Beat Bank Branch Canal

The canal that never was

Authorisation, Construction and Abandonment
The Act authorising the Ashton Canal, or the Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham Canal to give it its full name, received the Royal Assent on the 11 June 1792 (Note 132 George III. Cap. 84.). This was, 'An Act for the making of a navigable canal from Manchester to or near Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham in the County Palatine of Lancaster'. The canal was to be constructed from the eastern end of Piccadilly, Manchester, to Fairfield and from there to Dukinfield Bridge at Ashton and also to New Mill near the town of Oldham.

This Act authorised a branch canal that was planned to commence at Fairfield and be cut in a northerly direction until it reached the vicinity of the river Medlock near Waterhouses. From there it was to generally follow the southern bank of the river, upstream, (but crossing it twice) to terminate at New Mill near Park Bridge. The Act also made provision for a short branch at Ashton to cross the river Tame into Dukinfield (Note 2The Peak Forest Canal started at the southern end of the Tame Aqueduct in Dukinfield, Cheshire.).

It is evident that concerns were soon being expressed within the Canal Company about the adequacy of coal supplies for the canal to carry and thus generate income. On the 18 September 1792, the Manchester Mercury reported that a meeting of Proprietors was to be held to consider proposals and estimates for making branches from the Ashton Canal and the method of raising money to enable this to be done. On the 20 November 1792, this paper announced that a General Meeting of the Company of Proprietors would take place on the 12 December 1792 to consider the draft of a proposed Bill intended to be applied for in the next session of Parliament. This draft contained details of proposed extensions to the Ashton Canal.

The November press announcement stimulated new interest in the Company and on the day before the General Meeting a Notice was placed in the Manchester Mercury for the sale of shares in the Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham Canal. Applications were to be sent to A B George's Coffee House, Temple Bar, London.

The Second Bill received Royal Assent on the 28 March 1793 (Note 333 George III. Cap. 21.). It authorised the cutting of a lock-free southern branch from Clayton to the Three Boars Heads Inn at Heaton Norris, Stockport, passing through Openshaw, Gorton and Reddish and this became known as the Stockport Branch Canal. It also authorised another lock-free branch canal from this, following contours along the edge of the Tame Valley, to Beat Bank, Denton, on the Stockport/Ashton road, to access collieries in the neighbourhood. This suggests that the Beat Bank Branch Canal would have terminated at or near the hamlet of Beat Bank but its actual terminus was to have been at the hamlet of Burton Nook where there were rich seams of coal.


Map 1: Ashton Canal and its Branches.

Simultaneously, plans for the northern canal branch (authorised by the first Act) from Fairfield were substantially modified. At Waterhouses the branch was now to cross the river Medlock where, after rising through four locks, it was to divide with one branch going to Stake Leach at Hollinwood and another going towards Park Bridge following the northern bank of the Medlock upstream. The canal between Fairfield and Hollinwood became known as the Hollinwood Branch Canal, the authorised terminus being at Bradley Bent, and the branch from Waterhouses to its terminus at Fenny Field, near Park Bridge, became known as the Fairbottom Branch Canal.

However, subsequent developments sealed the fate of the Beat Bank Branch Canal. The Ashton Canal Company had a problem in that the authorised terminus of the Hollinwood Branch Canal did not extend as far as a suitable water supply or to lucrative coal pits a short distance to the north. As it happened, the canal was extended beyond its authorised terminus at Bradley Bent to end at Jig Brow, Werneth, but this extension was unauthorised.

The pit at Jig Brow was owned by the Werneth Colliery Company, which was empowered to build a canal to an existing canal provided that it was not more than four miles long. Accordingly, they built a canal, including four locks, from Jig Brow to Bradley Bent. The total length of canal built by the Werneth Colliery Company was around 1,672 yards, well below the four miles permitted. The Ashton Canal Company bought 792 yards of this at the southern end, including the four locks, and the Colliery Company retained about 880 yards at the northern end for private use, this being known as the Werneth Canal. Later, the larger Chamber Colliery Company absorbed the Werneth Colliery Company.

The Werneth Colliery Company initially consisted of a group of collieries developed by John Evans, William Jones and John and Joseph Lees and, importantly, the Lees brothers were shareholders in the Ashton Canal Company.

