year "vast quantities" of "linen cloth of all sorts," of iron, and of woollen goods, England would "settle" these industries here, fostering them by means of import duties to be imposed on foreign manufactures for a period of seven years, and supplementing those duties by the setting-up of a general system of banking, itself, in turn, [ 134 ]made secure by a general land register. The linen industry, he advised, should be established in the counties of Warwick, Leicester, Northampton, and Oxford, where, among other considerations, navigable rivers would be available for the purposes of transport; and he goes on to say, in words which, though written more than two and a quarter centuries ago, seem only to have anticipated much that we hear from the tariff reformers of to-day, that by this means, "we should prevent at least two millions of money a year from being sent out of the Land for Linen Cloth, and keep our people at home who now go beyond the Seas for want of imployment here."

In his references to the iron trade, Yarranton speaks of the "infinite quantities of raw iron" then being made in Monmouthshire and the Forest of Dean, and he says that the greatest part of what he calls the "Slow Iron" made in the Forest of Dean "is sent up the Severne to the Forges, into Worcester-shire, Shropshire, Stafford-shire, Warwick-shire and Cheshire, and there it's made into Bar-iron: And because of its kind and gentle nature to work, it is now at Sturbridge, Dudly, Wolverhampton, Sedgley, Wasall, and Burmingham and thereabouts wrought into all small Commodities and diffused all England over, and thereby a great Trade made of it; and when manufactured sent into most parts of the World"; though in Worcestershire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Derbyshire there were already great and numerous ironworks in which, he adds, "Much Iron is made of Metal or Iron Stone of another nature quite different from that of the Forest of Deane."

Having sketched his ideas of such reorganisation of industry as would, in his opinion, help the country both to beat the Dutch without fighting and, also, to provide work for all the poor people in England, he proceeded: "That nothing may be wanting that may conduce to the benefit and incouragement of things manufactured, as in cheap carriage to and fro over England, and to the Sea at easie rates, I will in the next place shew you how the great Rivers in England may be made navigable, and thereby make the Commodities and Goods carried, especially in Winter time, for half the rate they now pay."

The schemes he especially recommended in this connection were for the establishing of communication between the [ 135 ]Thames and the Severn, and between the Dee and the Severn; and he argued that there would be a further advantage from the point of view of the national food supply, as an improvement in river navigation would allow both of corn being more easily brought to London and of the setting up of great granaries, at Oxford for the advantage of London, and at Stratford-on-Avon for the benefit of towns on the Severn. He further says:—

"I hear some say, You projected the making Navigable the River Stoure in Worcestershire; what is the reason it was not finished? I say it was my projection, and I will tell you the reason it was not finished. The River Stoure and some other Rivers were granted by an Act of Parliament to certain Persons of Honour, and some progress was made in the work; but within a small while after the Act passed it was let fall again. But it being a brat of my own I was not willing it should be Abortive; therefore I made offers to perfect it, leaving a third part of the Inheritance to me and my heirs for ever, and we came to an agreement. Upon which I fell on, and made it compleatly navigable from Sturbridge to Kederminster; and carried down many hundred Tuns of Coales, and laid out near one thousand pounds, and then it was obstructed for Want of Money, which by Contract was to be paid."

To describe, in detail, all the various schemes for the improvement of river navigation which were carried out, more especially in the second half of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth (irrespective of the many others that succumbed to the complaint spoken of by Yarranton—want of money), would take up far too much space; but a few typical examples, which have a direct bearing on the development of British trade, commerce and industry, may be of interest.

Until the year 1694, when the improvement of the Mersey was taken in hand, Liverpool had no chance of emerging from a situation of almost complete isolation, and of competing with ports some of which, though now ports no longer, or far outstripped by the Liverpool of to-day, were then of vastly greater importance than Liverpool from the point of view of national commerce.

Nature, unaided by man, had not been so considerate to [ 136 ]Liverpool as she had been to Bristol, to Lynn, to Hull or to Boston. These, and other ports besides, stood on streams which were naturally navigable for more or less considerable distances into the interior of the country, whereas the Mersey was not naturally navigable for more than about fifteen or twenty miles above Liverpool. The navigation even of the estuary as far as Liverpool presented difficulties and dangers in stormy weather, owing to sand-banks, violent currents and rapid tides; but beyond Runcorn the Mersey was not then navigable at all. Nor were the tributaries of the Mersey—the Irwell and the Weaver—navigable.

