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Company of Proprietors of the Leicester Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Leicester Navigation: plans 1790-1890, rate of tonnage and tolls 1836-1892, correspondence 1844-1845, rents 1865-1897, board minutes 1928-1929.



Reference code


Administrative /​ Biographical history

Initial suggestions for the Leicester Navigation were made in 1780 after the Loughborough Navigation. They arose again in 1785 but two Bills submitted were lost. Undeterred, in 1790 a group met to discuss a joint proposal for a canal to serve collieries in the Leicester, Melton Mowbury and Charnwood Forest areas. Melton Mowbury later became a separate concern. William Jessop surveyed routes for the Leicester Navigation and the Charnwood Forest Canal, the Act for which passed in May 1791. With Christopher Staveley as his assistant, William Jessop worked as engineer on both. Christopher Staveley was promoted to engineer around the time that the whole navigation was finished after William Jessop left. The Forest line was a combination of canal and tramroad. It connected Loughborough Basin to several collieries and limeworks, but their owners rarely used it. The Loughborough to Nanpantan section was tramroad that then connected to 7 ½ miles of canal from which various canal-and-tramroad lines would branch off. Few of the local quarries and collieries seemed inclined to build boats or wagons for use on the line. Many supported the rival Ashby Canal and it was little consolation to the Leicester Navigation that they received compensation tolls. It opened in October 1794 although not all of the proposed branches to the works had been, or would ever be, built. Demonstration boatloads were carried on the canal but very little proper traffic, certainly not enough to justify employing a full-time toll collector. Water supply also proved problematic. The company hoped that the completion of the Blackbrook Reservoir in 1797 would ease the situation, but it burst in February 1799 due to floods following a harsh winter. An aqueduct was swept away and months after one of the most important owners in the area had begun using the waterway. The canal was re-opened after repairs in 1801, supervised by James Barnes, but closed within a few years after the reservoir again flooded the works and an embankment was condemned as dangerous. There had been no traffic between re-opening and the closure and the company wisely decided to close it in 1808. Fortunately the Leicester Navigation was far more successful. Opened in February 1794, the part-river navigation (the River Soar), part-artificial canal had ten broad locks for craft 83 feet by 14 feet 6 inches along its 15 ¾ mile length. It joined the Wreake Navigation at above Crossington. A lock at Limekiln was added much later as part of Leicester's flood defences during the 1868-1881 programme of works. Until 1832 the company was prosperous, trade having been further increased by the opening of the Grand Union Canal in 1814. Until 1827 the revenue increased every year, as did the dividend. Tolls fell once the railways reached the area. The Leicester & Swannington Railway brought coal from the Charnwood Forest area. The Leicester company had not opposed that railway once the coalowners had brought it to their attention. Instead their concern was that they might be forced to re-open the Forest line. They were indeed asked to do so. Briefly the company considered converting their disused Charnwood Forest line into a horse tramroad but the idea was soon dropped after objections from shareholders. Tolls were lowered several times, so much that the increase in tonnage carried was not enough to compensate. The company's income did not fall drastically in the 1830s but it fluctuated and the overall trend was down. Pressure from without was compounded by fraud from within: Edward Staveley had succeeded his late father as engineer and superintendent in 1827. A few years later he confessed to his solicitor that he had stolen money from his employers, then promptly fled abroad. Neither Edward Staveley nor the money was recovered. In 1833 W A Povis, J U Rastrick and Thomas Hill were involved in the second proposal to build a horse tramroad to the Leicester collieries, although not exactly following the Forest line. They were forced to withdraw the Bill and changed tack by attempting to sell the land. Their first Bill also failed and a private Bill had to be introduced by a landowner interested in purchasing part of the land. The line was eventually abandoned in 1848 and the land sold. Low rates tempted traders and toll revenue began to climb by tiny amounts that had little effect on the company's finances but probably were greeted with cautious relief. This was a temporary reprieve as the Midland Counties Railway caused a further decline in tonnage carried and tolls collected on the waterway once it was completed in 1840. For the next few decades, the Leicester company was in almost constant negotiation with canal and railway companies over tolls and oppositions. Initially interested, they rejected the Grand Junction Canal scheme to amalgamate the London, Leicester and Coventry lines as they believed their situation was different to that of the other companies involved and that the navigation's best interests would be served by remaining independent. The works to control flooding starting in 1868 were overseen by the Leicester Corporation and involved more than the Limekiln Lock. Between Belgrave Lock and the wharf at Leicester, and between North Lock and West Bridge the channel was widened and deepened. Some lock levels were altered and after much negotiation with the Old Union companies, a new cut was made near West Bridge to the Midland Railway viaduct on the Burton branch. The 1 1/4 mile cut was ready in 1890. The corporation for the works compulsorily purchased some of the rather large quantity of land in Leicester owned by the company. Generally, selling land to various organisations and companies was done to bolster the financial situation as toll receipts decreased. By the end of the nineteenth century Leicester was among the companies deriving a third-to-half of its income from sources other than tolls, including water sales, property and licences for fishing and pleasure boats. The Grand Union Canal Company bought the Leicester Navigation, the agreement taking affect in January 1932. For further information on the Leicester Navigation see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of the East Midlands'.

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 BW58 for records of the Leicester Navigation during other periods of onwership]