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Trustees of the River Weaver Navigation


Records of the Trustees of the River Weaver Navigation



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Administrative /​ Biographical history

Severn miles of the River Weaver were navigable, and until 1663 no attempt was made to improve it. Efforts were made in earnest between 1711 and 1720, during which time four Bills were introduced, but failed because of opposition from land carriers. They had a very profitable trade as the developing industries in Northwich and Winsford had to have their coal delivered from Staffordshire and Lancashire by road and boat across the Mersey. The area was a potentially rich source of salt, but business was hampered by the high costs of transportation. The fifth attempt, in March 1721, was successful and authorised improvements up to Winsford, and Witton Brook up to Witton Bridge. Undertakers were appointed from Cheshire gentlemen, and a commission was established to appoint the undertakers and assume responsibility for the River should the undertakers fail to carry out their duties. Surplus revenue went to the county of Cheshire, and was used to improve bridges and roads. Work did not start until 1730. This was largely down to a disagreement over money between the commissioners and one undertaker, Richard Vernon. The stalemate was only broken by Vernon's death. Once started, rapid progress was made. Thomas Robinson was appointed as surveyor-general, a position he held for five years. By January 1732, the river was navigable to Winsford and had 11 locks, the biggest of which were 16 feet wide. Boats could be sailed up, but were mostly towed by men. Until 1740 the tolls received did not match expenditure, but from then on the river made a profit, in part because the demand for coal increased. Most of the traffic was salt and coal, with smaller cargoes of pottery and clay. Unfortunately the undertakers showed little enthusiasm for their navigation, which had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Complaints had been made about the state of the river. When the Sankey Brook opened in 1757, it was an opportunity for the Weaver to develop trade further, but not unless alterations and repairs were carried out. The Commissioners took over in 1757, formally buying out the undertakers in October 1758, and in that year they engaged Henry Berry to survey the river. New cuts and a lock were started on his recommendations, although the requests of Sankey Brook traders were either dismissed or accepted with grudging compromise. There was an unexpected expense of rebuilding Northwich lock that collapsed after a salt-pit gave way in 1759. Subsidence would eventually force them to move the lock in 1826, but for the time it was to be rebuilt in the same location. Further investigation revealed that the commissioners could not claim damages against the responsible parties. The Act of 1721 was still in force, under which the commissioners had a supervisory role only, and required updating to reflect their position as sole governing body. An Act of May 1760 replaced the position of the old Undertakers with 105 trustees, assuming many of their responsibilities, powers and duties. A committee was appointed by the trustees to manage the waterway. One of the first things they did was to cut tolls on various commodities including coal. The trustees continued with the improvement works with Robert Pownall as engineer, James Brindley occasionally acting as consultant. As well as Northwich lock, there was more unplanned for work when the weir and lock at Pickerings failed and needed to be rebuilt. The ¾ mile Witton Brook was made navigable and had one lock, and the locks on the river itself were enlarged to take boats 68 feet x 16 feet 9 inches. The depth was 4 feet 6 inches. Revenue fell once the Trent & Mersey canal opened in 1777. In particular, the traffic of pottery raw materials and finished pottery fell. The Weaver trustees had tried hard in the early stages to get to the Trent & Mersey committee to work in conjunction with their navigation, but failed. Instead the Weaver had made more improvements before the canal was finished and employed more lock keepers and reduced tolls to remain competitive. They were reasonably successful, but at great expense. Surplus revenue payments to Cheshire had begun in 1771 but did not last long. There was no money spare after maintaining and improving the navigation and in fact the trustees borrowed large sums. Trade picked up again the 1780s as the salt trade increased, so much so that the prosperity of the river soon depended almost entirely on coal and salt. By 1783 the tonnages had regained their pre-Trent & Mersey levels and on the Winsford section had exceeded them. To further encourage the growth, improvements were made between Northwich and Winsford, including replacing timber- sided locks with brick, widening Witton Brook and building quay. A horse-towing path was built at the salt proprietors' request. It reached Anderton by 1793, but it was several years before it extended to Winsford. A new basin and tramway network at Anderton, suggested by traders, eased transhipment of salt onto the Weaver but won the trustees no friends at the Trent & Mersey, who lost trade and had their towpath obstructed. The Weaver also paid for the repairs to the Middlewich-Winsford road, but whether this had an appreciable effect on traffic is doubtful. A brief foray into carrying was even less successful and was abandoned in 1784. More adventurous improvements were planned to deal with the problem of the Weaver's tides. These included a deep-water entrance at Weston Point. Engineer John Johnson surveyed for a canal from Frodsham to the Mersey at Weston Point. Then the difficulties began, because the trustees wanted to pay for the work through higher tolls, rather than borrow more. The traders were understandably disgruntled. It rumbled on for several years before the dispute was settled. The Act for the 4-mile Weston Point Canal and basin was obtained in 1807. Responsibility was given to the trustees' engineer John Johnson, with a penalty if it were not completed in 27 months. When that time passed and the work was unfinished Thomas Telford was engaged as a consultant. Telford's criticism of the work led to Johnson's dismissal from the company despite having given thirty years' otherwise satisfactory service. Samuel Fowls was employed as resident engineer. Weston Point opened in 1810 and proved immediately successful. A harbourmaster, two assistants and lock-keeper were appointed to work fulltime. A new basin was opened there in 1856. At some point during the improvements in early nineteenth century, the trustees considered making the river navigable for sea-going vessels. Possible, but not profitable was the answer received when they made enquiries. Weston Point was, in William Cubitt's opinion, a good place for a harbour for ships to