The Erewash Canal runs for nearly 12 miles between the river Trent, near Long Eaton, and Langley Mill, and for the most part it follows the river Erewash, which forms the boundary between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The canal finally crosses the river as it moves into Nottinghamshire at the three-arched Shipley Aqueduct which, apart from locks, is the only major structure on the canal. This wide canal with 14 locks was surveyed by John Smith and designed by John Varley, received Parliamentary approval in 1777 and by 1779 it had been constructed at cost of £21,000; £2,000 under budget and ahead of time as well.
The canal was built largely to bring coal out of the Erewash Valley pits and down to the river Trent for onward trade to Nottingham and Leicester; it was profitable with £100 shares selling at £1300 and a maximum dividend of 78%. It initially served the many 'bell' pits between Ilkeston and Langley Mill, with horse-tramways bringing coal to waterside wharves at several points that are now rural areas. From Ilkeston downwards, there were major iron works at Cotmanhay, Stanton and Trent Lock. Smelting continued at Stanton until the 1970s but iron pipes are still made and token loads were carried by narrow boat for the Devizes back-pumping scheme in 1995.
Coal owners were the original proprietors of the canal and Robert Barber and Thomas Walker who later formed the Barber Walker Colliery Company were commissionaires of the canal, sorting out problems and arguments with the various boat owners. They were also proprietors of the Cromford and Nottingham Canals, which joined the top end of the Erewash Canal in 1794. Others were Benjamin Outram and William Jessop, who formed the Butterley Company and had extensive iron and coal interests further up the valley.
The Erewash, unlike the Cromford and Nottingham canals, was never taken over by the railways and remained profitable and independent until absorbed into the Grand Union in the 1930s. Coal mining subsidence, which closed the Cromford and Nottingham Canals, did not affect the Erewash Canal so badly. Some lock walls were raised and the surviving original brick arch bridges on lock tails make passage difficult for boats over ten feet wide.
The canal saw its swansong during the Second World War when iron and munitions were loaded from Stanton Ironworks and coal was still carried by boat from Shipley and Langley Mill; the latter continuing for a few years after the war. During the war, running of the canal was taken over by the National Transport Committee and subsequently it was nationalised at the end of 1947, unlike its neighbour the Derby Canal, which joined at Sandiacre and ran to Swarkestone. Following the British Waterways Act of 1962, the canals were now on their own and had to justify their existence. One of the first things the BW Board did was to examine its assets and decide which was the least expensive way to deal with a run-down and under-used canal system.
In December 1965, their proposals were published as The Facts about the Waterways, in which it said that waterways with a profitable future were mainly river navigations; with a few canals having a future as water feeders. For many more the future looked bleak. The Erewash Canal was lucky in that water from Langley Mill was used to feed the iron furnaces at Stanton Ironworks, but the locks were likely to be weired to save money.
It was at about this time that Russ Godwin, John Page and Tom Henshaw made trips about twice a year up to Langley Mill from Trent Lock. These three were members of the old IWA Midlands Branch and were members of Swarkestone Boat Club on the Trent & Mersey Canal. They had tried to keep the Derby Canal open but the owners wanted to sell it to Derby City Council who wanted to fill it in. A very short time after the sale this is exactly what happened, except for a short section which Russ Godwin bought.
This trio - along with Royston Torrington, the local IWA Council member - did not want the same thing to happen to the Erewash Canal when BW made proposals to reduce the canal to a water channel down to Tamworth Road, Long Eaton. This gave Derbyshire County Council the idea in 1967 that parts of the canal could be culverted for road improvements. At this point, Jim Stevenson (an angler) and other Long Eaton locals joined with IWA's Midlands Branch and held a public meeting in Long Eaton, where it was decided that they form the Erewash Canal Preservation & Development Association (ECP&DA). It has been suggested that the "& Development" bit came from Bessie Bunker of The Inland Waterways Protection Society. The combined effect of public opinion, keen volunteers and support from local authorities was to change the County Council’s mind about the new road, and the canal was saved at least for the time being.
Then, in 1968, Barbara Castle’s Transport Act gave some possible respite to the Erewash in that the section to Tamworth Road was retained as Cruiseway and from there to Langley Mill as a Remainder waterway - to be dealt with "in the cheapest way consistent with safety". In November 1968, the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council visited the canal and recommended, "that the Erewash Canal cruising waterway be extended from Tamworth Road Bridge, Long Eaton to Langley Mill and that a secure mooring site be established near the Langley Mill terminal." This became part of the Lord Chancellor’s Guarantee which also ensured the keeping of much of the remainder section of Birmingham Canal Navigations.
Sir Frank Price, the then Chairman of BW, visited the canal in 1968 and was impressed by its potential as an amenity waterway and organised a meeting with local authorities to discuss additional funding. The restoration cost of the whole length of the canal was estimated to be about £45,000 - and from 1969 Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire County Councils agreed a subsidy of £5,000 a year for nine years; effectively this replaced all the sub-standard lock gates on the canal and covered some dredging work.
At about this time BW wanted to demolish the Sandiacre Lock cottages and toll house. ECP&DA approached BW with a view to leasing the cottages as the Canal Association's headquarters to save what were the last remaining lock cottages on the canal. BW local management was totally opposed to the suggestion until the personal intervention of Sir Frank changed their minds. But problems were not over and difficulties with demolition orders and planning consents bit into the original 12-month lease; however the details were eventually sorted out.
