Road Transport 
Stage Coaches 
The Railway Industry
The Aire and Calder Navigation

Road Transport

The geographical location of the area has been a major influence of its growth throughout time.  The crossing of the river Aire at Ferrybridge has been possible for many years.  Ferrybridge was referred to as Fereia in the Domesday Book of 1086 and also appears under the names of Ferybryg or Feribrige later in 1198 which indicates that a bridge or crossing had been erected by that time. In 1359 the town had grown around this crossing point and was given the right of collecting toll.

By 1637 the North Road via Ferrybridge was the main route from London to York and the diaries of several travellers make reference to passing along this route.

The section of road between Doncaster and Tadcaster passing through Ferrybridge was one of the first roads in the West Riding to be improved as a toll or turnpike road, an Act for this purpose being passed in 1740. Around the same time, a turnpike trust was established to improve the road between Boroughbridge and Ferrybridge.

In 1752 it was noted in the West Riding book of bridges, that the bridge at Ferrybridge was in a state of disrepair.

It was suffering from the increasing amount of traffic passing beneath it on the Aire and Calder navigation which had opened between Leeds and Knottingley in November 1700.  Repairs to the bridge were carried out between 1766-67 but were not a total success.  It was ultimately decided to completely rebuild the bridge and a number of plans were submitted.  The design by regional architect John Carr of York was chosen and Bernard Hartley of Pontefract was ordered to put the design into immediate execution.  The first stone for this new bridge was laid in September 1797 and the bridge was duly completed and opened to travelers in June 1804.  John Carr was almost certainly the designer of the new toll house at the bridge, both of which can still be seen to this day.

Apart from the Great North Road, Ferrybridge was also in close proximity to another of the new turnpike roads of the 1740's.  The Wakefield and Weeland road connected Wakefield, Pontefract and Knottingley with Weeland, a small hamlet near Snaith.  Tolls on this road commenced in 1741 and lasted until 1878, while tolls on the Great North Road through Ferrybridge were payable until 1882.  Whereas the route through Ferrybridge was a major postal route, the Wakefield and Weeland road saw little use by coaches.

Ferrybridge had been a very important postal station from around 1660 and from 1786 Royal Mail coaches followed the route north and south along the Great North Road


Stage Coaches

To many people the idea of stage coach transportation might seem to have been a peaceful, easy-going method of conveyance but in reality it was a swaggering, rakish, hurried race to complete the journey as quickly as possible.  What a thrill it must have been to witness the hustle and bustle amid the excitement of a constant arrival of coaches and chaises.  To hear the distant bugle call of the fast approaching mails completing their stage and see the hurried exchange of horses to enable it to continue at high pace along the next stage of its journey.

The air of romance surrounding stage coaches is matched only by the type of locomotion, who's arrival was to signal the demise of coaches, the steam railway locomotive.  The recollections of those who were witness to stage coaches bear striking similarities to those people who hold a great fondness for steam locomotives and the two types of locomotion were worked in similar fashions.

From point to point, the task was to complete the stage as quickly as possible and just as a steam locomotive would need to be coaled and watered along the way or relieved by a fresh locomotive, so each team of horses would be exchanged over each stage of the journey.  Stage coaches worked over a series of short stages between local towns and villages and within each village horses would be stood or stabled in readiness to replace those of an incoming coach.  This enabled the coaches to continue along at a high pace.

Before the arrival of any public stage coaches, travellers would normally assemble in groups, many on horseback, and set forth together for the company and the added protection that travelling together afforded.  The first coach of any description seen in England was in 1555 when the Earl of Rutland had a state carriage constructed for him by Walter Rippon.  However, the process of locomotion by this method was so slow and met with such opposition that it was almost a century later before the advent of any public stage coach.

In 1600 a broad wheeled type of wagon came into use and it was this cumbersome piece of locomotion to which the term ' stage' was first applied.  It was slow, tiresome work, the roads being in such poor condition and the general width of the carriage wheels impeded its general progress.  The condition of roads in those days was the main reason why stage coaching advanced so slowly

In 1662 the first act of parliament was passed for making turnpike roads and though a slight improvement was effected, the turnpikes were not welcomed by local taxpayers and were met by strong opposition.

The strategic location of Ferrybridge made it an important centre along the stage coach routes.  From just above Ferrybridge, coaches to all parts of the country would divert.  The Edinburgh coaches going via Tadcaster to York, the Glasgow, Carlisle and Newcastle coaches going via Aberford and coaches through to Leeds going by Peckfield Bar.  Ferrybridge became a great rendezvous point for the private travelling carriages of Yorkshire Noblemen and Gentlemen who wished to join the London coaches.

