The Bishop Auckland to Stockton Canal, 1770

The survey to build a canal from Bishop Auckland to Darlington by canal, travelling onward to Stockton using the River Tees was commissioned by the leading coal merchants of Darlington and district, who wished to transport coal by barge from the Bishop Auckland coalfields to Stockton. The intended canal when built linked with the nearest navigable section of the River Tees, allowing the barges to complete the journey by river. Brindley and Whitworth were the surveyors commissioned to prepare the initial feasibility study, they submitted their report and outline plans in 1770. The scheme collapsed due to the low density of population in this area and, therefore, of a sufficiently large market for the coal transported. After a few unsuccessful attempts at reviving Brindley and Whitworth’s plans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century, they became the basis for the famous Stockton and Darlington Railway in the 1820s. The canal was never built. It was designed by James Brindley, the engineer responsible for the Bridgewater Canal, with Robert Whitworth’s assistance.

Map reproduced with the kind permission and consent of the copyright owners, the British Library, London. Details courtesy of Bob Wilson.

7 thoughts on “The Bishop Auckland to Stockton Canal, 1770

  1. Paul Dee asks about the route and David Isley and Xenophon have made useful points. The website County Durham is worth looking at, so as to get into Brindley’s thinking. It is not just height but steepness of the terrain that is important in governing the number of locks. The proposed canal starts well to the south of West Auckland, near the River Tees. Then after turning east, misses the coalpits and Shildon by quite a distance. These localities are at quite a high level, as it gets hilly once one gets away from the Tees.

    The proposed route then goes eastwards, running below Kilerby, possibly taking water from Kilerby and Dyance Becks. But the actual source for the canal seem to have been Alwent Beck, which drains into the Tees between Winston and Gainsford. The Tees itself would have been no good, as I recollect that it is in quite a valley at that point. As a member of the Newcomen Society we visited the Chain Bridge in that area, last year. It all looks a bit iffy to me in terms of route and elevations.

    Dr Dee also asks about the Stockton and Darlington railway, and why couldn’t it have gone through Sadberg? I have a recollection of trying the direct road from Stockton to Darlington by bike and finding that Sadberg is on a steep hill! Perusal of the topographic map suggests that the original route of the so-called Stockton and Darlington Railway, although having to bridge the River Skerne, north of Darlington (another highlight of the Newcomen Society visit), was pretty sensible. The railway was, generally, gently downward sloping from Shildon, until it reached the line of the existing railway, at Fighting Cocks, keeping away from hills as much as possible.


  2. There is a more complete map of the proposed canal in this sequence entitled “A Photograph Showing A Plan of the River Tees”. A big problem would have been the supply of water, given that the mines at Bishop Auckland would have been around 150 metres above sea level. This implies a lot of locks, and, as a barge passes through a lock, water is wasted.
    This seems to have determined the route of the canal. The canal starts at the River Tees near Winstone, before running north to Staindrop towards the coalfields .These are marked on the photograph map, a few miles to the south and southeast of Bishop Auckland. However, the canal does not reach the coalfields and waggon ways would have been needed to bring the coal to the canal.
    Turning east towards Darlington there is a spur off to the Tees, to Piercebridge, perhaps for additional supplies of water. There are additional spurs at Darlington and Yarm going down to the vicinity of the Tees. But my guess is, given the topography of the area , especially at Yarm, water would have been obtained from streams running into the Tees. Perhaps the intention was to trans ship the coal into boats on the Tees itself. The whole thing looks quite dubious compared to the Stockton and Darlington Railway.


    • Yet other countries, particularly the American Mid West, have used canals extensively ,a lot of which were post railway age. They managed to use both rail and canal together to form a very good and efficient trade network. In the UK they were always rivals.


    • Customers for the coal might have been a problem, but water supply, no.

      Winston and Bishop Auckland are about 350 feet above sea level. Birmingham is 100 feet higher, and without a backdrop of Pennines, yet is connected to the sea by numerous successful canals. (Brindley may have been only somewhat literate by today’s standards, but he was no fool).


    • Fred Starr. Thank you for an excellent analysis of the reason that the proposed canal took such a devious route. It begs the question as to why the Darlington to Stockton railway took such a southern route. Were they using the previous surveying, landowner’s permission and parliamentary permission to use the route? A more direct route (Sadberge – Elton – East Hartburn) might have been shorter and I don’t remember any possible inclines on that route (it seemed flat enough on a bike).


      • Paul Dee,
        The reason that the Stockton and Darlington Railway was routed via Darlington (and hence the name) was that Edward Pease, who owned a Woollen Mill at Darlington, was the driving force behind the Railway, and its main backer, and he insisted on that route. Christopher Tennant and the ‘Stockton Committee’ were the backers of the more direct Clarence Railway, which served Stockton far better than the S&D.


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