Driffield Navigation

Priestley’s Navigable Rivers and Canals, 1331, describes the navigation thus:

It commences at Aike Beck Mouth, in the River Hull, about four miles and a half north of Beverley. and half a mile above the place where the Leven Canal falls into that River. Its course is northwardly, passing Baswick Steer and Enimotland, to Fisholme Clough, to which place the navigation is continued along the original course of the Hull Riyer, excepting in one instance, where a cut three quarters of a mile in length is made near Hempholme, for the purpose of avoiding a circuitous part of the river. From Fisholme Clough, the remainder of the navigation to Great Driffield, Is made by an entire canal of nearly five miles and a half in length. The river part of this navigation, to Fisholme Clough, is five miles and three quarters but the navigation is extended up Frodingham Beck to the Bridge, a distance of nearly a mile. From thence there is a private navigable cut made to Foston Mills by the proprieter thereof, which is about three quarters of a mile in length.


The retreat of the Ice Sheet from the South Wolds, some 10,000 years ago left a low lying marshy region covered with clay and drained by a profusion of Becks and Meres. The main drainage channel of the region was the River Hull. Early settlement in this rather inhospitable area was restricted to the small hummocks that lay above the marsh, at sites where the modern villages of Brigham, Foston, and Eske are now found. Early settlers possibly used the Becks for primitive transport. The first real evidence of the use of the River Hull for larger craft lies in the discovery of Scandinavian Warrior remains at an old battle site near Corps Landing. One can picture the Viking longboat making its way up river to this point.

As the fertile nature of the region became recognised, artificial drainage cuts were made between the Becks and Mares. Records show how the Monks of Meaux Abbey drained their lands and transported their produce in the twelfth and thirteenth Centuries.

With the growth of the number of craft on the River Hull, and the chance to raise money from Tolls, the Archbishops of York claimed privilege over the River as early as 1213. The limit of navigation at that time was Emmotland, where Frodingham Beck joined the main stream. Records of 1360 indicate that Wansford was the limit of navigation; Bales of wool being carried from there to Hull for 64. During the Middle Ages seagoing vessels regularly reached the Beverley outport at Grovehill. By 1641 regular traffic had developed to Wansford carrying a variety of goods.

The main market town of the Wolds, in 1700, was the small village of Kilham, some 4 miles North East of Drifflield. Its further growth was restricted by lack of good transport and lack of any power source. The hamlet of Driffield had the advantage of water power and a route, by water, to the sea. Thus by 1760 the mills of Driffield were in business and the need for a reliable form of transport became ever more apparent.

The early work of Brindley had by then become well known. It was only a matter of time before a proposal to make the River Hull navigable to Driffield was suggested. Thomas Browne, Lord of the Manor at Skeins, engaged John Smeeton to advise on the construction of a canal across his land, from the “Old Paper Mill” at Driffield to join West Beck half a mile upstream from Corps Landing. This scheme did not materialise as William Porter, the Inn Keeper of The Blue Bell, persuaded the Driffield Merchants that a more elaborate plan, offering a reliable navigation should be constructed as an ‘Amenity’ for Driffield. Isaac Milbourne surveyed the area in 1766 and John Grundy, a Lincolnahire Engineer, presented his proposals for the Navigation in a report dated 18th December 1766. He suggested a line from the town of Driffield to the River Hull below Emmotland, with a basin at Driffield … “to moor and wind keels in”. The cost was estimated at £7, 000, and included a branch up the Beck to Frodingham Bridge. He noted that the River was already navigable to FISHOLME, though “capable of being greatly improved”. John Conyers, a Maldon Solicitor, was engaged to draw up the Act of Parliament. This was presented to the House in January 1767 and, after a minor Objection from Thomas Browns of Skeins, was made Law on 20th May 1767. The preamble read:

An Act for improving the Navigation of the River Hull and Frodingham Beck, from Aike Beck Mouth to the Clough, on the East Corner of Fisholme, and for extending the said Navigation, from the said Clough, into or near the Town of Great Driffield, in the East Riding of the County of York.

