The biggest worry for the Horncastle and Sleaford navigations was the River Witham's route
through Lincoln. If their routes were to be of any use at all they needed to reach the main waterways network
to the west but in Lincoln there was a major stumbling block. The owners of the Fossdyke Canal, along with
Lincoln city council, did not "get on" with the commissioners of the River Witham Navigation. This caused a
long running dispute over the navigable height of High Bridge in Lincoln city centre. The bridge was (and still
is) an ancient Norman structure with buildings on it. It also carried the main street over the river but it was
very low and narrow, allowing only small Lighters to pass beneath it. Lincoln council steadfastly refused to
permit the River Witham commissioners to alter the bridge to allow larger canal barges to pass through.
Alternative routes were looked into with the intention of completely bypassing Lincoln.
A route was surveyed by William Jessop on behalf of the Horncastle promoters but many local
landowners were unhappy about the likelihood of losing precious farmland. In the end it was Sir Joseph Banks, a
strong supporter of the Horncastle project, who persuaded Lincoln council that there was more to be gained than
to be lost if they upgraded High Bridge and allowed larger boats to pass. Around this same time, Richard
Ellison II, the owner of the Fossdyke Canal (which linked the River Witham to the River Trent) was also
persuaded to upgrade his waterway in Lincoln. The Horncastle committee decided that the best way to ensure that
Lincoln and Ellison kept their word was to include the agreed improvements in the Horncastle Navigation's Bill.
Also included in the Bill was the purchase of the small Tattershall Canal who's owners knew there was no point
in trying to compete against the much larger Horncastle venture.
William Jessop was asked to survey a possible line and in June his report was complete. He
suggested two possibilities though surprisingly neither made use of Gibson's Tattershall Canal. The first
suggestion was to use the Old River Bain, making it navigable from Horncastle, via Coningsby, to the River
Witham near Dogdyke. The second suggestion was to build a completely artificial waterway heading south west
across country to Kirkstead. This line would be the shorter of the two and would make a junction with the river
some 4 miles nearer to Lincoln - but take it 4 miles further away from Boston. Jessop's estimates for each of
these lines was just over £12,000, and both schemes would need 12 locks so there was little to chose between
the two. In the end, the projectors of the scheme decided to take the Old River Bain route though no immediate
work was done.
The committee employed Robert Stickney and Samuel Dickenson to re-survey Jessop's Old River Bain route (though
only minor adjustments were made) and then, in March, they sent their Bill to Parliament. In June William
Jessop gave evidence in support of the route and the Act for the Horncastle Canal Company was
authorised.Immediately the new company began to prepare for work to begin. They made an agreement with the
neighbouring Sleaford Navigation to use the same engineer on both waterways but the first man that they
approached, Henry Eastburn, declined the offer. The job eventually went to William Cawley of Mickle Trafford in
The committee were keen to keep close control over the whole project.Too many other canals
had suffered through allowing contractors and sub-contractors to do as they wished. The Horncastle committee
decided they would stay in charge of everything. Where as this may have meant they were "in control" it also
meant they had no specialist "expertise" to look after the work. For instance, they demanded that all bricks
should be made locally from local clay, they instructed their brick maker to search the proposed line of the
canal for the clay and they then instructed him to make the bricks in a mould much bigger than standard bricks
of the day. Because the committee did not allow for this, the bricks turned out uneven. They also didn't allow
for the actions of one local mill owner who discharged his water straight into an uncompleted section of the
As work continued, so did the problems. Lawsuits were threatened due to damage of adjacent land during
construction, the company blamed Jessop for all their problems, accusing him of recommending an incompetent
surveyor. In October William Cawley resigned.
