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Grand Union Canal Company


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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

The Grand Union Canal Company came into existence on 1 January 1929. It was an amalgamation of the Regent's Canal, the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, the Warwick snd Napton Canal, the Birmingham and Warwick Junction Canal and the Grand Junction Canal. W H Curtis had been chairman of the Regent's Canal and was appointed to the same position in the new company. He had four colleagues on the board of directors, the remaining three coming from the Grand Junction Canal company. The reasoning behind the change was that a large canal company would be better able to compete with alternative forms of transport than several small ones, even if they all co-operated. A government grant in 1931 allowed the company to widen the length between Braunston and Birmingham to take boats of 12 feet 6 inches beam. Authorisation was also granted to widen the locks at Watford and Foxton. This work had to be undertaken without government assistance. In 1932 the Leicester Navigation, Loughborough Navigation and Erewash Canal were bought by the Grand Union Canal Company but the purchase had been agreed when the Grand Union company were confident of receiving the second loan. Work had already begun on the Birmingham line by then, so the available resources were focussed there. Talks with the Oxford and Coventry canal companies regarding managing or buying them stalled. The Grand Union Canal Company were unable to purchase the 5 miles between Napton and Braunston from the Oxford Canal company, but were able to improve it at their own expense. The canal was widened up to Camp Hill Locks, and the 52 narrow locks were converted into weirs and another 51 broad locks of 83 feet 6 inches by 15 feet were constructed to replace them. Twenty-six miles of bank protection work was done. Dredging and the dropping of lock sills ensured a uniform depth along the line. The Duke of Kent opened the Hatton flight of 21 locks, the last wide lock to be finished, in October 1934. Many of the other improvements were not completed until 1937 and some not at all; the Grand Union Canal Company's initial plan had been to reconstruct the waterways to allow barges of 12 feet 6 inches. One such barge was built and remained in service until 1963, but because the Grand Union Canal Company's plans were never realised, it was impractical to build more of the wide barges. From the outset it was realised that business would have to be actively encouraged. The first carrying firm the Grand Union Canal Company took over was Associated Canal Carriers Ltd in 1929. Erewash Canal Carrying Company was formed in 1932. The name was changed to Grand Union Canal Carrying Company Ltd in 1934 and the fleet increased from 14 pairs to 100 pairs, with another hundred ordered by May 1936. By this time the Grand Union Canal Company had also bought Thomas Clayton (Paddington) Ltd, a company that transported refuse by canal in London. Despite all the spending, the canal company was not in a good financial position. Revenue from tolls had fallen, as had water sales. Railways and roads had taken the traffic from the waterways and the railways had found alternative water suppliers. The carrying department had not yet made a profit. The organisational structure was altered in the period 1936 to 1937, with a commercial manager and board of investigators created. The Grand Union Canal Company withdrew from the Canal Association to lessen constraints on it in its struggle to attract trade. W H Curtis resigned in April 1937 and was replaced by E J Woolley. The carrying section under new director John Miller was also reorganised. He reduced the number of pairs of boats in commission to 100, eliminating older or damaged boats. As well as cutting down on maintenance costs, this reduced the difficulties of finding full crews for them all. During the Second World War women were trained as crew. The losses decreased year-on-year but only once did the carrying department make a profit, in 1946. By this time some of its debts had been liquidated and only 79 pairs of boats were in operation. Disappointing canal interchange traffic prompted the company to start their own shipping subsidiary in 1937, between the River Thames and Antwerp and Rotterdam. Grand Union (Shipping) Ltd started with a weekly Antwerp service and one steamer and expanded to five steamers and several crossings weekly by 1945. These encouraging results motivated them to set up the Grand Union (Stevedoring & Wharfage) Company Limited. Improvements were made to warehouses in Brentford, Northampton and Leicester and the facilities at Birmingham were improved. Both businesses did well, although the outbreak of war in 1939 interrupted their trade. In 1943 Cartwright & Paddock road hauliers were acquired by the Grand Union Canal Company. The canal company was authorised to participate in all forms of transportation, including, uniquely, by air. Further subsidiaries were formed, including Grand Union (Transport) and Grand Union (Estate). There was even a body to promote recreational use of the canals and reservoirs, one responsibility of which was the Ruislip Lido, opened in 1936. The majority of the revenue still came from tolls, but revenue from all areas increased during the 1940s and the overall financial situation was healthy by 1942. All subsidiaries made profits in 1946 and 1947, but unfortunately the Grand Union Canal Company did not have long to enjoy its success. Nationalisation was imminent and the British Transport Commission took over the Grand Union Canal Company and its subsidiaries in 1948. The ships and Ruislip Lido were sold off within a few years and by the 1970s the main line no longer carried regular commercial traffic except for a little in the London area. For further information on the Grand Union Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of the East Midlands'.