Hollinwood & Fairbottom Branch Canals

The Hollinwood Branch left the main line of the Ashton Canal at Fairfield Junction, Droylsden, just above lock 18. It was 4 miles 52 chains long and it terminated at Hardman Fold Basin, Hollinwood, where there was a junction with the privately owned Chamber Colliery Company's Branch, which was about half a mile long. The branch climbed through four locks at Waterhouses and another four locks at Hollinwood, which raised it to the short summit pound. There were three aqueducts, these being located at Littlemoss (over the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway line), Waterhouses (over the river Medlock) and Daisy Nook (over Crime Lane). A canal link to the nearby Rochdale Canal was proposed shortly after the canals opened but this was never built.

Waterhouses Junction was situated immediately above lock 22 and from here the Fairbottom Branch ran westwards through Bardsley to terminate at Fenny Field Bridge. This branch was 1 mile 11 chains long and it had one aqueduct over a lane. A short tramway connected the terminus to Park Bridge where there was an industrial settlement based on an ironworks founded by Samuel Lees in 1786 and later expanded by his widow, Hannah Lees nee Buckley.

The foremost purpose of the two branches was to serve collieries in the vicinity, the coal being carried to neighbouring mills. Coal was also carried into Manchester for both industrial and domestic use.

Coal brought to Manchester in 1836 (tons)
FromBy CanalBy Road
Ashton Canal, including Hollinwood &
Fairbottom Branches
200,400 (39.30%)
Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal120,552 (23.64%)
Rochdale Canal55,388 (10.86%)
Bridgewater (Duke's) Canal43,305 (8.46%)
Oldham81,354 (15.96%)
Rochdale9,100 (1.78%)
Total:510,099

Up until the early 1920s the Hollinwood and Fairbottom Branches were extensively used but mining subsidence had long been a problem and in time Waterhouses Tunnel began causing difficulties as well. The solution for the tunnel was to gradually remove the overlying ground over a period of several years and it was not until the 1920s that this work was completed to leave the canal in a deep cutting where the tunnel had once been. The solution to mining subsidence proved to be intractable and the only way of coping with this problem was to keep raising the banks of the canal. Opening up the tunnel and the raising of canal banks were both expensive procedures that had to be contrasted with falling revenues.

Littlemoss Aqueduct carrying the Hollinwood Branch over the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway line (Manchester & Stalybridge Branch, 1964. It was demolished in the same year.

Credit: C K Potter Archive.
The north portal of Waterhouses (Boodle or Dark) Tunnel, early 20th century.

The tunnel was 66 yards long and there was a towpath through it. The minimum height above water level was 9 feet 1 inch and the minimum width was 8 feet 1 inch.
Locks 20 and 21 at Waterhouses, c.1920.

These locks formed a staircase pair, that is, the top gate of lock 20 was also the bottom gate of lock 21.
The head of lock 22 at Waterhouses with a spillway on the right, 1964.

The spillway was built to remove excess water from the canal in the event of a flash flood. Water flowed down the valley side to discharge into the river Medlock.

Note the bridge carrying the towpath over the spillway, which was supported by stone plinths.

Credit: C K Potter Archive.

By the mid-1920s it was becoming apparent that the two branches were approaching the end of their industrial life. The canal maintenance team of the London and North Eastern Railway Company were based at the Gorton Canal Depot on the Stockport Branch and this was led by Inspector George Lucas. His team was divided into several gangs that were required to provide maintenance cover for the Ashton, Peak Forest and Macclesfield Canals but to these experienced workmen the Hollinwood and Fairbottom Branches were an everlasting irritation, principally due to mining subsidence. By 1904 the Fairbottom Branch Canal above Bardsley Bridge had been abandoned because mining subsidence in the vicinity of the bridgehad reduced its headroom to four feet.

Most of the remaining traffic was concerned with the transportation of coal and because of this, tireless endeavours were made to keep the condition of the canals to a minimum standard. Nonetheless, the final blow to coal traffic came in 1926 as a result of the General Strike. Although this strike only lasted from the 3 - 13 May, coalminers continued with their industrial action and many collieries closed, never to re-open. The little remaining non-coal traffic also quickly fell away due to improved short-haul road transport. This was followed by yet more mining subsidence and on this occasion it was centred on Cinderland Bridge, a mile below Waterhouses locks. This subsidence occurred in the early 1930s and it was decided that the only way to deal with it was to construct a concrete dam at Cinderland Bridge, which severed the canal above it from the rest of the Ashton Canal. However, it appears that there may still have been limited local traffic on this now isolated section of canal, which included the truncated Fairbottom Branch.

As though this were not enough, two leaks developed on the Fairbottom Branch that made it necessary to lower the water level. This reduced level, coupled with minimal maintenance, made navigation a demanding matter and it is interesting to note that a number of special shallow-draught maintenance boats were provided to enable them to navigate in this area. One of these boats was abandoned on the Fairbottom Branch and its remains could still be seen in 1975.

The construction of the dam at Cinderland Bridge brought about the unofficial closure of the Hollinwood Branch in 1932 but there was an abortive attempt to use it again during World War II. By this time the canal above Waterhouses locks and the small reservoir at Hollinwood were choked with weed and rubbish. At this time Hollinwood reservoir was being worked on a small commercial scale as a source of ochre.

After nationalisation, on the 1 January 1948, no attempts were made to repair and re-open the Hollinwood Branch, the steady decline being allowed to continue. By 1948 the Fairbottom Branch could no longer be navigated. In 1955 the section of the two branches from Lumb Mill (Cinderland Bridge) to Hollinwood and to Bardsley was officially closed and in 1961 the remaining section between Lumb Mill and Fairfield Junction on the Ashton Canal was also officially closed. Subsequently, sections of the canal were filled in, particularly in Droylsden, Hollinwood locks were destroyed, Waterhouses locks were capped and the aqueduct over the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway line at Littlemoss was demolished as it was leaking badly.