Liverpool was thus shut off from communication with the interior by river, and for a long time the town was not in a much better position as regards roads. No Roman road came nearer to Liverpool than Warrington, and, down to 1750 (as I have already shown), the road between Warrington and Liverpool was not passable for coaches or carriages. On the east Liverpool was practically isolated from the rest of the country by the high range of hills dividing Lancashire from Yorkshire, and there were the still more formidable hills of the Lake District on the north. The early route for a journey to the south from Liverpool was to cross the Mersey at Monk's Ferry, Birkenhead, and then pass through the forest of Wirral to Chester. Here there was found a Roman road, along which a coach to London was running in the reign of James II. (1685-1688), whereas the first coach from Warrington to London did not start until 1757.

So long as our commercial relations were mainly with Continental or other ports which could be more conveniently reached from the east or the south coast, or from Bristol, and so long as the industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire were but little developed, or found an outlet abroad in these other directions, the comparative isolation of Liverpool was a matter of no great national concern; though how, in effect, Liverpool compared with other seaports or river-ports in the thirteenth century is shown by the fact (as told by Thomas Baines, in his "History of the Commerce and Town of Liverpool") that whereas the aggregate value of trading property in Liverpool, Lancaster, Preston and Wigan—the only four towns in Lancashire which then acknowledged possessing such property at all—was given in an official return for the [ 137 ]year 1343 as £233, equal to £3495 of our present money; the equivalent value to-day of the trading property of Bristol at the same period would be £30,000, and that of Nottingham, then the great inland port of the Trent, £50,000.

That was a time when, as the same authority says, "Liverpool stood nearly at the extremity of the known world." But when the known world was enlarged by the addition thereto of the New World of America, and when commerce with the lands across the Atlantic began to develop, and the industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire to grow apace, the need for improved communications with the port of Liverpool became more and more acute.

Such need was the greater, too, because of the fate that was overtaking the much earlier and hitherto far more prosperous port of Chester. Established as a fortress of the first order by the Romans, at the western end of one of their famous roads, and favoured alike by Saxons and Normans, Chester had developed into a flourishing commercial port from which, more especially, intercourse with Ireland was conducted, and it was still the port through which travellers passed to or from Ireland for a long time after Liverpool began to compete actively for the Irish goods traffic. Richard Blome, who visited Chester in 1673, describes it in his "Britannia" as "the usual place for taking shipping for Ireland, with which it has a very great intercourse, and a place of very considerable trade."

But, as against the advantage it offered as an inland port, situate twenty-two miles from its estuary, and dealing with the products of an especially productive county, Chester had the disadvantage due to the enormous masses of sand which were driven into the Dee by Atlantic storms, to the full fury and effects of which the open estuary was exposed. This evil began to grow serious soon after the Conquest, and the port of Chester steadily declined as the port of Liverpool steadily rose, the trade lost by the one helping to build up the prosperity of the other.

The benefits resulting from the improvements carried out on the Mersey when, under the Act of 1694, navigation was extended from Runcorn to Warrington, began to be immediately felt; but they also brought out more clearly the great necessity for still further amendment. How merchandise [ 138 ]went across country in those days is shown in a letter written in 1701 by Thomas Patten, a Liverpool citizen who had taken a leading part in the movement that led to the Mersey being made navigable as far inland as Warrington. Referring to a certain consignment of tobacco which was to be despatched from Liverpool to Hull, on behalf of a trader at Stockport, Patten says that, as the tobacco could not be carried in the hogshead all the way by road from Warrington to Hull, and as the sea route from Liverpool to Hull would have taken too long, the tobacco was first forwarded by cart, in twenty or thirty hogsheads, from the quay at Warrington to Stockport. There it was made up into canvas-covered parcels, and then sent on by packhorse—three parcels to a horse—a distance of thirty-six miles by road to Doncaster, and from Doncaster it was conveyed by river for the remainder of the distance to Hull. Baines, who gives the letter in his "History of Lancashire and Cheshire," remarks: "Such was the mode of conveying goods up to that time, and for upwards of thirty years after. It is evident that there could be no great development of trade and commerce so long as the modes of communication were so tedious and costly."

