Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Bradford Canal

by John Allison, historian and writer, Bradford

What has Bradford Canal to do with Bradford Beck?

It was a marriage of convenience. Like many marriages it ended in an acrimonious divorce.

In 1770 Bradford Beck was a very pleasant, clean stream running down Bradford Dale through the town and down the valley to join the River Aire at Shipley. None of it was covered except by a few bridges. For many years it had powered local corn mills along its length. It must have been very pretty and have had a good stock of fish.

The canal was planned and built in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Originally it used water from Bowling Beck, a tributary of Bradford Beck that joins it in the city centre. This soon proved insufficent. The canal owners decided to dam Bradford Beck where it passed the side of the canal basin below the Cathedral ( then St. Peter`s Parish Church). This would raise the beck`s level to that of the canal basin.

In the nineteenth century Bradford became the centre of the wool textile industry. As first water powered mills used the beck water to drive water wheels to power machinery, later using water to drive the engines when steam power was introduced. The textile processes involved washing and dyeing the wool prior to spinning and weaving, and used vast quantities of water. The waste water went back into the beck. A nineteenth century map shows one corn mill, a brewery, two woolcombing mills (using water to wash the wool before combing it), and five dyeworks,all adjacent to the beck, from Cemetery Road to Norcroft Street. Besides this industrial pollution the population of Bradford grew very rapidly between 1800 and 1850. There were no proper sewers and the beck was the only way to dispose of human waste.

By 1850 the beck was known as "The Mucky Beck" and the canal was called "River Stink". The best way to hide the sewer that the beck had become was to put it underground and virtually all of it in the town centre was culverted.

The foul state of the town`s watercourses caused much concern. In those days it was thought that diseases were caused by bad smells. By 1849 many regarded the canal as a public nuisance. Mills along it used canal water to feed their boilers and the hot waste water was returned to the canal. 406 people died in 1849 of cholera. Letters in the papers called for the canal to be closed. Nothing was done as many businesses relied on the canal, either for transport or water. Eventually some industrialists in the town, not dependent on the canal for transport (the railway came to Bradford in 1844), formed a committee to force some action. They suggested that the use of Bradford Beck's water by the canal was illegal. Eventually the council went to Court and in 1865 the case was heard at the Yorkshire Spring Assizes. The Canal Company defended themselves on the grounds that the problem was the Beck, which should be cleaned up They lost the case. An appeal was made to the House of Lords and on March 22nd 1866 Vice Chancellor, Sir W. Page Wood, granted an injunction against the canal from taking water from the Beck. The divorce was complete.

The Bradford Canal was resurrected in May 1st 1872 under new owners. It was shortened, with a new terminus at North Brook Bridge. No water was taken from the beck. it was fed by water pumped back up from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal junction at Shipley. That canal closed in 1922.

But in the 21st century there are proposals to rebuild the third Bradford Canal. Maybe Bradford Beck`s water will feed the new canal again!

Bradford Beck – A rejuvenated stream

by William Varley, geographer, Addingham

Gathering its tributaries on the uplands to the west of the city centre Bradford Beck initially flows to the east before taking an abrupt turn and flowing in a north-north-westerly direction towards Shipley and the Aire Valley.

Flowing north from the city centre the Beck occupies a valley that has only in part been formed by the actions of the stream itself. Glacial action in the Pleistocene ice age also helped to form this valley. During the Pleistocene ice spread down from the north covering the whole area and a large glacier occupied the Aire Valley. Water became bound up as land ice and sea levels fell. This lowering of the base level gave renewed energy to ice and water and the Aire Valley was over-deepened by the moving glacier. The valley was eroded to a much lower level than the current valley floor. A tongue of ice also pushed up the Bradford Beck valley eroding the valley as it went.

As the ice retreated glacial till (boulder clay) was left behind. The flat land on which the city centre is built, the floor of the valley to the north and the Aire Valley are underlain by this material. As ice melted the stream was ‘rejuvenated’. Its capacity to erode renewed by the lowering of base level, it cut down through the earlier glacial deposits deepening its valley. The Aire Valley was occupied by lakes of glacial meltwater held back by a series of terminal moraines, for example at Tong Park, Hirst Wood and Marley. Huge thicknesses of sands and gravels were deposited in these lakes. At Bingley there are 130 feet of sands, gravels and glacial till filling the present valley.

