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Historic Photographs of Yorkshire's Waterways

This Society is building a collection of historic images of the people, places and vessels once found on the canals and rivers of Yorkshire.  They have been donated by enthusiasts who want to preserve and publish material about the heritage of an industry which once underpinned the industrial success of the county but today has all but disappeared. 

Our diverse collection of images relating to Yorkshire’s waterways may be accessed by choosing a topic below and clicking the button: 

People and Events

This collection looks at surviving photographs of those who lived and worked on Yorkshire’s waterways.  This is not a big collection but it is hoped that it will grow as folk dig those old sepia photographs of their watermen ancestors out of their hiding places and allow us to share them through this website.

Keels and Sloops

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries the vessel of choice for Yorkshire’s watermen was the Humber keel or sloop. Built originally in wood but later iron and steel, these cargo vessels carried loads of up to 150 tons between industrial Yorkshire and the ports of Goole and Hull. Powered by sail or towed by tug, horse or man, they not only carried cargoes but also the waterman’s family who would live onboard for the duration of each trip. 

Canal Infrastructure and Buildings

There were many examples of how the canal builders and operators coped with the geography  of Yorkshire which their canals had to cross. Some examples of locks and bridges survive today while others have succumbed to demolition or even infilling. Industrialists took advantage of the waterways system  building their factories and warehouses next to the canals.  

Goole Docks

The port of Goole opened for business in 1826 having been built  by the Aire and Calder Navigation Company at the point where their new canal meets the River Ouse. Operated today by ABP, it is the largest inland port in the UK. This collection includes photographs of the port infrastructure, the visiting vessels and the cargoes handled there some dating back over 150 years to the days of sail and steam.

Motor Barges

Towards the end of the 19th century, we start to find that existing vessels and some new keels are being equipped with engines, a trend which continued into the 20th century. These self propelled vessels were no longer totally at the mercy of the wind and currents. As engines developed the size of new vessels increased and we see the wheelhouse become standard, although often with the ability to be collapsed for passing under low bridges. 

Boat and Ship Building 

Alongside Yorkshire’s waterways there were a significant number of boat and ship builders. The depth of water available for launch constrained the size of the craft built but keels were being built as far inland as Apperley Bridge. Sea going vessels were built at Knottingley, Goole, Selby and Thorne. Shipbuilding has disappeared from the waterways leaving little trace but this photographic collection  reminds us of the days when Yorkshire did have an important shipbuilding industry.

Communities along the waterways

Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of Yorkshire’s watermen did not spend all their time living onboard their vessels with their families. It was the norm to retain a home on land which was visited whenever the opportunity arose. If you earned your living on the waterways it therefore made perfect sense for home to be near a river or canal where you could park your vessel until the next trip. 

“Tom puddings”

Since the mid 19th century coal had been been transported in bulk by canal from Yorkshire’s pits to the port of Goole. Tugs  towed trains of empty compartment boats, nicknamed “Tom puddings” or just “pans”, to loading points, staithes, near the pits. Full of coal, they were then towed back to Goole docks where ingenious coal hoists were used to empty the pans into colliers for onward transportation by sea to customers in the UK and Europe. 

Image quality

It is important to recognise that we are publishing a collection of photographs which by the time they have found their way into our hands are likely to have been copied multiple times and shared among friends.   What may have originally been a high quality print from an exceptionally well taken glass plate negative has become an ill defined, too dark or too light, cropped reproduction as individual collectors have applied their own preferences to the image. This means that the images found on our website may not be of the highest quality but we believe that it is better that they are published as seen to enable historians to see what life was like for their watermen ancestors.  

If you recognise a photograph and have a better quality image in your own collection please share it so that we can update the version in our gallery. 

 Publication permission for copyright images

We acknowledge that copyright images are being shown for which no explicit permission to publish has been given to this Society. Many of the digital images shown had originally been produced with the knowledge and permission of the now defunct Yorkshire Waterways Museum from original photographs deposited there for public display.  Following the closure of that organisation in 2019 and the break up of their collection those original photographs have disappeared and have effectively been lost to the public.

Through an incredible stroke of good fortune digital copies of those images were donated to this Society in 2022 allowing our volunteers to finally achieve the wishes of those photographers and collectors who had made the original donations.

If you are the copyright holder and would like to contact the Society please use the form below.


All images held in our galleries are being given descriptions to assist viewers. While we endeavour to ensure that each description is accurate and complete we recognise that mistakes will have been made so you should therefore not rely on our description. 

If you can add to the published description, please let us know and we’ll make a correction. You can contact us using the form at the bottom of this page. 

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