The improvement on the Mersey itself led to a further scheme for making the Mersey and Irwell navigable from Warrington to Manchester, thus establishing direct water communication between Liverpool and Manchester, as an alternative to transport by road. A survey of the two rivers was carried out in 1712, and a prospectus was issued in which it was said:—

"The inland parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire being favoured with a great variety of valuable manufactures in woollen, linen, cotton, &c., and that in very great quantities, has made that neighbourhood as populous, if not more so, than (London and Middlesex excepted) the same extent of any part of Great Britain. The trades of these counties extend considerably through the whole island, as well as abroad, and the consumption of groceries, Irish wool, dyeing stuffs, and other important goods consequently is very great; but as yet not favoured with the conveniency of water carriage, though Providence, from the port of Liverpool up to the most considerable inland town of Lancashire, Manchester, has afforded the best, not yet employed, rivers of Mersey and Irwell for that purpose."

[ 139 ]It was not until the passing of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Act, in 1720, that the work of rendering these rivers navigable between Warrington and Manchester was begun, and another twenty years elapsed before it was completed. The result of this "conveniency of water carriage" when it was, at last, obtained, was to reduce the cost of transport of goods and merchandise from forty shillings a ton by road to ten shillings a ton by river. The goods traffic between Liverpool and Manchester at this time amounted to about 4000 tons a year; but it had, prior to the provision of water transport, naturally been restricted to the quantity that could be carried by the packhorses, carts and waggons of those days. Hence the river navigation gave the advantage of a transport not only cheaper in price but greater in capacity. It will be seen later on, however, that the Mersey and Irwell navigation subsequently developed disadvantages for which a remedy was sought in the construction of the Duke of Bridgewater's canal.

An Act, passed in 1720, for making the river Weaver navigable from Winsford Bridge, beyond Northwich, to Frodsham Bridge, near the junction of the Weaver with the Mersey (a distance of about twenty miles), was not only of further material advantage to the port of Liverpool but a first step in an important development of the salt mines of Cheshire. These mines have been described as "incomparably the richest of the salt mines and brine pits of England"; but at the date in question their working was greatly hampered by transport costs and difficulties in the matter both of fuel and of the distribution of the salt, when made.

Fuel was required for heating the furnaces and the pans in which the brine was evaporated into salt; and in the earliest days of the industry the salt-makers used for this purpose faggots of wood brought from the forests on the borders of Cheshire and Staffordshire. As long as these supplies were available, the principal seat of the salt trade was at Nantwich, in the higher part of the Weaver, and near to the forests where the wood was obtained. But the forests got depleted in course of time, and the industry then moved to other works lower down the river which could be operated with coal brought from the Lancashire coal-field. This coal, however, had to be carried, by cart or packhorse, a distance of twelve [ 140 ]or fourteen miles; and inasmuch as two tons of coal were required for every three tons of fine salt made, the cost of transport of raw materials was a serious item.

As for the manufactured salt, that was distributed in the same way, even such small consignments as could then alone be sent to Liverpool having to be taken thither by road. In the circumstances the salt trade remained comparatively undeveloped in Cheshire while it was making great advance at Newcastle-on-Tyne, where the coal readily obtained, by water, from the neighbouring coal-fields was used in the production of salt from sea-water. In the time of the Stuarts the manufacture of salt was one of the most important of Newcastle's industries and articles of export.

When, under the Act of 1720, the Weaver was made navigable as far as the Northwich and Winsford Bridge salt works, the land journey for Lancashire coal was reduced from twelve or fourteen miles to five or six miles, and the salt could be sent direct to Liverpool by water. The greatest impetus to the Cheshire salt industry (to the consequent detriment, and eventual extinction, of that at Newcastle-on-Tyne, though with a further advantage to the trade of Liverpool) was, however, not given until the makers were enabled to get their coal all the way by water through the supplementing of the now navigable Weaver by the Sankey Canal—of which more hereafter.