Commissioners were appointed by the Act to develop the navigation and cut the Canal to Driffield They were empowered to borrow any sum of money, on security of the rates and duties and, for the repayment of this and legal interest, the Act empowered them to demand the following tonnage rates:


Wheat, Rye Beans. Peas or Rapeseed ….. 0s 6d per Quarter
Malt, Oats, Barley, or any other grain ….. 0s 4d per Quarter
Meal or Flour ………………………………… 0s 6d per sack
Coal, CuIm, or Cinders …………………….. 3s 6d per Chaldron of 48 Bushels
Brick, Stone. Tile or Lime for Building ….. 3s 6d per Ton.
All other goods, Wares or Merchandise …. 4s 0d per Ton.


The first meeting of the Commissioners, named by the Act, was held at the Blue Bell Inn, Driffield, on 17th June 1767. They appointed William Porters son Richard, as engineer. He was fairly quickly replaced by Samuel Allen. on John Grundy’s recommendation. He was replaced in May 1768 by James Dyson in Partnership with James Pinkerton. The work proceeded apace. On 21st November 1769, the YORK COURANT carried a report that the Canal had been completed to Wansford, after it had been inspected by four Commissioners led by John Outram. ‘to ascertain whether the respective workmen have fulfilled their agreements”. On 25th May 1770, the paper carried a report that the line was open throughout its full length from Driffield to Fisholme. The Toll Collector, William Whitby, was appointed at a salary of £40 per year, and the Navigation was In business. To promote trade, and in keeping with the original object of providing an amenity to the town rather than making a profit, tolls were set well below the statutory limits with Coal at 2s. a chaldron, and Merchandise at 3s. per ton.

The Canal, termed the OLD DRIFFIELD NAVIGATION, consisted of four timber floored locks, No.1, (Sheepwash) at Driffield, No. 2 at Whinhill, No. 3 at Wansford, and No. 4 at Snakeholme, exactly three miles from Driffield. The Navigation cut continued a further two miles to the junction with Frodingham Beck, and then followed the winding course of the River Hull to the junction with Aike Beck, the limit of the Commissioners jurisdiction. The works cost £13,000.

Trade in the early years did not develop as rapidly as had been hoped, and takings were insufficient to pay the 5% rate of interest on the original expenditure. Many of the problems to the development of traffic in these early years stemmed from the restrictions imposed by the Hull Bridge, near Tickton, and the shallow depth of the navigation due to silting. These factors, coupled with the short period of time either side of high tide that vessels could gain access to the Navigation through Snakeholme Lock, made the need for modification to the Navigation obvious. A further £2,000 was raised in 1776 to cover the cost of dredging down to Aike Beck. A proposal to build a further lock downstream of Snakeholme Lock, at Thornham Bottoms, to overcome the shallow depth of water at low tide, was also made. To save costs it was later decided to make the Lock at Snakeholme into a staircase pair to lift vessels over the sill of the former lock at low tide. This was completed in 1776. The problem at Hull Bridge still remained. In September 1777 proposals were made by the Commissioners that they should extend their jurisdiction down stream to Hull Bridge and convert the existing Stone Arch Bridge into a Wooden Swing Bridge. This proposal was opposed by the Beverley Corporation, the owners of the Bridge, and the suggestion shelved.

The problems of the Navigation did not stop the Merchants of Driffield from developing the terminal facilities of the Navigation. In 1785, the first major warehouse and Grainery were constructed on the Commissioners land beside the Canal Basin. in 1787, a further Warehouse was built by Richard and William Dunn, the Corn Merchants. 1790 saw the development of a further two Warehouses in Driffield and trade on the Navigation grew.

At the suggestion of the Commissioners William Chapman, of Newcastle, proposed a further plan for improving the Navigation on the 30th November 1796. This included a further Lock at Struncheon Hill. with a lock cut to avoid a rather large loop in the course of the River Hull. together with additional dredging, at an estimated cost of £5,635. Again nothing materialised due to the prohibitive costs involved.

In 1799, matters were brought to a head by a prolonged stoppage at Hull Bridge. At their Annual Meeting in 1800 the Commissioners ware provoked into action. William Chapmans earlier plans were reviewed by an Improvements Committee. Plans were made to raise the height of Hull Bridge and extentions to the Navigation, to Frodingham Bridge and Corps Landing, were proposed. The land was surveyed by Samuel Dickinson in September 1800, and plans formally presented to the Commissioners by William Chapman. These formed the basis of the NEW DRIFFIELD NAVIGATION Act of 1801. The preamble read: – “An Act to amend an Act, passed in the Seventh Year of the reign of his present Majesty, entitled, An Act for improving the Navigation of the River Bull and Frodingham Beck, from Aike Beck Mouth to the Clough, on the East Corner of Fisholme, and for extending the said Navigation from the said Clough. into or near the Town of Great Driffield, in the East Riding of the County of York. and to extend and improve the Navigation.

Apart from the proposals made by William Chapman, the Act stipulated that the Commissioners could take down and rebuild, within 6 years, Hull Bridge near Beverley, and also that they were to maintain a Towing Path from Hull Bridge to Fisholme. Above Struncheon Hill Lock, to maintain the Right of Way between the two sections of land that were divided by the new Lock cut, the Act made provision for a Swing Bridge to be erected over the new cut. This bridge became known as Bethell’s Bridge. The Commissioners were allowed to levy additional Tolls and Towpath dues, as follows:



Wheat, Rye Beans. Peas or Rapeseed ….. 0s 3d per Quarter
Malt, Oats, Barley, or any other grain ….. 0s 2d per Quarter
Meal or Flour ………………………………… 0s 3d per Sack of five Bushels
Coal, CuIm, or Cinders …………………….. 1s 9d per Chaldron of 48 Bushels
Brick, Stone. Tile or Lime for Building ….. 1s 9d per Ton.
All other goods, Wares or Merchandise … 2s 0d per Ton.


For every Description of Merchandize towed along the River by the Haling Paths from Hull Bridge to Fisholme, Corps Landing. and Prodingham. 0s 0¼ per ton per mile.
After Hull Bridge is rebuilt, a Pontage Rate of Two Shillings and sixpence will be levied on every vessel passing under it.


Work on the New Navigation made a slow start. Tenders were called for the dismantling and rebuilding of Hull Bridge, in the Hull Advertiser 18th June 1803. The work of rebuilding the Bridge was completed by 1st November 1803, at a cost of £560 The Navigation works, including the new lock staircase and lock cut, were in the hands of William Chapman, and Thomas Atkinson of Driffield contracted for the River Works. The mortgagees of the Old Navigation put up the money for the Navigation works, and half the cost of rebuilding Hull Bridge (the other half being raised by Richard Bethell who owned the Leven Canal and could thus benefit from the reconstruction). The authorised work was completed in 1805, (except for the navigation to Corps Landing which was completed in 1811) at a cost of £6,143.

With the new works completed, the Navigation was at last in a position to meet the demands that the traffic placed upon it. Trade increased and the dividends on the New Navigation were paid in full. By 1808 the basic loan was being repaid. The problems of the debts of the Old Navigation still remained. Under the 1801 Act the revenue from the New Navigation could not be directed into the Old Navigation accounts. Thus the profit on the “New” contrasted with the long outstanding debts of the “Old Navigation”. Friction rapidly generated amongst the share holders and, on the 7th July 1816, the Commissioners received a petition from the proprietors of the Old Navigation stating that their Tolls were insufficient to meet the interest due. They requested that suitable measures be taken to resolve their financial problems. As the result of these pressures, the Third Driffield Navigation Act was promoted. The Act received Royal Assent on 7th July 1817, and was entitled:

‘An Act to amend and enlarge the powers of Two Acts of his present Majesty, or improving the Navigation of the River Hull and Frodingham Beck ………….’

This Act recognised the original intention of the Navigation as being solely an “Amenity” for the people of Driffield. It detailed the debts of the Old and New Navigations and directed that, as soon as the Principal plus Interest due to the mortgagees was repaid, the tolls should be reduced so that no greater income was derived from the Navigation than was required to keep it in repair and meet other incidental expenditure. The Act also included a provision for the regulation of water levels at Frodingham Bridge, to safeguard the drainage of adjacent lands. To enable this to be done a mark was cut in the stonework of the Steeple of Frodingham Church.

This Consolidation Act provided the financial salvation of the proprietors of the Old Navigation. By 1825 the backlog of interest owed to investors had been cut by half. J. H. La Manche proposed a ‘Sinking Fund’ in 1825 to clear the remaining debts. The proposal was accepted in 1834 and by 1844 all interest appears to have been cleared. As the traffic developed the Public Landings at Corps Landing (1825) and Frodingham Bridge (1826) were opened. Priestley, in 1831, recorded that the Navigation was cheifly used for the import of coal from the West Riding, and timber, deals and groceries from Hull; and for the export of wool, corn, and other farming produce from the East Riding. Driffield grew and the Merchants prospered.


