Fossdyke and Witham Navigation History
The River Witham has of course run into the North Sea for many thousands of years but the Fossdyke Canal is very much an artificial waterway. However, this “canal” makes the likes of the Trent and Mersey or Bridgewater canals seem like mere babies in comparison as it is nearer to 2,000 years old than 200.
Lincoln (or Lindum Colonia) was a very strategic place for the Romans. It had a very high hill overlooking very flat land. Land which was rich in agricultural produce. Out of Lincoln there are still a whole series of amazingly straight and long Roman roads which were perfect for the Romans to quickly march their armies up and down but were very hard work to carry goods along. Almost all other Roman settlements were built on navigable rivers but Lincoln only had the small River Witham.
And so, the Romans decided to improve the river and bring it to a navigable standard. It was straightened and deepened from Lincoln to the sea, turning Lincoln into a very important inland port. To the west, across land, there were other important Roman settlements, such as Nottingham on the navigable River Trent. With no chance of making any river navigable to the west, the Romans built Foss Dyke, Britain’s first ever artificial navigation – or at least this is what some historians believe.
There are other Roman history “experts” who believe that these waterways were simply built for land drainage.
But the Romans were – simply because they were here – experienced sailors, and because these inland waterways connected the sea to an important city and then on to an equally important navigable river, it seems hard to believe that they did not use them as navigations.
Further evidence is found at Torksey, a port that grew around the junction of the Foss Dyke and River Trent.
Not many towns grow up around the ends of drains!!
Another waterway, very similar to Foss Dyke, named Car Dyke, was also built by the Romans. It headed south from Lincoln towards the River Cam near Cambridge.
Dark Ages After the departure of the Romans it is thought that the Foss Dyke was left to decay. This is highly likely as the Britons, when left to fend for themselves, did not even maintain the excellent roads that they had inherited so maintaining a waterway would appear to have been well beyond them. However, there is some evidence that the Foss Dyke continued to be used as a link from the River Trent to Lincoln.
This, once again, comes at Torksey which remained a fairly prosperous town despite not being on a major road between any large towns. During these centuries, the River Witham and the Foss Dyke were both navigable enough to allow the Dane’s to travel along them – invading the local towns as they came.
Proof that the Foss Dyke was used by boats comes from the reign of Edward the Confessor.
The King’s Monetari in Nottingham had (among his other duties) “the care of the Foss Dyke and navigations thereon”.
Thirty five years after William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book had reported 111 resident burgesses (inhabitants) in Torksey, Bishop Atwater, under instructions from Henry I, improved the Foss Dyke by “scouring the channel”. Some historians have claimed Henry actually built the canal which survives today but it is more widely believed that he merely restored the Roman cut which had already been in existence for around a thousand years. Still – this must go down as Britain’s first ever canal restoration!
The Foss Dyke became so badly silted up (after 210 years of no maintenance!) that the government had to force local inhabitants to clean up the navigation. Similar orders were issued just 30 years later and once again in 1518.
A sluice was built on the River Witham Navigation at Boston, presumably to make the river non-tidal. Another sluice was also built at Langrick a few miles further upstream.
After nearly 500 years of Royal ownership, James I decided the maintenance of the Foss Dyke was costing the Realm far too much so he kindly gave it away to Lincoln city!
Lincoln was not any more keen on maintaining the Foss Dyke than the government had been. The waterway soon fell into decay and by this time traffic had virtually ceased, having given up the fight to navigate the dyke.
Lincoln obtained an Act of Parliament allowing it to make improvements (or virtually fully restore) the Foss Dyke and River Witham between the River Trent and Boston. In the end they restored the Foss Dyke, Brayford Pool in Lincoln and the first 100 yards of the River Witham Navigation from Brayford Pool to High Bridge.
Lincoln sold a third share of the Foss Dyke and used the money to develop Brayford Pool in the centre of the city. Wharves and warehouses were built and the pool became a busy port. The dyke was well used for a number of decades after this with small boats being able to bring goods from Torksey, having reached that town via the River Trent.
Less than ½ a century after the Lincoln improvements, the Foss Dyke was once again impassable. Boats had stopped using the waterway and Brayford Pool lost its importance. It would seem that, from time to time at least, the authorities saw the advantages of opening the waterway but none of them ever realised that it would not stay open by itself – or they simply were not prepared to pay for its upkeep.
During all this time, very little was done to maintain or upgrade the River Witham so a decision to carry out a thorough survey from Lincoln to Boston was made. However, it was not until 1733 that a report was presented by James Scribo.
Meanwhile, the Foss Dyke was also being completely neglected and few boats were bothering to attempt passage. By now the one third share, that Lincoln city had sold in 1672, belonged to a Robert Peart who mortgaged it for £750 to a James Humberston.
The Foss Dyke reached its all time low during this period of its existence – its income was just £66 for the year.
Back on the River Witham James Scribo’s report was heard, causing great alarm. He said that the river was not only close to being lost forever as a navigation but its poor maintenance was threatening the nearby low lying land which it drained. Several urgent meetings were held and an application was sent to Parliament for the critical repairs but nothing was actually done at this point.
In “Diaries and Letters Vol. 2” by William Stukeley it was written that hay laden waggons were seen crossing the Foss Dyke bound for Lincoln. This was despite the waterway still being officially open for navigation. Clearly the carriers of such hay felt the dyke was more trouble than it was worth though coal – maybe because it is somewhat heavier than hay – was reported to have arrived in Lincoln via the dyke at an average rate of 1,357 tons per year. By now however, it was obvious to Lincoln city that they could not afford to maintain the waterway and they realised they did not have the expertise to improve it. Hence, they leased the whole waterway to a Richard Ellison who had previously been associated with the River Don Navigation in South Yorkshire.
