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Company of Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Dun


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Dun: maps, plans, drawings and sections of the river, alterations, improvements and various plots of land 1801-1835.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

The modern spelling of the river is Don; the navigation is spelt Dun after the old spelling. The Act that passed in 1726 authorising a navigation was the fourth attempt since 1698. By the time the 1733 Act created the Company of Proprietors there had already been work done on the navigation under engineer John Smith. Several cuts and 11 locks were complete. The 1733 Act amalgamated the separate bodies responsible for the upper and lower parts of the navigation into the company of proprietors and also sanctioned some improvements not previously mentioned in legislation. The committee of nine men was chaired by George Bradshaw. Thomas Radford and John Smith were confirmed as accountant and engineer respectively. The 1733 Act had been very explicit about who could be elected to the nine-strong committee. Six of the original shareholders of the upper navigation had to be elected as long as there were six living. It so happened that in 1854, all but five male original shareholders had died and under the terms of the Act, the committee were required to elect the last female original shareholder. Mrs Drake was over 70, in poor health and never attended a single meeting, whilst her male colleagues poured over the Act, vainly searching for a way to replace her. Legally they could neither amend the Act nor refuse to appoint her. After her death in 1765 the shareholders unanimously decided to ignore the Act's committee criteria from then on. In 1740 the river was navigable to Rotherham, the delay caused by disagreements with millowner Lord Effingham. Three locks, two cuts and 11 years later the length to Tinsley was completed, although the Rotherham-Tinsley length did not have a horse-towing path until 1822. The river between Wilsick House and Fishlake Old Ferry was where navigation was difficult and dependent on the tide. Permission was granted in 1740 to improve it with 2 locks and a 2-mile long cut. This meant that Thorne was now the end of the navigation and cargoes could easily be transported between there and Hull. Once the works were complete, the river was navigable for 33 miles with 12 locks above Doncaster and 5 below. It appears that the proprietors inherited a horse towing-path below Doncaster. Between 1738 and 1759 the tolls were leased and the lessee was required to maintain the navigation. Originally one condition was that the individual have no connection to the rival Aire & Calder Navigation. One of their first lessees included Henry Broadbent, company chairman since 1733; one of their last, in 1751, was Joseph Atkinson, who had surveyed the river in 1722 for an Act. After 1759 the proprietors employed a manager and an assistant rather than grant another lease. Trade was very good on the Don. Regular services were contracted to run between Rotherham and York and to and from Hull, as well as independent boats using the waterway. More warehouses were ordered in 1765 at Rotherham and Swinton. John Thompson was appointed engineer the following year. John Smith was still working for the proprietors although he was now elderly. The success of trade on the waterway was marred only by a disagreement with Samuel Walker & Company that ran for many years and led to a court case. Walkers had constructed a small cut to bypass a section of the Don called Holmes Gate to lead to their ironworks. Then the Don proprietors announced plans to erect a weir across Holmes Goit, thereby potentially adversely affecting Walkers' water supply. Although the proprietors won their case in 1763, Walkers still obstructed the navigation by whatever means possible and continued diverting water. In 1771 an agreement of sorts was reached, which included toll concessions made to Walkers. The 1770s was also the decade that saw the proprietors begin to take control of some of the larger mills on their waterway. They leased mills at Doncaster, Aldwarke, Sprotborough and Rotherham. The company had to borrow money to do so, but their motive was to control the depth of water and prevent delays caused by insufficient water. Doncaster mills burned down in 1817. Poorly situated to begin with, the Don company seized the opportunity to rebuild them in a more convenient location. Regularly, the company made brief forays into trading in coal; however the company owned only a handful of boats and hardly any mention of the service was made in the minutes. Canal mania took hold in the 1790s. The Don had by then been a profitable and busy navigation for about sixty years and their fortunes showed no sign of changing. The Don was involved in the building of three new canals; the Dearne & Dove; the Stainforth & Keadby; and the Barnsley. Their efforts to have a Sheffield canal failed due to landowners' opposition. All three successful ventures were run by separate companies but shared committeemen and shareholders and often employed the Don's engineer and agents. From 1809 a passenger service operated between Hull and Thorne. Four steamers were introduced in 1816 and connecting services allowed passengers to travel to Doncaster or Sheffield. As other waterways in Yorkshire opened up, so the choice of destinations increased. Two swift boats, called 'aquabuses', operated by the proprietors were introduced in 1840 between Swinton and Doncaster, although only one was running a regular daily schedule a year later. Since 1800 there had been dissatisfaction on the part of the landowners that the Don proprietors refused to take responsibility for flood prevention, at one point the landowners had threatened to destroy the Barnby Dun weir. The committee met with them and requested advice from John Copeland, engineer since 1795, and asked William Jessop to survey the river. Although denying all