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Company of Proprietors of the Thames and Medway Canal


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Thames and Medway Canal: company correspondence 1824.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

Ralph Dodd promoted a canal between Gravesend and Strood on the Medway in 1799, arguing that it would be advantageous in wartime and useful to traders. The Act was passed in 1800 despite minor opposition, but work had not progressed far before the money dried up. By the time another Act was passed in 1804 authorizing the raising of more funds, Dodd had gone and many of the original shareholders were not far behind him. Ralph Walker took over and proposed a larger cutting, two deviations from the route and a tunnel between Higham and Strood. His changes were enshrined in a new Act in 1810, which was followed by yet another eight years later when the money again ran out. The Act resulted in the revision of the list of proprietors in the Thames & Medway Canal. With William Tierney Clark as engineer, the tunnel was started in April 1819 and was completed in November 1820. It was the second-longest tunnel in Britain and included a towpath five feet wide. Until a passing place was constructed between February and April 1830, it was suitable only for single-line traffic. This resulted in delays so long that using the Thames & Medway Canal was no quicker than the previous, longer, routes. Gravesend lock had originally been built with oak gates, but these were replaced in 1819 with cast-iron gates after being infested with worm. Lesson learnt, the Frindsbury lock gates were also made of cast iron. This lock was the largest on the canal, measuring 131 feet by 30 feet. The basin at Frindsbury opened in December 1822. Only a month before the company had asked for a loan from the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners. The Commissioners' engineer was Thomas Telford and he was called to inspect the canal. Much of the route had been through chalk beds, the chalk then being sold. The profits from this were the company's biggest source of income, approximately seventy per cent in 1821. Still, it was not enough and in 1823 the proprietors once again were asked for money. The initial response was disappointing and many of the proprietors expressed their concerns that the canal would never be built. To cover the final expenses, the company promoted a Bill in early 1824 to allow them to raise more funds. When the canal was eventually opened to the relief and delight of its investors in October 1824, it was seven miles long with entrance locks between river, basin and canal. That initial jubilation was short-lived as four months later Frindsbury basin closed for improvements. Shortly afterwards the company was forced to pay compensation as the canal had deprived wells on three estates at Frindsbury and Strood of water. The company paid for them to be deepened, but when the spring tides filled the canal, this water then began to seep into the wells. It appears that at least part of the canal was closed whilst the legal dispute was ongoing, but by 1826 it was completely open. At some point between 1827 and 1835 a steam engine was installed at Gravesend to pump water into the canal. It had been planned to fill the canal during spring tides, then using it as a reservoir during neap tides; however it was soon discovered that the water depth dropped too low for barges to navigate before the canal could be refilled this way. Tidal refilling was not abandoned completely, partly because the pump was so expensive to run. Ralph Dodd may have focussed on wartime transports, but the canal also did as well in peacetime as he had predicted. The company had helped generate trade by buying six barges using money raised after the legal issues had been resolved. Carriers using the canal averaged 29 hours per journey between Maidstone and London, and from the late 1820s there were approximately six different carriers using the canal. The tunnel was something of a tourist attraction. Passenger steamers were rarely allowed on the canal because of the damage done to the banks. An exception was made in August 1831 when a pleasure cruise was run, complete with on-board band and refreshments, between Maidstone and Sheerness. The less affluent walked or even rowed through the tunnel. A steam tug was later used to offer excursions. In January 1842 a meeting was held with the company's engineer J U Rastrick to decide whether to convert the canal into a railway, and the response seems to have been positive. Nothing practical seems to have been done as a consequence and in 1844 another such meeting was convened. There were several competing schemes from different railway companies and South Eastern Railway even offered to buy the canal. By April the contracts had been signed and work began on a single-track line from Gravesend to Higham; the Gravesend & Rochester Railway. As the track mostly used the towpaths, a new one was built alongside the open canal by June 1844, although the tunnel towpaths were not replaced. The Board of Trade conducted several inspections to quash rumours that the tunnels were unsafe for trains. Around this time, the name of the company changed from the Company of Proprietors of the Thames & Medway Canal to the Gravesend & Rochester Railway & Canal Company. The railway opened in February 1845, a month late due to pay disputes, for passenger services only, and in 1846 the Gravesend & Rochester Railway & Canal Company was bought by the South Eastern Railway. The canal was abandoned in 1934, although the Gravesend basin remained open and was used by pleasure craft. Restoration of the canal is now under consideration. For further information on the Thames and Medway 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.

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