Canal mile-markers

Canals in Yorkshire competed with the turnpikes in the era before the coming of the railways.  Some, like the Aire and Calder Navigation and the Don Navigation, were built to make the existing river system more easily navigable. Others, like the Calder & Hebble Navigation (the first part of which opened in 1770) and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal (fully opened in 1816) were constructed to provide transport routes into the towns and across the Pennines.

Britain’s canals were the life-blood of the industrial revolution and purely commercial enterprises.  It was necessary for boatmen and canal companies to be able to calculate precisely how far boats had journeyed along the waterways as these distances formed the basis of toll charges.

Many of the canal Acts of Parliament required that mileposts should be placed at roughly mile-long intervals along the canals.  Some canals also have intermediate, half and quarter mile posts. Many of these mileposts, which sometimes also bore the names of the canals’ terminal points, still stand today.

Whereas many roadside milestones have disappeared during road widening, the canals have been little affected and mile-markers can still be found on most Yorkshire canals.  These include original ones on the Calder & Hebble Navigation and the Huddersfield Broad and Narrow Canals.  The characteristic triangular cast-iron mileposts on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal are replacements for earlier milestones, few of which remain today.  Replica milestones can also be found on the Rochdale Canal.

The Milestone Society records them all.

RWH / August 2020

Mileposts on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal

The Act of Parliament permitting the construction of a 127-mile canal that would go all the way between Leeds and Liverpool was passed in 1770, and the first stretch of canal linking Skipton to Bingley was opened in 1773.  The canal was gradually extended over the next 43 years until the final section, the Wigan flight, was opened on the 22 October 1816 and Leeds and Liverpool were finally linked.

Milepost at the start of the canal

The canal was originally marked with stone mileposts, though these only extended from Leeds to Johnson’s Hillock at Chorley, and from Aspull near Wigan Top Lock to Liverpool (the length in between actually being the Lancaster Canal). One or two of these survive, though with no surviving markings, in the Wigan area.

The existing cast iron mileposts date the 1890s. They were installed as a response to legislation introduced to regulate canal freight tolls – the Railway and Canal Rates, Tolls and Charges Order of 1893.  This prompted the whole of the canal to be re-surveyed and new mileposts, along with half and quarter mileposts, installed along the towpaths.

200 years later the mileposts had become damaged and approximately a third of the original 127 were missing altogether.  In 2003 the British Waterways Board (now the Canal and Rivers Trust) sponsored a programme to clean and paint the mileposts between Bingley and Gargrave, and cut back the vegetation.  A survey then found that nearly 25% of the posts were missing and that only one milepost was complete.

And so to celebrate the bi-centenary of the completion of the canal the EveryMileCounts Project was established, aiming to restore all of the mileposts, replacing those that were missing, repairing those that were damaged, or simply cleaning and repainting those that were intact – and to do as much of this as possible with the help of the communities that live along the canal.

All the mile-markers are now in situ, about 20 of the 33 missing half-mile plates have been re-instated, though the 85 missing quarter-mile plates are still absent.

Adapted mainly from an item by Bill Froggatt, Heritage Adviser for the Canal and Rivers Trust, in the Milestone Society Newsletter, Feb 2016, no 30, p 27, and talks by him to the Northern Spring Meetings, 2016 and 2023.

RWH / rev May 2023

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Milestones and other features on the Calder & Hebble Navigation

Milestone near West Vale

An Act of Parliament was passed in 1758 for the building of a navigable waterway to connect Wakefield with Sowerby Bridge.  This was ultimately to connect the North Sea with the Irish Sea: the Aire And Calder Navigation had reached Wakefield in 1702 – from Goole on the River Ouse.  From Sowerby Bridge it was to connect via the Rochdale Canal to Manchester, though this was not completed until 1804.  From Manchester the Irish Sea had been accessible via the Bridgewater Canal since 1761.

The Calder & Hebble reached Sowerby Bridge in 1770; it was part canal and part river, 22 miles long and with 28 locks at the time it was built.  There was a short branch into Dewsbury and a longer one up to Halifax by the side of the Hebble Brook – hence the name.  The Huddersfield Broad Canal was started in 1774, leaving the Calder & Hebble at Cooper Bridge.  

Along its course the navigation has a number of interesting remains that are not always unique but certainly characteristic of the waterway:

Milestones – The navigation started at Fall Ing Lock in Wakefield.  (Fall Ing was a small suburb south-east of the city).  Accordingly, all the milestones recorded the distance as “From Fall Ing … miles”. Approximately ten still exist, with particularly good examples at Salterhebble and Battyeford.