Ellison took over the lease on New Years day at a rent of £50 per year to Lincoln city and £25 per year to James Humberston.Ellison immediately began to restore the Foss Dyke. The work took 3 years to complete though Ellison died just before the channel was re-opened. His son, Richard Ellison II, took over and the route from Torksey to Lincoln was re-opened in 1744.
Before Ellison’s take-over, the Foss Dyke had been lucky to earn £100 a year. Within 2 years of the re-opening, the waterway brought in an income of £595, within 15 years this had risen to £1,000.
With the Foss Dyke back in business, Lincoln began to look at the River Witham again. There were differing opinions on its potential use as the people with drainage needs were not keen on boats using the river. Lincoln themselves were concerned that if they didn’t restore the river themselves, they may lose their rights (along the city portion of the river) to a river commission. Although many ideas and discussions were held, nothing was actually done.
Land owners between Boston and Lincoln along the River Witham asked John Grundy, Langley Edwards and John Smeaton to make surveys with a view to improving navigable standards.
A Bill, put together by the land owners (with backing from Boston council), went to Parliament seeking authority to take over control of the River Witham. The Bill was strongly opposed by Lincoln city on the grounds that the river navigation would steal vital water from the connecting Foss Dyke Navigation. They were also concerned about losing control of the river within their town centre.Towns as far away as Rotherham and Rochdale joined the Lincoln objections as they were quite reliant on farm produce from Lincolnshire. Despite the strong objections, Parliament authorised the Act on June 2nd. The Act authorised a commission who then set up two separate groups – one which would look after drainage interests and one which would develop the river for navigational purposes. The Act gave the commissioners authority to make new cuts, build locks and generally improve the river to navigable standards. In August the commissioners held their first meeting and soon afterwards Langley Edwards was appointed as surveyor (the word “engineer” was not yet in use) with a salary of £25 a year. His first job was simple enough, he had to install a chain at Stamp End near Washingborough where the river reached the eastern edge of Lincoln. A toll of 2½d had to be paid before the chain would be lifted to allow boats to pass. Edwards was also asked to survey the whole river and put a plan together to build a new sluice at Boston. The commissioners created 120 shares of which Boston council bought 30 and Edwards bought one.
Boston Grand Sluice was opened with the two separate commission groups looking after their own interests. The drainage commissioners regulated the water passing through the sluice while the navigation commissioners looked after the adjoining lock through which boats past.
Locks were begun at Stamp End, Kirkstead, and Barlings but other urgent work had to wait as the commissioners were struggling for money.
The Witham Navigation commissioners had to borrow £1,200 to continue with their upgrades. The river was not enjoying the success that the Foss Dyke was, its income was feeble in comparison.While the Foss Dyke’s tolls were bringing in around £1,500 a year, the Witham Navigation could only manage around £300. Despite tolls being charged at Stamp End Lock for boats coming off the Foss Dyke, the commissioners actual received very little income from this lock. Only the smallest of boats (lighters) could fit under High Bridge in Lincoln city centre and the Foss Dyke owners were not interested in helping the river commissioners by creating a navigable passage for larger boats because they were still “unfriendly” towards the river and did not want it to steal their water. The trouble with High Bridge was not just how low it was. It was almost a tunnel and had a 4 storey Tudor house on top of it! The road which the bridge also carried was the busy main city street and the only river crossing in the city at that time. Their were also important buildings all around, making widening or bypassing the bridge impossible. Hence, there was no way the city would allow the river commissioners to knock down the bridge or cut off or block the main street.
More bad news was to come for the Witham Navigation commissioners when it was revealed that a group of businessmen in Sleaford, around 10 miles west of the Witham Navigation, had begun to promote the idea of a canal from Sleaford to Lincoln. This would provide direct competition to the river but thankfully the proposals never turned into anything more than just ideas at this stage.
A proposal was put forward to build a lock which would allow boats to move off the river and onto the drainage dykes on the East and West Fens onthe north west side of Boston. The commissioners liked the idea but simply did not have the money to build a lock at this time.
Above Stamp End Lock on the River Witham their were a number of industries and warehouses whose boats travelled on the Foss Dyke but entered the River Witham at Brayford Pool in central Lincoln.The commissioners had only been charging tolls when a boat passed through Stamp End Lock and they were none too pleased when they discovered numerous boats were coming off the Foss Dyke and using the river within Lincoln without reaching as far as the lock. Immediately the commissioners put a boom across the river at High Bridge and levied the carriers for unpaid tolls – the very thing that Lincoln city had feared in the 1750’s and had objected to when the river’s Act was passed in 1762.
The traders who used the river (probably backed by Lincoln city) wrote to the river commissioners complaining about the charges for using the river above the lock. Their letter included a pretty clear warning that if the boom and tolls were not lifted they would report the commissioners for failing to construct Stamp End Lock in the way dictated by the Act of Parliament! The commissioners obviously felt this threat had a sound base as they immediately removed the boom and dropped the charges. However, this kept the bad feelings going between Lincoln and the river commissioners and there was still no navigable link for large boats from the Foss Dyke to the river.