From 1968, IWA members and the newly formed ECP&DA held work-parties on the canal to clear rubbish from pounds and locks. Mick and Carole Golds offered to help at one of these and Mick became the Working Party Organiser. In order to get more boats on to the canal, cruises were organised up to Langley Mill and an annual boat rally was held, initially at Gallows Inn, then Ilkeston, followed by Cotmanhay and other locations. Surviving the threat of the take-over of BW waterways by the new Regional Water Authorities in 1974 - the subject of a successful IWA national campaign - the Erewash Canal finally became relatively safe under the British Waterways Act 1983 when it was transferred from Remainder to Cruiseway status.
ECP&DA took IWAAC’s suggestion seriously, and in 1971 made plans for a terminus at Langley Mill. The old Erewash Basins below Derby Road bridge had been filled in 1963 by BW and the Erewash Canal feed piped under what became Vic Hallam’s car park. However, the Derby Road Bridge was still intact and beyond it lay the derelict Lock 14 of the Cromford Canal and the Great Northern Basin of the Nottingham Canal. Plans were made to dig out the Great Northern Basin, which was full to coping level with silt and weed, re-activate the seized-up swing bridge and restore Langley Bridge Lock. Mick Golds, a bricklayer by trade, organised the work and gained donations of plant, transport and materials; the total cost coming to about £1500.
The old bottom gates were found in the lock and re-planked, with the top gates being acquired from Lock 17 on the derelict Wollaton flight of the Nottingham Canal; one gate having been partly burnt by vandals was re-built. BW allowed the lock to be used provided ECP&DA lodged £700 in a bond to repair the gates should they collapse. The Basin was opened on Spring Bank Holiday weekend 1973 and since then nearly all major rallies on teh canal have been held at Langley Mill.
ECP&DA were in an unusual position in that they leased Langley Bridge Lock and the Basin from British Waterways - as it was part of an abandoned Cromford Canal - but ECP&DA was responsible for all the maintenance; which was carried out by volunteers under Mick’s leadership. The top gates required further repair in 1983 as the 1973 repair used sub-standard timber. These replacement gates are still in use and probably the oldest gates on the BW system. Following a serious leak on one of the tail gates in 1984, new gates were built and fitted with money from a Shell Award in 1986.
Previously in 1985, a Shell Award contributed £1000 to rebuilding the swing bridge across what was the stop lock on to the Nottingham Canal. In 1990 local children were sitting on a top gate balance beam bouncing it when the beam broke at the quoin post. As a piece of timber to replace it would have been very expensive and difficult to work, the volunteers built a hollow steel beam to match the one on the other side; BW then used this beam as the prototype for the current model hollow steel balance beams.
Visitors to Langley Mill come up the Erewash Canal with plenty of water flowing over the gates but are told to conserve water at Langley Bridge Lock. This is because the Cromford Canal is filled in above Langley Mill and this section depends on the Nottingham Canal feeder reservoir overflow at Moorgreen. It has meant that considerable dredging has had to be done to keep the feeder channel clear and in 1995 a pump was installed in the old sewage pump house to back-pump water from the Erewash Canal round Langley Bridge Lock. This splendid little Victorian building was going to be demolished by Severn Trent Water and so ECP&DA now have it on a 99-year lease, and have cleaned and re-painted the interior. Sandiacre Lock Cottage has also been extensively restored and in 1980-1 it was completely re-roofed and the interior re-lined with plaster board. Work continues here, with maintenance often needed to repair vandalism damage.
ECP&DA has always looked on the Cromford Canal north of Langley Mill as a logical extension of the Erewash Canal. Following the opening in 1973, BW would not allow any further restoration unless a commercial rent was paid. Some of the volunteers, wearing a different hat, therefore formed the Langley Mill Boat Co Ltd, excavated more of the filled-in canal, built a dry dock and provided moorings. Since then, the company has made two further extensions. ECP&DA has built a new concrete wall on the next section as part of an opencast coal development to restore the next 250 yards of canal.
In 1975, ECP&DA fought, along with IWA, to keep Ironville Locks on the Cromford Canal - some 3 miles north - intact; when BW wanted to use them as the emergency weir stream for Codnor Park Reservoir. Although the canal through Ironville was greatly improved BW, Severn Trent Water and Derbyshire County Council found many reasons for not restoring it to navigation and BW went ahead with the overflow scheme in 1982. In 1996, the Groundwork Trust and IWA organised an engineering study by Binnie & Partners who revealed that restoration was still possible to Ironville with less obstacles than in 1976; however, the restoration funding package fell through. Then in 2002, ECP&DA, IWA and local enthusiasts formed the Friends of the Cromford Canal which plans to restore the whole canal, so one day there will be even more to see!
But the Erewash Canal is well worth a visit in its own right. It is no longer so industrial, there is usually plenty of water and the weed of 30 years ago is now rarely seen. So don’t be put off by scare-stories. Nearly every boater who reaches Langley Mill expresses surprise how interesting the canal is and ECP&DA has plaques for sale to commemorate your visit and support its work.
There is always a welcome at Langley Mill, the safe moorings requested by IWAAC are well used by visitors, and boaters come to use the dry dock and other facilities. The Erewash Canal and Great Northern Basin is a tribute to the foresight of the founders of the ECP&DA 35 years ago and the continuing efforts of their successors in keeping their vision alive.