In the same year that the Act for improving the navigation of the Weaver was passed, Parliament sanctioned a no less important work on the river Douglas, which passes through Wigan, and has its outlet in the Ribble estuary, at a point about nine miles west of Preston. Wigan is situated on a part of the Lancashire coal-fields which contains some of the richest and most valuable seams of coal to be found in Lancashire; but down to 1720 the only means of distributing this coal was by cart or packhorse. The opening of the Douglas to navigation allowed of the coal being sent by water to the estuary of the Ribble, and thence forwarded up the Ribble to Preston, or, alternatively, along the coast either to Lancaster in the one direction or to Liverpool and Chester in the other. These were tedious routes, and the voyage from the Ribble estuary along the coast was often very dangerous on account both of storms and of sand-banks. The lines of water [ 141 ]communication were, nevertheless, so much cheaper than land carriage that they were followed for about fifty years—until a safer and more expeditious waterway was provided through the opening of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.[2] Thomas Baines, from whose "History of the Town and Commerce of Liverpool" I glean these details, adds:—

"With all its defects, the Douglas navigation may be regarded as the primary cause of the manufacturing prosperity of the town of Preston, which it was the first means of supplying with cheap fuel for its workshops and factories. It may, also, be considered as one of the early causes of the commercial prosperity of Liverpool, which has always been much promoted by the possession of cheap and abundant supplies of coal and salt."

The rendering of the Aire and Calder navigable, under an Act of Parliament passed in 1699, was an important event for the then rising manufacturing towns of Leeds, Wakefield, Halifax, Bradford and Huddersfield, situate on or within a convenient distance of one or other of these two rivers which, joining at Castleford, ten miles below Leeds, thence flow in a combined stream to their junction with the Yorkshire Ouse, and so on to the Humber and the ports of Hull and Grimsby. The event in question was no less interesting because it marked a further development in an industrial transition which constitutes a leading factor in the economic history of England.

The textile industries originally established in the eastern counties by refugees from the Netherlands and France afterwards spread through the southern and western counties, attaining in each district to a very considerable growth long before they were of any importance in those northern counties with which they were afterwards mainly to be associated. The migration to the north occurred at a time when the woollen industries were paramount and the cotton industries had still to attain their subsequent stupendous growth. It occurred, also, long before the Aire and the Calder were made navigable, so that, in this case, we cannot say the industrial centres already mentioned as being situated on or near to those two Yorkshire rivers were set up there, as the towns on the river [ 142 ]Severn had mainly been, in order to secure the convenience of river transport.

The chief reason why the bleak and barren moorlands of the north were preferred to the fair and fertile plains of the south for the further expansion of these great national industries was that, in the days when the steam-engine of James Watt was as yet far off, the heavier rainfall in the English Highlands of the north and north-west, together with the more numerous streams pouring down mountain sides both of greater height and of greater extent than in the south, gave to the cloth-makers, not only the abundant water supply they wanted, but, also, the particular kind of motive power, through the use of water-wheels, on which they then mainly relied for the working of their machinery.

It was in the interests of this power derived from falling water that the textile industries first migrated from the eastern counties—where the streams flow but slowly, and from comparatively slight elevations—to the western counties, where there are streams coming from hills of from 800 to 1000 feet in height. These, for a time, answered better the desired purpose, though only to be more or less discarded, in turn, for northern or north-western streams which, with a greater rainfall, had their rise on heights of from 1500 to 2000 feet, and were so numerous that almost every one of the "small" manufacturers who set up business for himself on the otherwise cheerless slope of a Yorkshire hill-side could have a brook, a rivulet, or a mountain torrent of his own, or, at least, make abundant use of one before it passed on to serve the purposes of his neighbour.

In alluding to the woollen trade as affected by these conditions, Dr Aikin remarks in his "Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester" (1795), "It would seem as if a hilly country was particularly adapted to it, since it almost ceases where Yorkshire descends into the plain"; though the position has, of course, been entirely changed by the general resort to steam in preference to water power.