Despite all the bad news, poor income and lack of money, there was some reason for optimism on the Witham Navigation during this period… For instance, a number of arms which would branch off the main river navigation were talked about. One such branch was a line to Sleaford where, at a number of meetings, the possibility of making the River Slea navigable was discussed. Nothing was actually done at this point but the idea was not forgotten. Other schemes were started – such as the Tattershall Canal – while other schemes were started and completed – such as the conversion of the drainage ditches which ran into the East and West Fens on the north of the River Witham near Boston. This scheme had first been mooted 4 years earlier but lack of money had prevented a lock being built. This was now overcome by the installation of “flood doors” and the new navigations became collectively known as the Witham Navigable Drains.
The Tattershall Canal opened, running north for 2 miles from near Tattershall Bridge (on the Witham Navigation) to Coningsby.
While the Witham Navigation continued to struggle for income, Richard Ellison II’s business ability – together with the increasing use of artificial waterways in general – saw the Foss Dyke’s toll income rise steadily to £2,367. The River Trent was now in a very good navigable state and canals like the Trent & Mersey and Erewash were running successfully and carrying goods to and from places as far away as Derby, Stoke, the Black Country and Manchester.South Yorkshire and even places like Rochdale in the Pennines were able to receive farm produce from Lincolnshire thanks to the Foss Dyke. Meanwhile, because of the continued unfriendly relations, there was no way Lincoln city would co-operate with the River Witham commissioners to allow normal canal boats to pass through High Bridge, in the city centre, onto the river. It seems rather ludicrous that canal boats could reach Lincoln from Wolverhampton but not from Woodhall Spa – just 10 miles away on a waterway with a direct connection!
Help came from Sir Joseph Banks when he began to push for the building of a canal from the River Witham Navigation to Horncastle. His town was rich in agricultural produce and he wanted it linked to the main inland waterways network. Banks’ plan was simple enough – just include, as part of the Bill, the construction of a navigable link between the Foss Dyke (on the west of Lincoln) and the Witham Navigation (on the east), thus avoiding Lincoln and High Bridge altogether. He employed William Jessop to survey a possible link. Jessop reported back with two alternatives. The first would be to build a new waterway via Sincel Dyke which would pass around the south of the city. The other, and more obvious, was to increase the depth under High Bridge which was then only 18 inches and had a wooden floor. The first plan would mean building a brand new cut while the second plan was a simple enough conversion. However, the first would bypass Lincoln while the second would need the city’s full co-operation. In the end Banks was able to convince the city that if High Bridge was made navigable, the extra income would far outweigh any other losses. Given that the alternative for the city was the prospect of a new canal completely bypassing them, it was probably fairly easy for Banks to persuade them.
Work began on deepening the channel under High Bridge. The main problem was not in making it deep enough but in how to overcome its narrowness. Not only were there buildings on the famous old bridge but other buildings completely enclosed the river on both sides. Canal boats needed horses to pull them and horses needed towpaths. If a towpath was included, the channel would have to become even narrower and that would cause problems because deep, narrow rivers have much stronger currents than shallow, wide ones.
Richard Ellison II died leaving his Foss Dyke navigation (now known as the Fossdyke Canal) in a better state than ever with income up to £3,000 a year. His death did not bring about the end of the Ellison family’s association with the canal however. It seemed that whenever one Richard Ellison died, another one was always waiting in the wings. (Colonel) Richard Ellison III inherited two thirds of his father’s shares with brother Henry taking the other third. Henry had no interest in the canal however and he left all the control to Richard III. Richard had lots of interest in the canal but only on the income side! It seemed it was virtually impossible to get money out of him for maintenance and repairs. Subsequently, the canal began to slowly deteriorate though at first this was hardly noticeable and profits continued to rise.
Also during this year the long talked about Horncastle Canal and the Sleaford Navigation both got their authorisation from Parliament. Both were strongly backed by all the local corporations, influential traders and the Witham Navigation commissioners. The Sleaford Navigation was built with little difficulty and opened in May 1794 but only parts of the Horncastle route were begun. Despite all the support it still ran into many problems, most of them financial. Delays kept putting the completion date back year after year. Both of the new routes made an agreement with the River Witham Navigation whereby any boat using both the River Witham and either one of the two new waterways would receive a toll concession.
The new channel under High Bridge was opened allowing traditional canal boats to travel from anywhere on the fast growing inland waterways network to Boston for the first time. Needless to say, the new link was a roaring success though tolls for passage through it increased steadily over the next decade.
After many years of little activity, the owners of the unfinished Horncastle Canal applied for – and received – a new Act allowing them to complete their route. The canal, which was in effect an extension of the earlier Tattershall Canal, opened during the following year. It left the River Witham near Coningsby and ran north for about 9 miles into Horncastle.
The commissioners of the River Witham Navigation were finding it very difficult to maintain the river with income often much lower than spending. John Rennie was called in to survey the river and he reported that his initial concern was Kirkstead Lock. It had been built in 1770 with an adjoining staunch which was in very bad condition. Rennie’s report on the lock said that he was surprised that it was still standing. Its poor building and bad placement could only satisfactorily be rectified by pulling it down and rebuilding a brand new lock in a better position. Later in the year he also recommended that Boston Sluice should be avoided and boats should have to reach the east side of the town by use of the navigable drains or by the construction of a brand new cut, bypassing the sluice and running into Boston Harbour.
Rennie returned to complete his recommendations. This time he suggested the complete demolition of High Bridge with the building of a new bridge which would allow a wider channel with a towpath. His survey also included many drainage improvements and his estimates were £58,000 for the Witham Navigation and £12,600 for the Fossdyke Canal at High Bridge. Neither of the two sets of proprietors were willing to pay this much and nothing was done.