There were three old coaching houses in Ferrybridge, the most important of the three being the Angel, a rambling series of buildings with endless amounts of stabling, coach houses, chaise houses and abodes for post boys, horse keepers and assistants.  The postal business was briskly carried out at the Angel where relays of horses were also held in readiness for private carriages.  In its heyday it was kept by Doctor George Alderson, the son of the vicar of Birkin, who was also a doctor of medicine and coach proprietor as well as the host of the Angel.  Doctor Alderson horsed the Highflyer and the Leeds Union from the Angel to Doncaster and two Royal Mails both in and out to Robin Hoods Well.  Over the Ferrybridge to Sherburn stage, the coaches were horsed by Thomas Hall who changed his horses at the Angel but stabled them further up close to the bridge. 

The Angel, Ferrybridge. illustr Tom Bradley The Greyhound, Ferrybridge. illustr Tom Bradley

Mr Hall was once the host of the Swan, another coaching house in Ferrybridge and although he gave it up sometime before the end of coaching days, he continued to horse the mails over this stage.  Mr William Thwaites took over the Swan from Thomas Hall and he horsed the Wellington on both the Tadcaster and Robin Hoods Well stages although due to the location of the Swan, over the bridge close to the river, the horses were changed in front of the Golden Lion where the coach stopped. The Golden Lion was frequented by heavy luggage wagons and was also the shipping and receiving point for goods coming along the river from Hull.

The other coaching house in Ferrybridge was the Greyhound whose stables could accommodate fifty horses although both the stabling and coach houses as well as the tap for use by the post boys and horse keepers were across the road.  The Greyhound was kept by Mary Moody, who in 1803, took her son-in-law Samuel Rusby into partnership.  Rusby had previously been involved in the wine and spirit trade in Pontefract and after the death of his mother-in-law he continued to horse the Rockingham and the Express from the Greyhound.

As previously mentioned, the progress of stage coaching advance was very slow, mainly due to the state of the roads.  The slight improvement brought about by the turnpike trusts saw a gradual increase in coaching and while the first coaches began to run in approximately 1640, the earliest mention of them in Yorkshire was not until 1658  In 1683 there was a London coach running from York through Tadcaster, Ferrybridge and Doncaster although any passengers from Leeds were obliged to ride on horseback to York or Ferrybridge in order to join it.

In 1694 the journey from Doncaster to London took 4 days.  Gradual improvements to road conditions and the design of coaches meant that by 1815 the Leeds Union was making the trip from London to Doncaster, a total of 162 miles, in just over 16 hours including two hours for stoppages.  The Royal Mails commenced running in 1786 and it was these that marked the real glory of the road although they reigned and fell in little more than half a century.


The Railway Industry

The opening of the railways in 1840 was to signal the demise of the coaching trade.  At that time, the centre of the railway communications in the local area was Normanton.  Knottingley was given prominence itself when the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company obtained an act for a railway from Wakefield to Goole via Knottingley. This received the royal assent on 31st July, 1845, and the line was duly opened in 1848.  This line ran to, and through, the very heart of the town of Knottingley, which acquired a splendid station consisting of five covered platforms and one stabling road.  At around the same time, a single road locomotive shed was constructed with outside turntable and accommodation for up to 5 locomotives of the 0-6-0 and 2-4-2 type.  The Wakefield, Pontefract and Goole railway had a length throughout of just over 27 miles and comprised of two branch lines; the first from Pontefract to Methley Junction where it joined the North Midland line to Leeds and the second from Knottingley to a point mid way between Askern and Arksey, where it joined up with the Great Northern Railway Company's line, then in course of formation to York.

Before the line had even opened, an Act had been obtained the previous year to merge the Wakefield, Pontefract and Goole railway into the Manchester and Leeds Railway empire and that railway became a constituent member company of the new Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&Y).  The Great Northern Railway was busy at this time constructing a railway from the junction of the Wakefield-Goole railway at Askern Junction (Shaftholme) via Doncaster to London, which eventually opened in 1850.  Knottingley station then became jointly administered by both the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and the Great Northern Railway.

Another railway was constructed by the York and North Midland Railway Company, just west of the town running via Ferrybridge and Brotherton, to Burton Salmon, where it made connection with their line to York, and with the opening of this line in 1850, it became possible for trains to run from London to York via Knottingley.  The town became a major railway junction where connection could be made to and from trains throughout the West Riding.  However, the importance of Knottingley as a major junction lasted only a few years as the newly opened West Riding and Grimsby line from Doncaster to Bradford via Leeds began to take importance.  In 1871 traffic to the North East and Scotland was diverted away from the Great Northern line via Knottingley, to a shorter and more direct route via Selby.

The area regained some significance in May 1879 when the Swinton and Knottingley Railway opened, connecting Sheffield and York via Ferrybridge where a small station was opened in May 1882.

