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Company of Proprietors of the Lancaster Canal Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Lancaster Canal Navigation: plans and surveys of the canal 1791-1817, plans of packet boats late 18th-mid 19th century, notices 1804-1886.



Reference code


Administrative /​ Biographical history

Transporting coal to south Westmoreland and north Lancashire was expensive and difficult. There were several schemes put forward from the mid-eighteenth century, including different canal routes and one involving land reclamation. Various surveys were completed, the most notable by Robert Whitworth, but attempts to obtain an Act failed. The Bill for the Kendal to Westhoughton canal with branches to Duxbury and Warton Crag was successful in 1792. These two branches were never built. The Lancaster Canal had been surveyed by John Rennie based on Robert Whitworth's route. John Rennie became engineer, with William Crosley senior as assistant surveyor and Archibald Millar as resident engineer and superintendent. The following year, another Act was obtained to authorise Rennie's branch from Glasson Dock, built in 1787, to the sea. Pressure from the Leeds & Liverpool and Manchester, Bolton & Bury canals meant that the work needed to be done as quickly as possible. In 1794 work began on the Lune Aqueduct. It was a massive undertaking. William Cartwright was employed as resident engineer just weeks after work began on it and was specifically told to monitor the foundations. Bad weather, flooding, death of one of the partners in the firm of contractors and a wayward workforce did not appear to have held up progress and the aqueduct was finished in November 1797. William Cartwright received a silver cup from his elated employers. That year the existing engineering staff restricted their responsibility to the north end of the canal whilst Henry Eastburn was appointed engineer with Thomas Fletcher as his assistant for the southern end, below the Ribble. Problems with one of the contractors caused a delay of a year. Archibald Millar had complained of poor workmanship and that his instructions were disregarded. Arbitration began in 1795 but eventually the canal company dismissed the contractors and re-let the works. Just over 42 miles was navigable by 1797, between Preston and Tewitfield near Carnforth. Small amounts of traffic were encouraged to use the canal to generate some desperately-needed money for the company. Appeals to shareholders had been ignored. From 1798 a passenger service ran between Preston and Lancaster. A year later the canal was ready between Wigan and Chorley. Henry Eastburn and Archibald Millar's contracts had not been renewed, leaving William Cartwright as resident engineer for the whole length. Considering the financial difficulties, progress was reasonably fast. With the proprietors still ignoring calls for money, the committee turned to encouraging traffic to generate revenue. Three committeemen set themselves up as traders and the company opened up quarries and limekilns nearby. For the next forty years, these canalside industries flourished. The company now focussed on crossing the Ribble and linking the two sections of their canal. William Cartwright wanted a tramroad to near Preston, where a short extension to the canal would be built to meet it. The necessary Act was obtained in 1800 but clearly the company was unsure. Other suggestions for an all-water link had been made. The company sought further advice. William Jessop and John Rennie fully supported crossing the Ribble with a stone aqueduct and only agreed to William Cartwright's suggested tramroad as a temporary measure, as they believed the aqueduct would probably take five years to construct. Their doubts allayed, the committee allowed work on the tramway to begin whilst they examined plans of the proposed aqueduct. The double-tracked tramroad with three inclined planes opened at the end of 1803, but because of financial pressure, the aqueduct was never built and the tramroad remained. Consequently, there would always be a five-mile long tramroad between Walton and Preston, separating the 57-mile, Kendal-Preston north end with eight locks, and the 13 ¼ mile Walton to Wigan south end. Once opened, the revenue immediately jumped high enough for dividends to be paid, very small dividends but nevertheless it was the first time that had been possible. William Cartwright did not live to see the benefits as he died just weeks after the tramroad was completed. Work stalled for a decade. The committee consisted almost entirely of Lancashire men, so their concerns were with the north end of the navigation. They were in no hurry to complete the lower line to Kendal and seemed unmoved by the increasingly frequent and annoyed requests from Westmoreland. A short, ½ mile branch that had seven locks was built from at Johnson's Hillock to join the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, and the following year, 1811, the land for the reservoir to supply the Kendal end was purchased, but that left no money for the canal itself. Thomas Fletcher and William Crosley junior were respectively engineer and resident engineer by the time work started again. Between 1813 and 1819 the remaining length to Kendal was constructed. From 1817 the eight locks at Tewitfield marked a boundary for the engineers, with William Crosley junior working above them independently. The 378-yard tunnel at Hincaster that had no towing path was finished in December 1817. The works also included several aqueducts, though none as large as the Lune. Water was supplied from Crosley's Killington reservoir, the Ribble and several streams. In anticipation, Kendal had a basin, wharves and warehouses built at the terminus of the not-yet-completed extension, and was finished before the canal was. Work on John Rennie's Glasson Dock branch was not started until the main line was completed. A Bill authorising the raising of more capital was passed in 1819. It was to be William Crosley junior's