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Company of Proprietors of the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal Navigation: plans and sections of the canal 1842 and 1853, weigh bill 1843, notice of application to Parliament for an Act for making a railway from Gloucester to Hereford 1846, correspondence 1859 and 1917, mortgage details 1926-1949, dividend book 1939-1947.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

Originally proposed in 1774, the Act authorizing the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal was passed in April 1791. Richard Hall and Josiah Clowes had conducted several of the surveys, but Hugh Henshall carried out another in September 1791. In the January of that year, when the committee was first organised, additional coal had been found in the collieries at Newent. This seemed to allay any doubts some committee members expressed about whether it would be better to improve the River Wye instead. Still, the committee was not overly enthusiastic and, having got their Act, did little but adjourn meetings and fret over the cost and scale of the canal. Henshall was brought in to re-survey the route in the hopes his proposals would be more satisfactory to the committee. He altered the route to take the main line through Newent and added a third tunnel at Oxenhall, eliminating the 3-mile branch originally proposed. To make such alterations required a new Act, duly passed in 1793. When engineer Josiah Clowes died in 1795 and was replaced with Robert Whitworth, some of the canal had already been open a year. The idea of an aqueduct across the River Severn at Over was abandoned after landowners expressed concerns about possible flooding. Instead Josiah Clowes devised a scheme whereby the canal joined the River Severn at Over, then cut through Alney Island and met the other branch of the River Severn in the region of Westgate Bridge. In 1794 a cut was made across Alney Island, but it never appears to have been used. This may have been because of the mud carried in with the tide. Robert Whitworth's proposal of a dam resulted in more vehement opposition than the initial aqueduct. Construction went ahead in about 1797 but the unfinished dam was dismantled in February 1800 after a group of fishermen and watermen won their court case against the company. In 1795, the canal was open between Over and Newent. A year later a 1/4 mile branch (referred to as the Oxenhall branch and the Kilcot branch) to collieries at Oxenhall was completed, but it was rarely used and closed just four years later. Work progressed steadily, the canal open to Ledbury in 1798, complete with a tunnel to Oxenhall that was approximately 1 1/4 miles long. The canal had 13 locks, capable of taking craft 70 feet by 7 feet 6 inches and with an unusually high average depth of 10 feet 10 inches. At 16 miles long, the canal was still not quite halfway to Hereford when the money ran out. Proprietors were remiss in making payments; water and traffic were in equally short supply. The company ran three boats regularly, full or not, in an attempt to attract trade. They blamed the poor traffic figures on tradesmen who were too obstinate to change their ways. In fact, as many were reluctant because of insufficient water depth. For almost thirty years, nearly everything stalled. Interest from the proprietors was negligible and finances in a dreadful state. There were no general assembly committee meetings between 1800 and 1812, during which time the superintendent was left to manage the canal, with an assistant and a lock keeper, and little assistance otherwise. At the committee meeting in 1812, it was decided to put the water supply problem to the engineer, who was probably Ralph Walker. The storage capacity of the top pound was increased, which alleviated the problem a little, and a wharf and wharf house were constructed at Ledbury. This burst of activity was followed by more years of apathy. Committee meetings were infrequent, with none held between 1814-1816 and 1821-1825. A general assembly was even more extraordinary; occurring not once between 1815 and 1827. Stephen Ballard was employed as clerk in August 1827. Within a year, a new committee was elected and new byelaws and toll schedules were in place. Ledbury basin was enlarged and a feeder built from the River Leadon. The original plan had been to get water from a feeder at Frome and this was again raised. Ballard investigated the plausibility of extending the canal and the benefits of the scheme, namely, a more reliable supply of water and increased trade. In 1830 some money was raised which purchased land and paid for a new lock at Ledbury. Stephen Ballard's proposals involved substantial alterations to the route of the canal and included replacing the Walsopthorne and Aylestone Hill tunnels with deep cuttings and joining with the River Wye. When approached by the company in 1834, the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners ruled that they would not provide any funding until the alterations were sanctioned by Parliament. Floundering, the committee asked Stephen Ballard to survey a new route for the Bill that year, which found favour with the shareholders but was rejected by the committee. Appeals to shareholders were all but ignored and an 1836 Gloucester & Hereford Railway scheme was abandoned within a year. Ralph Walker was employed to complete another survey. His route did not vary greatly from that already authorised in the early Acts, kept both tunnels and left the Wye alone. It was accepted. An Act passed in 1839 authorizing the company to raise more money. After forty years of being asked for money for a canal that had brought them no profits, it is unsurprising that the shareholders' response was less than enthusiastic. It is possible that they were not convinced the canal could out-compete the new railways. Despite this, the committee placed agents in Worcester, London and Bristol, amongst other towns, to sell shares to raise money. In October 1839 they had enough to start the work, with Stephen Ballard now engineer. Walsopthorne Tunnel was shortened and the extension to Canon Frome was opened in 1842. For the first time since the navigation had opened, the water depth was guaranteed to be sufficient at any point, in any season. The entire length of the canal had 22 locks, 3 tunnels and an 8 1/2 mile summit level. When it finally reached Hereford in May 1845, it was 34 miles long. Total tonnage carried and annual income more than doubled from about 1840 to the late 1840s but still lagged far behind that of their modestly successful contemporaries. Already there were negotiations with railway companies. One example was Welsh Midland, who made their proposal to turn the canal into a railway in the same year that the extension was complete. The company accepted but the Bill did not get through Parliament. An agreement to sell the Hereford to Ledbury length of the canal collapsed in 1852. The sale was to have been made to the Worcester & Hereford Railway and it was apparent to both parties that the canal would not be able to compete. The railway opened in 1861. In 1862, the West Midland Railway and Great Western Railway agreed to lease the canal. Until the necessary Act was passed, a joint committee of railway and canal representatives would manage the canal. Still things did not run smoothly for the canal company. Seven years after the agreements were signed Great Western Railway seemed reluctant to submit a Bill. Hereford & Gloucester representatives paid Great Western Railway a visit in Paddington that may have prompted the latter to approach Parliament, for in October 1870 Great Western Railway officially took on responsibility for the canal. Parts of it were used for various railway schemes between Over, Newent and Ledbury. In 1881 the Ledbury to Severn length of the canal was closed, with the remainder soon following suit. The original canal company was in existence until nationalisation in 1947, although it had no influence over the Great Western Railway or their plans for the canal and railway. Their sole responsibility was to collect and distribute the payment agreed in the lease. The canal is currently being restored. For further information on the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of South Wales and the Border'.

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.