Company of Proprietors of the Coventry Canal Navigation
Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Coventry Canal Navigation: Byelaws 1919-1922, legal records 1768-1930, share records 1819-1867, financial records 1767-1948, treasurer's papers 1798-1828, administrative records 1768-1948, engineer/clerk's incoming correspondence 1795-1826, papers and correspondence concerning the Coventry and Oxford canal bills 1767-1772, tonnage and tolls 1789-1938, maps and plans of the canal late 18th-early 20th century, other maps and plans 1804-1934, vessels 1928, Acts and plans kept by the canal company for information 1840-1946.
The Coventry Canal was promoted by local industries that hoped to improve the supply of coal. James Brindley was commissioned to do the survey. His route went from Fradley on the Trent and Mersey Canal to Fazeley, Atherstone, Nuneaton and Bedworth before reaching Coventry. The Act passed in January 1768 and construction began in April. James Brindley accepted a position as engineer and surveyor, and was expected to give two months a year to the Coventry Canal. Joseph Parker was employed as a clerk of the works, despite his never having held such a position before, although the proprietors did send him off for some training. The Coventry-Bedworth section was opened in August 1769. In that year the Oxford Canal had been authorised, and schemes were proposed for making the Coventry part of a canal to Oxford and the River Thames. Work was progressing too slowly and the labourers' behaviour was causing complaints. James Brindley was dismissed in September 1769 for inattention, a first for him despite many canal companies who employed him having grumbled, privately at least. Joseph Parker left shortly afterwards. Thomas Yeoman was appointed but was quickly succeeded by Edmund Lingard, assisted by Samuel Bull. Work halted at Atherstone, 21 miles short of its intended destination, and there it remained for 10 years. Not only did the company have no money left, it was dissatisfied with the Parliamentary line and unimpressed with the suggested alternative, and in dispute with the Oxford Canal over compensation tolls and the location of the two canals' proposed junction. For an isolated, half-complete canal, it did a reasonable job in transporting coal to Coventry between 1771 and 1781. The first dividend was paid in 1774 and payments were more-or-less regular in the years following. In 1782 the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal was authorised and embarked upon a mission to rescue the Coventry Canal. If the Coventry Canal could build their canal to Fazeley, the Birmingham and Fazeley would continue it from there to Whittington Brook, whereupon the Trent and Mersey Canal would be responsible for the last part to Fradley. The Coventry Canal even, unsuccessfully, opposed an Act authorising the agreement in 1785 even though the Trent and Mersey company had begun cutting. Despite all this, the Coventry company hesitated for as long as possible. Eventually, the work did begin with Thomas Sheasby as engineer. The Trent and Mersey Canal reached Whittington Brook in 1787; the Birmingham and Fazeley two years later. Coventry Canal brought up the rear by opening their section, including Tame Aqueduct, in 1790. There was now a navigable water link between Liverpool, Manchester and the Potteries via the Midlands to the River Thames, and immediately the Coventry Canal saw their traffic increase. Much of its traffic was coal from nearby pits that was transported to London and the canal often carried hundreds of troops in large convoys. Inspired, they began improving the older part of the canal and basin at Coventry. Although regular, dividends had always been modest. Once the waterway was finished, they rose rapidly, reaching 25 per cent in 1800. The enthusiasm for canals within the company mirrored the mania in the country, for the Coventry company took a great interest in other schemes such as the Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Grand Junction canals. It purchased the Whittington Brook-Fradley length, but not the Whittington Brook-Fazeley. The Coventry Canal did try to resolve this rather odd situation in the 1880s, but failed to reach an agreement to buy or lease it. Not until the waterways were nationalised in 1948 would the entire length of the canal come under the control of one body. The Coventry Canal was 32 ½ miles, including the 5 ½ miles of detached line to Fradley. It had 13 locks and a stop-lock at Hawkesbury. Joining the Coventry Canal was a short, private branch to Griff Colliery, opened in 1787 and not closed until 1961. Water was supplied from Oldbury Reservoir and later from mine drainage at Hawkesbury. Water problems plagued the junction with the Oxford Canal, which was almost 7 inches higher rather than level. The responsibility for the error lay with the Oxford Canal and several years later the two companies sensibly moved the junction to Hawkesbury. Many canals were built in the Midlands, and naturally some threatened the Coventry's trade. The Warwick canals, for example, opened in 1800 and the dividend dropped to 14 per cent by 1803. Clearly the Coventry was still an extremely profitable canal, and although longer, it retained traffic because it had far fewer locks. Both Warwick canals were invited to negotiate tolls agreements with the Coventry Canal. By the time an agreement was reached in 1810, Coventry Canal's dividends were at 32 per cent, a figure that would be the envy of many of its contemporaries. It did eventually reach 50 per cent, but fell below 25 per cent again in 1845; was at 8 per cent in 1890 and was 6 per cent between 1920 and 1947. This was poor in comparison to the canals' glory days, but the Coventry's position was stronger than most other canals at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Coventry Canal was sufficiently aware to respond to rumours of railways by introducing drawbacks on some goods and reducing iron tolls, in conjunction with other canal companies, to reduce railway prospects. Through trade was encouraged during the 1830s, sometimes to the detriment of other canals in the area. Competition from railways began to take its toll in the 1840s, but the Coventry was able to negotiate with the canals around it to ensure the waterways remained competitive but profitable. The committee in charge were very competent businessmen who did not allow the Coventry Canal to rest on its laurels. For years they had put part of their profits into a reserve fund, and now began to make use of that money to improve the canal. Without the fund, the shareholders would have been reluctant to reduce the dividend with costly work. Part of the money was used to purchase two steam tugs that began operating in 1860 and 1861. They proved to be a good investment. The reductions in tolls forced the Coventry Canal to look elsewhere to maintain its income. They already owned wharves and warehouses, and gave increasing attention to property development. They sold water to local authorities and industries along the route. Finally, they generated a small income from granting way leaves and charging angling clubs for fishing rights. From a rather inauspicious start, the Coventry Canal was extremely successful. Only after nationalisation did traffic decline, in common with the other waterways. By the 1970s commercial traffic had all but ceased. It is now primarily used by pleasure boaters. For further information on the Coventry Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of the East Midlands'.
It has not been possible to ascertain the complete original structure of record-keeping from the records held for this company. The fonds has been arranged into series by subject or company position (eg treasurer), which is how some of the records were originally kept. The company's byelaws have been placed first, followed by legal records, share records and then financial records. These are followed by the treasurer's papers, administrative records, the engineer/clerk's incoming correspondence and papers and correspondence concerning the Coventry and Oxford canal bills. Then come tonnage and tolls which are followed by maps and plans of the canal. Other maps and plans, and vessels follow this. At the end of the collection are Acts and plans kept by the canal company for information.