Other industries, besides those relating to textiles, whether woollen or, at a later period, cotton, took advantage of the same favourable conditions, as shown in the case of Sheffield, where the earliest of the cutlers who were to make Hallamshire [ 143 ]goods famous throughout the world settled down at the confluence of the Sheaf and the Don because those streams afforded them the best available means of operating their tilt-hammers.[3]

In the early stage of this transition period the streams were desired and utilised solely as an aid to manufacturing purposes. As the towns or the industrial centres developed, however, there grew up increasing need for improved means of transport—supplementary to the roads of that day—in order, more especially, to facilitate the better distribution of the commodities then being produced in ever-increasing quantities. It was this need that led to the Act of 1699, giving powers for rendering the Aire and the Calder navigable. Petitions in favour thereof were presented by the "clothiers" (as cloth-makers were then called) of various towns likely to derive advantage from the scheme, and some of these petitions afford an interesting insight into the conditions under which the cloth industry was carried on in Yorkshire and Lancashire in the closing years of the seventeenth century.

A petition from the "clothiers" of Leeds said, "That Leeds and Wakefield are the principal towns in the north for cloth; that they are situated on the rivers Ayre and Calder, which have been viewed, and are found capable to be made highways which, if effected, will very much redound to the preservation of the highways and a great improvement of trade; the petitioners having no conveniency of water carriage within sixteen miles of them, which not only occasions a great expense, but many times great damage to their goods, and sometimes the roads are not passable."

The clothiers of "Ratchdale" (Rochdale) stated that they were "forty miles from any water carriage"; those of Halifax said they "have no water carriage within thirty miles, and much damage happens through the badness of the roads by the overturning of carriages"; and those of Wakefield said of the scheme:—

"It will be a great improvement of trade to all the trading towns of the north by reason of the conveniency of water [ 144 ]carriage, for want of which the petitioners send their goods twenty-two miles by land carriage (to Rawcliffe) the expense whereof is not only very chargeable but they are forced to stay two months sometimes while the roads are impassable to market, and many times the goods receive considerable damage, through the badness of the roads by overturning."

The general conditions of life in Yorkshire towns in Defoe's day, when the Aire and Calder had been made navigable, but when bad roads still dominated the situation from a social and domestic standpoint, are shown in the account he gives of his visit to Halifax. After explaining how the people devoted themselves mainly to cloth production and imported most of their household requirements, he says:—

"Their Corn comes up in great quantities out of Lincoln, Nottingham and the East Riding; their Black Cattle and the Horses from the North Riding, their Sheep and Mutton from the adjacent Counties every way, their Butter from the East and North Riding, their Cheese out of Cheshire and Warwickshire, more Black Cattle also from Lancashire. And here the Breeders and Feeders, the Farmers and Country People find Money flowing in plenty from the Manufactures and Commerce; so that at Halifax, Leeds and the other great manufacturing Towns, and adjacent to these, for the two months of September and October a prodigious Quantity of Black Cattle is sold.

"This Demand for Beef is occasioned thus: the usage of the People is to buy in at that Season Beef sufficient for the whole Year which they kill and salt, and hang up in the Smoke to dry. This way of curing their Beef keeps it all the Winter, and they eat this smoak'd Beef as a very great Rarity.

"Upon this foot 'tis ordinary for a Clothier that has a large Family, to come to Halifax on a Market Day, and buy two or three large Bullocks from eight to ten Pounds a-piece. These he carries home and kills for his Store. And this is the reason that the markets at all those times of the Year are thronged with Black Cattle, as Smithfield is on a Friday, whereas all the rest of the year there is little extraordinary sold there."

We have here full confirmation of what I have already said as to the way in which people in former days provisioned [ 145 ]their houses in the autumn for the winter months, during which the roads would be impassable and food supplies from outside unobtainable.

The trading conditions of the period are shown by the accounts of the once-famous cloth market of Leeds given, in his "Ducatus Leodiensis; or the Topography of Leedes," by Ralph Thoresby (1715), and, also, in his "Tour," by the ever-picturesque Defoe.

Thoresby, who speaks of "the cloathing trade" as being "now the very life of these parts," tells us that the Leeds cloth-market was held on the bridge over the Aire every Tuesday and Saturday down to June 14, 1684, when, for greater convenience, it was removed to Briggate, the "spacious street" leading from the bridge into the town. Already, in Thoresby's day, Leeds was the manufacturing capital of the district, and he speaks of its cloth-market as "the life not of the town only but of these parts of England."

