An Article by Roger Butler

The Leven Canal - straight as an arrow

The Leven Canal, a few miles north of Beverley, must surely be unique since it was commissioned, owned and managed by a woman. In 1799 the newly-widowed Mrs Charlotta Bethell, who owned a large area of land adjacent to the tidal River Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire, asked William Jessop to survey and construct a navigation which would connect the river to the village of Leven approximately 3¼ miles to the east.

The landscape around Leven is both flat and low-lying and, with few contours to consider, Jessop was able to suggest a canal which would run almost as straight as an arrow right into the heart of Leven. His initial estimate was £4,041 and in 1801 Charlotta, at her own expense, secured an Act of Parliament which allowed construction to begin. This stressed that “such Canal may be easily made”, though costs soon exceeded the budget. The new waterway opened in 1805 and immediately provided a link to both Hull and the Humber Estuary.

Topography meant the canal required only a tidal lock at its junction with the River Hull, plus a nearby stop lock and a couple of short aqueducts across two deep drainage ditches. Distinctive Humber keels, designed to sail in shallow waters with dimensions of 64 feet by 15 feet, were able to navigate all the way up to a basin at Leven and records show that at least one boat, weighing 22 tonnes, was permanently based there. The keels had excellent manouverability and could be handled by one person, though often masts were lowered and strenuous bow-hauling towed them along the canal.

Commercial activity

The canal became a commercial success and goods carried included grain and agricultural produce, which was sent down to Hull and Beverley, as well as a full range of materials delivered into the village such as coal, lime and building products. An early document states that tolls were initially set at 6d a ton for lime, manure, dung and soot, rising to 1s a ton for grain, seed, tiles and slates. However, it would appear that costs were more than expected because in 1805 Charlotta obtained a second Act of Parliament which allowed her to increase tolls on all goods carried.

The basin was a simple rectangular shape, surrounded by a range of interesting buildings, and an early account described it as “a commodious wharf and warehouse” where vessels of up to 85 tons could be unloaded. The few records that survive show that 4546 tonnes of freight were carried in 1905, when income generated from tolls was £157 and overall profit was recorded as £123.

The waterway seemed to stimulate economic growth and the population of Leven increased from 400 in 1800 to 890 in 1841. One business which developed as a result of canal trade was the New Inn, which still stands next to the main street and close to today's access onto the towpath. The pub has a grand frontage that connects to what must once have been stables and storage yards, and the licensee in 1850s is known to have also traded as a corn and coal merchant.

Unlike other waterways, the Leven Canal never suffered direct competition from the railways, though the Hull & Hornsealine must have taken some of its trade. The York &North Midland Railway Company's Act of 1847 authorised their purchase of the canal, together with a number of other East Yorkshire waterways, but this was never followed through. Curiously, an early 20th century Royal Commission referred to the canal being both independent and under railway control! Canal traffic eventually declined, but formal closure did not take place until 1935.

Buildings and structures

An imposing Regency style house, built on the east side of the basin, served as the canal headquartes. This looked directly down the waterway, with two symmetrical projecting wings forming a large west facing courtyard. The gable on the northern wing was adorned with decorative brickwork which appeared to reflect Dutch vernacular. The northern side of the basin was dominated by a large three storey granary-cum-warehouse, with doors and chutes leading directly onto the wharf. A smaller, though still substantial, warehouse was built on the south side and other prefabricated structures were still evident long after canal trade had finally come to an end.

By the end of the 1960s the basin had been cut off from the rest of the canal by a turf bank and conversion works to the warehouses were imminent. The canal house, used as solicitor's offices in the early 1970s, is now a private dwelling and the larger warehouse – now only half its original height - has also been converted into a residential property. Over time, the canal terminus has been infilled to create additional lawned areas up to 70 feet west of the northern warehouse, but the truncated channel still reaches into the long rear gardens.

At the western end of the canal a double gated tidal lock provided access to the River Hull but, once the canal declined and closed, this was eventually cut off when a flood embankment was built across the entrance to the junction. These steep grassy slopes immediately turned the canal into an isolated backwater, though a weir with culvert provides a connection to the river.

Old Ordnance Survey maps clearly show a lock house on the south side of the junction, but there is no evidence of this today. It probably fell into disrepair once the canal was closed, and its remains may well have been pushed to one side and buried when the flood embankment was constructed. Until the 1950s, maps also showed a ferry across the River Hull which was operated by the lock keeper to maintain contact with hamlets on the west bank, as well as providing access to the railway station at Arram.