Although Bradford Beck was never large enough or reliable enough to sustain large-scale water-powered industrial development, it did provide the water supply for the Bradford Canal. The canal served as a link from the city to the Leeds Liverpool Canal. It is interesting to note that the development of the Leeds Liverpool Canal was led by Bradford merchants. A Bradford entrepreneur John Stanhope paid for the first survey in 1766. The initial propose of the canal was to bring limestone from the Craven district which could be burned with local coal to make quicklime. The quicklime made the mortar used to build the growing city.

Sunday, 17 October 2010


I would like to thank the following people who were instrumental in creating the project:

Jill Kelly and Kate Watson at beam
Karenna Wood, Communications Mgr, Key Corporate Projects, Bradford Council
Anne McNeill, Director, Impressions Gallery
Tony Poole, Principal Engineer (Drainage), Bradford Council
Kirsty Breaks, Senior Drainage Officer, Bradford Council
David Oldcorn, Senior Land Drainage Officer, Bradford Council
Lizzie Norfolk, Assistant Engineer, Bradford Council
Calvin Williams, Drainage Technician, Bradford Council
Russell Connell, Land Drainage Officer, Bradford Council
Sydney Simpson, Land Surveyor, Bradford Council
Phil Holmes, CCTV Operations Manager, Bradford Council
Mark Hancock, CCTV Engineer

for the Courtroom performance
Julie O’Connell, actor
David Wilson, composer/musician
Megan Kearney, project assistant/Front of House Manager
James Brumfitt, Facilities Manager, City Hall

for the Pop Up installation and display
Ann Rutherford and staff (FABRIC)
Phil Slocombe and Stuart Bannister at Lumen
John Allison, historian & writer
William Varley, geographer
Bob Duckett, historian & writer
Bradford Local Studies Library – their ever-helpful staff
Michael Callaghan, Collections Officer, Bradford Museums & Galleries
Jill Iredale, Museums Officer, Bradford Museums & Galleries

The Goit

Bradford Goit was a medieval millrace, redirecting water from Bradford Beck to power manorial cornmills probably situated between Aldermanbury and Godwin Street. It seems that Bradford's first steam-powered factory, Holme Mill, was built alongside the Goit, and other early industrial development was concentrated in this area, which lies between Thornton Road and Sunbridge Road, just west of the city centre.

John Johnson's 1802 map of Bradford and Rapkin's 1854 map both show the Goit as a major feature, branching off the Beck near Water Lane.

An area of notorious slums until the 1850 Bradford Improvement Act, Goitside was designated a Conservation Area in 1992, and featured in the Allsop Masterplan. But despite the renovation of some individual properties, the area as a whole remains extraordinarily undeveloped and derelict, with Victorian and later industrial buildings in varying states of decay.

Most remarkably of all, it is still possible to trace the line of the Goit for about a quarter of a mile as it approaches the city centre. From the bottom of Lower Grattan Road steps lead down to an alley between dilapidated buildings, and you can walk over enormous flagstones covering the brick-lined channel of the old watercourse. Further on, in the vicinity of Soho Street and Tetley Street, the Goit runs beneath loosely laid metal plates. It makes a fascinating if insalubrious exploration. Further progress is prevented by the New Southgate multi-storey car park, which has presumably swept away all underground features, but the location of this car park on a street called Goitside indicates the original continuation of the Goit's route towards the city centre.

A photographic survey of Bradford Beck undertaken by C.H.Wood in 1962-63 includes a shot of the Goit's underground outfall to the Beck at Aldermanbury.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Underground river

John Johnson's 1802 map of Bradford shows the Beck flowing openly through the town, crossed by two bridges: Ive Bridge (later Sun Bridge) at the bottom of Ivegate and Church Bridge at the bottom of Kirkgate below the cathedral. This latter site is probably also the location of the 'broad ford' from which Bradford originally got its name.

By the time of Atkinson's 1825 survey the Beck had already been substantially covered through the town centre, particularly on the western side between Thornton Road, Market Street and City Hall. Later maps indicate that its route through the town was almost completely covered by 1850.

There is always a mystique and fascination about tunnels, even where they run as close to the road surface as this one. Only in its final stretches along Canal Road does the tunnel run deeper than 10 or 12 feet. Its different sections were built at different times, and some sections have been renewed, but the brick arches shown in the above picture (which cover the double channel of the main Beck at its confluence with Bowling Beck, more or less underneath Market Street) seem to date from an early period of construction.

