The Driffield Navigation is an 11-mile waterway, through the heart of the Holderness Plain to the market town of Driffield, East Riding of Yorkshire, England. The northern section of it is a canal, and the southern section is part of the River Hull. Construction was authorised in 1767, and it was fully open in 1770.
The River Hull has long been used for transport, and although small boats could reach Fishilme in the 1760s, that was still about 5 miles short of the small town of Driffield.
In 1765, the merchants of the town, with those from Kilham, 4 miles beyond it, approached the canal engineer John Smeaton for advice on how keels could reach Driffield. He suggested a 1.25-mile cut from near Wansford to Driffield Beck. One lock would be required to accommodate the difference in levels, and he estimated the construction cost as £2,586.
No action was taken, but John Grundy was consulted, and suggested a larger scheme in December 1766. This involved a cut from Fisholme to Driffield, with a basin in the town, and improvements to Frodingham Beck, to make it navigable to the bridge at Frodingham.
A local man called Richard Porter was appointed as engineer, but was replaced six weeks later by Samuel Allam, on the recommendation of Grundy. Two contractors were appointed in October 1767, but gave up, and were replaced by a partnership between James Pinkerton and John Dyson, who ultimately built the whole canal, including a culvert in Driffield to provide a water supply.
The canal opened progressively, with the first section completed on 12 December 1768, the next section to Wansford open by 25 May 1769, and the whole canal formally opened on 25 May 1770. The distance by canal from Emmotland to Driffield was 5.75 miles, a reduction of 3 miles on the distance by river.
The cost of the work was around £13,000, which was more than the original estimate, and there were insufficient funds to pay Pinkerton for his work. Interest was paid on the amount outstanding until the bill could be paid. The original plans for the canal section of the navigation included four locks, each of which was timber floored, and built to accommodate "Driffield-sized" Humber keels of 61.0 by 14.5 feet . Keels could carry a maximum of 100 tons but were limited to a maximum of 70 tons in the Navigation due to draft limits. The initial locks were:
- 1. Sheepwash Lock (now known as Town Lock)
- 2. Whinhill Lock
- 3. Wansford Lock
- 4. Snakeholme Lock
In 1776 the commissioners raised an additional £2,000, with which they hoped to construct a new lock at Thornham Bottoms, below Snakeholme, and to dredge the river below that. Instead they opted to convert Snakeholme lock into a two-lock staircase, which allowed vessels to use it over a greater range in water levels. Plans to extend their powers below Aike Beck, so that Hull Bridge at Tickton could be made larger were thwarted by Beverley Corporation in 1777, but some dredging of Frodingham Beck took place.
The first recorded dredging between Emmotland and Aike Beck took place in 1783, and subsequently dredging was a prominent item in the accounts. The expected dividends of 5 per cent did not materialise, but dividends were paid in most years after 1774, starting at 1.5 per cent and rising to 4 per cent by 1790.
By 1784, the navigation was making enough profit for the commissioners to build a warehouse and granary at Driffield