The commissioners of the Witham Navigation, by now in even more desperate need for improvements and repairs, called John Rennie in again, asking him to make a new survey with a cheaper outcome! For Kirkstead lock he advised its demolition along with the removal of Barlings Lock. The construction of just one new lock somewhere near to Washingborough church would take away the need for the two old locks. An Act of Parliament was obtained and the long awaited upgrading began. In the end, rather than building the new lock near Washingborough church, a brand new cut at Fiskerton was begun and new locks replaced old ones at Stamp End and Bardney. Kirkstead lock was demolished and Barlings Lock was removed.
During the construction of these latest upgrades to the Witham Navigation, an amazing story was reported in local newspapers concerning the navvies (labourers) who worked on the improvements.These men were invariably not local men but travellers who moved around the country working on new navigations or did other construction work. They were generally badly (if at all) educated and were usually unruly. The following account of disorder, at Bardney on the River Witham, is exceptional even by their standards…..
A dispute arose concerning the price of bread which was sold to the navvies daily by a Mr. Edmonds of Wragby – the baker. The navvies began to riot outside the Plough public house on the west side of the river. They drove the landlord out of his house and stole the beer barrels, opened them and drank the contents. Now drunk – as well as angry with the baker – they tore down the pub sign and stole the baker’s basket before proceeding to cross the river. On the far side they entered Bardney with one man riding “piggy-back” holding the Plough pub sign aloft and declaring free beer for all, he was surrounded by a mob of navvies who all carried their plank hooks and other tools. The whole mob chased after the baker, pelted him with his own bread (let us hope it was fresh) and then hung his basket high in a tree. Next, the mob attacked the Bottle of Glass pub, fetched the beer barrels outside and drank the lot. When the landlord of another pub, the Angel, saw them heading his way he rolled out his barrels himself to prevent being attacked and having his house ransacked. Once the mob had emptied their third pub of the day they began to invade the houses within the village. Items were stolen and residents were attacked. The village constable had to flea and hide in the local almshouses until reinforcements could be called for. Thirteen more constables were sent from Horncastle, over 10 miles away, but they were no match for the mob. In fact one constable was so badly hurt in the fighting that he later died in hospital. Meanwhile, the cavalry had been called for and they arrived with a magistrate, Rev. Mouncey of Gautby. He read out the Riot Act and the cavalry soon rounded up the mob, some of which had gone into hiding. They were loaded into 3 waggons and carted off to Horncastle. Later they were tried and imprisoned.
A lock was built at Anton’s Gowt some 34 years after it was first proposed. It superseded the flood doors, built around 1783, which had been installed to allow boats onto the Witham Navigable Drains.
John Rennie was called in once again to report on any possible improvements to the Witham Navigation. He reported back saying he had noted 4 more unused drains were navigable and could be used by boats without any major works needing to be done. These were all on the south side of the river to the west of Bardney and Woodhall Spa.
Over the next decade or so the river continued – as it had done – to struggle to find money. The commissioners were even accused a number of times of gross waste of their resources.
The first two steam powered boats to use the Fossdyke Canal were launched from Sincel Dyke. These were both packet boats which carried passengers between Boston and Nottingham. One of them, the Witham, ran into big trouble during its first year when a boiler burst on a journey to Boston. Fortunately none of the 30 passengers were hurt but it probably took them a long time before getting on a steam boat again! This would have pleased the sailing packet boat operators no end. In fact, there was a lot of inevitable friction between the owners of sailing boats and the steam operated boats but (equally as inevitable) it was the steam boats which survived.
While the Witham Navigation was struggling to find cash, Colonel Richard Ellison III was rolling in profits from his Fossdyke Canal. The trouble was, he had hardly done a thing to maintain it since his father died nearly 30 years earlier. Disgruntled users and local traders tied in vain to push him into doing more to maintain the waterway. However, Ellison was very powerful and influential in Lincoln and there was little the traders could do. Eventually enough support was gathered to put a Bill of Chancery through Parliament which would declare Ellison’s lease void on the grounds that he was not keeping up the original agreement that tolls levied should be reflected in the amount of maintenance carried out. As virtually no maintenance was being done and yet tolls remained very high, the traders seemed to have a pretty good cause for complaint. Ellison was obviously worried enough because he quickly came up with a compromise of maintenance plans. By this time however there was a large group of anti-Ellison men who wanted only one thing – rid of him.
Back on the Witham Navigation, John Rennie reported that the River Ancholme Navigation, some 10 miles north of Lincoln, could be reached by creating a linking canal. Such a route would give the River Witham a direct link to the Humber, completely bypassing the Fossdyke Canal. Rennie was asked to make a survey and he came up with two possible routes though neither were ever put into practice. This may have been due to the usual lack of funds but may also have had something to do with the change in ownership of the Fossdyke Canal which happened during the following year.
While the Bill of Chancery concerning the Fossdyke Canal was still waiting to be heard, Colonel Ellison died leaving control of the waterway in the hands of his brother Henry. Still totally disinterested in the canal business, Henry handed control over to his brother-in-law, Humphrey Sibthorp. Coincidentally, Sibthorp was already one of the proprietors of the Witham Navigation. He sympathised with those who had wanted rid of Ellison as he knew only too well that the Fossdyke Canal desperately needed improving.
Problems arose for the steam packet boat operators who found it incredibly difficult going during the bad floods of that year. One boat even got stuck on a runaway hedge and was dragged off with the flood into the neighbouring countryside.
A new paddle was invented, by a Lincoln man, for use on the steam packet boats. It enabled them to go much faster on the Witham Navigation – mind you, the speed limit was just 6mph!
