Sleaford Navigation

Sleaford Navigation History

The first mention in history of a navigable waterway on what is now known as the Sleaford Navigation came during the reign of Edward III. Gilbert d'Umframville, Earl of Angus, was summoned before the King and charged with unlawfully charging tolls to boats. In his defence he said that the Kyme Eau (the name given to the most easterly section of the River Slea) passed through his land and he had letters dated December 26th 1342 which granted him the right to charge for passage on condition that he made the river navigable and maintained it.

The Earl was cleared of the charges but there is no record of how long Kyme Eau (pronounced like "ear") was used by boats or how far the navigation stretched but it is expected that it carried boats to and from Boston laden with corn, wine, herrings and wool. As the centuries went by, Kyme Eau became neglected and eventually reverted back to an unnavigable river.

The businessmen of Sleaford in southern Lincolnshire were becoming increasingly hungry for a navigable waterway. Thoughts of a route north to Lincoln were looked into and abandoned and a survey for a line west to Grantham was completed but nothing more was done at this stage.

New ideas were put forward to create a navigable route eastwards from Sleaford to the River Witham Navigation.

Such a waterway would link Sleaford to Lincoln and the rest of the then navigable waterways network as well as to Boston and the east coast.

The proposed route would make the River Slea navigable for about 13 miles from Sleaford to its confluence with the River Witham.

On January 16th a meeting was held in Sleaford but it was quickly realised that there would be little interest in such a route unless the River Witham commissioners could be persuaded to lower their tolls.

Fourteen days later the River Witham commissioners met to discuss the possibility of reduced tolls for boats which would use the proposed navigation. It was suggested to them that a reduction could be easily offset by the extra traffic which would use the River Witham en route for Sleaford. The suggestion received a cold reception, probably because the commissioners had been thinking more in terms of extra income from the new navigation rather than making equalising "offsets"!

However, rather than completely shutting the door in the face of the Sleaford projectors, the commissioners told them they would review the situation once the proposed navigation was open. They would then look into ways of aiding the new waterway without injuring their own. The commissioners were very uncertain about giving concessions to Sleaford traffic because they were under strict orders from Parliament not to reduce tolls until the loans that they owed from maintenance and recent improvements were paid off - and at this point they were already well in arrears on their repayments.

Another factor in toll concessions was that Kyme Eau was already being used by River Witham boats around its confluence with the River Witham and the commissioners were determined that they should not lose money by allowing these boats to claim the toll reductions. Hence, a "border" was negotiated which boats would have to cross to claim any concession. This border was moved back and forth a number of times until it was eventually agreed that it should be placed at Ewerby Clapps. The Sleaford men were not willing to give up easily and it would appear that unrecorded negotiations must have gone on behind the scenes because on July 30th it was reported that the River Witham commissioners did not object to a clause being included in the Sleaford Bill which would force the lowering of River Witham tolls.

Of course this would have the effect of allowing the commissioners to legally reduce their tolls before their debts were cleared. By the end of the year the commissioners and the Sleaford committee had made an agreement that a concession would be given to traffic which used both the River Witham and the River Slea (beyond Ewerby Clapps). I suppose that after all this negotiating you would expect a Bill to be put through Parliament early in the new year (1874). However, nothing more was done and the whole scheme lay dormant for the next 7 years!

William Jessop and John Hudson* were commissioned to survey the River Slea and Kyme Eau. In November they published their findings which included an estimate of just under £10,000. Strangely, before the Sleaford committee had a chance to meet to discuss Jessop's report, one of the committee members submitted it to the River Witham commissioners. At a meeting it was decided that (after seeing Jessop's survey) the toll concession "border line" should be moved from Ewerby Clapps to the lock proposed at Drewry Dyke. Three weeks later the rest of the Sleaford committee got a chance to discuss Jessop's report and it was agreed that an Act should be sought immediately.

* The surveyors of the Sleaford Navigation (and some other local schemes) were said to have been William Jessop and JOHN Hudson. Meanwhile, THOMAS Hudson is listed as being engineer on the neighbouring Horncastle Canal which also had a hefty influence from William Jessop. I believe that the two Hudsons could well be the same man.*

On June 11th the Sleaford Navigation was granted its Act after passing through Parliament fairly easily. There had been only a very small amount of objections, as was usual in Lincolnshire these were all on the grounds that the navigation could damage the surrounding land or cause drainage problems. Following the authorisation, a new company was set up immediately under the rather unnecessarily long title of "The Company of Proprietors of the Sleaford Navigation in the County of Lincoln". (I'll call them the Sleaford company for ink saving purposes)! The scheme was certainly a locally financed one with 50% of shareholders coming from Sleaford itself.Boston corporation also took up a number of shares, presumably believing most of the trade would come their way rather than towards Lincoln.

The navigation was authorised to be 30 feet wide and 4 or 5 feet deep, it was to run for 12¼ miles from the River Witham near Dogdyke to Castle Causeway in Sleaford. There was to be 7 locks measuring 60 feet by 15 feet with an average fall of 5¾ feet. The Act limited dividends to 8% and ordered that when the dividends reached this level a reduction in tolls must be made.

There was also to be a limit on toll charges with a number of goods being allowed to travel at ½ price. The River Witham Navigation was instructed to give a concession of 50% to boats using both waterways. This conformed with an agreement already made between the River Witham and the neighbouring Horncastle Canal.The Sleaford and Horncastle companies also agreed to use the same engineer on both waterways but the first man that they approached, Henry Eastburn, declined the offer. The job on the Sleaford eventually went to John Jagger of Gainsborough with John Dyson, who had previously built Tattershall Canal, engaged as contractor.

There were no problems in constructing the Sleaford Navigation and it took less than 2 years to complete. This was mainly because it was a simple canalisation of the "New" River Slea which, it is thought, was also man-made. The company announced that the navigation would be officially opened on May 6th. However, John Dyson, the contractor, immediately made an announcement of his own threatening to delay the opening if the company did not "satisfy the contractors for the works executed".

The company responded by saying that the execution of works was "subject to investigation in a court of law" and the opening would go ahead as planned. The Dyson altercation appears to have been settled behind the scenes as nothing more was reported and the opening passed without a hitch - crowds gathered and the committee presented a silver cup (or trophy), inscribed with a canal scene and the words "The gift of the proprietors of the Sleaford Navigation",to Benjamin Handley, a local banker and strong supporter of the company.

1795 After the first year of operation the success of the navigation was such that a dividend of 2½% was paid. However, no further dividends were paid for another 22 years!

Even though the dividend limit had not yet been reached, the company lowered its toll rates for the first time. In later years the tolls (as was common on such navigations) were leased out to various businessmen in return for loans.

Only the second dividend since the navigation's opening was paid out at a rate of 3%. A third dividend was paid the following year but there was then another gap of 6 years before dividends began to be paid out annually.

With the navigation doing very well and the company making a healthy enough profit, an idea was looked into which would extend the route south westwards by about 4 miles to Wilsford. Nothing was done.

A Mr. J Rolfe and his son put forward a plan to extend the 1827 proposal and create a canal from Sleaford to Grantham, a distance of about 16 miles. This would have resulted in a much shorter and more direct route between Boston and the Midlands. However - once again - nothing was done.

During this same year a local tradesman attempted to get the company to extend the route by a mere 400 yards. The original Act had said the route would run to Castle Causeway in Sleaford but the line had actually stopped short. In the company's defence to Counsel - against the tradesman's claims - they explained that they had completed the line to a point where a suitable wharf could be constructed. After this they had been left with just £700 with which to complete the final 400 yards and had thus decided to end the line at the wharf. Counsel agreed with this defence and decided that the company were not liable to build the extension.

Although the navigation had always made a profit it took 60 years from its opening to reach the dividend limit of 8% (which had been set in the original Act). Just as it did, railway lines were spreading fast across Lincolnshire and the navigation instantly began to suffer.

Members of the committee were soon thinking about jumping ship and a proposal was put forward to "wind up the undertaking". This was rejected though trade was steadily declining every year.

It had taken 60 years to reach the dividend limit of 8% (in 1856) but it took just 12 years to see profits plummet and dividends reduced to zero.

The company faced annual proposals by different committee members to wind up the business and eventually closure was agreed upon.On June 17th the Sleaford Navigation received its official Royal Assent for abandonment. This authorisation was strangely different from most others in that the company would usually simply lock the front door and walk away.

In this case the company were ordered to fill in 3 of the locks and to hand over 3 others (after fully repairing them) to the Honourable Murray Hatton of Haverholme Priory, who's land ran alongside a stretch of the navigation. He was ordered to maintain the locks and the navigation along his estate though if he decided at a later date to fill in the locks he could do so as long as he provide adequate sluices. He was also authorised to look after the towpath on the far side of the navigation even though it was not part of his land.

