TIBSOB Listening Notes – Bradford Canal 1851

This is information to add to the experience of listening to the Bradford Canal 1851 audio story created by The Informal Busing Society of Bradford. You can also find a transcript of the recording here. Written and recorded in Autumn 2022.

Shipley, Bradford

Listen to the story at Canal? What Canal – Stories from the Bradford Canal – Ignite Yorkshire


The two main characters are making a game out of describing the stinky canal that they are afloat upon. The Bradford Canal by the 1840s had become very polluted, partly because of things that directly entered the water and also because the water supply was also very dirty. In the absence of proper sewers in a rapidly expanding industrial city of Bradford, watercourses were used instead to get rid of all sorts of nasty waste.

The canal catching fire relates to a real incident recorded in a court case about the canal being a health hazard.  A visiting government inspector, James Smith in 1845 described bubbles of hydrogen sulphide, which smells like rotten eggs, rising from the canal in hot weather and that the gas would turn silver items such as pocket watch cases black.

Unusual things, including dead humans were dumped and found floating in the canal. In our research we found newspaper reports from the coroners courts of people who drowned or were found dead in the canals around Shipley.

Wool was one of the main cargoes carried on the canal along with coal and materials for lime-making which took place alongside the canal. The lime that was made in the process had many uses such as iron making, in buildings and on farm land to make the soil produce better crops.

The textile mills and other industries in Bradford had a great need for water and clean water was in short supply. Low water levels meant that sometimes it could take several days for the boats to make the 3.5 mile journey along the canal, which might explain the casual attitude of the boatmen in the story.


The characters in this story have made up names. The cholera epidemic in which Abigail died was a real event in Bradford in 1849 when 406 people died of the disease, The city had no safe sewerage system to deal with the dirty water and waste from a quickly growing population crowded into poor housing and lots of industries that polluted the water. All of this had a terrible effect on the health of people and spread diseases like cholera as well as making the water in the canal and nearby Bradford Beck filthy and very smelly. Eventually the Bradford Canal became so polluted that it was closed down in 1866 and part of it in Bradford city-centre was filled in. The canal re-opened in 1872 but only after five pump houses were built to re-use the water in the canal at the locks, rather than other polluted water sources.


Narrator:   Grace

George:    Tom

William:     Elliott

Man 1:     Jack

Man 2:      Alistair

Technical Team:  Paige, Mary


Bradford Canal, 1851 by the Informal Busing Society of Bradford and James Varney

24th October 1851. George Francis Herbert and William Richardson are transporting wool along the Bradford Canal.

Narrator: You are listening to one of three audio stories set during the life of the Bradford Canal in Shipley. These stories were written together with James Varney and the TIBSOBs: The Informal Busing Society Of Bradford. The project was funded by Historic England and delivered by Marie Millward and Nicola Murray for Ignite Yorkshire.

It is the 24th of October, 1851. We join George Francis Herbert and William Richardson transporting a cargo of wool down the canal.

George: Mud.

William: Eggs.

George: Rotten fish.

William: Cow pats.

George: Mm. Dog turds.

William: Meat. Left in the sun.

George: Onions.

William: Damp.

George: Sour milk.

William: Urine.

George: Definitely, definitely. Rotten grass.

William: Sulphur.

George: That’s a lot like eggs.

William: It’s different.

George: Mm. Yeah, I’ll allow it.

William: Yeah.

George: Smoke.

William: Wet dog.

George: Cheesy feet.

William: Gas.

George: Hay.

William: Hay’s not bad.

George: Not normally, no, but it’s bad if you smell it in the wrong place, where it shouldn’t be.

William: Mm. No yeah I suppose you’re right. Honey.

George: Honey?

William: Yeah, that sweet edge to it – really nasty, in the wrong place. You smell it?

[Both men sniff deeply.]

George: Hmm. Yeah. Yeah I can smell it, that’s nasty. Yeah that’s horrible alright. Hmm…

William: You all out?

George: I think I am.

William: I win?

George: You win this round.

William: Brilliant. Where does that put us?

George: Something like 3 – 2 to you, I think.

William: Well it seems fair to me that the loser should make the next pot of tea.

George: Very fair, I think, very good call. A good time for tea.

