by Joseph Earp
The Earliest canals in England were the Foss Dyke, The Cuer, or Carr’s Dyke, both of them 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 original proceeded from the Trent at Nottingham, Wollaton and Cossall to Langley Mill, fourteen and three quarter miles, where it joins the Cromford Canal. The act to build the canal was obtained in 1792, and the canal completed in 1802. The man who designed and built the canal was 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. The incident in question was the first great British canal explosion which 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 its small crew 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.” Then, “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. The explosion was a devastating incident killing approximately ten to fifteen men and boys. The damage estimated from the explosion came to £30,000, which included 4000 quarters of corn, some paper and cheese in the warehouse. The warehouse was insured, but the insurance company refuse 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, and had to settle for £500. The people of Nottingham set 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 of the railway the canal quickly declined in use and became neglected. In recent years since the 1970s, the canal has enjoyed a ‘re-birth’ as a nature reserve and walking trail. The stretch of the canal in the City has especially enjoyed a new ‘rebirth’ with the area being well served by a number of pubs, restaurants, cafés, gyms and luxury apartments.