Although the canal only just enters North Yorkshire as it passes on its way from Leeds to Liverpool, Craven was important to its early development. When the canal was being planned, the area's main trade route, the local turnpike, ran north-south, Unlike the Aire Valley with Kendal. It allowed wool from the sheep of Cumbria and Craven to reach the Yorkshire textile area, with woollen products returning, for local sale and for export from the, at that time, major international trading port of Lancaster.
The turnpike suffered from the usual restrictions, with the majority of goods being carried by pack-horse, significantly reducing the weight which could be carried with ease. Small wonder that the go-ahead woollen merchants of Bradford decided that they needed a better means of transport, not just for wool and woollen products, but also for that most valuable of eighteenth century commodities - lime.
As the industrial revolution developed, the need for lime increased. Firstly it was used for agricultural improvement, increasing both the production of foodstuffs for the growing industrial population and for grazing land used by the sheep which supplied the raw material for that industry. Until this time, most people had lived in single storey cottages, but now multi-storey weavers' cottages were built, with lime providing the necessary mortar and internal decoration. So lime was very important for industrial development.
In the 1740s, it had been suggested that the River Aire should be made navigable from Bingley to Skipton to allow lime to be moved down the Aire Valley, with coal being brought back on the return journey. However, the plan never obtained Parliamentary sanction, possibly because of local landowners' opposition.
Some twenty years later, new plans were formulated by the woollen merchants of Bradford, this time for a canal from Yorkshire to Lancashire.
They had two objectives. The first was to improve the supply of lime, and the route of the canal was planned to tap the most important limestone districts, passing through Skipton and Gargrave before crossing into Lancashire where it would have connected with the limestone deposits around Clitheroe. The merchants' second objective was to improve transport of their goods for the colonial market. The terminus of the first scheme was to have been Preston. Possibly they considered building a new port there, or they envisaged a canal up to Lancaster. However, although it was still smaller than Lancaster in terms of trade, they eventually decided on building the canal to Liverpool.
The canal was the longest to be built in this country, consequently requiring considerable investment. Settle, sitting as it does on the old turnpike road, was an important centre of commerce, and it was here that the Birkbeck family became established as bankers. Being Quakers, they had good links with others of that faith, several of whom were involved with the canal. Consequently, the bank of Birkbeck & Co. were, for many years, directly involved with the financing of the canal, particularly in buying and selling shares.
The original plan for the canal envisaged branches to important centres, including Settle. It was suggested, in 1769, by a local group - Joseph Morley, John Thompson, Herbert Howell, Anthony Lister, Abraham Sutcliffe and William Birkbeck - that the Settle Canal should be a separate company. Application for an Act of Parliament was made in 1774, with William Roundell, Henry Wickham and Jno. Birkbeck proposing the idea. The branch would have left the main line of the Leeds & Liverpool at Greenberfield, and passed through Newsholme, Nappa and Long Preston on its way to Settle. Only one lock was needed, and that was close to Settle. (A second canal, from Settle, via Ingleton, to the Lancaster Canal at Lancaster, was also proposed.) However, opposition by a majority of local landowners, led by W. Weddall, Thos. Lister and Benj. Ferrand, prevented the Act from gaining assent, (see Yorkshire Archaeological Society MD335/17/7)
Even had an Act been obtained, because of difficulty in financing such a large project, the Leeds & Liverpool did not reach Greenberfield until the early 1790s, so construction of the branch would have had to wait until then. Would traffic have been enough to sustain the canal? As other limestone quarries were served by the main canal and they had had time to become established, it is probable that the answer is negative. The only possible remnant of the idea of a canal to Settle is Liverpool House, close to the town centre. Was this related to the canal? Local legend suggests it was, but I have seen no documentary evidence. Is there anybody who can confirm this story?
The author has been instrumental in setting up the Leeds & Liverpool Canal Society, in order to help promote the canal and to encourage greater understanding and appreciation of the canal's history and environment. For information contact The Hon. Treasurer, L & LCS c/o Worsley Dry-dock, Worsley Road, Manchester M28 2WN. Membership is £5.00 waged and £2.00 unwaged.
Original Subscribers to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Skipton