The Driffield Navigation is an 11-mile (18 km) 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. Early use of the navigation was hampered by a small bridge at Hull Bridge, which was maintained by Beverley Corporation.
After protracted negotiation, it was finally replaced in 1804, and a new lock was built to improve water levels at the same time. One curious feature of the new works were that they were managed quite separately for many years, with the original navigation called the Old Navigation, and the new works called the New Navigation. They were not fully amalgamated until 1888.
The navigation gradually became more profitable, and although railways arrived at Driffield in 1846, the navigation continued to prosper and increase its traffic until the 1870, after which there was a gradual decline. It continued to make a small profit until the 1930s, and the last commercial traffic was in 1951. Following proposals to use it as a water supply channel in 1959, the Driffield Navigation Amenities Association was formed in 1968, with the aim of restoring the waterway to a navigable condition.
One problem was that there was no longer a legal body responsible for the assets, and so the Driffield Navigation Trust was formed, which took over the role of the original commissioners. Since that time, most of the navigation has been returned to a navigable condition, although there are still some obstacles to its full use, caused by bridges which have been lowered or built since the 1950s.
With less traffic, lower profits, and little prospect of a growth in trade, maintenance standards fell. By 1937 the Locks and Bridges were in a poor state of repair. A report in 1939 records that the canal was weedy throughout its entire length. Water began to leak through the Banks between Whinhill and Snakeholme Lock and a real danger to the surrounding land drainage was evident. Some dredging was carried out during the early 1940s but this did little to improve the condition of the Canal. The last commercial craft to reach Driffield was the Keel Caroline loaded with 50 tons of wheat on 16 March 1945. The last commercial craft on the Navigation was the vessel Ousefleet, delivering coal to Frodingham Wharf during the period to December 1951.
With the demise of commercial navigation, the interest of the Commissioners waned. They failed to appoint their own successors, and by 1949, there were too few remaining to take legal decisions. In 1955, the swing bridge across the navigation at Whinhill was fixed, although the Inland Waterways Association received the assurance that, if at any future date the navigation was reopened to Driffield, the bridge would be removed. Another major obstruction to the renewal of the navigation to Driffield occurred in 1967, when the County Council replaced the bridge which carries the public right of way over the Navigation at Wansford with a fixed bridge. Since the Commissioners could not agree to this, as they were inquorate, the legality of this action is unknown.
By 1956, the top three locks on the canal were no longer usable, but Hull Corporation announced a plan to use the channel for the supply of water in mid-1959. This action prompted the Inland Waterways Association to calculate the cost of restoring it for navigation, which was estimated at £17,000, and a local campaign to press for this began. In 1968 the Driffield Navigation Amenities Association (DNAA) was formed to pursue these aims. All of the original Commissioners had died, and as no new ones had been appointed, there was no legal ownership of the navigation.
The Amenities Association therefore set up a charitable trust, which the Charity Commissioners recognised, and the trustees of the Driffield Navigation Trust became the new commissioners, with responsibility for the waterway. This paved the way for the two organisations to begin restoring the waterway in 1978, although access to the lower reaches had already been made possible by renovation of Bethels Bridge, a low-level swing bridge, which was completed at Easter 1977. Volunteers kept the remaining navigation structures working to allow navigation to Brigham, and North Frodingham, but since then, grants have become available to fund the restoration of new sections.