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Commissioners for the River Nene


Records of the Commissioners for the River Nene: a report concerning drainage 1769, and a plan of the river 20th century (nd [18th century]).


1769-20th century

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These records are available immediately for research

Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

Two separate bodies of Commissioners were responsible for the River Nene: one for the Easten Division, from Peterborough to Thrapston; and the other for the Western Division from Thrapston to Northampton. The lower river, from Peterborough to the Wash was jointly managed by several organisations. This arrangement lasted until 1852, when a new body of commissioners consisting of men from both divisions was appointed, and was responsible for the entire length of the Nene. The Nene Catchment Board took over the River Nene in 1930 and co-existed alongside the commissioners for several years. Eastern Division: In 1713 an Act was passed to make the River Nene navigable up to Northampton, the first proposed improvement to the river since the 15th century. Commissioners would be appointed to run the business but those who lent money, the proprietors, would also have authority. Commissioners were easily found, but as it was already possible to reach just above Peterborough, no one was willing to undertake improvements to the whole length of the river. A second Act in 1724 to improve any part of the river was more successful and the length between Peterborough and Oundle was completed by 1730. The work was paid for by Robert Wright and Thomas Squire, who received money from tolls received on that stretch of the river. Robert Wright conveyed his share of the tolls to Thomas Squire in 1731 and invested no more money in the Nene, whereas Thomas Squire financed a further six years' of work up to Thrapston. Eventually, this length had fourteen locks and eight staunches. The Squire family were merchants based in Peterborough and were sole proprietors with exclusive rights to the tolls. The commissioners had no real influence over them and consequently the navigation fell into a state of disrepair. A 1759 survey by Thomas Yeoman revealed just how serious it was. The Squires appeared to be unconcerned by the fact that in some places there was insufficient water for boats to be able to use the river. It took an Act in 1794 to give the Eastern Commissioners more control, such as allowing them to appoint an overseer and clerk, to insist upon thorough accounts being kept and to force the proprietors to maintain the navigation. More commissioners were appointed, particularly men with a high social status. J Bramston, Francis Thompson and James Golborne were employed as clerk, overseer and superintendent respectively. The latter's uncle, John Golborne, was an engineer who had already reported on the lower Nene outside the Eastern Division. The Squires retained their monopoly as proprietors, of which there were two. Wright Thomas Squire, proprietor for the Nene between Peterborough and Oundle ignored the commissioners' requests to clear gravel and generally maintain the waterway until 1801. Daniel Yorke had replaced the other proprietor, Thomas Squire, as proprietor between Oundle and Thrapston and seemed far more co-operative. Even so, the apathy on behalf of the proprietors was mirrored by that of the commissioners, many of whom scarcely attended meetings. Lord Lilford was one of the more active commissioners when it came to pressurizing the proprietors to improve the river; however, there was not enough money to do so. Daniel Yorke submitted records in 1807 which proved that trade on the river was dreadful. What Daniel Yorke did not report to the commissioners was that he had not paid overseer Francis Thompson in 1806; in fact from then until his death in 1809, Francis Thompson did not receive any payment at all. The commissioners considered raising tolls, were advised against doing so, and do not appear to have taken any other action to increase either trade or revenue. Byelaws had been drawn up in 1808 but were not implemented until 1830, the same year as the river was surveyed. Former Western Division commissioners' surveyor Joseph Aris had made a few inspections of their locks in the late 1820s. Samuel Staniforth was by then proprietor in place of Wright Thomas Squire and he began improvements in 1834. These were completed by Staniforth's successor Thomas Atkinson. Unfortunately for Thomas Atkinson, overseer John Siddons was unimpressed and Thomas Atkinson was blamed for causing more damage than improvements. Flooding had always been a serious problem, but the commissioners had always determined that they were not responsible for drainage, and thus nothing was ever done. In 1848 however, they were forced by local landowners to take action; even John Siddons laid responsibility for flooding partly with the staunches. A committee for drainage was assembled comprised of many prominent individuals. Much of the suggested improvements concerned the lower Nene, not the responsibility of either division. The division commissioners did co-operate to get the Nene Valley Drainage and Improvement Act passed in 1852 as both understood that inaction was detrimental to their own length of river. Western Division: As the Eastern Division was being developed, there was also increasing interest in the river from Thrapston to Northampton. It required another Act granting permission to raise funds, with those who lent the money assuming the title of proprietor of the River Nene. Thomas Yeoman had surveyed the river in 1753 and had given evidence to the parliamentary committee supporting the scheme. The Act was passed in the late spring of 1756 although it was not until March 1758 that the Western Commissioners set up a committee to examine the various proposals put forward. Of several men who submitted proposals, engineer John Smith junior's plans were accepted. John