As part of Sibthorp’s efforts to improve the Fossdyke Canal, he contacted none other than Marc Isambard Brunel. The engineer accepted Sibthorp’s invitation to make a survey of the canal and when he arrived he was very thorough. He took measurements of the canal at various points and measured all the boats in Brayford Pool. He also took a boat ride from the River Trent to Lincoln and found no major problems with the journey. However, when he passed onto the river Witham channel under High Bridge his keel got stuck and had to be dragged out. He made a report on his findings but nothing was done – possibly because Henry and Humphrey were waiting for the outcome of the Bill of Chancery report.
The first iron steam boats appeared on the Fossdyke and Witham navigations and they were an instant success, being clearly more efficient than their predecessors.
The Chancery case dragged on and on, so long in fact, that Henry Ellison also died. The case was then abandoned. With Humphrey Sibthorp in full control conditions were now much better.
During the following years both the Witham Navigation and the Fossdyke Canal continued to do fairly well. Most of the trade on the river navigation was centred around Boston while the canal continued to serve Lincoln as it had done for many centuries though goods now came from and went to towns all over the country.
The railway age arrived and the first company to attempt the construction of a line to Lincoln was the Wakefield, Lincoln & Boston Railway Company. They made the same sort of agreement with the waterways as were being made all over the country. This was usually an agreement to take over the navigations as soon as their railway was up and running. They would also usually agree to pay the navigation’s owners an assured income. In return, they would get control of the navigations, thus preventing competition. This usually suited the navigation proprietors who knew they could not compete with the railways. These agreements always sounded great when they were made, but nearly every “local” railway company was engulfed by (or merged with) a larger “regional” company. Usually these companies were happy enough to carry over the agreements but 9 times out of 10 these “regional” railways were taken over by a “national” railway just before the line was complete. The “national” company in the case of Lincoln was Great Northern Railways who became almost famous for their hatred of canals!
The railway line into Lincoln was almost complete when GNR bought out the smaller railway company. GNR honoured the agreement made with the waterways, including taking on all of the Witham Navigation’s debt and mortgages. It would have took the commissioners decades to pay these off but GNR cleared them in just 9 years.
The railway line from Lincoln to Boston clung to the Witham Navigation throughout the whole journey. This created massive battles for business between the packet boats and the new passenger trains.However, just as sailing boats are no match for steam boats, steam boats are no match for steam trains. Anything the packet boats did, the railway would counter. GNR built its stations very close to the river’s landing stages, they invented “4th class travel” at a ha’penny a mile – the packet boats simply could not compete and by 1863 they were all put out of business.
It was not just passenger travel which suffered of course. In the year before the railway opened, nearly 20,000 tons of coal passed by Boston Sluice. Within just a couple of years of railway operation this dropped to under 4,000 tons. Wool carriage completely disappeared and it looked as though all other merchandise would do the same.
GNR (and the other railways) generally did nothing to maintain the waterways under their control. This was usually their only lawful way of closing them down – by letting them decay beyond repair. However, GNR was not able to do this with the Fossdyke & Witham Navigations as both were used for land drainage and had to be kept in good order. When the drainage commissioners asked for Bardney Lock to be deepened (for instance), the railway were left with no choice but to do the work.
Railway competition did not just affect the River Witham and the Fossdyke Canal. Trade had been declining so badly that the Sleaford Navigation was officially closed. The first 1¾ miles of the route were handed over to the River Witham commissioners and this short stretch of the Sleaford Navigation (known as Kyme Eau) has remained under the River Witham Navigation’s jurisdiction ever since (and has remained open).
GNR subleased both of the navigations to the Great Northern & Great Eastern Joint Committee. (In later years the waterways became controlled by London & North Eastern Railways).
After many years of few (or no) boats travelling off the River Witham to Horncastle, the Horncastle Canal was officially closed. However, commercial traffic continued to carry coal to Coningsby on the Horncastle Canal until 1910.
The former Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, which had become Great Central Railway, built a line right down to Brayford Pool with a large warehouse and transhipment facilities.
Both the Witham Navigation and Fossdyke Canal were suffering declines in tonnage. The Fossdyke Canal was faring the better of the two with a lot of cargo being transhipped at Lincoln.However, most of the goods now being carried were agricultural products only.
After WW1 both navigations fell into dormancy. Commercial traffic ceased and the waterways returned to being just well kept, and very wide, drains. Individual authorities took over their local sections of the River Witham and once split up it was impossible to put plans together to put the whole line in order. At one point 13 different bodies had control over the different sections of the river.
After nationalisation the government placed the Fossdyke Canal in its group 2 rating which basically meant it would be kept open for leisure purposes but not maintained for commercial purposes.Because the Fossdyke & Witham Navigations were never officially abandoned – due to their drainage needs – they became among the first to see pleasure craft.
A new government report suggested that the Fossdyke & Witham Navigations could be developed (along with such routes as the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal and River Weaver) as commercial concerns.However, while the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal and Weaver Navigation were upgraded, it would appear that little was done to the Fossdyke & Witham Navigations. The route continued (and still continues to the present day) to provide holiday makers with a peaceful and very rural – though very flat – landscape with virtually no industry to spoil the tranquillity.
Fossdyke and Witham Navigation Route
The Fossdyke & Witham Navigation is navigable and popular, itbegins on the east bank of the tidal River Trent beside the town of Torksey, south of Gainsborough. The start of the Fossdyke is crossed by the A156 just north of its junction with the A1133. Car owners can park in the BW yard with a charge of 50p per day being payable to the lock keeper. To reach the river Trent cross the main road and walk along the edge of the Fossdyke flood bank for about 50 yards.