Defoe, in his account of the market, describes it as "indeed a Prodigy of its kind, and not to be equalled in the world." He tells how, making their way to Leeds at an early hour in the morning from the surrounding district, the "clothiers," each bringing, as a rule, only a single piece of cloth, assembled at the various inns, and there remained until the ringing of a bell, at seven o'clock in the summer, or a little later in the winter, announced that trestles, with boards across them for the display of the cloth, had been duly fixed in the roadway, and that the market had opened. Thereupon the clothiers, without rush or haste, and in the most solemn fashion, would leave their inns, and step across the footpath to the "stalls" in the roadway. Standing quite close to one another, they then put down their cloth on the boards, which would soon be completely covered with rolls of cloth arranged side by side. While the clothiers were so engaged, the merchants would have left their houses, entered the market, and begun their inspection of the goods displayed for sale, so that within fifteen minutes of the ringing of the bell the market would be in full operation. When a merchant saw a piece of cloth which suited his requirements he would lean across the boards, and whisper in the ear of the clothier the price he was prepared to give, this practice of whispering being adopted in order that the [ 146 ]other clothiers standing immediately alongside should not hear what was said. The clothier agreed or disagreed, without any attempt at "bargaining." If satisfied with the offer, he would instantly pick up the cloth, and go off with it to the merchant's house, where the transaction would be completed. Within less than half an hour the clothiers would be seen thus leaving the market; in an hour the business would be over, and at half-past eight the bell would be rung again, to announce that the market had closed and that there must be no more sales. Any clothier who had not sold his cloth would then take it back with him to his inn.

"Thus," says Defoe, "you see Ten or Twenty thousand Pounds value in cloth, and sometimes much more, bought and sold in little more than an hour.... And that which is most admirable is 'tis all managed with the most profound Silence, and you cannot hear a word spoken in the whole Market, I mean by the Persons buying and selling; 'tis all done in whisper.... By nine a Clock the Boards are taken down, and the street cleared, so that you see no market or Goods any more than if there had been nothing to do; and this is done twice a week. By this quick Return the Clothiers are constantly supplied with Money, their Workmen are duly paid, and a prodigious Sum circulates thro' the Country every week."

It is no less interesting—and, also, no less material to the present inquiry as to the influence of transport conditions on trade—to learn how the cloth purchased in these particular circumstances was disposed of in days when travel through the country was still attended by so many difficulties.

The supplies intended for home use were distributed in this manner: Leeds was the head-quarters of a body of merchants who were in the habit of going all over England with droves of packhorses loaded up with the cloth which had been bought in the open-air market, as already described. These travelling merchants did not sell to householders, since that would have constituted them pedlars. They kept to the wholesale business, dealing only with shopkeepers in the towns or with traders at the fairs; but they operated on such a scale that, Defoe says, "'tis ordinary for one of these men to carry a thousand pounds value of Cloth with them at a time, and having sold it at the Fairs or Towns [ 147 ]where they go, they send their Horses back for as much more, and this very often in the Summer, for they chuse to travel in the summer, and perhaps towards the Winter time, tho' as little in Winter as they can, because of the badness of the Roads."

Other of the buyers on the Leeds market sent their purchases to London, either carrying out commissions from London traders or forwarding on consignment to factors and warehousemen who themselves supplied wholesale and retail dealers in London, besides despatching great quantities of coarse goods abroad, especially to New England, New York, Virginia, etc. The Russian merchants in London also sent "an exceeding quantity" to St Petersburg, Riga, Sweden, Dantzic and Pomerania.

Still another group of buyers was represented by those who had commissions direct from traders in Holland, Germany and Austria, the business done by the members of this group being "not less considerable" than that done by the others.

It was mainly on account of this London and foreign trade that the Act for making the rivers Aire and Calder navigable was obtained, there being secured a waterway communication by means of which the cloth could be sent direct from Leeds, Wakefield and other industrial centres to Hull, there to be shipped to London or to Continental ports, as desired.