The committee appointed John Dyson as the replacement for Cawley. Dyson had worked on the construction of the
Tattershall Canal and had just completed his job of contractor on the Sleaford Navigation. However, he had had
something of a falling out with the Sleaford company and he was also soon replaced by the Horncastle company
though I have no information on why this happened. His replacement was (said to be) Thomas
* THOMAS Hudson is listed as the engineer on the Horncastle Canal which had a hefty
influence from William Jessop. Meanwhile, the surveyors on the Sleaford Navigation (and some other local
schemes) were said to have been William Jessop and JOHN Hudson. Although I have nothing to back it up, I
suspect the person listed as THOMAS Hudson in my reference book, may really be JOHN Hudson.*
As the year went on, the canal opened bit by bit as each section was completed. This allowed
tolls to be charged right from the start, gaining income even while the canal was still under construction.
However, despite this extra income, finances were running very low and, in October, the company was forced to
borrow more cash in order to continue the line.
The company was still in big financial trouble even after receiving their new loan. They decided to lease out
the canal's tolls to raise more cash even though the full route was far from complete.
In January, Thomas Coltman of Hagnaby took the tolls lease for a loan of £4,035 plus interest but this did very
little to help the committee's money problems. In October they were forced to appeal to each of the
shareholders to raise more funds. Nine of the shareholders came forward and saved the canal from being taken
over by the River Witham Drainage Commissioners.
The canal was completed and opened to Dalderby Ford, still 2 miles from Horncastle, but work stopped there
until the company could sort out its finances. For the next 2 years the canal lay unfinished with goods from
Horncastle having to be carried across land to the head of navigation.
Feeling a little more confident, the Horncastle company asked John Rennie to re-survey the line from Dalderby
into Horncastle.Rennie, of course, was one of the country's most revered engineers, he was already in the area
doing work for the River Witham. When he brought his report to the Horncastle Canal committee he did not cheer
Far from giving the news of a cheap route into Horncastle, he reported that on the previous
day he had travelled along the completed section of the canal from the River Witham to Dalderby and found it in
a crooked and far from perfect state! His recommendations were estimated at £8,291, the company knew this meant
that a new Act of Parliament would have to be authorised. They put their plan together but during that winter,
while the Bill was being prepared, Lincolnshire suffered some of the worst floods that the area has ever known.
Many parts of the completed work on the canal were destroyed and the over all damage put the whole route in
In March, with ever increasing urgency, the committee took their Bill to Parliament. Unfortunately they were
too urgent and broke some of the rules pertaining to the length of time which a Bill must wait to allow
objections etc to be made. Parliament decided to let the Bill "lie on the table" (wait a while).
In May it was brought before Parliament again and the company pleaded that the reason they
had brought the Bill to them earlier than permitted had been because of the urgency necessary to save the canal
from destruction after the winter floods. It was decided that the breaking of the rules was condonable under
the circumstances and the Act was then assisted through Parliament very quickly, taking just 5 weeks. In fact,
it would appear that Parliament were very helpful indeed, they authorised the raising of a further £20,000 and
the lifting of the usual maximum limit on dividends.
It took 15 months to raise the necessary capital but once this was achieved a meeting was held and one of the
shareholders, William Walker, was appointed superintendent in charge of "the execution of works necessary to
complete the canal".
Ten years after the original Act was passed, the 11 mile Horncastle Canal reached its goal, it was opened
throughout on September 17th.
The completed canal had 2 basins in Horncastle and there were 11 locks on the final route -
one less than had been originally expected. The canal's success was gradual, taking 10 years before a profit
was made and the first dividend was paid. After this though, the profits and dividends continued to increase
for over 40 years. The main cargo was coal, fertiliser (known as manure) and general goods (groceries etc)
bound for Horncastle. Mainly agricultural goods went the other way towards Lincoln and Boston. Cargoes from
much further afield were also seen from time to time.
In 1847, for instance, a barge full of general goods arrived from St. Katherine's
dock on the River Thames in London. People were also carried of course and this included the committee
themselves who used to make an annual inspection of the whole route culminating with a dinner presented at
Tattershall Lock by the toll collector or lock keeper. This trip was made in a normal cargo boat for the first
2 decades but later the company built their own "yacht". This served them until 1876 when it was too old to
continue the job, they hired a steam barge instead.
