EMIAC 90: Ashby Canal

Moira, 23rd April 2016

Conference Details


The Ashby Canal was built between 1794 and 1804 to serve the eastern basin of the Leicestershire and Derbyshire coalfield. Originally 31 miles long, running from Ashby Wolds to the Coventry Canal at Marston Junction, it continued to serve this purpose until the 1960s, despite being taken over by the Midland Railway Company in 1845. The canal suffered decline and gradual partial closure in the 20th century but the section from Snarestone down to the Coventry Canal remained open and is still navigable today. In recent years much progress has been made in getting the canal restored north of its present terminus by the Quarry Lane Pumping station, near Snarestone. This Heritage Day will give you the chance to get up-to-date information on restoration progress as well as learn about the history of the canal and its tramroads.


Organised by the Railway and Canal Historical Society and held on the 23rd April 2016 in Moira.

Conference programme:

09:30 Registration

09:50 Welcome and introduction

10:00 The Ashby Canal and Tramroads

10:45 Break, coffee and biscuits

11:15 The Ashby Canal, decline and restoration

12:00 Open forum and EMIAC Business Meeting

12:30 Lunch

14:00 Site visits:

either walk along the towpath of the restored canal to the Moira Furnace, an early 19th century blast furnace now a museum (entrance £2 not included in conference fee).

or     visit Snarestone Wharf to see recently restored length of canal, part of the abandoned length and what is planned.

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Part of the Ashby Canal opened in 2015 showing the new bridge No 62
Part of the Ashby Canal opened in 2015 showing the new bridge No 62.

Image courtesy of RCHS.

Conference Report

Dr Wendy Freer

With completion of the Trent & Mersey Canal in 1777 there were soon plans to link it to the new Coventry Canal thereby giving the Ashby Wolds coalfield access to the canal network. In 1787 William Jessop wanted to provide a link between the lime quarries at Breedon and the River Trent.

Late in 1792 Robert Whitworth revised his 1781 plans to propose a canal from Griff, near Nuneaton, to the Ashby Wolds. Jessop checked the plans which formed the basis of a bill to authorise a company to raise £150,000 of capital. Before the bill was passed in May 1794 the junction with the Coventry Canal was moved to Marston. Whitworth and his son, also Robert, were appointed engineers and cutting began in the autumn of the same year. It was estimated to cost £145,545.

Although both the Coventry and the Oxford Canals were 'narrow' canals, it was decided to build a 'broad' canal. By late 1796 with rising costs and share holders not honouring their pledges it was decided to replace the planned branch canals with tramways.

The following year Whitworth Jnr became ill and the Whitworths were replaced by Thomas Newbold. At the same time a study of the Ashby Wolds collieries suggested they wouldn't be producing coal by the time the canal was completed. By March 1798 the canal was operational between Marston and Market Bosworth.

Having considered options for building tramways since 1793, the company finally asked Newbold to investigate possible routes in June 1798. Benjamin Outram (of Butterley Works) suggested running lines from Willersley Basin to Ashby before splitting to Cloud Hill and Ticknall with branches to Calke Abbey and Staunton Harold. It was to be laid as double track to Ashby with the branch lines laid as single track.

With his quotation accepted by early 1799 Outram was pressing for permission to start work; by April he had cast 5 miles of rails. Although a contract had yet to be signed, work started at the Tichnall end in September. Whilst other tramways had been laid to a gauge of 3 ft 6 in, Outram argused in favour of 4 ft 2 in the basis that railways would soon be the principal mode of transport.

Despite lack of forthcoming funds the tramways were completed and in use by mid 1802 and the level section of canal from Marston to Moira was opened in April 1904. The only lock was a stop lock at Marston to protect the water supplies. Total cost of constructing canal and tramways amounted to £184,070.

The Moira pit was sunk to produce high quality coal that was highly sought after in Coventry and London. With the steady expansion of the pit, Moira was the main source of canal traffic enabling all loans to be paid off between 1820 and 1827. After revising its toll system in line with other canals in 1822, coal traffic increased five-fold from 1824 to 1828 and reached 37,316 tons by 1827.

