Archaelogy is in the Air!

Around midday Saturday 19th March 1988, part of the bank of the River Aire at Methley suffered a catastrophic failure and 600,000m² of river bank slipped into the opencast workings of the St Aidan’s Remainder Site. This caused both the River Aire and adjacent Aire and Calder Navigation to rapidly drain into the open cast workings, actually reversing the flow of the Aire to the lock at Castleford for four days. The end result was that the vast opencast workings filled with water forming a 70m deep, 100ha lake containing c.17 million cubic metres of water. By 1997 a £20m project of repair and remedial works was nearing completion and the pumping out of the flooded mine had revealed the remains of some of the infrastructure of the early 18th century Aire and Calder Navigation. Along a 1km stretch of riverbed this consisted of two locks, a dry dock and substantial portions of at least nine wooden boats. Through the generous support of the then mine owners (RJB Mining) and operators (Miller Mining) the next two years saw over 45 individuals from eight different archaeological organisations spend at least one weekend a month carrying out detailed archaeological excavation and recording.

With time pressing as the opencast workings were re-starting the remains of one of the wrecked boats was excavated and recorded over a single frantic weekend in December 1997. After this we had more time to investigate the rest of the site and the next area to be explored was the remains of the locks. What was originally thought to be the remains of Methley Lock in the southern side of the River Aire actually turned out to be a much earlier structure and pre-dated the Methley Lock of 1704.  This first lock was what is known as a flash lock and works by instead of having gates at either end of a chamber they have a set of boards (called paddles) at the upstream end of the structure only. These boards are supported from behind by upright timbers (or rymers) to prevent the current from pushing them out of position. This arrangement of boards helps to maintain the water level on the upstream side at a suitable depth for either navigation or to power a mill. When a boat needs to pass downstream, the paddles at the upstream end of the lock would be removed and the boat would pass through on the “flash” of water going through the lock. To move boats upstream they would need to be either towed or winched through the lock against the rivers flow. Flash locks were typically constructed alongside or into weirs and dams with the dam allowing a greater depth of water to be maintained upstream and the remains of a substantial stone and earth dam were excavated to the side of the flash lock. 

The next lock investigated was the Methley pound lock built between 1700 and 1704 as a direct result of the establishment of the Aire and Calder Navigation in 1699 by an Act of Parliament. This 1699 Act makes the Aire and Calder one of the earliest of the pre-Industrial Revolution navigations and as described below a forerunner of the integrated transport systems we see today. 

The original Methley Lock had stone built ends to support the lock gates but the central part of the lock had simply been cut into the ground and lined with timber revetting. As the Aire and Calder Navigation continued to develop and the boats using the waterway became larger the original pound lock was enlarged and improved in the later 18th century. Eventually due to the construction of Methley New Cut in 1774 to improve both the speed of and the amount of goods carried along the waterway, Methley Lock was effectively bypassed. Then around 1785/6 the old pound lock was converted to being used as a dry dock and it then appears to have continued to be used as such until the early 20th century and confusingly is called Lemon Royd Dry Dock on the 1852 Ordnance Survey maps.

Alongside the locks and dry dock, the remains of nine wooden boats provided a rare, and possibly unique, insight into the early decades of the development of purpose-built river vessels in the 18th century. The study of the various boat remains showed that all of the vessels had been built to the same size – which fitted snugly into the locks. This allowed the maximum cargo to be carried in the lock system that had been built in the 1700s. This shows the foresight of the navigation operators in creating a basic integrated transport system. As well as being the same size the boats were all built to the same design: clinker built lower hulls and carvel built above the waterline. This system of construction is exactly opposite to all of the later boats built and used along the inland waterways and navigations of the UK and is what makes this site unique. Clinker boats have over lapping planks and carvel built is where the planks join edge to edge. 

Internally the boats had a small crew compartment in the bows equipped with a brick and stone built ‘galley’ with an iron cauldron. It appears that the boats were probably operated by a family group as children’s shoes where found in the remains of one boat. Although the boats were of a size that was primarily for working along rivers they were also capable of undertaking estuarine and short distance coastal trading.

Even though the majority of the remains of the boats had been stripped out and abandoned, one of the boats appears to have been lost ‘in service’. This vessel contained the remains of a mixed cargo of Leeds and Don potteries manufactured Pearl and Creamwares. The same boat also had part of the crew’s equipment surviving in the form of a range of jugs and porringer cups as well as a chamber pot, leather shoes and other personal items. The decorated clay pipe bowls from the boats indicated probable trade routes between Lincolnshire, Nottingham and Kingston-upon-Hull. 

To read more about the project you can purchase a copy of the book ‘Boats in a Coal Mine: Archaeology on the River Aire, Methley, West Yorkshire’ by John Buglass. Please email johnbuglass@yahoo.com to order your copy priced at £15 inc P&P.

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