The Ashton Canal Company started work on cutting the branch canals as soon as the Second Bill was passed. On the 24 September 1793, the Manchester Mercury reported that, '---- the Company is in want of an engineer to superintend the completion of the cutting of the Canal and several branches. The cutting of the canal from Clayton to Heaton Norris (Note 4The Stockport Branch.) and from Taylor's Barn, Reddish to Beat Bank, Denton (Note 5The Beat Bank Branch Canal.) is to be let in several different lengths.'

An inspection of maps and physical remains of the Beat Bank Branch Canal shows that it was, indeed, let to contractors in several different lengths. This was, and still is, standard practice in the civil engineering industry and it pays testimony to the accuracy of both the surveyors and their instruments in those early days. It is possible to stand on Ross Lave Lane, Denton, and in one direction to see a section of earthworks and in the opposite direction to see a hillside without earthworks and yet the surveyors had absolute confidence that they had got their levels right for this isolated section. From the same vantage point it is possible appreciate the magnitude of the work that would have been required of the navvies in digging or boring through that hillside.

In common with most canal companies, the Ashton Canal Company soon became cash strapped and this gave cause for concern. A special meeting was held on the 10 June 1795, '---- to consider the propriety of Cutting so much of the Canal, as lies between Taylor's Barn, in the township of Reddish, and Beat Bank (it being Doubtful whether it might be for the Interest of Proprietors to cut that part of the said Canal for the present).' On the 30 June 1795, the Manchester Mercury reported that this meeting was adjourned until the 10 July 1795. However, it seems that work on cutting the Beat Bank Branch Canal continued for a little while longer.

By early 1797 the main line of the Ashton Canal and the Hollinwood and Fairbottom branches were complete and the Stockport Branch Canal was nearing completion. Having ensured sufficient supplies of coal from the Hollinwood and Fairbottom Branches, the Ashton Canal Company decided to formally cease work on the Beat Bank Branch Canal built on difficult clay slopes at the side of the river Tame. They made representations to William Hulton Senior, who was a landowner and coal proprietor in Denton, to the effect that they simply could not afford to complete it.

The Canal Company then applied for a Bill to allow them to legally abandon the Beat Bank Branch Canal, after paying compensation to landowners for damage done, and at the same time raise another £30,000, half of which was to be used to pay off debts. Predictably, William Hulton Senior opposed this Bill, so the Canal Company then offered to give him the unfinished branch. He refused this offer and simultaneously tried to get the abandonment clause defeated. He failed in this attempt and the Act (Note 638 George III. Cap. 32.) was passed on the 26 May 1798.

An examination of the 1888 Distance Tables of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company provides some reasons for the abandonment of the Beat Bank Branch Canal. It lists two major colliery companies who extensively used the Hollinwood and Fairbottom Branches to carry coal. These were the Chamber Colliery Company, now incorporating the Werneth Colliery Company, and the Bardsley Colliery Company. By 1888 numerous pits, dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, would have either closed or merged but, nevertheless, the Tables illustrate that the Ashton Canal Company seems to have obtained ample supplies of coal from the Oldham area to generate enough revenue and also avoid the need to raise further capital at the construction stage back in the 1790s. Arguably, the economics of successfully operating the canal was the cause of the cessation of work on the Beat Bank Branch Canal in 1795 and its abandonment in 1798 but the influence of the Lees brothers, as shareholders of the Ashton Canal Company, cannot be lightly dismissed.

Rationale for Abandonment
It is interesting to examine in greater detail the motivation behind the Ashton Canal Company in deciding to abandon the Beat Bank Branch Canal. At this distance in time from the events this may seem a difficult task but, as military strategists will confirm, human psychology does not change. There was a huge reserve of coal in the Denton and Haughton area and it seems that the Ashton Canal Company too easily gave up the idea of carrying any of it on the proposed Beat Bank Branch Canal. This volte-face occurred at practically the same time that they received authorisation to do it and in so doing they lost an important source of revenue. Human avarice suggests that if coal could be carried into industrial Manchester and Stockport from both the north and south sides of the Ashton Canal, then it would have been done. One coalfield could then have been played off against the other with impunity and lucrative deals could have been struck and tolls levied accordingly.