With plans for a new railway line Midland Railway (MR) offered to buy the canal for £110,00 in 1845. To protect their interests, the Coventry and Oxford canal companies stipulated that MR had to maintain the Ashby Canal. The takeover was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1846 but the envisaged railway line was not built.

After London and North Western Railway and the MR jointly opened the Ashby and Nuneaton Joint Railway in 1873, the canal continued to carry significant, but decreasing, tonnages: from 138,117 tons in 1862 to 113,659 tons in 1882 and 33,329 tons in 1893. By the 1890s the railway owners had reduced maintenance on the canal.

The upper section of the canal was increasingly affected by subsidence due to mining operations. Yet in 1943 the Moira Coal Company shipped 20,807 tons along the canal; the total tonnage carried by the canal that year was 43,733 tons. The following year London Midland and Scottish Railway tried to give away the canal but failed.

The 2.5 mile section between Moira and Donisthorpe was immediately abandoned allowing the Moira Coal Company mine under its course. Another 5 miles were closed in 1957 and the Measham to Snarestone section was closed in 1966 even though coal was regularly loaded there.

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Geoff Pursglove

Geoff started his presentation by showing some old photographs of the canal in use before its closure, the effect of subsidence on its over bridges and stretches of the drained canal before it was back-filled with mining waste. He showed plans of how mining activity had encroached beneath the canal in the 1960s, even beneath Ilott Wharf, which was still in commercial use.

When the canal was drained at Measham in 1957, it was filled with mass concrete. Other stretches of canal have been in-filled with mining waste.

A public meeting of residents, anglers and waterway enthusiats held at Measham in 1966 was strongly against any further closures of the canal and wanted to see it back in water. Thus was born the Ashby Canal Association (ACA).

A feasibility study for the restoration of the canal between Snarestone and Moira was commissioned; this concluded that there were no insurmountable obstacles. It also recommended that reconstruction should be suitable for broad-beam boats. By 1997 Leicestershire County Council (LCC) had bought much of the route. By 2001 the length between Donisthorpe and what is now known as Conkers Waterside basin had been restored, complete with a new lock to overcome the problems of mining subsidence.

To assist with further restoration the Ashby Canal Trust was set up in 2000; it is a limited company with directors from ACA, LCC, the Inland Waterways Association, British Waterways (later Canal & River Trust) and other interested bodies. A Transport and Works Order was granted to LCC in 2005; this enables them to construct and maintain the canal, compulsorily purchase land and to raise bylaws.

Bridge 62 north Snarestone Wharf was constructed in 2015 with the towpath going around it rather through it. Although a farm accommodation bridge, it is now of substantial proportions in terms of dimensions and load bearing capacity to meet modern legislation. This stretch of canal is now (2016) in water to and just beyond the bridge where there is a winding hole.

For some considerable distance beyond the winding hole the route has been graded down to canal towpath level to facilitate an easy 'start-up' when work recommences. Some of the old MR track bed will be used to restore the canal into the former Measham Station, the buildings of which will be restored. But first a new aqueduct has to be constructed across the Gilwiskaw Brook, an area which suffered considerable mining subsidence. Since mining ceased in the 1990s there has not been any subsidence along the route of the canal.

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Additional material

The following websites provide additional background to the papers presented:

Please note: Although checked at the time of writing, NIAG cannot be held responsible for the validity of these links or the integrity of these sites.

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Images taken during the visit

Moira furnace
Moira furnace.
Moira furnace by the restored Ashby Canal
Moira furnace by the restored Ashby Canal.
Seam markers indicating the coal seams below the canal at Moira
Seam markers indicating the coal seams below the canal at Moira.
New Bridge 62 over the extended Asby Canal
New Bridge 62 over the extended Asby Canal.
Route of the canal beyond Bridge 62
Route of the canal beyond Bridge 62.
The site of the Gilwiskaw aqueduct: masonry from the old aqueduct is still visible as is the degree of subsidence
The old Quarry Lane pumping station, now a private residence
The old Quarry Lane pumping station, now a private residence.

Images courtesy of Terry and Jane Waterfield taken during the visit.

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