Street Tales: The Nottingham Canal

Words: Joe Earp
Illustrations: Eva Brudenell
Tuesday 05 December 2017
reading time: min, words

A look back at Nottingham's watery roads...


The earliest canals in England were the Foss Dyke and the Cuer, or Carr’s Dyke, and both of them are at the northern boundaries of Nottinghamshire. Constructed by the Romans and improved in the twelfth century, the Foss Dyke was scoured out under Henry I in 1121 and, in some parts, is still navigable.

The Nottingham Canal originally proceeded from the Trent at Nottingham, Wollaton and Cossall to Langley Mill, for around fifteen quarter miles, where it joins the Cromford Canal. The act to build the canal was obtained in 1792, and the canal was completed in 1802. It was designed and built by William Jessop, who previously had success designing and building the Cromford Canal.

Perhaps the most exciting incident from the Nottingham Canal’s history came in 1818, when the first great British canal explosion occurred in a canal warehouse in Nottingham. Hezekiah Riley was the captain of a boat that plied along the Trent up as far as Nottingham, where goods could be transshipped to and from the canals of central England.

In September 1818, he took his boat, belonging to Richard Barrows, down the Trent to Gainsborough with a small crew consisting of Joseph Musson and Benjamin Wheatley. He loaded up a mixed cargo of stone, cotton, molasses, soap and 21 barrels of gunpowder. The gunpowder, from Messrs Flower at Gainsborough, was destined for the mines of Derbyshire via Cromford, and each wooden barrel contained about 100lbs of it. The boat was brought into the canal basin at Nottingham under the crane, and moored under the arch of the warehouse for unloading into the dry of the stone building.

What followed was described as a “most dreadful calamity” which “threw the whole town into consternation and spread the most extensive devastation throughout the neighbourhood.” A man in the Meadows described how “the whole warehouse appeared to lift up several yards into the air and then burst asunder into innumerable fragments. The explosion was followed by a cloud of smoke which completely darkened the atmosphere.”

The explosion was reported to have been caused by poor-quality storage of gunpowder. It was a devastating incident which killed approximately ten to fifteen men and boys, with the damage estimated to cost £30,000, which included 4000 quarters of corn, and some paper and cheese. While the warehouse was insured, the company refused to pay up, and the canal company sued Musson’s employers, the Nottingham Boat Company. They won £1000, but the boat company could not pay, so they had to settle for £500, with the people of Nottingham setting up a fund to help the relatives of the victims.

With the Industrial Revolution came the birth of the railway, which overtook the canal as a viable economic transport route into Nottingham. As a result, the canal quickly declined in use and became neglected. In recent years since the seventies, the canal has enjoyed a rebirth as a nature reserve and walking trail, with the stretch of the canal in the city served well by a number of pubs, restaurants and luxury apartments.

Nottingham Hidden History website

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