The opening of the final 2 miles in 1802 coincided with the start of almost 2 decades of
bickering with the Honourable Lewis Dymoke. At the start of this he was a member of the canal committee though
it would appear that he was only there to get a first hand view of what was coming his way. He owned an estate
through which the final part of the canal ran. He was also the "King's Champion", a hereditary office which had
continued since ancient times, its sole purpose being to provide a challenge to the King's "enemies" at his
coronation! Dymoke clearly took this role very seriously - especially when the canal was headed in his
direction! His first "challenge" had come while the final 2 miles were still being constructed, he had made a
claim of £600 in compensation for the loss of a stream which had been on the planned route.
The company offered him £200 and he agreed to this but only if it were paid in advance of
the canal reaching his land. He had also threatened lawsuits because he claimed the canal was "deviating from
its original line". The company responded by saying that as a committee member himself, he knew fine well that
there was no "original line" other than the one they were about to follow.
In 1802 Dymoke was thrown off the committee, in 1803 he
made numerous small claims, in 1804 he demanded £403 12s 9½d for loss of land and a new bridge
and a further £240 for damage to a mill. In 1806 he demanded culverts to be built
"immediately", in 1807 he complained about the dykes and drains which the company built to
prevent land flooding. Next he wrote to the company demanding expenses for all of his claims so far - including
the numerous ones he'd withdrawn! The company thanked him kindly for his communications but said they could not
comply with his wishes.
In 1810 he complained that the offer made to him for compensation of land
(used for the building of a towpath) was not enough. In 1813 he made his biggest claim of all - £1,000 for
alleged (by him) damage to the surrounding land due to leakage from the waterway. In 1814 the one and only
quarrel which seems to have been fully resolved was settled when the company gave him £4 to cover his land
losses used in the building of the towpath. Just to keep the company on their toes he immediately made a new
claim, demanding the repair of an unsafe bridge. The happy soul died in 1820 and left his
title to the Honourable and Reverent "Champion" Henry Dymoke - his son presumably. Relations with the new
Champion were obviously a lot better as he was soon appointed chairman of the canal committee and he later
All canals have stories to tell about their staff or navvies and the Horncastle Canal was no
different. The book "Lost Canals Of England And Wales" notes the problems the company had in employing a
satisfactory superintendent. William Walker, a shareholder, had taken over this job when the company got the
go-ahead to construct the final 2 miles in 1801.
The company later had to ask him to resign because of his ill-health. His replacement was
George Douthwaite but in the minutes of a meeting held in 1809 it was reported that instead of attending to the
interests of the company, Mr. Douthwaite spent most of his time in various public houses around the town.
Douthwaite died the following year and the company gave his widow just 5 guineas to allow her to "get back to
The book "Canals of Eastern England" tells of problems for a later superintendent and the
various lock keepers on Tattershall (or Low) Lock, the most important on the canal. Being the first up from the
River Witham it was the place where weights were gauged and tolls were charged.
In 1819 the lock keeper, John Crow, got into trouble with the company when
it was discovered that he was allowing boats into the canal which were too large and could cause damage to the
locks. At the hearing it was decided that it was the canal's latest superintendent, Mr.Frankland, to blame as
he was Crow's superior and was responsible for making checks of this sort. Crow was given a ticking off on the
basis that he had been a long and loyal servant - poor Mr. Frankland was sacked.
Just 12 months later Crow was up before the company for a second time.This time he was
accused of allowing vessels to pass carrying greater tonnage's than were registered and charged for - the
company had been defrauded of over £200. Crow's loyal service couldn't save him this time and he was
Over 70 people applied for Crow's job of lock keeper at Tattershall Lock.The lucky applicant
was Ben Sharpe from Hull but Mr. Sharpe clearly celebrated his appointment a little too long as he was often
noted as being "intoxicated".