Torksey Junction can be a wild place but when the weather is warm and calm it is a nice place to sit and watch boats passing along the wide River Trent. Downstream (north) the Trent is crossed by a long railway bridge and the ruined Torksey Castle can be just made out in the distance to the east of the river. However, it is not a real castle at all, just a large house. Upstream the tidal river meanders off to the west while straight across from the junction are the huge chimneys of a power station.
The entrance to the Fossdyke has floating pontoons along the banks to allow boats to moor no matter what the tide is doing. All around are high flood banks. About 20 yards east of the entrance is a traffic light, followed by the road bridge and then Torksey Lock.
At the lock is a white cottage with a resident lock keeper. The lock has a double set of gates because it has to cope with the river being below or above the height of the canal. The balance beams at the west end are so high that you’d hang about 12 feet off the ground if you clung onto them – these gates are now mechanised.
At the other end there is no room for balance beams so capstans are used. These are like huge wheels standing on their sides about 3 feet high. The lock is very well kept, looking like a Thames Lock in many ways, with flowers and shrubs etc. Just past the lock is a marina and boat yard which serve as a safe haven for boats coming along the tidal Trent. Torksey is the only real mooring place between the Chesterfield Canal to the north and the non-tidal stretches to the south.
East of Torksey the canal heads east for one mile and then turns south east to travel dead straight for 4 miles. After about 3 of these miles the waterway passes close to Hardwick where a ferry once carried passengers across the canal. The A156 comes alongside, to the south west for the final ½ mile or so. Throughout this stretch – and in fact throughout most of the route – the canal is bounded by high banks which prevent boat crews or towpath walkers from seeing very much of the surrounding landscape. Because of this, the canal is often secluded and tranquil with only the wild life for company.
The A57 comes in from the west and the canal turns east, clinging to the road’s northern curb for the next 2 miles until the village of Saxilby is reached. In the village, the main road disappears on the far side of a row of houses while the canal is crossed by the railway line from Retford to Lincoln. Past the bridge, the canal is suddenly in Saxilby main street.
The street runs along the north bank with shops (one selling fish & chips) and 2 pubs (the Sun and the Ship). To enter by car you must pass to the south of the village and double back round to the left just after crossing the canal. The canal is very pretty in the village with over-hanging trees and a few moored boats. T
he road used to enter the village on a swing bridge but this was removed and a footbridge now stands in its place. Notice boards nearby give information about the old bridge which was demolished in 1937. It wasn’t until 50 years later that the footbridge was installed but even this is not a new bridge. It is just over 100 years old. Formerly a railway footbridge at Newark it was moved here when the picnic areas and canal side walks were created. The banks of the canal are grassy and make a nice picnic spot on summer days. Tables and barbecue areas are provided.
At the east end of the village the A57 crosses the waterway and runs right along its northern bank for anther 2 miles as both head eastwards. Slightly further away than the road, but on the south side of the canal, is the railway line. After 2 miles, as all 3 modes of transport curve south east, there is a bit of a reversal as the railway comes closer and clings to the canal bank while the road moves slightly away. Just before the curve the River Till enters the Fossdyke though, strictly speaking, it is the Fossdyke that enters the Till. From here to Lincoln the Fossdyke is really the canalised river.
The final 4 miles of the Fossdyke Canal are virtually straight. There is actually a steady left curve throughout the 4 miles but it is so slight that boaters and walkers probably don’t notice it. All the way into Lincoln the cathedral can be seen high above the otherwise flat landscape. Approaching the city, the Fossdyke Canal is crossed by the A46 and then it passes a golf course and the incredibly isolated Pyewipe Inn which has a terrace overlooking the canal. Its name is the local name for the Peewit bird. It would appear that vehicle access to the pub is via a long lane which leaves the A57 about a mile west of the A46 roundabout.
The canal now crosses the Catchwater Drain on a small aqueduct and then immediately goes through a rare right-left bend. The A57 can be seen (and heard) over to the north with Lincoln Racecourse close to it. Urban areas now appear on the north bank and a build up of railway lines appear on the south. A lift bridge is reached which is (was) operated by British Rail. It is left open outside of working hours but when it is closed the boater must hoot his horn to alert the “bridge keeper”. The bridge was due to be replaced by a higher fixed one in the mid 90’s.
Immediately after the railway bridge, the canal widens out into what resembles an inner-city lake. This, in fact, is Brayford Pool. Although the pool looks inviting to boaters it is usually badly silted up and not navigable off the near side line.
However, this may have been dredged when numerous other changes took place recently. New University buildings have appeared on the south side, new bridges have been built and the marina has been redeveloped. There are boat clubs and a boat yard at the pool as well as lots of moored pleasure boats. It is a very short walk from the pool into the main shopping centre. The castle and cathedral are up the hill – and it really is a hill!
Brayford Pool marks the end of the Fossdyke Canal and the start of the navigable River Witham. The unnavigable River Witham has already travelled north for around 30 miles from the village of Coltsworth which is on the A1 some 6 miles south of Grantham. The small river passes right through Grantham and then onto the villages of Benston, Syston and Barkston.
It then deviates from its northerly direction to head west past Marston, Hougham and Westborough. The river then completely turns its back on Lincoln to head south west through Long Bennington. It then takes on a zig-zag course as it turns steadily around to head north east. It comes within just 3 miles of the River Trent before heading well away from it through Barnby-in-the-Willows, Beckingham, through a “danger area”, past Bassingham and onto North Hykeham. From there it is just 3 more miles to Brayford Pool.