There appear to have been no other buildings, but features of interest include the listed triple-arched brick aqueduct at Sandholme, close to the eastern end of the canal, and another aqueduct (now demolished) half way along the canal. The fixed road bridge at Sandholme. A photograph dated 1919 shows today's low fixed road bridge at Sandholme as an attractive wooden swing bridge with criss-cross railings. Locals talk of a timber bothy, just to the west of the bridge, which was inhabited by agricultural workers in the Second World War but there is no evidence of this today.

Modern times

In 1963, the canal was privately sold at auction for the princely sum of £1,950. At that time a series of houseboats were moored along the south bank to the west of Sandholme Bridge. Photographs indicate that these were already in place by the mid 1950s, but the present day owners now operate a pleasant caravan park alongside this stretch of the canal.

Later, the canal was effectively cut in half when the Far Fox aqueduct over the Holderness Drain (also known as “Old Sal”) was removed as part of modern flood defence works. Short lengths of canal were also infilled either side of this deep marshy ditch, which remains in place and is now crossed by a footbridge which incorporates a pipe linking the two sections of canal. In addition, a large pipe crossing rises from the loamy farmland and takes drainage water up and over the eastern area of infill. Surprisingly, the gates in its green steelwork are left open and these allow access onto a concrete platform which provides a grandstand view of the canal in both directions.

Later, the canal was effectively cut in half when the Far Fox aqueduct over the Holderness Drain (also known as “Old Sal”) was removed as part of modern flood defence works. A short section of canal was also infilled either side of A large pipe crossing now rises from the loamy farmland and carries drainage water over a short infilled length. Surprisingly, the gates leading through its green steelwork are left open and allow access onto an upper concrete platform which gives a grandstand view of the canal in both directions. West of the pipe, a footbridge over the deep line of the original marshy drain ensures a continuous towpath and this incorporates a culvert carrying water from one section of canal to another.

Today, the the two sections of canal remain in water as reed filled channels often bordered by dense hedgerows and occasional craggy trees. A good path, signed 'To Leven Lock', leaves the side of the New Inn car park and heads west between the tall fences of rear gardens to emerge on the north bank. Here, first impressions are of an ornamental pool with weeping willows, rushes and water lilies, but beyond Sandholme Lane the canal narrows and the towpath weaves past banks of reeds towards the more open landscapes by Holderness Drain. A right of way runs along the north bank, but both sides are generally accessible with wide and well maintained verges

A simple steel footbridge, set on the line of the old Far Fox aqueduct, ensures a continuous pedestrian route along the two isolated lengths of canal. Further west, a former swing bridge has been replaced by a low concrete crossing which provides everyday agricultural access. The old stop lock is reached just before the canal swings slightly to the south west on its approach to the river. Brick and stone work is visible, but the remaining timbers have decayed and now resemble the bones of a beached whale.

The lock chamber is largely intact, with remnants of the timber lock gates, but subsidence and settlement have forced the walls out of alignment and old tree roots have lifted large chunks of masonry. The junction is now peaceful and relatively remote and the flood embankment offers good views into the lock and across the surrounding landscape. An otter track slithers down the bank into the chocolate brown river, and in broad daylight I watched a barn owl silently patrol the canal. Three roe deer bounced out of a mossy field and a couple of stoats dashed onto the towpath but quickly turned back into the undergrowth.

Much of the canal is now an extensive reed fringed channel which has been a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for 50 years. In 2004, the rich flora and fauna resulted in the High Court upholding a ban on the current owners from developing the waterway for further recreational use. Angling is allowed in approved areas and some dredging has taken place by the caravan park, but boating is not permitted. More recently, management of the reed beds has helped maintain the quality of the SSSI and prevented them from fully choking the canal.

The latest development to impact upon the canal is a cluster of eight sleek, but very tall, wind turbines erected in the fields south of the pipe crossing at Holderness Drain. These certainly dominate the skyline, but the waterway remains a peaceful corridor that belies its busy past. A recent sculpture in the centre of Leven helps celebrate the role the waterway played in village life, and the Primary School crest features the canal in the form of three swans.

IN A BOX The lady lock keeper

The canal was unique in being owned by a woman – but it had a lady lock keeper too. Matilda Simpson had married the lock keeper in 1834, but he and one of their sons tragically drowned in November 1872 when their boat capsized as they rowed across the River Hull. She took on the role herself and the 1881 census officially records her as lock keeper, aged 66, living at the house by Leven Lock with five unmarried sons and two grandchildren.

Matilda was was still going strong in the 1901 census when, aged 86, her occupation was again quoted as lock keeper. Two sons also remained at home, though the 1851 census had listed twelve family members all living at the lock!