Quarter-mile stone

Half-mile and quarter-mile stones – Only a handful of these remain, including a half-mile stone found at Brookfoot and a quarter-mile stone at Thornhill Junction.  The idea of half- and quarter-mile stones was imitated by the later Leeds-Liverpool Canal where many still survive although in a metal format painted white.  They were probably to help with working out haulage charges.

Lock markers – Several of these can still be found; their purpose is simply to make boatmen aware of the proximity of locks. A 100 yards example can be found at Brookfoot near Brighouse whilst a 300 yards example can be found at Kirklees Lock.

Railway company stone markers – As the canal boom was relatively short-lived due to the introduction of the railways, a number of canal companies ended up in financial difficulties and were sold to railway companies. These often continued to use the canals, particularly for bulky materials, into the 20th century.  A number exist along the Kirklees Cut a couple of miles east of Brighouse.  The initials stand for Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway.  The stones probably marked the extent of land ownership beyond the towpath.

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Lock-marker near Salterhebble

Towpath bridges – Horses were the only source of power until the mid-19th Century (and continued to be used well into the 20th).  Where the towpath changed sides of the navigation (usually where canal and river met), a way had to be found to allow the horse to continue pulling the vessel without unhitching. This was achieved by the ‘turnover bridge’ which used to exist at Mirfield, Cooper Bridge, Brighouse and Elland.  All these are long gone but a good example can still be found at Battyeford where the canal reaches the river.

Lock-keepers cottages – Many locks had cottages for the lock-keeper and fortunately a number still survive.  A good example can be found at Salterhebble – pictured at top.

An edited version of an article by David Garside in the Milestone Society Newsletter, Jul 2013, no 25, pp 26-27.

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A walk along the Calder & Hebble Navigation

This walk takes you from Brighouse to Sowerby Bridge, past milestones, lock and other markers, lock-keepers’ cottages, and 250 years of canal heritage.

Brighouse is accessible from all parts of West Yorkshire by bus and train, and there is an hourly service by train from Sowerby Bridge to return to Brighouse.

Click here for a pdf with full details of the walk, from the Milestone Society website.

RWH / August 2020

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Mileposts and other features on the Rochdale Canal

The Rochdale Canal was the first navigable waterway to connect the Irish and North Seas, connecting Sowerby Bridge (the end of the Calder & Hebble Navigation which was reached in 1770) with the Bridgewater Canal in Manchester.  It thus beat both the Huddersfield Narrow Canal (completed in 1811) and the Leeds-Liverpool Canal (1816).  Although the process started in 1776, an Act of Parliament to allow work to start was not passed until 1794, and it was another ten years before the official opening of the whole canal.

Eight reservoirs had to be built to placate several mill-owners concerned about their water supply.  It was a broad canal, 14 feet wide, running for 32 miles with, initially, 92 locks at first (now 91, locks three and four having been combined).  Lock no 1 was in Sowerby Bridge, and lock 92 in Manchester.  The canal quickly became the most successful commercial highway between Yorkshire and Lancashire, at its height moving almost 1 million tons of products each year.  Railways caused a decline in traffic although the canal continued in commercial use until closed to traffic in 1952 with some sections filled-in. The Rochdale Canal Society was formed in 1974 to work to re-open it, and this finally happened in 2002.

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The following features are still in place:

Stone canal company markers

A handful of these exist, inscribed RCCo, presumably marking the boundary of the canal company land adjacent to the canal.  Examples are at Todmorden (pictured), Luddenden Foot and Mytholmroyd.  The Mytholmroyd stone also has the letters ARSL, presumably the initials of the adjacent landowner.

Stone mile posts

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Only two of the original stones still exist, at Todmorden and Summit.  The Todmorden stone (pictured left) shows ten miles from S (Sowerby Bridge) and 22 from Manr.  The Summit milestone reads simply ‘S 14 M 18’.

Metal mile posts

These are relatively new and have been introduced by the Rochdale Canal Trust (successor to the Society) to mark the re-opening of the canal.  Attractive additions to the canalside scene, there are currently 13 in situ to the county boundary, some of which are more recent replacements.  There is one in Todmorden about 50 metres from the original stone mile-post, and one in

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Sowerby Bridge (no 0) marks the point where the canal connects with the Calder & Hebble Navigation. The one pictured on the right, no 12, is at Walsden, not far from the county boundary.

County boundary marker

Another relatively modern marker is at Warland where the canal crosses the Lancashire – Yorkshire border.

Adapted from an article by David Garside in the Milestone Society Newsletter, Jan 2014, no 26, pp 28-29

RWH / August 2020

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