The Wharfe Navigation

The River Wharfe was once an important transport route for commerce.  Its use for transport probably dates back to Roman times.

In the medieval period, stone for York Minster and the York walls was loaded onto boats at a wharf at the mouth of the Cock Beck.  In 1396 Richard II appointed commissioners to oversee Yorkshire’s navigable waterways, including the Wharfe as far as Tadcaster.

Most vessels were horse drawn whilst on the river.  Because the river was narrow and followed a winding course, being powered by wind was not practicable.  There was a towpath along the river, but it changed sides of the river a few times, which involved getting the horse over the river at these points.  These were termed “Roving” points.

The towpath changed sides of the river. This explains footpaths that currently stop in the middle of nowhere.

In the 1600s the river traffic was considerable.  Roads were in a poor condition, so the river provided the best means of moving goods.

Traffic from Hull to Leeds passed through Tadcaster, with the goods travelling the final stage of the journey by road from Tadcaster.  The reason for this was that the River Aire was only navigable as far as Knottingley.  Leeds made a number of attempts to have a Bill passed by Parliament to improve the Aire navigation, but these regularly failed.  Eventually, a Bill succeeded in 1698 to extend navigation to Leeds, the work being completed in 1704.  This included the provision of a number of locks and some “river straightening”.

The red shows work done to make the River Aire navigable to Leeds. The Tadcaster and Halton Dial Turnpike is shown in green

This was not good news for Tadcaster, but the River Aire was still taking a winding route, making the journey slow.  Traffic continued to pass via Tadcaster.  In 1751, the Tadcaster and Halton Dial Turnpike was built, improving the road journey.   Reports from 1775 refer to up to 20 vessels lying at Tadcaster at any one time.

The Selby Canal is shown in red. This made the journey to Leeds easier.

In 1778, the Selby Canal opened.  This avoided some particularly twisty parts of the River Aire.  This made the use of the River Aire to Leeds more practicable.

In 1820, there was a proposal to improve the river navigation. The 1820 report included a description of traffic on the river.  Traffic was mostly limited to times of the Spring Tide.  It describes seven boats leaving Cawood at about the same time for Tadcaster.  All became stuck at various places.  Sluices were opened at the mill in Tadcaster to send water down the river to help float the boats.  Two reached Tadcaster and the others needed the services of lighters to remove some of the loads so that the boats could finally reach Tadcaster.

1820 Plans to improve the river from the Ouse to Tadcaster

The proposed changes included building a canal from Ulleskelf to Tadcaster, with a lock in the river at Ulleskelf so as to raise the water level so that the shallow sections of the river were less of a problem.  The proposed changes also dealt with some of the shallow stretches of the river below Ulleskelf.  The proposal was discussed for a while but came to nothing.  River traffic was now declining.

1826 opening of the Aire and Calder Navigation between Knottingley and Goole.

In 1826, what was probably the final blow to the Wharfe Navigation came with the opening of the Aire and Calder Canal between Knottingley and Goole.  This speeded up traffic over this section of the Aire.  Traffic to Leeds could now travel there in a much shorter time, meaning that little or no traffic travelled via Tadcaster.

The coming of the railways provided major competition for the river traffic.  Goods could be moved much more quickly using rail.  Even the mill in Tadcaster was served by rail bringing in corn and coal and taking away the milled flour.  The Breweries made use of the railways for moving ale.

One last attempt was made in 1890 to improve the Wharfe Navigation. This proposed to widen the river in places and to dredge the shallows.  An Act of Parliament was passed, but no action seems to have been taken.

1906 Boat unloading at wharf above the bridge

From this time, traffic was very light, mostly carrying coal to a wharf just above the bridge.  Some dredging took place but this was mainly undertaken to obtain sand for building rather than to deepen the channel.

Better railways and roads made river traffic less viable and by the early 20th century, most river traffic had ceased.


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