Smith's ideas had been approved by Thomas Yeoman and came from an engineering family - his father was engineer to the River Don Navigation. It took until August 1761 to build the twenty 100 feet by 10 feet 6 inches pound locks, raise the height of existing bridges, construct wharves at Wellington and complete the various other works. Financing the scheme does not appear to have been problematic, as the subscribers paid promptly and as soon as one section of the navigation was complete, it was opened to toll-paying traders. Local gentlemen paid for seven locks to be built, whether from a desire to foster trade or because their neighbours had already given generously. Thomas Yeoman surveyed the completed navigation and gave it his approval. Fifty-two new commissioners were appointed in 1769, most of them clergymen. Tolls for the river fluctuated wildly, rising in the 1760s and 1780s, but dropping dramatically in the 1770s and 1790s. Some years the maintenance bills exceeded the amount taken in tolls. From the 1790s, the commissioners blamed the Grand Junction Canal and insisted that the two needed to be linked at Northampton. The Grand Junction Canal Company agreed and in 1796 asked James Barnes to carry out a survey. In 1800 the commissioners proposed that they would raise half the necessary funds for the branch in an attempt to hurry the work along. The problem, however, was not cost, but rather that the Grand Junction Canal Company did not believe water supplies were sufficient and wanted the middle part of the branch to be railway. The commissioners loathed the idea. Unfortunately, their revenue from tolls continued to fall and they could not afford to indulge in protracted arguments. Neither a public demand in 1802 by the commissioners for the canal company to begin work on the branch, nor an offer in 1803 to double the Company's rates if the entire link was navigable, could persuade them to change their plans. Instead the link that opened in 1805 was a railway, with no navigable section. Ten years later the Western Commissioners got the water link they desired. In 1809 the Grand Junction Canal Company had proposed a Bill to enable them to join the Old Union at Norton. The commissioners - unusually, Eastern and Western were united - and the town of Northampton opposed and were only placated when the Grand Junction Canal Company made a formal agreement to replace the railway branch with a canal. Benjamin Bevan was in charge of the branch that was almost five miles long and had seventeen locks. Monies from tolls rose, but not by as much as the repair bills did. Grand Junction's canal boats were too large and caused physical damage to the locks and inconvenience to the mills, whose water supplies were affected. The Grand Junction Canal Company's own surveyor, William Thompson, surveyed the river. His 1825 report was critical of the construction and condition of many river features. On his advice, the commissioners hired Joseph Aris as full-time surveyor and increased maintenance staff and facilities. Within two years he had resigned and was replaced with Benjamin Bevan junior. Bevan lifted restrictions on Grand Junction canal boats using the river as he realised that an overwhelming majority of trade of the Nene was there as a direct result of the Grand Junction. Trade briefly improved between 1843 and 1845 when construction materials for the London & Birmingham Railway were carried on the Nene, but the railway took more trade from the river and tolls were slashed in 1847. In 1838 the Eastern Division commissioners made a complaint to the mayor of Wisbech about the state of the lower river, believing its poor condition was detrimental to their trade. This had been troubling the Western Division for some time too. Both division commissioners co-operated to get the Nene Valley Drainage and Improvement Act passed in 1852 as both understood that inaction was detrimental to their own length of river. Lower River Nene: The Bedford Level Corporation built a channel from Peterborough to Guyhirne, Smith's Leam, parallel to the river's natural course, Morton's Leam. It was completed in 1728. Nathaniel Kinderley suggested a new cut to improve the navigation to Wisbech. Work was started by the North Level drainage undertakers and Wisbech Corporation, but the corporation withdrew and destroyed what had already been done. It was not until 1773 that the outfall cut at Wisbech, Kinderley's Cut, was completed. Problems still persisted and many prominent engineers were appointed to offer solutions. Some, like Thomas Yeoman , were already acquainted with the River Nene, having been involved with the Eastern and Western Division corporations. Thomas Yeoman's recommendation, made in 1769, was that a navigable sluice should be cut above Guyhirne and a side cut through Wisbech. John Rennie and Thomas Telford were both brought in to further examine the problems, but invariably the Bedford Level Corporation favoured one scheme, the Wisbech Corporation the other, and stalemate ensued. Despite the hostility, an Act was passed in 1827 appointing commissioners for the Nene Outfall, with Thomas Telford and John Rennie responsible for constructing a new cut and the Cross Keys Bridge at Sutton Wash. It was all completed by 1831, although the bridge was soon regarded as a hindrance and was replaced after twenty years. Various other improvement schemes were undertaken, including further cuts and the realignment of embankment at Sutton Bridge. The work was mostly successful, although extremely difficult at times. Trade increased, although it faced competition from railways. The 1852 Nene Valley Bill for Drainage and Improvement allowed for six commissioners to represent the lower river. For further information on the River Nene see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and John Boyes and Ronald Russell's 'The Canals of Eastern England'.

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 BW23 for records of the River Nene during other periods of ownership]