The Leicestershire & Northamptonshire
Leicester to Market Harborough
- soon known as the "Union Canal"
Kilby Wharf 1965
Market Harborough Basin 1950
Following improvements to the River Soar, allowing easier navigation as far inland as Leicester from the Humber ports and river Trent, many local businessmen felt that a continuation of the navigation line to Market Harborough would bring great economic benefit to the local area. With the proposals of the Grand Junction Canal Company for a canal from London to join the Oxford Canal at Braunston, many of the prominent businessmen and landowners of south Leicestershire and north Northamptonshire felt that the maximum benefit would be obtained from extending the navigation through to join the Grand Junction Canal near Northampton.
The Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal, soon shortened to the “Union Canal”,came into being following an Act of Parliament on 30th April 1793, to build a canal from Leicester via Aylestone, Blaby, Wigston, Kibworth, a tunnel at Foxton (above which the branch would leave for Market Harborough), and onwards via Oxenden and Kelmarsh to the Grand Junction near Northampton.
Construction quickly encountered difficulties with local opposition, shortfalls in funding and, particularly, difficulties with the Saddington Tunnel – which needed to be rebuilt as it was originally out of line. The cash was running out and the decision made, in 1797, to halt the canal at Debdale. This quickly became a busy canal terminus with a wharf, warehouse and two pubs, where goods were transhipped for transport to Market Harborough and district via the nearby turnpike (today's A6).
The Company now considered what to do next and commissioned various surveys and plans, including one by the foremost canal engineer of the day, Thomas Telford. Eventually, the decision was made simply to carry on as far as Market Harborough, the canal extension following the contour, through Foxton village, requiring no further locks or tunnels and a new Act of Parliament was passed for this in January 1805.
The canal extension to Market Harborough was formally opened on 13th October 1809, with great celebrations and thousands of spectators. Cheap coal was the principal cargo, being a great benefit to the developing industry of the district, but a thriving business also developed in timber imported from Baltic ports. The district's agricultural and manufactured produce benefited from a cheap and reliable delivery to wider markets.