On September 20th 1821 he was summoned to Horncastle Magistrates Court to
give evidence against a boatman named John Taylor. In court Sharpe was found to be so drunk that he was ordered
out of the room - the canal company sacked him. One of the unsuccessful applicants when Sharpe was appointed
had been William Flower, he was only too willing to plant himself in the lock keeper's cottage and he started
his employment on October 18th.
Flower was a bit of an entrepreneur and didn't feel he should just limit his income to lock
keeping. He bought a horse which he hired out to boatmen but this did not please the company. They required
their lock keepers to keep their distance from canal users because over friendliness or binding business
agreements could "lead to bad consequences". He was ordered to get rid of the horse.
In 1838, after 17 years of "loyal service", Flower reckoned it was high
time he received a rise in salary! He wrote to the company, sounding very apologetic, mentioning his gratitude
for all their help. He explained he now had 9 children (lock keeping obviously didn't take up all of his time)
and he and his wife were finding it increasingly difficult to bring up and educate his offspring on his current
wage. Loyalty was clearly the biggest quality that any employee could give - the company gave Mr. Flower a rise
of £10 per year (over 16%) and back-dated it by one year. William Flower's loyalty continued for another 10
years until his death in august 1848.
The first steam passenger boats began to run on the canal. They ran from Horncastle to Lincoln and Boston.
The Horncastle Gas Light and Coke Company opened thanks to goods being delivered by boat from distant areas. In
fact, during these years of growing success for the waterway, Horncastle itself had become a mini
The first railway threat came from the London & York Railway Company who's planned route needed to cross
the canal. "No chance" said the company and they said much the same one year later when a more serious threat
came from Great Northern Railway who wanted to build a line from Horncastle to Tattershall. The company
realised the railway threat was not going to go away and plans to negotiate with the railway company were put
forward. However, this particular railway project did go away and was not built though others were soon to take
The Lincoln & Boston railway (bought out by GNR) opened along the banks of the River Witham Navigation.
This actually aided the Horncastle Canal at first because it carried goods to and from Dogdyke station near the
canal's junction with the River Witham.
Despite continued objections from the canal company - and all who sailed on her - Great Northern Railway
obtained an Act of Parliament and the construction of a line into Horncastle began. Worse still, it was decided
that the canal was not due any compensation.
The man who had worked so hard to successfully keep the railways at bay for nearly a decade - King's Champion,
the Right Honourable and Reverent Sir Henry Dymoke - suddenly resigned from his post as president of the
Horncastle Canal after 25 years of service.He announced that he had done this "as he wished to give the
proposed railway from Horncastle to Kirkstead all the support in his power"! It has been noted that many of the
surnames of those who sponsored the new railways were much the same as the surnames of those who had originally
sponsored the canal - though of course these were descendants rather than the same men. Canal books make this
point, often with a snub or jibe - insinuating betrayal - but lets face it, our great grannies used carts, our
dads used trams, we use buses - is this betrayal??
The railway opened and the canal's dividends took an instant nose dive. This was aided at the opening of the
line by Champion Dymoke who was now chairman of the railway! He made a speech in which he said "it is perfectly
absurd and monstrous that they (canal carriers) should be trusting a canal with old tug boats when they could
get more expeditious and convenient means of communication". Most of the carriers agreed with him and off they
went! The canal company reduced its tolls while the government forced the railway to increase its tolls to the
same level, this kept enough carriers on the waterway to maintain profits for about another decade.
Although the railway hurt the canal a lot, there was still a fair amount of cargo continuing to be carried on
the waterway though this was steadily declining each year.
Carriage off the Horncastle Canal came to a complete stop when the River Witham commissioners closed down their
navigation for several months while repairs were made to the river. The Horncastle company were furious but
there was little they could do. Three years later exactly the same thing happened with both closures causing
the Horncastle Canal to suffer substantial losses.
