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Thames Navigation Commissioners


Records of the Thames Navigation Commissioners: Acts, rules and byelaws 1835-1840.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

The River Thames from Cricklade to the sea is 211 miles long. The commission set up in 1751 was not the first body to be responsible for the River Thames. Previous commissioners had improved the River and built locks, and managed the considerable volume of traffic. The 1751 commission consisted of some six hundred men who met the required property qualifications and gave them powers to settle rates of charge for passage and to correct abuses. James Brindley was employed to conduct a survey in 1770. He did not favour improving the river and believed that the costs involved would make such work impractical. His recommendations for a canal to bypass the Monkey Island to Isleworth stretch, later called the London Canal, was expanded by those who envisaged a canal from Monkey Island to Reading or Basingstoke. The commissioners did not share this vision and successfully opposed Bills for these two proposals. Only the Bill submitted by the commissioners for improving the Thames was passed, in 1771. The Act increased the number of commissioners, gave them more powers to borrow money and divided the river above Staines into five districts. The City of London's influence extended no further than Staines. Each division had its own committee and engineer, and were able to act independently when it came to managing their own district. General meetings for all districts were called as and when required and dealt with matters affecting the whole river. The clerk for the commissioners was Henry Allnutt, but there was no engineer. There were two engineers, one or both usually did any necessary work but it was not uncommon for outside engineers to be brought in. The commissioners had horse-towing paths extended and eight new locks constructed between Maidenhead and Reading by 1773, some of which needed rebuilding within the decade. Two locks were added in 1777 and 1778 on the river above Reading. In 1783 the Thames & Severn Canal received authorisation to join the River Thames at Inglesham, and immediately began to pressurise the commissioners into improving the river above Oxford. Both the Thames & Severn Canal and the commissioners understood the benefits a water link between Staffordshire and London would bring and were willing to co-operate. In 1786 it was confirmed that the Oxford Canal was also going to join the river. The engineer sent by the commissioners to inspect the building works reported that the Thames & Severn Canal would be completed in the early 1790s, prompting the commissioners to start works. They called in William Jessop to survey the Oxford-Lechlade stretch and between 1787 and 1795 the commissioners had another ten locks constructed and had the river dredged. Working with Josiah Clowes of the Thames & Severn Canal, four new pound locks were designed and built by 1791. The Thames & Severn Canal actually opened in 1789 and was followed a year later by the Oxford Canal. From the Thames & Severn junction at Inglesham to where the tideway commenced, the Thames was 125 1/2 miles. The commissioners were still receiving complaints about the state of the river despite all they had done, but they cut tolls again. It was obvious in 1798, however, that the commissioners were not going to recoup the cost of works already done at the Thames & Severn Canal company's urging. Robert Mylne was asked to re-survey the river because William Jessop was too busy to do so. He recommended replacing the 25 weirs and flash locks. In response to some of his criticisms, and those of the bargemen, the commissioners reduced tolls and improved horse-towing paths. There were several lines suggested to bypass the lower river throughout the 1790s and into the early 1800s, most of which came to nothing. The lower river was navigable and improvements were being made, but passage was slow and the differently-sized locks made navigation more complicated. In 1793 Robert Mylne himself expressed support in resurrecting the London canal scheme. He and Robert Whitworth were appointed engineers to the scheme by the City of London, who was to promote the Bill. Not surprisingly, the commissioners were not enthusiastic about the proposals for a canal and drew up their own Bill for locks on the lower river. Parliament received proposals for both river improvements and for the new canal in the same session. The canal Bill was withdrawn and eventually dropped. In part this was because John Rennie's survey favoured the river improvements, and partly because the Kennet & Avon Canal company were proposing a similar canal scheme. The Act authorising the construction of locks below Maidenhead was passed in 1795. One of the few rival canals to be authorised was the Grand Junction, opened in 1805. Had the commissioners realised earlier that it would take almost all their London-Midlands trade, they may not have been so dismissive of it. The commissioners had also unsuccessfully opposed the North Wilts Canal, authorised in 1813. A survey in 1816 of the River Thames revealed that there was the potential to lose traffic to the North Wilts Canal and that the condition of the river in general was usable, but unsatisfactory. Many of the proposed canal schemes faded away in the 1820s, to be replaced by plans for railways. The commissioners were making large repayments on loans and the interest on them, and of course had to pay for routine maintenance. The revenue generated was enough to cover costs but not enough to withstand any competition. Traffic really began to suffer when the Great Western Railway opened in 1840 to Reading, and to Bristol in 1841. A further railway from Didcot to Oxford opened in 1844. The commissioners reduced tolls by a fifth to try and tempt back trade. By 1865 the commissioners were unable to finance any repairs or general maintenance work. The Oxford Canal company was so concerned that they had set up a Thames Repair Fund. Their engineer was instructed to use this money should trade on the River Thames be impeded between Oxford and Wallingford. In 1857 the newly-formed Thames Conservancy took responsibility for the canal up to Staines. The Conservancy's powers were extended in an 1866 Act when they took over the river right up to Cricklade, and the Thames Navigation Commission was dissolved. For further information on the River Thames see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of South & 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: BW44 and BW45 for records of the River Thames during other periods of ownership]