liability except for damage caused by carrying, they further appeased the landowners by arranging for some bank repairs to be carried out. The proprietors were not simply acting out of concern for privately-owned land; in exchange for bank protection works they hoped the landowners would not oppose improvement works. A Bill was drawn up to allow new commissioners to be appointed (the original commissioners named in 1733 had not been replaced) and for various new cuts. William Jessop thought the committee was acting too hastily and urged them to wait until he completed his report in summer 1801. His suggestions were extensive; new cuts and locks at Conisbrough and Doncaster and extensions to existing cuts. In 1802 the company offered to build a drainage channel at Wilsick House but the landowners rejected the plans. William Jessop and the Don company refused to alter their improvement proposals and the landowners refused to withdraw opposition. Stalemate continued until 1832 with the Don finally agreeing to maintain towpaths and banks, but not as a means of flood defence. Improvements were carried out in the 1820s after the Don scaled down their plans. The 3 cuts opened in 1823 had been surveyed by engineer George Leather. Work on another lock and cuts commenced in 1829, three years after the Act had been passed and by 1844 all that was going to be done, had been done. The cut to replace that at Conisbrough was never built. This was a period when canal and railway schemes were almost constantly proposed, such as a Sheffield and Goole railroad and a Trent and Balby canal. No matter how improbable, generally each route was surveyed and costed and negotiations entered into. Of course, these had an impact upon any improvement schemes the Don considered. In the 1830s all bridges on the river were raised to a standard height, 12 feet above the water. Complaints had been made about wooden bridges on the Dutch River, the upper part of the Don navigation constructed in the 1600s, because collisions with the piers of the bridges were sinking boats at a rate of one or two a year. Within ten years of completion, another set of major engineering works, this time to make all bridges below Doncaster able to open, was completed by 1845. This was to allow sailing vessels easier access to Doncaster and had been carried out in response to the threat from railways. The proprietors had been acutely aware of the competition and spent a great deal of time considering ways to better their waterway, and organising opposition to the majority of railway proposals. Railway competition arrived in October 1838 with the completion of the Sheffield & Rotherham. Instead of ignoring or attempting to out-compete railways, the proprietors' new strategy was to co-operate and share traffic. Talks were held with the Sheffield & Rotherham and Manchester Railway companies. The Don's attempts to purchase the Barnsley Canal failed in 1845 but the next year they bought the Dearne & Dove. In 1848 and 1849 respectively they bought the Sheffield Canal and leased the Stainforth & Keadby Canal. The reason for this was obviously to avoid these canals converting to railways and strengthen the position of the company in negotiations. Amalgamation with a railway was likely to be more beneficial than hostility. The Don proprietors had approximately 60 miles of waterway in their control, which was an extremely attractive network to new railway companies. Opposition from the Aire & Calder prevented the Bill to amalgamate the Don and South Yorkshire Coal Railway companies passing. By reneging on their deal to buy the Barnsley, the Don won the support of the Aire & Calder and amalgamation took place in April 1850 to form the South Yorkshire Railway & River Dun Company. Under this agreement the Don had a fair amount of influence. In 1851 a railway branch was built below Doncaster, with coal chute, evidence of the new company's ambitions to challenge the Aire & Calder as the main coal-exporter. After particularly severe frosts in 1856, towards the late 1850s, tolls on the Don and associated waterways showed a yearly increase. When the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway leased the South Yorkshire Railway & River Dun Company for 999 years in 1864, the parent company considered the Don of far less worth than the railways. Ten years later the South Yorkshire Railway & River Dun Company was dissolved and everything was transferred to the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway. They were understandably interested in expanding their rail network and consequently invested little in modernising the waterways. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s the tonnages carried on the Don remained high but constant whilst the tonnage carried by rail increased rapidly. One of the waterways that were considered unimportant to the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway became the focus of attention in July 1884. A short section of the Dearne & Dove collapsed due to subsidence, flooding the railway and putting it out of service for 6 months. This inconvenience added to the dissatisfaction of the traders who believed the rates were too high and that the prohibition of steam haulage was outmoded and caused unnecessary delays. Support grew for the navigation that became the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Canal in the authorisation Act of 1889. Despite obstruction by the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway the new canal company was given permission to buy the Don and all the canals the Don had owned. For further information on the River Dun see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of Yorkshire and North East England Volumes 1 and 2'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain any original structure of record-keeping from the small number of records held for this company. The fonds has therefore been arranged in chronological order.

Associated material

[See also BW18 and BW91]

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