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Commissioners of the Forth and Clyde Navigation


Records of the Commissioners of the Forth and Clyde Navigation: transcription marking the foundation stone for Aqueduct Bridge 1787, canal notices 1835 and 1841.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

Alexander Gordon undertook the first survey for the Forth and Clyde Navigation. A second survey was carried out at the behest of the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Fisheries, Manufactures and Improvements in Scotland, in 1764 by John Smeaton, who suggested two routes. Unhappy with either of these, Glaswegian tobacco merchants commissioned Robert Mackell to again survey a route for the canal, in December 1766. Both Robert Mackell and John Smeaton's canals were proposed in Bills, but Smeaton's was passed in March 1768. He later altered it to make it possible for sea-going vessels to use. John Smeaton was appointed as engineer with Robert Mackell as his assistant. The canal had been the focus of much hostility, much of it appeased by certain clauses in the Act and promises to built cuts, but even once work begun there were still protests. The Carron Company got James Brindley and others to draw up plans to re-route the canal so that it entered the river at a place more convenient to themselves. The Carron Shipping Company also put forward ideas. John Smeaton and the Commissioners were understandably irritated and refused to consider any alteration. There was one major change made, a 2-mile re-routing further south near Glasgow, but it was suggested by Robert Mackell and was at the other end of the canal. It was approved by an Act in 1771. By this time all the eastern locks were completed and work on the Townhead reservoir was underway. Two years later, John Smeaton resigned. He had long been frustrated by the committee's disinclination to spend money on decent organisation, and had spent almost as much time placating quarrelling employers and employees as he had doing his job as engineer. In about 1775 the Commissioners began to run out of money. Most of the works done around this time were improvements made to the existing canal. Some funding was obtained which enabled the Commissioners to build and open to traffic the canal as far as the basin at Hamiltonhill by 1779. There was no money left to continue extending the main line west, and when Robert Mackell died in 1779 the commissioners did not bother to replace him for six years because their insufficient funds meant that no progress could be made with the canal. Poor harvests in 1782 and 1783 resulted in grain being shipped along the canal to the west. It helped prove the worth of the canal and quite possibly assisted the Commissioner in their attempts to secure funds. They received a loan in 1784 and appointed Robert Whitworth engineer in 1785. He supported previous suggestions for moving the junction with the Clyde from Dalmuir to Bowling. It eventually did just that, complete with an aqueduct with four arches over the River Kelvin, personally supervised by Robert Whitworth. His other concern was the water supply, especially as it was decided in 1787 to deepen the canal. An Act in 1790 authorised plans to take water from the Monkland Canal, which would be replaced by water from the Calder. Under Robert Whitworth, work progressed smoothly and steadily. The canal was finished in 1790. The main line was 35 miles long with 39 locks each capable of taking boats 66 feet by almost 20 feet. Throughout 1791, various extensions were cut. The Carron Company had completed a mile-long branch to their iron works between the canal and the river in 1782, which closed in 1810. The Glasgow branch was extended in 1791 from Hamiltonhil to Port Dundas 1/2 mile away, and another cut to join the Monkland Canal. Henry Glassford built another branch to a lime works at Netherwood. Although other branches had been planned, they were never built. The Monkland feeder and the reservoir were not always able to supply enough water. From 1798 more reservoirs were built, including one at Hillend (1798), Lily Loch (1837) and Roughrigg (1852). The canal was well used, and traffic was boosted by the war with France, as it was safer to use the canal than the coast. Port Dundas was always very busy. In 1792, 1795 and 1796 fishing traffic was bolstered by large quantities of herring seen in the Forth. However, repairs to various canal structures proved expensive, as did deepening the Clyde from Glasgow Bridge to Dumbarton Castle. Much of the trade came from sea-going vessels, and was thus relatively immune from competition from other canals. Even after the railways opened, trade on the canal remained good and actually increased along some sections of the canal, particularly the western end. Financially the canal was a success. Dividends fluctuated but there was always enough profit made to keep the shareholders satisfied. The canal was always well-maintained and improvements and extensions to the facilities were almost constant in order to cope with the demands made on the canal. In 1806 the organisational structure of the company changed. It would in future be headed by a Governor and seven councillors. Three were to be elected by Scottish proprietors and four from London-based proprietors. Kirkman Finlay was elected Governor in 1816, replacing Lord Thomas Dundas after thirty years in charge of the company. From 1809 a passenger service ran from Glasgow to Falkirk, and from there by road to Edinburgh, until 1822 when the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal linked to the Forth & Clyde Navigation, thus providing a direct water link to Edinburgh. Meals were available and a little later, a night service was started. In the 1830s the potential threat of railways led to the experimentation with steam power. It went well until 1840, when the Slamannan Railway was completed and allowed passengers to travel to the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal by rail, bypassing the Forth & Clyde Navigation. Then in 1842, the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway opened. The company had already reduced fares as low as possible. There was little hope of out-competing the railways and passenger services soon became unprofitable. The last one ran in 1848. In 1846 the Forth & Clyde Navigation merged with the Monkland Canal, the chief coal supplier to Glasgow. Plans were also underway for the Forth & Clyde to join the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway and purchase the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal; but the Railway Company dropped out. In 1849 the Union Canal was taken over by the Railway without including the Forth & Clyde Navigation. Agreements were reached with several of the major railways by the mid-1850s, prompting the canal's Governor to report that serious competition with the railways had ended. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s screw-propulsion began replacing horses. In 1856 the company had a single goods lighter with screw propeller in operation, by 1859 this rose to 18 and in 1866 there were 70. Grangemouth was a thriving port and was repeatedly extended, with docks, basins and accommodation all being enlarged or new ones constructed. The Caledonian Railway was increasingly keen to gain control of it, so much so that they bought the entire canal in 1867, despite opposition from the North British Railway Company. For further information on the Forth and Clyde Navigation see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Jean Lindsay's 'The Canals of Scotland'.

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.