The received facts are:
At the construction stage, the Ashton Canal Company was cash strapped.
The second Act of Parliament empowered the Canal Company to exploit coal reserves both to the north and the south of the main line.
The Lees brothers, to the north, were powerful coal masters as well as being shareholders of the Canal Company.
William Hulton Snr, to the south, was an important coal master but it is understood that he was not a shareholder of the Canal Company.
The Canal Company offered to give the unfinished Beat Bank Branch Canal to William Hulton Snr so that he could complete it himself.
From a civil engineering aspect, the Beat Bank Branch Canal was difficult to construct because the clay slopes of the Tame Valley were prone to slippage. If this problem could not be properly addressed at the construction stage then there would almost certainly have been on-going maintenance problems with the constant possibility of breaches.

In common with practically all canal companies, the Ashton Canal Company was cash strapped but this was the era of 'Canal Mania' and investors were flocking to put their money into such companies. But, somehow or other, they invariably managed to raise sufficient capital to complete their projects. The Canal Company wished to exploit coal reserves both to the north and the south of the main line of the Ashton Canal and their Second Act of Parliament confirms this. Curiously, they then offered to give the Beat Bank Branch Canal to William Hulton Snr in order that he could complete it for himself. This was either an attempt to deceive or to pacify. If he had called their bluff and actually completed it as a private canal could he then have carried coal on it toll free? This leaves two imponderables. Was the Canal Company genuinely anxious about future engineering problems and just how much influence did the Lees brothers actually have on Canal Company policy? On balance, after considering the relevant facts, it seems that the Lees brothers were a major influence in the abandonment of the Beat Bank Branch Canal because its completion was not in their own financial interests. The outcome of this was that most of the coal consumed along the banks of the Stockport Branch Canal was carried there from the Hollinwood and Fairbottom Branches.

The Beat Bank Branch Canal described
Taylor's Barn in Reddish (Note 7The precise location of Taylor's Barn is unknown.), where the Beat Bank Branch started, was 1 mile 18 chains from the terminus of the Stockport Branch at Stockport Basin. Referring to Map 1 above, one would have expected this junction to have been further north. However, in order to follow the contours along the river Tame, the point chosen for the junction was the only one possible.

From Taylor's Barn the branch was cut for a short distance in an easterly direction before turning northwards to pass by the eastern side of Reddish Hall and then on towards Mill Lane, on the Reddish/Denton border where the cutting ceased (Note 8Much of this land is now occupied by the Reddish Vale Golf Course. It is understood that traces of the earthworks can still be seen here and at one point there is said to be a cutting, which looks as though it could have been an approach cutting for a tunnel.). The line then turned to the northeast towards Denton Wood. It then made an acute turn to the southeast to pass through the wood. A stream runs through this wood, so either a small aqueduct or culvert would have been required. On leaving the wood, the line would have passed through a cutting before arriving at Ross Lave Lane, Denton. Here there was another section of earthworks where the line turned in an easterly direction. Prior to the construction of the M60 motorway, this could still be followed along the contours to the southern end of Horse Close Wood. It seemed that all construction work on the Beat Bank Branch Canal ceased at the southern end of Horse Close Wood, where either a culverted embankment or an aqueduct would have been needed to carry the canal across the valley of the stream flowing through Horse Close Wood. However, this seems not now to be the case because there was a suspected cutting to the west of Yew Tree Farm. Following the abandonment of the canal, this final section became part of the lane leading to Bayley Pool Pit in Reddish Vale.


Map 2: Beat Bank Branch Canal, Denton, 1848.

Map 2 (above) shows the conjectural line of the canal between the southern end of Horse Close Wood and Burton Nook as it appeared in 1848. Map 3 (below) shows the conjectural line of the canal as it appeared in 1909.


Map 3: Beat Bank Branch Canal, Denton, 1909.

Evidence now suggests that coalmining activity around the hamlet of Burton Nook began earlier than the knowledge that the shaft of Ellis Pit (Denton Colliery) was sunk in 1841. It now seems that coal was being extracted at Burton Nook by the 1790s and the Act permitting construction of the Beat Bank Branch Canal received the Royal Assent in 1793. This date compares favourably with the knowledge that coalmining was being carried out at Burton Nook by this time. This implies that the terminus of the Beat Bank Branch Canal was to be at the hamlet of Burton Nook. The first shaft to be sunk at Burton Nook was most likely Top Pit, which was given this name to differentiate it from Hulme's Pit and other pits at the foot of Beat Bank alongside the river Tame.