tranship cargoes. Cubitt persuaded the trustees to make the river capable of taking 100-ton capacity flats. These required duplicate locks of 88 feet by 14 feet, which were built in the 1840s. Later, all upper locks were double locks of 100 feet by 22 feet were constructed. Weston Point continued to be enlarged through the 1830s and 1840s, with a stable, sea wall and second river entrance constructed. Amongst all the improvement works, the trustees also embarked upon projects to benefit their employees. They were paid for entirely out of the river's revenue at a time when such benevolence was rare. Churches and schools were each built, staffed and supplied at Weston Point, Northwich and Winsford, and the trustees did what they could to bolster the attendance of each. Employees - or their widows - were looked after financially in old age and infirmity. Traffic often fluctuated, especially during poor weather or war, and the trustees took pains to keep their staff on during these periods. Widows of lock-keepers often took over their husband's job for the same pay. In 1837, every employee was invited to attend a special dinner in honour of Queen Victoria's coronation. Two years later, the trustees won the further esteem of their employees by making Sunday a mandatory day off. The trustees had paid over half a million pounds to Cheshire by 1845 and were therefore very influential. For this reason, the railway companies had been reluctant to challenge them. There were encroachments into Weaver territory and railways did apply to cross it, but negotiations were generally amicable. The Weaver never engaged in the vicious price wars and cost-cutting other companies did when faced with competition. Edward Leader Williams became the trustees' engineer in 1856 after W Saxon resigned. Under him, the navigation became efficient and modern. Cuts were made to straighten the river. Steam craft were introduced although the first steam packet was not used until 1864. Subsidence caused huge difficulties. Even the trustees had to admit defeat at times, for example by removing Northwich lock and weir entirely. Earlier in the century, William Cubitt had dissuaded the trustees from making improvements that would allow coastal craft to use the Weaver. Leader Williams was not so opposed to the idea and prepared reports on the matter at the trustees' request. An Act was successfully sought in 1866. Importantly, it allowed the trustees to collect tolls on the Weston Canal that had been free since 1816. It also authorised a new 50 feet entrance on the Mersey; the Delamere dock; and lock enlarging. Delamere Dock was constructed by 1870, but only one lock was enlarged at the time. Sutton lock had been the smallest on the navigation. His vision was to create locks large enough for steamers to tow three flats through, in order to reduce delays. Leader Williams also pressed for the boatlift at Anderton, to overcome any problems of transhipment. He was left the Weaver before it was constructed and it became the project of new engineer J Watt Sandman. It opened in 1875, hugely over budget, but did not attract any more trade from Bridgwater or the Trent and Mersey. Apart from one incident in 1882, it worked perfectly and its design was copied for other boat lifts. Major engineering works took place between 1871 and 1897 that amounted to a complete rebuilding of the navigation. Some locks were enlarged to 229 feet by 42 feet 6 inches; others were rebuilt to smaller dimensions than that. Several were removed completely. Dredging work made the Weaver a uniform 12 feet in depth. The Tollemache dock was opened at Weston Point in 1885. That was the year of the Manchester Ship Canal, which boosted the Weaver's trade by providing a more convenient route. In 1891 a lock was built from the Weston Canal directly into the Ship Canal. By this time, Sandeman had resigned and been replaced with L B Wells, himself succeeded by J A Saner. All of the works proved their worth, as tonnages rose and rose. The Weaver was an extremely successful and rich navigation. Previously, traffic on the Weaver had consisted mainly of salt and coal. Annual salt tonnages alone had consistently totalled over 1 million tons in the 1870s. They fought to prevent brine pipelines being built right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, although they were probably aware it was a losing battle. By the 1890s, the salt trade was increasingly using the pipelines and the railways, and chemicals were carried on the river. Chemical works had appeared on the banks of the river since the mid-1800s, occasionally creating pollution problems for the trustees. The plummet in coal and salt was very nearly matched by the rapid rise in chemical trade. The trustees themselves were reorganised in the mid-1890s, reducing their number from over 100 to 38. The majority came from the Cheshire County Council, with the second largest group appointed from river traders. Only a few of the existing trustees were retained. It also impacted upon the way the surplus was used; the trustees had a right to keep a set amount in its reserves, and only part of anything over this amount was given to the county. The result was that no payments to the county were made between 1890 and 1947 despite the river's continuing prosperity. Bridges, maintenance yards and locks began using electricity from the very last years of the nineteenth century. Anderton boat lift was converted to electricity and generally improved between 1903 and 1908. Those using the lift found it quicker, and the trustees found it cheaper to maintain. The early 1900s also saw many new bridges built on the Weaver; two swing bridges at Northwich supported by buoyancy tanks because of subsidence; Sutton Weaver swing bridge built in 1923, and another at Acton in 1932; and the replacing of the stone bridge at Hartford with one of steel in 1938, which also allowed fixed-mast coasters to reach Winsford. The trustees were not able to pay off the debts for this work until 1935, which is the reason for the delay in removing the final stone bridge. Tonnages halved during the inter-war years and no major work was done to the river, just necessary maintenance. During World War Two, plans were made to extend the Weaver to Audlem. The Act passed in 1945 that sanctioned developments up to Nantwich and also eliminated the disused Pickerings lock. The result was an increase in Weston Point traffic, although Winsford traffic had completely stopped by the 1950s. Frodsham and Sutton locks were closed the same decade. Having been nationalised in 1948, the British Transport Commission and the British Waterways Board managed the river. The last chemical packet boats used the Weaver in 1980. Weston Point Docks were busy right through the 1970s, before being closed in 1984. For further information see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations and Charles Hadfield and Gordon Biddle's The Canals of North West England Volumes 1 and 2.