Despite the canal's steady decline, the company refused an offer of £4,000 to sell the waterway. Income
continued to fall and the company also had its hands full with other problems. One of these was a battle over
the use of a wharf which led to lawsuits and court cases. The company won in the end but the damage and expense
had cost them dearly.
A dividend of just 1½% was paid to shareholders, it turned out to be the last.
Traffic had declined so badly that it was described as "trifling". Matters weren't helped during this year when
the company's late treasurer, Mr. Gilliat, was found to be insolvent.
Indicating the canal's lack of boats at the northern end in particular, the company sold their dry dock at
Horncastle. A swimming pool (which survives today) was built in its place. Selling off unused parts of the
canal became necessary to avoid having to make essential repairs on them or to raise money to perform essential
repairs on other things.
Coal traffic bound for Horncastle came to a complete end. Surprisingly though - considering the general decline
in canal use - a private extension was made at Tumby Basin to serve Swan's Granaries.The extension became known
as Tumby Cut.
The last coal boat to use the northern end of the Horncastle Canal did so on October 11th with 17 tons bound
for Kirkby-on-Bain. Some members of the committee were all for winding up the business but a unanimous decision
was not made and the canal was kept open. Yet more "essential" repairs were needed and the company received a
quote of £3,500 for the work. The committee felt it could be done cheaper than this so they borrowed.... £400!
The repairs were started but - not surprisingly - didn't get very far before the money ran out.
The last recorded cargo from Horncastle basin was 150 quarters of wheat on May 7th, bound for Boston. The last
loaded boat into Horncastle basin was recorded just 4 days later - 31 tons of guano (fertiliser/manure). There
were however, a number of boats still carrying (coal in particular) nearer the River Witham end of the route
though even this was threatened at one point when the River Witham Drainage Commissioners put a Bill together
which would have allowed them to lower the level of the River Witham. If this had gone ahead it would have made
access to the Horncastle Canal impossible. In the end it did not go ahead though by this time it hardly
There were virtually no boats whatsoever on the canal though the company continued to hold regular committee
meetings! In August they managed - in their busy schedule - to include a report on the only remaining users of
the waterway - swans!! Apparently there were 13 old birds (of which 4 had paired since the report of 1879) and
there were 8 new cygnets. However, old rivalries die hard and the committee were forced to report that some
swans were venturing onto the River Witham Navigation and Sleaford Navigation. Unfortunately they did not
mention whether the swans flew there or used the locks.
Not surprisingly, it was during this year that once again it was proposed that the company
might just think about winding itself up - though it sounds like they'd been winding themselves up for quite
In November, the last annual general meeting was held but sadly there is no report on the progress of the
On September 23rd the company's solicitor wrote to the Board of Trade informing them that the canal was now "a
defunct undertaking". From this time on the waterway was left to its own devices. This was not the complete end
to commercial traffic however.On the lower reaches of the canal, up to Coningsby, cargoes were still brought up
from the River Witham for many years to come.
The last commercial traffic to use the canal was recorded some 21 years after the official closing. These were
coal boats delivering to Coningsby. Since then no boats have used the Horncastle Canal.
Horncastle's warehouses have virtually all disappeared and the 2 basins have been converted into drainage
channels and a car park. The railway's passenger service ended on September 13th 1954 and the last goods train
ran on April 1st 1971. The railway line has now gone but the canal survives, albeit predominantly (and
fittingly) used only by swans!
It was said some years ago that the Horncastle Canal could easily be fully restored for
pleasure craft if only the spirit were willing. Rest assured - the spirit is willing a plans are being put
together to restore the route.
1998 I visited Horncastle this year and found that the area around the north basin has now
been redeveloped. The channel of the canal has been made to look ornamental and a walkway and footbridge has
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