8F No.48670 runs through Knottingley station with a train of empty wagons

2-6-2T No.41253 leaves Knottingley 
for Wakefield in the late 1950's


The Aire and Calder Navigation

Of the many aspects surrounding the history and prosperity of the town of Knottingley, none played a bigger part than the Aire and Calder Navigation. Knottingley was of major importance along the river Aire as, up until the Aire and Calder Navigation Act of 1699, the town had the strategic position of being the highest navigable point on the river which effectively turned it into a major inland port. A glance through the Baines Trade Directory of 1822 shows that Knottingley was home to several master mariners, a curious fact for a town so far inland.

The first proposal to make the Aire and Calder navigable had been put forward in 1620.  At that time the textile industry in Britain was suffering a depression and an East Anglia textile merchant suggested making several rivers navigable to improve the facilities for the trade and also as a job creation scheme for unemployed textile workers. The proposals were rejected after a lengthy debate, and it was almost 80 years later, on the 18th January, 1698,  that a similar bill was presented to the House of Commons by Lord Fairfax. It was entitled, "An Act for the making and keeping navigable, the rivers Aire and Calder, in the county of York."  After much opposition to the bill, the navigation scheme was passed on the 3rd April, 1699 and it received the royal assent on the 4th May following.  It became the first navigation scheme in Great Britain formed under the authority of an Act of Parliament, preceding all other enactments of its kind by more than half a century.  

In the 1690's, the textile trade was booming and expanding and this resulted in the urgent need for improved transportation. Local merchants wanted more control over the sale and distribution of their products which had, up to that time, been carried out at nearby York.  For centuries, York had been the centre for the cloth industry in Yorkshire, with textiles being carried there by road from all corners of the rapidly expanding West Riding district. Merchants from Leeds and Wakefield put forward the proposals for the Aire and Calder to be made navigable to their own towns and it was these merchants who financed its construction.

By 1704, the Aire was navigable throughout from Airmyn, just above the mouth of the Aire, to Leeds and Wakefield.  Leeds bridge was the head of the navigation and this was also the place where the local cloth market was held at that time.

The Aire and Calder became a great success making huge profits and its owners very wealthy although little of those profits was to be reinvested in the scheme and the navigation began to fall into disrepair.  However, the success of the scheme soon had merchants all over the country promoting their own river navigations and it became a major factor in shaping the Industrial Revolution.

In the 1760's improvements were carried out to combat the threat posed by the proposed Leeds and Liverpool canal.  A proposal had been put forward to by-pass the navigation with a canal to Selby from Leeds due to the poor state that the navigation had been allowed to fall into. Loads being carried on the navigation were becoming greater and locks required deepening and widening to cope with this increased tonnage.

One of the main problems with the navigation concerned water usage.  Along the Aire were several mills.  These required large amounts of water for their operations, which often meant that water levels became too shallow for fully laden boats to use the navigation.  Over the years these mills were purchased, often at great cost, so that there was less interruption to the waterways trade.  Knottingley Mills in particular had been the cause of  much warfare between itself and the navigation for many years, particularly during times of drought when the mill required to draw off a lot of water which had to be compensated for further upstream.  This often prevented navigation below Castleford dam and meant vessels could take a whole week to complete the journey from Airmyn to Leeds or Wakefield.  Many plans were put forward in an attempt to solve these ongoing disputes between the navigation and Knottingley Mills, none of which were put into practice with any degree of success.  Eventually in 1772, the navigation purchased outright Knottingley Mills and a new weir was constructed.

An amusing notice issued by the 
Aire & Calder Navigation Office in 1886

Trade along the navigation continued to increase and once again as a result of a proposal for a new canal between Knottingley and the Dutch River at Newbridge, the Aire and Calder Company submitted plans for its own canal from Knottingley to Goole.  This was duly completed and opened in July 1826 and allowed a connection with the Aire route at Airmyn to the Leeds-Selby canal, along which four-fifths of Knottingley trade passed.  Vessels were still able to use the old route down the Aire from Knottingley or gain access to it at Bank Dole lock.  The new canal was able to take vessels of one hundred tons and also provided docking facilities at the newly established port at Goole.

In 1825, Thomas Bartholomew became engineer for the navigation and together with his son William, they were to completely modernise the waterways. Locks were lengthened and deepened to allow larger vessels through, steam towage was introduced and William designed the compartment boat train, better known as the 'Tom Pudding'.  The compartment boat train was very profitable and carried millions of tonnes of Yorkshire coal through to the port of Goole for markets both at home and abroad.  

The textile industry had been a major factor in the initial creation of the navigation scheme, but it was left to the coal industry to safeguard its prosperity.  

The Aire and Calder Navigation was nationalized in 1948 and became a part of British Waterways in 1973.



Site constructed and maintained by Michael Norfolk
This website is Copyright 2000-2009 [Knottingley and Ferrybridge Online] All Rights Reserved
Any correspondence regarding this website should be addressed to Michael Norfolk, 21 Bassett Close, Selby, YO8 9XG, ENGLAND.

Last Updated 19 July 2007 18:28

Contact: support@knottingley.org