It would be fascinating to discover who initiated the culverting, and whether later covering-over was done in a piecemeal fashion, or in accordance with some general plan. In the period of Bradford's hectic industrialization the Beck was the responsibility of riparian landowners (and indeed still is) so in the century before planning constraints no 'permission' to tunnel the river would necessarily have been required. A number of industrial premises were built directly over the Beck (one reason for the disastrous explosion of 1911) and this policy was taken up by town centre development as well.

There must exist company archives showing plans for alterations to the Beck, and their unearthing would be an interesting piece of research.

My underground expeditions were made possible by the Council Drainage Department, and several trips were postponed due to wet weather. In such conditions the Beck runs too high for safe passage, as there is no walkway. And the threat of rain is another hazard, as water levels can rise extremely fast. Breathing apparatus is required because of the danger of gas, and for the same reason lighting has to be triple-insulated and intrinsically safe to guard against sparks.

Friday, 15 October 2010

A network of watercourses

The Beck and its tributaries drain the Bradford basin. My project title Seven Streams
denotes the seven named tributaries that rise to the west of the city and form the course of the Beck. These are Pinch Beck, High Birks Beck, Hole Bottom Beck, Pitty Beck, Chellow Dean Beck, Bull Greave Beck and West Brook. The main channel is first called Clayton Beck, then (briefly) Middle Brook and finally Bradford Beck.

The sequence of tributaries, as I understand them, is as follows:

• High Birks Beck and Hole Bottom Beck join Pinch Beck in the valley between Thornton and Clayton to form Clayton Beck
• Pitty Beck runs south-east through Bell Dean from Egypt, and joins Clayton Beck to form Middle Brook
• Bull Greave Beck joins Middle Brook from Scholemoor
• Chellow Dean Beck joins Middle Brook from the north to create Bradford Beck
• West Brook flows through Bradford University beside Theatre in the Mill, joining Bradford Beck below Bradford College

However Alfred Robinson in an article 'The Water Which Runneth to Bradford' in the Bradford & Dales Bystander (Sept. 1974) refers to West Brook as Horton Beck, and claims that it divides into two branches at Shearbridge.

There are also tributaries further downstream that join the Beck as underground watercourses and are not part of my video coverage. Bowling Beck is a substantial stream with its confluence under the brick arches near Market Street. This is followed by East Brook. On its final section between Canal Road and Shipley the Beck is joined by Bolton Beck, Trap Syke, Red Beck and Northcliff Dike.

Numerous unnamed drains and channels also discharge into the Beck, notably the outfall from Bradford Goit – the old millrace that runs on the top side of Thornton Road from Bradford's medieval mill. It joins the Beck underground at the bottom of Sunbridge Road.

Seven Streams - Introduction

Seven Streams is an investigation of Bradford Beck, its tributaries, history, possible future and its relationship with the former Bradford Canal.

The project was commissioned for The Arts of Place, a programme of new media works celebrating the birth of Bradford's City Park, shown in various locations around the city centre in October 2010. See www.artsofplace.org.uk/bradford

Seven Streams was presented as a video installation and display at Pop Up art space in Centenary Square, and as a dramatised lecture with musical and video accompaniment at the historic Courtroom in City Hall.

The display included:

• 4 films showing the course of Bradford Beck and its tributaries
• Live CCTV feed from a camera mounted on Bradford College's Garden Mills building upstream of Westholme Street bridge, showing a view of the Beck just before it goes underground
• Large up to date OS Steeetview map of Bradford showing watercourses
• Historical maps showing the progressive covering-over of the Beck during the 19th century
• Pictures from a comprehensive photographic survey of the Beck, made by C.H.Wood in 1962-3
• Before & after photographs of the recently established Chellow Dean and Pitty Beck Wetlands
• Information on the Bradford Canal supplied by John Allison
• Reports and information from Bradford Council tracing the history of City Park proposals, and an information stand/survey about flood protection
• C.H.Wood's 1947 aerial photograph of the city centre, overlaid with the underground route of the Beck

The films were made over the summer of 2010 and work as a video diary of my explorations, presented as linear journeys. Whilst it could be claimed that, in close-up, one stream is much like another, I hope that the individual films add up to a classification of the seven tributaries by character and topography, a taxonomy of Bradford's watercourses.

This blog records my main research findings, and includes contributions from experts on local history and geography, as well as stories contributed by exhibition visitors. It is intended as a legacy of the exhibition, and I hope will lead to a developing conversation about the future of the Beck.