The navigable River Witham leaves Brayford Pool at the north east corner. It is immediately crossed by a busy inner ring road though the bridge was obviously once much lower and must have been either a swing bridge or lift bridge. After passing the bridge, the navigation turns sharply right, around a blind bend, and is then immediately closed in by ancient buildings on the north side and a more modern one on the south. This is the original old town of Lincoln, there is no towpath here, just a walkway on the far side of a high fence alongside the old buildings.
The narrow river channel continues for about 100 yards with an amazing (and unique) sight dead ahead. Crossing the canal is a long bridge (or a short tunnel), on the bridge is a 4 storey building which is clearly very, very old. This is High Bridge or “the Glory Hole” which is best appreciated by walking across it. The old road over the bridge is now pedestrianised and forms one of Lincoln’s main shopping thoroughfares. The building on the bridge is in the traditional black and white Tudor style and the bridge is the oldest in Britain which has buildings on it.
On the river beyond the bridge is a recently redeveloped area which gives the river a look more in keeping with Amsterdam than anywhere in England. A curvy footbridge crosses the river linking an old town square to a brand new shopping mall aptly named Waterside. Willow trees dip into the river, other buildings – old and new – line the northern side with a wide walkway lining both sides of the channel.The river itself is down below street level.
The new route of the A15 crosses the river just beyond the shopping mall, it previously crossed the river at Brayford Pool but before that it actually used the original old main street and crossed over High Bridge. Mind you – that was probably long before main roads had numbers. After the new A15’s route has crossed the navigation it is just 500 yards further to Stamp End Lock and sluice. On the way there the route passes an old flour mill which was one of the businesses which got very annoyed when the River Witham commissioners levied them for unpaid tolls.
Stamp End Lock had its own keeper who lived in the house across the road until recently. I believe the lock may now be crew operated.The keeper also operated the swing footbridge over the lock so if he has gone, crews can expect to do plenty of work! The lock itself is a little odd compared to most canal locks, the upper end has no traditional paddle gear or gates. Water – and boats – are let in by lifting a massive guillotine gate. Just past the lock is a sweeping railway bridge heading into the power station on the north bank.Straight after this railway bridge is an electric lift bridge which – like the one at Brayford Pool – needs the boatman to hoot his horn to bring the operator out of hiding.
Lincoln is soon left behind though the cathedral can be seen up to 10 miles away. The main difference between the Fossdyke Canal and the Witham Navigation is that the surrounding landscape is slightly more open and isn’t quite so flat. The river is in a shallow valley and most villages are set away from the river on slight inclines. The river heads out of Lincoln heading directly east for about 6 miles.Along this stretch – though you won’t notice it – is the Fiskerton Cut, designed by John Rennie in the early 1800’s. Half way along the cut is a site known as Five Mile House – but there is no house – or anything else – at this location. Near here, Barlings Lock used to be situated on the old river but when Fiskerton Cut was built the lock was removed.
After the 6 mile straight stretch, the canal turns south east and becomes slightly more curvy as it heads towards Bardney and Woodhall Spa, a stretch of 8 miles. Within a mile of the start of this stretch is the first of the drainage dykes, Branston Delph. Rennie recommended that this could be navigated without much work needing to be done but whether or not boats ever did use it I do not know.
At the point where Branston Delph runs into the River Witham Navigation, the original course of the river bends away to the east while a newer straight cut continues south eastwards towards Bardney. The old course loops around and then rejoins the newer navigable course just below Bardney Lock, about a mile to the south. The old river course is navigable fromBardney Lock to Short Ferry (about 1½ mile) where there is a pub, the Tyrewitt Arms, and a caravan site. The construction of the new cut created an island between the old and new courses which is now known as Branston Island. At the south end of the island is Bardney Lock with the old river course re-joining just below it. Just a few yards past the confluence of the old river and the new cut, the navigation turns sharp right under an old railway bridge and then turns sharp left.
At the left turn, a large (river sized) drain enters the navigation on the right (north). Boats heading north towards Lincoln have to make sure they turn right under the railway bridge and do not go straight on into the drain! The B1190 (Bardney Bridge) crosses the river just before Bardney. The large sugar beet factory stands on the eastern bank of the navigation just after the road bridge. Two bridges connect the factory with its settling ponds situated on the west bank and there is an overnight mooring jetty near the factory. Bardney was the village where the drunken mob of navvies ran riot after using their loafs to pelt the baker!
Still on the 8 mile stretch to Woodhall Spa, the navigation heads south easterly with high banks often concealing the flat scenery.However, Bardney sugar beet factory stays in view for many miles. The dismantled railway which joined the navigation at Bardney Lock is now never far away on the north east bank. Just before Southrey is another of the drains, Nocton Delph, that John Rennie recommended could be made navigable. As before, whether boats ever used Nocton Delph, I do not know but it heads dead straight for about 3 miles to Wasps Nest near Nocton and Dunston.
On route, other drains leave the main line and connect with yet more drains. At the west end of Nocton Delph another drain passes heading north-south, this is Car Dyke which appears to be no more significant than any other drain around these fens but it is actually one tiny part of a very significant waterway. When the Romans built the Foss Dyke to reach the River Trent and made the River Witham Navigable to reach the sea, they also built Car (or Caer) Dyke which linked Lincoln to the River Cam, far to the south, near Cambridge. In the main it has been wiped out over many centuries though odd bits appear here and there and this is one of them, a 2 mile stretch just north of the village of Martin.