At the same time, the landowner on the far side was authorised to use the stretch of the navigation maintained by Mr. Hatton! The final lock, Kyme Lower Lock, was also ordered to be fully repaired by the company and then handed over to the River Witham commissioners. This would give them use of the first 1¾ miles of Kyme Eau.

All this, and the general winding up of the company, took 3 years and the formal closure took place on May 14th. For the next 60 years a full 6½ miles of the navigation, from the River Witham to Ewerby Waithe Common, remained open although I have no knowledge of how many boats (if any) used the route.

The River Witham commissioners closed Kyme Lower Lock and converted it into a sluice. This still left 1¾ miles of Kyme Eau open and this stretch remains open to this day.

Over the decades most of the Sleaford Navigation became derelict. The locks around Haverholme Priory (a mansion) were left to decay (as was the Priory itself). Then came the restorers - fully intent on restoring the whole navigation. The Sleaford Navigation Society was formed.

Kyme Lower Lock was restored, allowing boats to navigate through it for the first time since WW2. Although boats could not reach it, Anwick (or Cobbler's) Lock was also restored.

After many decades of disuse, with only the first 1¾ miles being kept open, the next 6 miles past Kyme Lower Lock to "Cobbler's Lock" near Anwick were reopened. Restoration of the route west of Cobbler's Lock was being severely hampered at this stage because the River Slea was suffering badly from lack of water flow due to heavy abstraction in Sleaford and leakages through its bed. This could get so bad that the river often completely dried up during summer. The National Rivers Authority took the responsibility for this and drilled a bore hole upstream of Sleaford. Using a pump and other extraction equipment water supply became a lot better.

In August the Sleaford Navigation Society were mentioned in "Canal & Riverboat" magazine where it was reported that the society were celebrating the 200th anniversary of the waterway. The celebrations included a boat rally and a performance by the Mikron Theatre Group.

In January, a restoration report in "Canal & Riverboat" magazine confirmed that the navigation was open as far as "Cobbler's Lock", 8 miles from the junction of the River Witham. The society were awaiting feasibility reports and surveys which would give the go-ahead for bank strengthening and restoration above the lock. In Sleaford itself the restorers hoped to fully reopen the wharves and renovate the original circular route to the windmill at Monkey's Yard. If this could be done it was planned that a trip boat would then run through the town from Carre Street wharf, home of the original company's head office.The expected reopening date for the whole navigation was forecasted at 2005.

In March it was reported that the company had received a surprising package from a Mr. Graham in South Africa. It was a silver cup inscribed with a canal scene and the words "The gift of the proprietors of the Sleaford Navigation, 6 May 1794". Mr. Graham's mother had recently died and the cup had been found among her belongings. The Graham family were descendants of Benjamin Handley who had been presented with the cup at the navigation's original opening ceremony.

A regeneration grant was awarded to restore the top section of the canal in Sleaford. The money was also to be used to save the old company HQ which still stood hidden away within a builders yard.

Back to Top

Sleaford Navigation Route

The Sleaford Navigation falls between the devil and the deep blue sea..... and these are not the names of locks!! The problem is that although the route has been closed for over a century, being a converted river it has not become "lost". Therefore, it does not appear in books such as "Lost Canals of England and Wales". On the other hand, it is not fully navigable and therefore does not appear in the usual canal guides either.

The navigation's full route can easily be seen on any map as it used the River Slea and Kyme Eau which are marked on all maps and there is a towpath throughout the whole route. The navigation begins at a junction on the River Witham Navigation at Chapel Hill, about 2 miles south of Tattershall Bridge (A153). Currently (1998) the first 8½ miles of the route are open to pleasure craft.

The first ½ mile or so of the route heads west away from the River Witham, past the village of Chapel Hill. It is possible to park on the bridge over the navigation in the village. It is then possible to walk along to its junction with the River Witham.

A left curve takes the navigation onto a southern heading with nothing but open land and a number of farms along the banks. About 1¾ miles into the route is Bridge Farm which is where Kyme Lower Lock, the first on the navigation, is situated. This lock forms the head of jurisdiction as far as the River Witham commissioners are concerned and the route to this point has always remained open since long before the Sleaford Navigation opened until the present day.

Past the lock the navigation continues heading south for around 1¾ miles to a point where my map shows a split with one watercourse continuing south while the navigable course bends south westerly, continuing for around another 1½ miles into South Kyme. In the village Kyme Eau is crossed by the B1395. Access can be gained from this bridge, the village and the waterside walk are very pleasant. On the western side of the village is the strange South Kyme Tower which stands isolated in a field. It was built around 1340 and was probably once part of a much larger castle. It has 4 floors and stands 77 feet high.