The facilities for navigation thus afforded subsequently had a still greater influence on the development of the Yorkshire coal trade, coal being taken from Wakefield or Leeds to the Humber, and thence conveyed up the Ouse to York, or to the numerous towns situate on the Trent or other rivers. By the same navigation the Yorkshire towns received most of their supplies, either as imported into Hull from abroad, or as received there from London or the eastern counties, these supplies including butter, cheese, salt, sugar, tobacco, fruit, spices, oil, wine, brandy, hops, lead, and all kinds of heavy or bulky goods. For the merchants of Hull this meant a business to be compared only with that of the merchants of Lynn and Bristol.

Some of the many river improvement Acts passed in the period here under review were not secured without a certain amount of opposition, and the case of the Don, more especially, [ 148 ]offers a striking example of that conflict of rival interests, even in the case of rivers, which later on was to give rise to many a Parliamentary battle in the days, first of canals, and then of railways.

How the cutlers of Sheffield and the steel manufacturers and others of Hallamshire in general had been accustomed to forward their goods by road to the inland port of Bawtry, thence to be sent down the Idle and on by the Trent and the Humber to Hull, has already been told. (See pp. 123-4.) There came a time, however, when this preliminary land journey of twenty miles from Sheffield to Bawtry was found of great disadvantage to the trade of the district; and in 1697 leave was given to bring in a Bill to allow of the Don, already navigable to Doncaster, being rendered navigable to Sheffield, in order that merchandise might be sent by that stream direct from Sheffield to the Ouse, and so on to the Humber and the port of Hull. But the opposition offered by representatives of the Bawtry, Trent and other interests—who rightly foresaw in the scheme impending ruin for most of the traffic on the Idle—was so powerful that the Bill was thrown out. A further Bill, with a like object, was introduced, and strongly supported, in the following Session. It was still more vigorously opposed, there being what Hunter describes as "a war of petitions," and it was not proceeded with.

For a time nothing further was done; but in the meanwhile Sheffield was rapidly advancing to the position of one of the leading industrial centres in the country, and the compulsory twenty-mile journey by road to the chief port of consignment for Sheffield goods sent to London or abroad when there was a river flowing through Sheffield itself, was felt to be an intolerable infliction, as well as a serious prejudice to the local industries.

In 1722, therefore—twenty-four years after the last of the earlier attempts—the Master Cutler of Sheffield and the Cutlers' Company petitioned Parliament to allow the improvement of the Don navigation to proceed. The corporation of Doncaster sent a like petition, and so did the corporations of Manchester, Stockport and several other places. But the established interests still controlled the situation, and the design once more failed.

Four years later (1726) the Sheffield cutlers made still [ 149 ]another effort, and this time, although the opposition was again very powerful, it was agreed in Committee of the House of Commons that power should be given to the Cutlers' Company to make the Don navigable from Doncaster, not to Sheffield itself, but to Tinsley, three miles from Sheffield; and, also, to maintain a turnpike road from Sheffield to Tinsley. A Bill to this effect was passed, and in 1727 the corporation of Doncaster obtained powers to remove certain obstructions from the Don; but, under an Act of 1732, the carrying out of the whole scheme was transferred to an independent body, the Company of Proprietors of the River Don Navigation. It proved, says Hunter, writing in 1828, "eminently beneficial to the country"; but the reader will see that the Sheffield cutler or manufacturer still had to forward his goods three miles by road before they could be sent, first along the Don, then along the Ouse, then down the Humber to Hull, and then (if they were consigned to London) by sea along the east coast, and finally up the Thames to the Metropolis. These were the conditions until the year 1821, when the three-mile journey by road was saved by the opening of a canal between Sheffield and the Don at Tinsley, affording, as was said, "easy accommodation with the coast and London."

  1. Eighteenth.
  2. The Douglas navigation was afterwards purchased by the proprietors of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, who substituted an artificial cut for part of the natural channel of the river.
  3. In giving an account of a visit he paid to Derbyshire in 1713, Dr. William Stukeley says in his "Itinerarium Curiosum" (2nd ed., 1776): "At the smelting works they melt down the lead ore, and run it into a mould, whence it becomes pigs, as they call it; the bellows continually are kept in motion by running water."