About 264 yards of the Beat Bank Branch Canal was completed and put into water at Taylor's Barn in Reddish (Map 4) (Note 9The junction was at Grid Ref. SJ 893 928.). The Ordnance Survey map of 1896 shows no buildings associated with this branch and the Distance Tables of 1888 provide no clues about its use. The tables refer to it simply as the Reddish or Beat Bank Private Branch. Moreover, as no streams flowed into it, it was not retained to act as a water supply. Consequently, its purpose remains unclear, unless it was used as a winding hole.


Map 4: Beat Bank Branch Canal, Taylor's Barn

Vestiges of the earthworks of the Beat Bank Branch Canal can still be seen at various places but, with the passage of time, these are disappearing. Large-scale maps show a short cutting immediately to the east of Denton Wood. This is the approach to a cutting that would have emerged near Ross Lave Lane. The earthworks adjoining Horse Close Wood were almost destroyed when a main sewage pipe was laid soon after World War II and the line can now only be identified by a row of trees. When the M60 motorway was built, huge embankments were necessary to provide approaches for the bridge across the river Tame in Reddish Vale, which resulted in more disturbance.

Even when the branch was being cut, the Ashton Canal Company was aware that the clay slopes of the river valley were prone to slippage. This process has continued ever since and has generated more loss. In the 1970s it was baffling to see earthworks at different levels until it was realised that slippage had occurred.

At that time, the local farmer, Harold Phillips of Hyde Hall Farm, Denton (Note 10Harold was the brother of Ben Phillips who owned Yew Tree Farm.), said that he was aware of some 'undulations' across his land but he had always believed them to be natural features of the landscape. He was unaware that their existence had been caused by the cutting and abandonment of the Beat Bank Branch Canal.

Coal Pits at Denton and Haughton
Early maps show a number of coal pits in the Denton and Haughton areas with several being located alongside the river Tame. Where there were natural outcrops of coal, these would have been drift mines. Hulme's Lane (Holmes Lane) provided access to these and nowadays this lane is extensively used by walkers.

Other pits were probably fairly shallow bell pits and from the bottom of these galleries would be driven into coal seam at right angles to each other so that pillars of coal were left behind to support the roof. At some point it would be decided that the work could advance no further and the colliers would then withdraw back to the shaft and as they did so they would remove the numerous pillars of coal and in so doing cause the roof to collapse behind them (Note 11This method of working is commonly known as pillar-and-stall working.). The final stage of removing the pillars from a pit of this type was highly dangerous. Having completed this work, it was then a case of sinking another shaft somewhere else. Pits close by the river Tame would have had the added danger of flooding and Hulme's Pit had a beam engine to pump out water.

Eventually, some of the underground galleries would connect with those of other pits and this is how the larger pits may have emerged while others were abandoned as not being viable. There was also a need to sink deeper shafts and this required capital, especially for the acquisition of winding gear. In due time, the following larger pits emerged after the abandonment of a number of smaller ones:

Ellis Pit at Burton Nook. This became the main shaft of Denton Colliery (Note 12In 1908 there were 315 underground workers and 108 surface workers at Denton Colliery.).
Top Pit.
Great Wood Pit, Horse Pit, Hard Mine Pit and possibly an unidentified pit. There was a tramway connection from Great Wood Pit to Denton Colliery Tramway.
Hulme's Pit. This was an old pit (c.1730) at the foot of Beat Bank alongside the river Tame. It was owned by the Denton Colliery Company who also used it as a pumping station for drainage purposes.

Ellis Pit (Denton Colliery) was on the north side of Stockport Road and Top Pit was on the south side. Denton Colliery Tramway connected this complex of pits to Denton Colliery Sidings in Reddish on the Heaton Norris and Guide Bridge Branch of the London and North Western Railway (Note 13This tramway was known locally as the Bogie Lines.).

Another interesting pit was Bayley Pool Pit in Reddish Vale situated to the south of the earthworks of the Beat Bank Branch Canal. Reference to this pit was made in an article about long-serving employees of Denton Colliery published in the North Cheshire Herald on Friday, 28 January 1927.