Past South Kyme is a one mile stretch in which the navigation meanders to the north west and then takes a sudden bend west. The bend is crossed by the minor road from the B1395 to the village of Ewerby Thorpe.Once again, the area close to this bridge is very pleasant.

At the point of the severe bend the waterway changes name from Kyme Eau to the River Slea. Following the river upstream it heads south west for about 1½ mile and then takes another sharp bend to head north westfor another 1½ mile to the village of Anwick. This stretch was the part which Murray Hatton negotiated for himself when the canal company was wound up in 1878. All the locks, although gate less, have survived and the first of them, Anwick (Cobbler's) Lock, is the current (1998) head of navigation. At the lock the "Old" River Slea flows into the navigation. The remainder of the navigation's route follows the "New River Slea" which is a much newer watercourse than the old river though even this "new" river is still much older than the navigation itself.

Less than a mile west of Anwick a minor road crosses the currently unnavigable river near to Haverholme Priory. This is the road from Ruskington to Ewerby and was once a drive into Haverholme Priory.The priory (a large house) stands on the south of the river about ½ a mile along the road. It can be seen across the open fields. Being part of the priory's drive, the road bridge is slightly more ornamental than most others. To reach Haverholme Lock it is possible to leave your car in a small car park just north of the bridge. A footpath follows close to the southern bank for about 400 yards. At the lock I saw evidence of a former lock side building. The lock is still intact though not in the best of condition. It has been converted into a weir. A second path (the original towpath) continues west on the north bank - and doubles backeast to the road bridge, providing a circular walk.

After another mile the westerly course changes to south westerly and Paper Mill Lock soon arrives near the minor road to Evedon. The Paper Mill was demolished in the 1930's but once had 7 millstones making paper for a printing works in Boston. There is no trace of the mill today. There were plenty of ants at the lock however. I know this because I sat on them! About ¼ of a mile further on is Corn Mill Lock which has no road access but is well worth the short walk alongside cattle and poppy fields.This time the mill buildings have survived though they are in the grounds of a private house. The mill, a long red brick building near the lock, was Holdingham (flour) Mill which closed as recently as 1957. In the garden of the adjacent house there is an octagonal toll office.

A low wooden bridge crosses at the tale of the lock to the mill though it is strictly out of bounds. The disused lock has roses growing out of it in summer! One mile further south is Dyers (or Bone Mill) Lock though road access is probably not possible because the new Sleaford bypass crosses over very close by. Within another mile Cogglesford Lock and Mill are reached on the outskirts of Sleaford. This is just off the A153 (also B1517) with a good car park nearby.

The mill was built in the 1700's but hasn't been used since 1885. It has recently been restored and is open (free) to the public. I had a good look around it in 1997, it contains many old photographs of the mill and the navigation. The pretty mill pond outside is a very nice place to sit for a while. Right alongside is the lock which currently makes a deafening noise as water rushes over it - having been converted into a sluice/weir.

From the lock it is just 1200 yards along the towpath into Sleaford. In fact, it is possible to walk along either side of the waterway as the north side has been developed as a conservation park. The waterway passes council buildings (I saw a wedding taking place) and the local swimming baths. Two foot bridges cross the canal in this area.

Houses appear on the towpath and just before Carre Street there is a split in the canal. It used to head off around the town in a big loop.The southern part of the loop now ends at Carre Street bridge. On the far side of the road its course can be seen - in the garden of a wine bar! Carre Street is a very interesting area.

Guided walks can be obtained from the Tourist Information Centre - possibly the easiest building to find in Sleaford. Its the huge black windmill which towers above everything else. The mill used to be the centre of Money's Yard which was the head of navigation. The yard is now a shopping precinct with the mill in the centre. From the mill you should continue north on Carre Street. This will bring you to the well kept area beside the bridge across the northern loop of the canal. Unlike the southern loop, this is still in water as it is the "New" River Slea.

An old stone doorway stands in the wall of a building close to the bridge. It has the inscription "1792 NAVIGATION WHARF" above it though the doorway has actually been moved and does not stand at the original wharf entrance. Walk further north and turn into the builders yard on the right hand side. The navigation company's office still stands in the yard, above the front door the company's coat of arms can still be seen but the building is in desperate need of help. Apparently the navigation society have received funds to restore it.

The Sleaford Navigation is very a pleasant route and with Sleaford itself at the head it should be very popular when it becomes fully navigable again.

Back to Top

Canal Routes Home