The Driffield Navigation was designed for Yorkshire Keels. These sailing boats, with shallow draft, were capable of sailing up confined navigations, yet with their lee-boards down, they were equally able to navigate the Humber and Coastal waters. The usual dimensions were 6Oft long, 15ft beam, with a 7ft draft when fully laden with 100 tons. They had a 5Oft mast which carried two sails, a large mainsail and a small topsail. For passage up the navigation, with a depth of 5ft 6ins, 65 tons was the maximum cargo that could be carried.

The first record of a steam boat on the Navigation was in 1817 when a Steam Packet from Driffield to Hull operated three times per week. This was followed in 1825 by an Express Steam Packet.

During the 1820’s, regular Grain and Flour traffic developed, making Driffield the main grain marketing center for the region.




Coal chaldrons


Oats Quarters

Barley Quarters

Flour sacks

Toll receipts





































This traffic continued at a high level even after the advent of the railway in 1846. By cutting Tolls by hall the Commissioners defeated the proposal to build a branch line from Driffield to Frodingham Bridge. In 1855, to combat further competition from the Railway Companies, the Commissioners asked Edward Walsh to make a report on the Navigation and recommend how it could be improved. Various proposals were made, but after strong opposition from local Landowners, the proposals were dropped.

In 1862 the Driffield and East Riding Pure Linseed Cake Company built a new Mill at Driffield, close to the Canal Head. In 1870 the Mill was extended, bringing even more regular trade to the Navigation. The proceeds from this trade enabled the Commissioners to install a Crane at Canal Head in 1865, and rebuild Bethell’s Bridge and re-gate Whinhill Lock in 1867.

By 1870 the trade was beginning to fall. The amount of Coal carried up the Canal slowly declined, but the back haul of grain declined far more quickly. The following table shows how the tonnage declined:


Year Tonnage
1871 35, 654 Goods carried included Coal, Linseed, Cottonseed, Wheat Flour, and (later) Artificial Manure.
1888 28,818
1898 24,117
1905 24,378


By 1922 the tolls were £714 and the profits £88. In 1931 receipts were £414 and the profits down to £11. With less traffic, lower profits, and little prospect o a growth in trade, maintenance standards fell. By 1937 the Locks and Bridges were in a poor state of repair. A report in 1939 records that the canal was weedy throughout its entire length. Water began to leak through the Banks between Whinhill and Snakeholme Lock and a real danger to the surrounding land drainage was evident. Some dredging was carried out during the early l940’s but this did little to improve the condition of the Canal. The bat commercial craft to reach Driffield was the Keel ‘CAROLINE’ loaded with 50 tons of wheat on 16th March 1945. The last commercial craft on the Navigation was the vessel ‘OUSEFLEET’, delivering coal to Frodingham Wharf during the period to December 1951.

With the demise of commercial, navigation, the interest of the Commissioners waned. A special meeting was called in November 1948 and it was decided to sell the Warehouses at River Head and settle all liabilities. The last meeting of the Management Committee was in July 1952. They heard that the Hull and East Yorkshire River Board had applied to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries for the transfer of their powers, As the meeting was without a quorum, no agreement could be reached, and the scheme for transfer was dropped. The Commissioners thus continued as the Navigation Authority.

In 1955 an unauthorised fixed bridge was built across the navigation at Whinhill but the IWA received the assurance that, if at any future date the navigation was reopened to Driffield, the bridge would be removed. The major obstruction to the renewal of the navigation to Driffield was incurred in 1967, when the County Council replaced the bridge which carries the public right of way over the Navigation at Wansford with a fixed bridge. As this action was taken without the agreement of a quorum of Commissioners the legality of the step must be questioned. Only a Court could adjudicate on this action.

A possible chance to restore the Navigation came in 1960 when the Hull Corporation decided to contribute 2/3rds of the coat of a new sewage plant for Driffield with the aim of safeguarding Hull’s water supply from pollution. Hull Corporation also spent some £185,000 on a Water Abstraction scheme using water from the River Hull, although much of it was originally from the Driffield Navigation. It was estimated by the IWA that the additional coat of restoring the Navigation, as part of this scheme, was only £17,000. A petition was raised and put to the Hull Corporation, but it failed. Again the future of the Navigation became uncertain and the decay continued.

In 1968 the Driffield Navigation Amenities Association was formed and the start of a new chapter in the life of the Navigation began.