Home  / BW75


Company of Proprietors of the Grand Union Canal


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Grand Union Canal: land survey 1810-1881, report 1813 and plans 1809-1891.



Reference code


Administrative /​ Biographical history

Thomas Telford and James Barnes made preliminary surveys in 1808 for a narrow canal route to link the Grand Junction Canal to the Trent, and the Nottingham-Derby coalfields. They did so at the instigation of the Grand Junction Canal company, which was disappointed that the Leicestershire and Northampton Union Canal had failed to provide such a connection. An independent, preliminary committee was formed. R C Sale, clerk of the Grand Junction Canal, and J E Carter of the Leicester Navigation accepted positions as joint clerks in the new company. Benjamin Bevan was appointed engineer and he recommended James Barnes's considerably shorter, cheaper line. Several proposals for a junction with the Oxford Canal were put forward and rejected by Benjamin Bevan. However, he did reluctantly agree to a tunnel at Crick even though he preferred the route that avoided the need for one. It took until May 1809 before all involved agreed on the route and by June all the money had been subscribed. The Act passed in May 1810 despite opposition, including that of the Western Division Nene Commissioners. The Grand Junction Canal company placated objectors by promising canal branches, or toll limits, or even by withdrawing their own opposition to other schemes. The 23 ¼ mile canal was completed in four years, including tunnels at Crick (1528 yards) and Husband's Bosworth (1166 yards), and the 1 5/8 mile Welford arm. At Watford were three single locks and a staircase of four, and there were two staircases of five at Foxton. The tunnels and bridges had been built broad, despite the decision to construct a narrow canal after carriers suggested they would use narrow boats regardless of how wide the canal was. Construction was not without difficulty, as the position of the Crick Tunnel had to be moved when Benjamin Bevan realised that quicksand lay in its path. At Watford, as well as large compensation payments, one landowner demanded a pleasure boat and the right to appoint the Watford lock-keeper, apparently not trusting the company to find courteous and competent men. The alternative was a deep cutting and another tunnel, so the company agreed to her requests The Grand Union Canal did not receive much traffic, and that which did pass through paid very low tolls. The canal had no local trade of its own and was dependent on through trade. This left them in a weaker position when it came to negotiations. It also meant that they were constantly caught up in other companies' bureaucracy and it was impossible to get anything done quickly. One advantage the Grand Union Canal did have was their reservoirs at Naseby, Sulby and Welford. Water was supplied to the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union and Grand Junction canals. No dividend was paid until 1826, even though the company was still struggling with their debts. They increasingly relied on the Grand Junction Canal. By 1840 the latter had a majority shareholding. In 1851 the Grand Union Canal announced an economy drive on account of the reduction in traffic, but in 1858 the revenue from tolls was not even half that taken in 1848. Railway competition lowered already-small amounts of traffic and forced the Grand Union Canal to lower tolls. The Old Union, as the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal was known, was struggling too, and the two beleaguered companies attempted to salvage themselves by developing working arrangements that were just short of amalgamation. The fall in the size of dividends paid mirrored the fall in toll revenue. The absolute minimum of staff were retained, including one man who was both lock-keeper and toll collector for the entire canal. Attempts to increase income by selling water came to nothing. Despite this, the Grand Union Canal was kept in as good a state of repair as possible. Both tunnels needed repairs at considerable cost, and at considerable inconvenience to the ever-dwindling traffic. The company ordered an ice-boat and a dredger even though the cost was greater than the year's profits. When the Grand Junction Canal company wrote to the two Union canals in 1886 seeking to improve traffic, the response was to offer the Grand Junction Canal company the opportunity to buy them both. Fellows, Morton & Clayton Limited had encouraged Grand Junction Canal's initial correspondence and worked closely with the other companies in assessing the potential of the canals and the improvements that would have to be made. An initial purchase price was rejected, as the Grand Union Canal company was conscious that its water supply was a key asset. Instead, it was suggested to the Grand Union that they widen their locks and dredge the channel, as Fellows, Morton & Clayton intended to use large steamers on the navigation. A sale was agreed in July 1893, an Act obtained and the Grand Junction Canal company completed the purchase in September 1894. 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'.

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 been arranged with documents placed first, followed by plans in chronological order.

Associated material

[See also: BW99 for records of the Grand Union Canal during other periods of ownership]