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The Chesterfield Canal Trust

Winter On The Cut

The coming season can be a magical time on the Chesterfield Canal, but there is also a darker side, here Rod Auton tells us more.
 |  Made  |  Heritage
Harthill Reservoir in the 1930s, courtesy of The Chesterfield Canal Trust.
Hollingwood Lock by Steven Hewitt.
Santa on Seth Ellis by John Bates.

The Chesterfield Canal Trust has run Santa Special cruises for decades. This year, our tripboat Seth Ellis will be running them from the Chequers Inn at Ranby on 2nd & 3rd, 9th & 10th, 16th & 17th and 23rd December.


Santa will travel with you and will give a present to every child. The adults will get a mince pie (or similar) and a drink. The fare is £10 per person, and you can book online. There are full details on our website, see below.

We are also running Santa Specials on our other three tripboats from Shireoaks, Hollingwood Hub and Tapton Lock in Chesterfield.

If you are looking for unusual presents, our website shop has lots of interesting books and other canal themed gifts. You can even buy Gift Vouchers for canal cruises or our paddlesports hire.

Obviously, these cruises take place on the water. Although it has been much rarer in recent years, there is always the possibility that the canal will freeze. If there is just a thin film of ice, the boat can easily slice through it, but occasionally it can get to be several inches thick. In such an event, the boat cannot move, so we do static cruises, which means everyone gets on board, eats, drinks, receives presents, sings carols etc., but you don’t actually go anywhere.

On the few occasions this has happened in the past, most people have still enjoyed themselves, but we do of course give refunds if you decide not to come. This sort of thing is very frustrating for everyone, but it is not nearly as serious as it would have been for the boatmen in the past when the canal carried cargoes.

In those days, if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid, so they would do everything possible to smash the ice and get moving.

After the Second World War, the canals were in a dreadfully dilapidated state because there had been little or no maintenance for many years. The winter of 1947 was terrible with record amounts of snow and very low temperatures. All the canals were frozen for months, so no cargo at all was carried. This was the death knell for many canal carrying companies.

On our canal all that remained were a few boats taking coal from Shireoaks Colliery to the canalside brickworks at Walkeringham, near Misterton. This trade ceased in 1949 and the very last commercial cargo carrying ended in 1955. This was warp, a fine, natural silt dredged from the River Trent at the mouth of the River Idle, which was dried in the kilns at Walkeringham and used to polish cutlery in Sheffield.

We are very used to seeing beautiful photos of our canal in the summer with lots of wildlife and colourful flowers. In winter it can be just as magical. The snow and ice can sparkle and watching ducks and geese coming in to land and skidding great distances can be incredible.

When the ice is really thick, the canal is superb for skating. I was once told by an elderly gentleman, that in the 1930s there were several very cold winters, and the canal froze solid many times. He said that there was a series of ice-skating races held on the stretch just north of the Drakeholes Tunnel that leads to Gringley Lock, which is pretty straight for nearly two miles. He claimed that there were financial prizes and that professional skaters came over from the Netherlands to take part.

I have no idea whether this really happened, but I would be delighted to hear from anyone who remembers these races or, even better, has any photos of them.

Of course, enormous care must be taken before venturing onto the frozen canal. In its 250 year history there have been many fatal accidents from drowning, some associated with people falling through the ice. None was more tragic than the deaths of six young people in Killamarsh in the First World War. This account comes from reports made at the time.

The weather during most of November 1915 had been very cold and the canal had been frozen over for some days so on Sunday, 28th November there was an unusually large number of young people enjoying being on the ice. Amongst these were Harry Milner (18), Fred Northridge (17), Annie Sedgewick (12) and Mary Elizabeth Watson (6) all from Killamarsh, and Alice Read (21) and Mary Ann Ramskill (18) who were visiting from Chesterfield.

This group were sliding on the ice in a procession. Leading was Harry Milner linking arms with Mary Ann Ramskill. Following them were Fred Northridge and Alice Read, their clothing held by the two children behind them. At about 2.45 in the afternoon Harry Milner slipped and fell heavily in a sitting position. The others of the party tripped over him, and the combined weight of the whole proved to be more than the ice could bear and they all disappeared into the water.

Walking on the canal bank a short distance away was young Wilfred Sargeson, a miner of Long Lane. He immediately crossed the ice but as he neared the scene the ice gave way and he too crashed into the water. Fortunately, two other men, named Watts and Jones, were able to rescue Sargeson, who was in an exhausted state. In the absence of ladders or planks, rescue work was practically impossible, the ice breaking away at every approach. It was only with the tardy supply of a rope that Sargeson was saved but by that time there was no sign of the other six.

PC Tinder was called and at once started operations with a dragline through the water. Within an hour the six bodies were found. Dr Adams was present and pronounced life extinct as each was brought to the bank, from where they were taken to the houses of relatives and friends to await the inquest. They are all buried in the graveyard in Killamarsh.

My goodness, this has suddenly become very depressing. How to cheer up? I know, book your Santa Special cruise now!


By Rod Auton
Rod is the Publicity Officer for the Chesterfield Canal Trust which is campaigning to complete the restoration of the canal by its 250th Anniversary in 2027.
For further information go to
All imagery courtesy of The Chesterfield Canal Trust (various photographers).