The Hamlet of Beat Bank
By the end of the 18th century, and throughout the 19th century, Beat Bank was essentially a mining community but its origin goes back much further. The earliest known name for the hamlet and surrounding area is Bight Bank but an alternative spelling is Beet Bank. It was situated on the northern bank of the river Tame, hence the name, 'Bank'. A yeoman's farm was built on the northern bank and this was called Bight Bank Farm (Beat Bank or Yew Tree Farm). This farm was of timber-framed construction having a stone roof and wattle and daub walls. Its appearance suggests that it was built around the time of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and it may be that when it was first built it had a thatched roof that was later replaced by a stone one.

An early surviving record of this farm is in an indenture dated 30 December 1715, which refers to Thomas Lees of Bight Bank in Denton in the County of Lancaster, yeoman. The relevant part of this document reads, '---- Samuel Torkinton of Haughton of Haughton of the same county broad bed weaver, and Martha his wife upon the second part and Thomas Lees of Bight Bank in Denton in the county of Lancaster aforesaid, yeoman, upon the third part, ----'. The 1881 Census records that the farm (renamed Yew Tree Farm) was 32 acres in extent and the farmer was William Whitehead, a bachelor, who lived there with his brother, Peter, a farm bailiff. The timber-framed building was demolished in 1899 to be replaced by a brick-built two-storey house that was demolished in c.1974 to make way for a new housing estate.

The hamlet was separated from Bight Bank Farm by Stockport Road and it contained miners' cottages and a farmstead with a barn and an orchard. The 1881 Census records that this farm was 45 acres in extent and that the farmer was Joseph Leather. Shaw Street lay near the top of Beat Bank and there was a row of four terraced cottages on its southern side. Adjoining this, there was a terraced row of five cottages on Stockport Road. Behind this there was another building divided into three parts but it is not known whether these were cottages or a workshop.

Although Beat Bank is in Denton, it lies within the ecclesiastical parish of St Mary's Church, Haughton Green, and it was without an inn or a shop. The closest inns were the Waggon and Horses (Fletcher's Arms) and the Arden Arms on the Cheshire side of the river Tame. Although Beat Bank lay on the Stockport/Ashton road; it must have been a very isolated community at that time. By the late 1930s, it had been abandoned except for the farmstead, barn, an empty row of terraced cottages and Shaw Street.

Today, practically nothing remains of the former coal pits or of the mining community that served them but with care some traces can be found. The stone-retaining wall around part of Denton Colliery survived until about 2004. The adjoining colliery offices remain and they have long been used as a private residence and display area for a monumental stonemason. By an Act of Parliament of 1911, it became compulsory to have mine-rescue stations. The one built for Denton Colliery, complete with mortuary, is still extant and is now used as two private residences. One miner's cottage associated with Denton Colliery still survives, although much altered. The Fletcher's Arms is still there but the original Waggon and Horses Inn was demolished and rebuilt. Traces of Hulme's Pit remain and have been excavated but fence posts made from iron rail that were alongside the river have now been removed. Some drystone walls, which once formed boundaries at Beat Bank, remain and have been incorporated into garden walls. The walls flanking the entrance to the former road to Beat Bank at the southern end are particularly well preserved and are now part of a garden wall. In Hardy Wood, a sough (drainage channel) associated with Great Wood Pit survives.

Line of the canal looking east south east from Ross Lave Lane, Denton, 26 August 1981.

Reddish Vale and the river Tame are off the picture on the right.
Line of the canal looking east south east from Ross Lave Lane, 22 August 1986.
The canal embankment viewed from Ross Lave Lane, 22 August 1986.
Line of the canal looking east north east on the approach to Horse Close Wood, 26 August 1981.

Reddish Vale and the river Tame are off the picture on the right.
Line of the canal looking east on the approach to Horse Close Wood, 26 August 1981.

Reddish Vale and the river Tame are off the picture on the right.
Line of the canal looking west north west from the southern edge of Horse Close Wood, 26 August 1981.

Reddish Vale and the river Tame are off the picture on the left.
Line of the canal on the approach to Horse Close Wood, 15 March 2009.

Reddish Vale and the river Tame are off the picture on the left.
Suspected cutting of the of the canal to the west of the site of Yew Tree Farm, 15 March 2009.

This view is looking towards Burton Nook.