project. By the time work started in 1823 he was superintendent of the entire navigation. It was complete in December 1825 and opened six months later. It was 2 ½ miles long from its junction near Galgate with six locks for boats 72 feet by 14 feet 6 inches. Trade growth at the Dock was hampered by the lack of warehousing or wharfage facilities, which the Lancashire company simply could not afford to build. Tonnages handled there peaked in 1840 and were enough to have justified its construction. The company had borrowed heavily, especially in the beginning when shareholders were reluctant to invest. They were rewarded with reasonably regular but consistently tiny dividends. Traffic and revenue was healthy and increased throughout the 1810s and 1820s, and the company never struggled to meet its mortgage repayments. William Crosley left in 1826 and was succeeded by Bryan Padgett Gregson, son of the clerk Samuel Gregson who was among those accused, and then exonerated, in 1811 of benefiting from nepotism when contracts were awarded, as he was also involved in carrying on the canal. Whether there was favouritism or not, Samuel Gregson eventually gave 54 years' loyal and hard-working service to the canal company, and his son came to be equally respected, taking over as clerk in 1846. Gregson junior recognised the threat railways posed and sensibly informed the committee that railways were not going to go away and that they could not hope to successfully oppose all schemes that would affect their trade. Wisely, he advised getting rid of the tramroads or at least converting them to railways. His remarks came in 1831 after the Wigan & Preston Railway (later North Union Railway) was promoted stating that it would run parallel with the canal. Fortunately for them, the committee were willing to listen to their engineer. They decided on a policy of competing if possible, but co-operating if not. Denied protective clauses in the North Union Railway's Bill, the Lancaster Canal company extended their canal by a few hundred yards for no other reason than to force the railway company to build a bridge, thus making their point. Barely a year later, in 1837, the canal company leased the tramroad to a railway in perpetuity, refusing to take it back when the railway company no longer wanted it. A decade later, the maintenance costs of the tramroad exceeded toll revenue. Daily swift boats ran between Lancaster, Preston and Kendal from 1833, in anticipation that one day a railway would extend that far north. Preston was thriving, having benefited hugely from the canal, tramroad and Glasson Dock link. From 1840, passengers could chose to make the Lancaster to Preston journey by rail but few did, as the swift boats were more comfortable. By this time, four swift boats were in operation, all served refreshments and were heated in winter. Fares were halved, just in case, but the railway did not give the company any great cause for alarm. In fact, it was the railway that was experiencing financial difficulties and soon offered itself for sale. The canal company leased the Lancaster & Preston Junction Railway in September 1842, for a period of 21 years. The packet boat service stopped, so that the public were forced to use the railway, the fares of which the canal company promptly increased whilst removing seats, so as to cram more passengers into the carriages. In 1845 they took over goods carrying on their railway, thus giving themselves a monopoly on all goods and passenger traffic carried by rail, and all mineral traffic on the canal. From their perspective, this was an excellent and extremely profitable business move. Traders and the public were less impressed. Nor were the canal company in favour with the Lancaster & Preston or Lancaster & Carlisle railway companies. The Lancaster & Carlisle had linked Kendal and Lancaster by rail in 1846 and was thus in direct competition with the canal. They were using the Lancaster & Preston Junction Railway without paying tolls, because they had also leased that railway, in 1844. The dispute centred over the legality of the various leases as to who actually held the Lancaster & Preston Junction Railway, and who, therefore, should be paying and receiving tolls. It took seven years and a fatal accident before it was agreed that the railway should become part of the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway. The South end of the canal was offered for sale in 1845. The Lancaster & Carlisle Railway declined but in 1851 the Leeds & Liverpool Canal company leased the tolls and paid the Lancaster rent. The canal was suffering from the railway competition by the 1850s. In an attempt to reclaim coastal traffic from Glasson Dock, the company bought its own ships and entered the coastal trade. Seven were purchased, and a quay at Belfast was rented. A steamboat was put on the canal in 1855. Unfortunately, by 1861 six of the schooners had sunk and a period of trade depression was beginning. However much the company tried, Glasson Dock was in decline. From 1860, the canal company began looking for a buyer. London & North Western Railway agreed to lease the North end of the canal from 1864, the same year the Leeds & Liverpool Canal had their perpetual lease of tolls on the South end. Dividends from the rental income were small but regular. Traffic continued to decline and in 1879 part of the canal between Walton Summit and Bamber Bridge closed due to disuse. Gregson junior had kept his job with the canal company despite the leases and continued to work for them until his death in 1872. The canal was bought by the London & North Western Railway in 1885 and the South end rents were paid to the new railway owners. For further information on the Lancaster Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield and Gordon Biddle's 'The Canals of North West England Volumes 1 and 2'.

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 whilst keeping related records together. This may mean that some records fall slightly out of chronological order.