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The History of Boats on the Derbyshire Derwent

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

The River Derwent flowed freely, long before we humans came along. It is the life blood of the valley. Carving its way through limestone gorges and gritstone hills. It is the very reason that the villages, towns and cities were built where they are. It powered the mills built by Arkwright, Strutt and others. It is our drinking water and sadly our sewer. Although people have staked claims to its banks and river bed, the water is still flowing freely, belonging to all of us.

The Derwent Cromford Bridge by Edward Slocombe. 1880

Upon further research there is historic evidence of much boating activity and transportation of heavy objects by boats on the Derwent dating back to the charter of King John in 1204.

King John’s Charter 1204

Rights to navigate the river were confirmed as early as 1204 in a Charter from King John (which is stored in the Derby County Library) and in subsequent charters reiterating John's intention, which clearly state that “ And the Derwent shall be open to navigation by the length of a perch on each side of mid-stream.“ A perch is an old length measure of approximately 5m. A further point of interest is that the scope of the name “Der-went” is not defined in King Johns Charter, nor any upstream limit to navigation given, suggesting an intent to confirm navigation on all of the river. Furthermore it is clear from John's Charter that he was not granting a new right, but confirming his intent to abide by an existing right as it states the river 'Darent' was 'navigable from ancient times'.

There is no evidence that the charter of King John has been extinguished by legislation or the exercise of statutory powers, so it could be assumed that the Derbyshire Derwent is still open to navigation for five meters either side of its centre line.

Cromford Lead Smelters on the banks of the Derwent 1780.

There are suggestions that lead was transported down the Derwent as far back as roman times. In times before the mill and canal at Cromford there was a lead smelters on the banks of the Derwent where the church now stands. Local history book authors have argued the following:

“It is possible that Cromford could have been a staging point for the transport of Roman lead by river, as the Derwent emerges from the limestone onto the shales at Cromford, it has been suggested that the river could have been navigable by the shallow-draught barges used by the Romans for river transport. Cromford would have been an important centre in the southern district of the lead field, acting as a collection centre, with roads leading down to it from lead mines on both Middleton and Bonsall Moors.”

Also “During the reign of Edward II there were lead mines in the vicinity of Wirksworth and Hartington. The accounts of William of Birchover show that he received £143 for 65 barge loads of lead which he had sold. Edwards points out that this is 44shillings per barge load. Thus he claims that lead must have been loaded onto the barges near the mines as otherwise it would have been cheaper to take the lead the whole way to Nottingham by road.”

Derbyshire Millstone - How would you transport this to Hull?

Something else to consider - How were the millstones transported from the Derwent Valley edges to the ports of Hull and beyond? Even today, getting a block of stone weighing well over a ton from a steep slope is no casual task. When only muscle power was available, it is hard for the modern mind to comprehend how this could be a routine, but clearly it was. The millstones were then somehow transported to Bawtry on the River Idle, a tributary of the Trent. It makes sense that these stones were taken downhill and may have been transported down the Derwent when there was sufficient water.

Millstone in the River at Cromford

There is a random millstone in the river downstream from Cromford Meadows, nowhere near to a flour mill. It is possible that it could have fallen off a boat whilst being transported downstream to the cities of Derby, Nottingham and beyond?

Boats on the Derwent @ the Boat House Free House 1752

There is evidence in many local books of pleasure boats being widely used on the river since the 1700s especially around Matlock, Matlock Bath and Cromford. The Boat House Free House advertised pleasure boat trips to its clients back in 1752.

Willersley Painting. Boat House on LH side. 1780

Boathouses are common place along the valley. There was a boat house at Willersley dating back to 1780, before the mills, weir and castle were built. Its foundations are still visible in Willersley Castles grounds.

Willersley Boat House Foundations. Today

Willersley Boat House Map. 1900

In recent times the River Derwent has been enjoyed by canoeists and kayakers for the last 60 years, especially from Darley Bridge downstream. Matlock Canoe Clubs Slalom Course just beneath the cable cars has been the training site for many national and international level athletes for the last 40 years. For the past 25 years Paddle Peak members and friends have enjoyed the rivers weirs and waves, especially in high water for playboating. Tokyo 2021 Olympian Adam Burgess recently enjoyed training on the Derwents slalom course.

1990’s Playboating at Whatstandwell

British Canoeing believes, based on a wealth of historical evidence ( see above ), that there is under common law, a public right of navigation on all rivers which are physically capable of being navigated. It is sadly acknowledged that this position is firmly rejected by others.

Adam Burgess Tokyo 2021 Olympian. Training on the Derwent at Matlock Bath

British Canoeings Clear Access Clear Waters charter is working towards fair shared and sustainable access to water for all by lobbying our MPs to table amendments to the Agricultural Bill and Countryside Right of ay Act. Please sign our access petition here:

Thanks to Ben Seal, Chris Page, Mike Devlin and John Chamberlin for their contributions. If you have any more interesting history on boats in the valley than please contact

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