Southrey village, on the north east of the Witham Navigation, appears shortly after the entrance to Nocton Delph. There is no bridge over the navigation at Southrey though there are pubs on either side of the river, facing one another across the water. A small ferry operates to carry people across. About a mile past Southrey is another drain, Metheringham Delph, which heads south west for 3 miles and has a connection to Nocton Delph ½ way along.
At the end of its 3 miles it connects with Car Dyke. Back on the River Witham Navigation, Woodhall Spa can be seen over to the east. The much smaller settlement of Kirkstead is situated beside the river with Kirkstead Bridge carrying the B1191 over the river.This bridge is now a large concrete structure, almost a viaduct, which was built in 1968 to replace a much lower one. Its not the first “replacement work” to have been done here. Kirkstead Lock was the one that John Rennie declared fit only for pulling down. The commissioners took his word and there has been no lock here since the early 1800’s.
South of Kirkstead and Woodhall Spa, Timberland Delph leaves the river heading south west – not to a furniture store but towards the village of Timberland. The dyke at the end of this delph is once again probably the old line of Car Dyke. The 4 mile stretch of river between Woodhall Spa and the next road crossing at Tattershall Bridge is a lot more bendy than the previous sections. A minor road clings to it along its south west bank. About 900 yards before Tattershall Bridge is a former canal junction.
Today it is hard to spot, as it is just a slight dent in the flood bank though its line can be seen on the far side of the bank. Some confusion has been caused in numerous guides and maps over which waterway this is.My understanding is that this is Gibson’s Cut (also called the Tattershall Canal) and not the later Horncastle Canal as listed by Nicholson. My road atlas shows the old canal line in water but certainly not currently navigable. It heads north east to Tattershall where I believe it was joined by the Horncastle Canal. (For more information, see the Horncastle Canal page).
A few hundred yards further downstream yet another drain leaves the river heading south west. This one goes by the inglorious name of Billinghay Skirth. This is more like a normal stream, curling about for 2½ miles with the A153 to its south. At Billinghay it comes right alongside the road and is crossed by the B1189. This road arrives from the north with Car Dyke close on its east side. In Billinghay, Car Dyke meets Billinghay Skirth at a T-junction just east of the B-road bridge. Shortly after the bridge, Billinghay Skirth connects with the Dorrington Dyke.
On the roads near Tattershall Bridge there are signs to New York and Boston, a reminder that this is LINCOLNshire. There are two Tattershall road bridges. The new one was built in 1992 but the red brick one with 3 arches (just to the south and now closed to traffic) is 200 years old.
About a mile south east of Tattershall Bridge the River Witham Navigation passes the settlement of Dogdyke which is on the east bank as the river takes a relatively large bend to the south. At Dogdyke there is an old steam pumping station on the junction of the Old River Bain. On that river is a small marina while a riverside restaurant and a pub are close by on the Witham. The whole area is a really pretty place. Leaving the Witham on the east bank, the Old River Bain heads north to Tattershall where it then follows the same basic route as the Horncastle Canal. A little further east of the River Witham is Coningsby Airfield with the end of one of its runways coming very close to the river – keep your head down and lookout for the Spitfires and bombers which fly above all day long on Summer weekends.
South of Dogdyke there is a landing jetty on the west bank which allows access to a caravan site and its shop. A little further south is the settlement of Chapel Hill where the Lyme Eau (or Slea Navigation – or even Sleaford Canal) leaves to head south west for about 12 miles to Sleaford. This navigation has recently been restored for the first 8 miles, through Kyme Lock to Cobblers Lock. The rest is currently (1998) under restoration. (See the Sleaford Navigation page)
The Witham Navigation now turns south east again and heads as straight as any modern motorway for about 5 miles. There are no roads, no villages and no bridges in this section though the disused railway clings to the eastern bank. Unfortunately, “bank” is a fair description as the river is once again below ground level and views of the landscape are virtually non-existent.
Just before Langrick, the river curves east and passes under the B1192. The bridge is a big iron girder affair, built in 1907 to replace a ferry. The Ferry Boat Inn still stands on the northern side. There now follows another long straight stretch which after 2½ miles reaches Anton’s Gowt, the entrance into the Witham Navigable Drains.The drains are entered by passing through Anton’s Gowt Lock which has a lock keepers cottage alongside. It is one of very few places in Britain where a boat can lock DOWN from a river. There is a pub, the Malcolm Arms, nearby on the minor road which passes by the lock.
The drains stretch out in straight lines all over the West and East Fens to the north west of Boston. In fact, Boston itself can be reached via the drains and there are good moorings in the town centre. Unfortunately the connection back into the River Witham at Boston has long since been closed so the only way back is via Anton’s Gowt. (For more information on these drains see the Witham Navigable Drains page).
The final few miles of the Witham Navigation begin with a bend to the south east just after Anton’s Gowt. The line into Boston is dead straight with the disused railway always clinging to the north bank. A large, low, black iron railway bridge is the last to cross the navigation with Boston Grand Sluice just past it.
Access to the sluice by car is not difficult as the main northern inner-ring road crosses right over the top of it. On quiet days you can actually park right alongside the sluice OFF the main road at the northern end. The sluice is a great danger to boats and crews are warned to keep away from the southern end. The lock into the tidal River Witham is at the north end of the sluice. The scene around the river here is very interesting and quite attractive. There are 2 boat clubs, a rowing club, a boatyard, a riverside pub and elegant town houses line both banks. To the east, on the tidal stretch, is Boston Stump, the tall square tower of St. