Company of Proprietors of the Stourbridge Navigation
Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Stourbridge Navigation: share records 1915-1948, legal records 1605-1939, administrative records 1779-1953, financial records 1778-1833, traffic records 1934-1949, maps and plans of the canal and its reservoirs 1780-1908, bridges 1857-1935, Acts and reports kept by the company for information 1846-1947.
These records are available immediately for research
Promoted chiefly by colliery-owner Lord Dudley, the Stourbridge Navigation was to facilitate the transportation of coal from Dudley to Stourbridge's iron and glass works. The original plan was to join the Stourbridge to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, and also included a section that eventually became the Dudley Canal. Robert Whitworth was commissioned to do the survey. The first attempt to get an Act failed largely due to the Birmingham Canal's opposition. The following year, 1776, the bill passed. The Parliamentary line ran from Stourton on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal to the Stourbridge and had several branches. A branch went from the Wordsley junction to the reservoir on Pensnett Chase, which itself had a branch to the Dudley Canal at Delph. Later, these branches came to be regarded as the main line and the 4-locked line to Stourbridge as the branch. Work began under Thomas Dadford junior as engineer, assisted by a James Green. The canal was completed in 1779 and was just less than 10 ½ miles in total. There were 20 locks, including a flight of 16 on the Pensnett Chase section. Two further reservoirs were commissioned in 1780. A 56-yard tunnel near Delph was later replaced with a bridge. Thomas Dadford resigned in 1781. To generate trade, the company established a sub-committee to run its own coal merchant's business based in Stourbridge. This was closed in 1792 when the Stourbridge Navigation became tired of the sub-committee's inefficiency. The first dividend was paid six years after the canal opened, and regularly thereafter. Despite annual fluctuations, the overall decade-by-decade trend was that the dividend rose. As the area around it became more industrialised, so the canal grew more prosperous as part of the main through-route in the Midlands. In 1830, 1834 and 1836, the Stourbridge Navigation's lock keepers had their wages increased for night and Sunday working. Tramroads were built from the collieries at Pensnett Chase to the canal. It served glassworks, mines, ironworks and brickworks and the company enjoyed a comfortable financial situation. The Dudley extension, the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and the Stourbridge Extension all brought new trade opportunities to the Stourbridge Navigation, and the Stourbridge suggested or supported a range of canal schemes. So closely allied as it was to the Dudley Canal that the two even discussed amalgamation in 1788, but talks came to nothing. For much of the time, the Stourbridge Navigation was content to do the minimum to encourage trade. Traffic increased on their canal because of the increased industrialisation and canal construction going on around them. Their prosperity increased without embarking on any great enterprise. Gad's Green Reservoir was enlarged in 1802 and although it was the Dudley's reservoir, the Stourbridge Navigation was willing to assist because it improved their water supply too. In 1807 Stourbridge Basin had to be enlarged to cope with the extra trade. Trade, particularly in iron, also received a boost with the opening of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal in 1815. Profitable as the canal was, it could have been wealthier had the staff been a little more reliable. In 1810 their treasurer, Francis Homfray, died owing the company money that they had difficulty reclaiming as one of his sureties was bankrupt. Their clerk collector and agent Henry Price was dismissed in 1831 after discrepancies were found in the monies he handled. His replacement was Edward Brewer. In 1833, he went to New York taking with him over £1000 of the company's money. Although Brewer was recaptured, his sureties were only good for half of the amount stolen, plus the company had to pay the reward for his recapture. The Stourbridge Navigation managed to employ yet another dishonest individual in the shape of their accountant, who also absconded with large amounts of cash that did not belong to him. Again, only half was recovered from sureties. Traffic increased so much when the Stourbridge Extension opened that the locks' opening hours were extended and the company had to find more water for the canal. In 1853 the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway was opened. It and the Stourbridge Navigation became allies rather than competitors, not that this particular railway posed much of a threat in the area. Canal to rail transshipment wharves were constructed and Stourbridge Navigation accepted a charge on all goods transshipped. In 1855 the Birmingham Canal, with the London and North Western Railway's backing, proposed an amalgamation with the Stourbridge Navigation. The latter set terms so high that the Birmingham Canal withdrew. It is an indication of how secure the Stourbridge Navigation was that it made no attempt to chase up the offer. Revenue declined in the 1880s. The Stourbridge Navigation was one of the minority of canals that actually benefited from the Railway & Canal Traffic Act of 1888. Toll revenue did not rise until after 1894, but the increase was steady. A dredging and improvement programme began in 1904 and had an immediate beneficial affect on trade. It did not last long, however, as the inter-war years saw much of the traffic lost to road haulers. Rents, water sales and income from investments made up a significant minority portion of the total revenue. The last decent year was 1929 and resulted in a 3 per cent dividend. From then on, toll and total revenue declined. Many of the industries it once served closed, further decreasing the canal's traffic up to and beyond nationalisation in 1948. Commercial traffic ceased in the 1950s and the canal was increasingly neglected. Restoration commenced in 1964 and the navigation was re-opened three years later. For further information on the Stourbridge Navigation see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of the West Midlands'.
It has not been possible to ascertain the complete original structure of record-keeping from the records held for this fonds. It has therefore been arranged into series by subject, which is how some of the records may have originally been kept. The company's share records have been placed first, followed by legal records. These are followed by administrative records, then financial records. Traffic records follow this, then maps and plans of the canal and its reservoirs, then bridges. At the end of the collection are Acts and reports kept by the company for information. The records within each series have generally been arranged chronologically (unless otherwise stated at the appropriate level) while keeping records relating to each other together. This means that some records may fall slightly out of the chronological sequence. The legal and administrative records have been further divided into subseries.