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Company of Proprietors of the Chester Canal Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Chester Canal Navigation: plans 1772-1805.



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These records are immediately available for research

Administrative /​ Biographical history

After the Trent and Mersey Canal was authorised in 1766, it was feared that Chester's trade would be lost to Liverpool. Chester's answer was to promote their own barge canal. It was proposed to run from Chester on the River Dee to Middlewich on the Trent and Mersey Canal with a branch to Nantwich. Apathy surrounded the project, with little enthusiasm or opposition. Perhaps the most animated response came from the Duke of Bridgwater. He objected to a rival connection at Middlewich and insisted the Chester Canal not come within 100 yards of Middlewich. Reluctantly the promoters had to agree. The Act was passed, just, in 1772. Samuel Weston was appointed engineer with John Lawton assisting. Work began on the tidal basin leading off from the River Dee. As the basin was on land owned by the river company, goods passing through were subject to tolls. There were also arguments about the size of the entrance lock. A lock with an entrance of 7 feet was built, but in 1776 the Dee company relented and permitted one of 15 feet. Samuel Weston had experience surveying and as a contractor, but none as engineer. He left in 1774 after parts of an aqueduct collapsed due to poor engineering. James Brindley's former assistant, Thomas Morris, was brought back from Ireland to take Weston's place. The navigation opened to Beeston in June 1775 and to Nantwich in 1779. A reservoir at Bunbury Heath was built, but then the money ran out and construction stopped. The canal was 19 ¼ miles long and had 16 locks. The shareholders were unwilling to give any more and the company already had loans to repay. The situation cannot have been helped by the constant change of engineer; by this time Thomas Morris and his replacement Josiah Clowes had been dismissed. Morris's former assistant Moon had gone and had recently been replaced by Joseph Taylor. Attempts were made to encourage traffic onto the part of the canal that was already there and using that revenue to complete it. Boring began at Nantwich in search of rock salt, but was abandoned in May 1780 after none had been found. Traffic was poor, both commercial freight and the Chester-Beeston passenger service. A third of shares had been forfeited due to non-payment, the shareholders having given up on what seemed to be a lost cause. The proprietors failed to pay landowners on whose land the canal was built. The landowners expressed their dissatisfaction by letting off the water from Bunbury Reservoir in March 1782. The canal remained open, however, mostly because of the hard work of the committee, who sold land and vessels piecemeal just to keep the company from bankruptcy. When a lock at Beeston collapsed in 1787 there were insufficient funds to repair it and traffic above there stopped. It was only when other canals in the area were proposed that the situation improved. The committee hoped for a junction with the proposed Ellesmere Canal and managed to convince some shareholders to invest in repairs to keep the canal open. A branch to Chester was authorised in the Act of 1793, which the Chester Canal would supply with water, and prompted the company to again approach the shareholders in early 1795. After years of being unable to make any repayments, the committee hoped to raise enough make a bulk payment now that the canal's future looked brighter. Just under half of the anticipated sum was produced, with many shareholders preferring to forfeit their shares instead. Only as progress was made on the branch to Chester did the remaining shareholders become more generous. Two branches were made to the Chester Canal: the Wirral line in January 1797 and the second, more important, Whitchurch branch in December 1805. The Chester proprietors began to apply more pressure as the Ellesmere Canal delayed work on the second branch, in 1796 temporarily cutting off the water supply to the Wirral branch. This had the desired effect and work began on the second line a month after the first was fully completed. Traffic on the Chester Canal improved almost immediately the second junction opened. Anticipating this, in 1804 the Ellesmere Canal offered to purchase the Chester Canal, but they could not agree on terms and the deal fell through. By 1807, the Chester company's revenue had risen enough to begin repaying debts and in 1811 there was general satisfaction at how well the canal was now doing. The two companies were dependent upon each other, the Ellesmere Canal needed access to the Mersey and the Chester Canal relied upon the trade coming from the Ellesmere. Given the improved position of the Chester Canal, it is surprising that they agreed to amalgamate with the Ellesmere Canal for worse terms than were offered in 1804. Nevertheless, in July 1813 the two became the United Company of Proprietors of the Ellesmere & Chester Canals. For further information on Chester Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of The West Midlands'.

System of arrangement

This fonds consists of a series of eight plans which have been arranged in the original order as kept by the canal navigation. There is one further plan which has been added at the end of the arrangement.

Associated material

[See also: BW97 for records of Chester Canal during other periods of ownership]