Chapter One

Before the birth of the railways in 1825, coal was hoofed over the hills of County Durham to the sea.

It was carried in panniers slung over the backs of packhorses and trudged along routes such as Carmel (Coal) Road in Darlington.

Hundreds, probably thousands, of packhorses were in motion at any one time in the county in the 16th Century.

As roads improved, the loads were transferred to a cart which the horse was then expected to pull. A horse could reasonably be expected to drag one ton of coal nine or ten miles in a day.

Naturally, most of the region’s really profitable mines grew up on the seaboard or near the big rivers. This was frustrating for those who owned inland coal seams but were unable to exploit them.

One such person was George Dixon, of Cockfield, who rented the Cockfield Fell Colliery from the second Earl of Darlington, Sir Henry Vane of Raby Castle.

Dixon was a remarkable fellow. He was a chemist, a mathematician and engineer, and he pioneered the use of gas in heating and lighting, an experiment that ended explosively when he blew up his own house.

In 1767, the year that his younger brother Jeremiah was in America surveying the Mason-Dixon Line which separated the southern slave-owning states from the northern ones, George Dixon built his own small stretch of canal on Cockfield Fell. It went in the general direction of Raby Castle from where he hoped either to reach the Tees at Barnard Castle or build a proper canal to the sea.

When George floated a flat-bottomed boat on his little stretch of Cockfield canal, he was so proud that he called his landlord to come and have a look at it. The Earl of Darlington, though, was not impressed and said he would not pay for Dixon to conduct anymore experiments.

(It was Sir Henry’s son, the third Earl of Darlington who tried to break Backhouses’ Bank in 1819 and who tried to block the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the 1820s.)

Undeterred – and this was a period of canalmania in Britain – Dixon came into Darlington and gathered a group of like-minded entrepreneurs at the Post House in Post House Wynd. The gathering included Edward Pease, whose grandson of the same name would come to be called “the Father of the Railways”, and James Backhouse, who had yet to found the family bank and whose grandson Jonathan would “balance the cash” and bankroll the railway.

Also present was Sir William Chaytor of Croft, the only person who would still be living and involved in the project in 1819 when waterpower gave way to steampower.

This meeting instructed James Brindley, the foremost canal engineer in the country, to work out a route which would connect the Durham coalfield with the sea at Cleveland.

As Brindley and his surveyor went to work, the canal committee started collecting money from interested parties: three Allans of Blackwell Grange contributed, as did two Backhouses and five Peases. The chairman of the Canal Committee was Sir John Eden of Windlestone Hall (whom Echo Memories readers met early last year) and he and the Earl of Darlington, who had suddenly come on board, donated £50 each to the kitty.

Whitworth and Brindley reported back with the famous Winston to Stockton Canal plan. It was 33 miles four fathoms and nine chains long – if you include the three branch canals cut from Walworth to Piercebridge, Darlington to Croft and Coatham Stob to Yarm. The canal would be 16ft wide and 5ft 4in deep, and it would cost £63,722 (£3.4m in today’s money).

The advantages were obvious: on water, one horse could do the work of 30 on land. But the disadvantages were also obvious: £63,722 was an awful lot of money and there was still a lot of horsing around to be done to get the coal from the Durham mines to the canal. “It is not practical to go nearer the coalmines on account of their being so high and in so hilly country,” concluded the surveyor.

The plan was quietly forgotten.

It was revived momentarily in 1796 by Ralph Dodd of Stockton who added on the possibility of running another branch which would connect Durham in the north with Darlington, Northallerton, Thirsk and Boroughbridge to the south. Mr Dodd also made the canal between Darlington and Stockton one foot deeper so that small sea vessels carrying up to 50 tons could reach Darlington.

The cost, he said, would be £74,000.

Again, the plan was laid to one side, but this being the era of canalmania all sorts of other projects were floated: the Skerne could be made navigable from Darlington to Croft where it would join the Tees which would also be dug out; the Swale, the Wiske and the Tees would all be joined up by a series of canals. None of these plans even made it as far as the drawing board.

A major problem with all of these ideas was the state of the Tees. It was quicker to sail from London to the mouth of the river than it was from the mouth of the river to Stockton. A boat could take three weeks twisting and turning in the Tees.

In 1810, the Mandale Cut was opened. It was a canal 220 yards long that stopped ships from having to sail around a two-and-a-quarter mile loop of the Tees to reach Stockton.

The Cut was built by the Tees Navigation Company whose solicitor was Leonard Raisbeck. At the dinner to celebrate the Cut’s opening, Raisbeck proposed that a new investigation into a canal connecting Stockton with Winston should begin.

And so it did. John Rennie was the surveyor and he suggested that the original plan of 1767 was the best route. The cost was now up to £95,600.

Rennie reported in 1812, but his scheme was soon overtaken by events. In 1815 there was not only the Battle of Waterloo but also the collapse of Messrs Mowbray, Hollingsworth and Co, the bank on High Row, Darlington (as reported a fortnight ago in Echo Memories).

This financial crisis scuppered the canal until Christopher Tennant of Stockton employed surveyor George Leather to have another go. The result was a meeting at Stockton Town Hall on July 7, 1818, which was attended by Edward Pease and Jonathan Backhouse – the grandsons of the men who had attended the first meetings in 1767.

Leather recommended that a canal should be built from Stockton to Bishopton to Bradbury to Rushyford through Dene Valley and terminating at the River Gaunless at Evenwood. It would be 29 miles and four fathoms long and 50 locks would have to overcome a drop of 442ft.

This was no small project: the canal would be 24ft wide at its bottom and an astonishing 48ft wide at its top.

It would be 6ft deep allowing boats carrying 60 tons of coal to sail on it. The cost would be £205,283 although Leather recommended another ten per cent be added for “incidents” (about £6.47m today.)

The canal would carry coal from the collieries of Eden, Etherley, Witton Park, Dene Valley, Shildon, Ferryhill, Bitchburn and Brusselton.

Yet Edward Pease and Jonathan Backhouse were dismayed at what they heard. The canal by-passed their hometown, missing it by some eight miles.

Unless the Darlington contingent could get its act together quickly and produce a viable alternative to Stockton’s canal, it would miss the boat altogether and end up an industrial backwater.