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Company of Proprietors of the Thames and Severn Canal Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Thames and Severn Canal Navigation: deeds relating to land aquired by the canal company 1642-1724, plans of the canal 1781-1783, share certificate [1783-1799], correspondence 1810 and 1833, general papers mid 19th century-1889.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

The first Bills promoting this waterway were submitted between 1662 and 1668, and but even then the idea was fifty years old. Nothing came of these early Bills. Committee members and shareholders with the Stroudwater Navigation began investigating the possibilities and commissioned a survey, but the Thames & Severn Canal was independent and not a subsidiary of the Stroudwater Navigation. It took until April 1783 for the authorising Act to be passed, Robert Whitworth having carried out a survey two years previously. James Perry and Josiah Clowes were employed as manager and resident engineer respectively. The whole canal was 28 3/4 miles long from its junction with the Stroudwater Navigation at Walbridge in Stroud, to its junction with the River Thames at Inglesham. It was open to Chalford in 1785 and in its entirety in November 1789. It had 44 locks with those east of Brimscombe measuring 69 feet by 16 feet 2 inches and those west of Brimscombe measuring 93 feet by 13 feet. This was to accommodate the different dimensions of the trows on the River Severn and the barges on the River Thames. Brimscombe became an interchange port with wharves, warehouses and the canal company's offices, including rooms for the committee members who travelled long distances to attend meetings. There was a 1 1/2 mile long branch to Cirencester, finished in about 1787. The Sapperton tunnel was over two miles long and had been the source of much division. At the time, the Trent & Mersey Canal's Harecastle Tunnel was the only comparable one in Britain, but was for narrow boats. Some proprietors were unsure if it was practical to build a long tunnel for broad vessels and the decision was made only after several months of arguments. It was eventually built by a series of contractors between 1784 and April 1789, but was forced to close for 2 1/2 months in 1790 for repairs. Although traffic levels were lower than anticipated, this was a blessing in disguise. Poor workmanship meant that the canal leaked constantly, and increased lock use would have caused even more water to be lost. The problem was compounded by earlier overestimates of the water supply from the River Churn. It was only when the summit was completed that Josiah Clowes realised just how short of water the canal was. Pumps were installed in 1790 and 1792 and a shallow lock was built in 1791 at Boxwell, although no one seemed to have realised during the planning stage that the unequal falls of locks actually increased the volume of water wasted. Part of the reason for the lack of commercial traffic was the poor reputation of the upper Thames. Improvements were made and the Thames & Severn Canal company continually harassed the Thames Conservancy to do more. It also supported any navigation that looked like it might provide a way to bypass the upper Thames. This opportunity came in 1813 with the proposal of the North Wilts Canal which would link their canal to the Wilts & Berks Canal, thereby providing much better access to the River Thames at Abingdon. The number of boats using the canal increased when the North Wilts Canal opened, but so, therefore, did the water wastage. In 1835 a scheme began to shorten the locks to conserve water supplies. The company had their own boats and by 1798 their collection had swelled to include 30 Thames barges, 13 Severn trows and 5 Thames & Severn barges. They also owned narrow boats and frigates. Their carrying trade stopped in 1802 and gradually sold off most of their vessels to other carriers. Lack of commercial success resulted in the company's inability to pay off their debts, all of which were cleared by an 1809 Act. In 1820 the company applied to the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners for money to carry out urgent repairs and maintenance to the canal. The financial benefits of the North Wilts canal were almost entirely offset by competition from the Wilts & Berks Canal. The Thames & Severn Canal company fully appreciated the threat posed by railways. Construction materials might bring a temporary boost to the traffic on the canal, after which it would plummet unless the tolls were kept competitive. Their fears were realised in 1836 when they failed to successfully oppose the Cheltenham & Great Western Union Railway Act, from Cheltenham to Swindon via Gloucester. It was completed in 1845. Their trade took a further blow when the Gloucester to Chepstow line opened in 1854. The Thames Commissioners were also experiencing financial difficulties and so were unable to maintain the Thames above Oxford, further dissuading traders from using the Thames & Severn Canal. These complaints were followed in the 1870s and 1880s by ones regarding the state of the Thames & Severn Canal. J H Taunton, Thames & Severn's manager, denied the claims publicly but acknowledged their validity to the committee. A new committee formed in 1875 with plans for a new carrying business, but found the navigation in too poor a condition for the service to be profitable. An idea put forward in 1865 to convert the canal into a railway had come to nothing and a similar Bill in 1882 was lost after the Allied Navigations approached the Board of Trade proposing to take responsibility for it. The Allied Navigations were the Birmingham Canal Navigations, the Stroudwater Navigation, the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, the Sharpness New Docks and Gloucester and Birmingham Navigation Company, the Wilts & Berks Canal companyand the Severn Commission, although some companies later dropped out. Negotiations with the Thames & Severn began, but soon foundered because the Allied Navigations did not know that Great Western Railway had offered to buy the shares for more than they were actually worth. Great Western Railway became the majority shareholder in 1882. The canal deteriorated further and it was clear that the vast amounts of money needed to restore it were unlikely to be considered a sound investment, although the suspicions of deliberate neglect could not be proved. Several canal inspections were conducted, meetings were held with the Thames & Severn Canal company and a tentative offer was made from the Stroudwater company to buy it in 1888. Little action was taken and suddenly in 1893 the company announced that the canal would close between Chalford and the Thames until further notice. They gave 48 hours' notice. If the intention was to prompt offers to take over the canal, it was successful. The Allied Navigations and various local landowners and businessmen sought a meeting with Thames & Severn's president A J Mundella in January 1894. There was just one condition imposed by the Great Western Railway: that the canal was not converted into a railway. Negotiations were successful. Sharpness New Docks & Gloucester & Birmingham Navigation Company, the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal company, the Stroudwater Navigation, the Severn Commission, the Urban District Councils of Stroud and Cirencester, and the county councils of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Berkshire were authorised by an Act of 1895 to form a Trust to manage the canal. For further information on the Thames and Severn Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of South and South East 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 BW32 for records of the Thames and Severn Canal during other periods of ownership]