[SFX: under the next few lines, George is boiling a kettle and brewing tea]

William: It’s always a good time for tea.

George: It’s always a good time for tea. I’ll drink to that. Two sugars or three Bill?

William: Two, I think. I’m going to increase that lead, you know.

George: You think so?

William: Oh yes, I come from a long line of strong-nosed men. Unparalleled sniffers, the Richardsons.

George: Strong stomachs too.

William: Oh the strongest of stomachs. Takes a real nose of iron and a belly of lead to travel down the Bradford canal. And I have inherited both.

George: You’re a real marvel. A masterpiece of a man.

William: Thank you. I pride myself on being a formidable specimen.

George: Here you go.

William: Thank you. You know, I’m not sure if I want to drink this or just hold it and breathe it in.

George: I know. This canal is revolting.

William: It’s getting worse.

George: I heard, last month, old George Telfer came down, wanted to check in on his boats, see the boys were doing a good job. And he complained about the smell the whole time. Got splashed on his trousers and wouldn’t stop creating about how he’d never get the stain out. Only lasted half a mile before he got them to let him off at one of the locks.

William: Doesn’t surprise me.

George: Nor me. And the thing is. He had this silver pocket watch with him. In his waistcoat. And he took it out, and it had turned black. This silver watch of his turned black in his pocket from these waters, this stink, the miasma.

William: That’s nothing.

George: No?

William: I heard. I heard this about Jack Hooper’s boat, the Victoria. One of Jack’s men lit up his pipe, threw his match overboard. And the water caught fire.

George: It never.

William: It caught fire. The gases, the fumes, the rotting, caught alight.

George: Did they put it out?

William: I don’t believe so. God knows how you’d do it. If water itself is setting fire there’s something wrong. Best to clear off and hope it burns itself out and doesn’t catch the boat.

George: True. True.

William: This air, these smells. It’ll make us sick.

George: I’m not so sure.

William: No?

George: I think. Right, I think if it’s going to make us sick it would have done it by now. Like, take that outbreak down on Cheapside.

William: In January?

George: Yeah, ten families down to cholera in two weeks. And Old Tom Ley, living smack in the middle of them, he didn’t get sick at all.

William: Funny that. But still, it’s not right, this canal. People will get sick.

George: God knows what they’ve been pouring into it. It’s barely water any more.

[Voices approaching]

Man 1: This way, no. To me!

Man 2: Careful, you’ll drop him!

George: Hey!

Man 2: Hello?

William: You lads alright?

Man 2: Very well. Very alright, thank you.

George: Having some trouble with your sack there?

Man 1: No, no trouble. No trouble at all just carrying our. Carrying our sack.

George: What’s in it?

Man 2: Nothing. Nothing that shouldn’t be in a sack.

Man 1: Potatoes.

William: Potatoes?

Man 2: Yes, potatoes.

Man 1: We’re just taking our potatoes home along the canal.

Man 2: Nothing unusual about that.

Man 1: We’re just normal, innocent men carrying a normal bag of potatoes.

George: Well, you lads take care you don’t fall in. Looks like a heavy bag.

Man 1: We will, thank you.

[SFX: a splash in the near distance, as the sack is thrown into the water]

William: There go their potatoes.

George: A shame. [A pause] William. What day is it?

William: The twenty-fourth.

George: All this talk of cholera, and it’s two years today since Abigail died.

William: Gosh. It is isn’t it. You’re right.

George: Canal’s worse now than it was then, even.

William: Bless her soul.

George: And you know, I think wherever she is now, she’d like to know we’re still shipping wool.

William: Oh yes, plenty of wool. Some things don’t change.

George: Remember that spring she knitted us these jumpers?

William: I do. And her taking a handful out of every cargo of wool to knit them from. Saving it up, spinning it. Her needles clicking all evening.

George: She’d be glad we still wear them.

William: She would, she would. They’re good jumpers. Good and warm. And for the record, George, I’m glad to have this jumper in common with you. Our uniform, these jumpers. And I couldn’t ask for a better mate to be working with.

George: Aye. Give me a good mate, a warm jumper and a hot cup of tea and I can survive a cold October on any manky canal.

William: Another cup of tea? Sounds like a plan, George.

George: Go on then. Two sugars?

William: Better make it three.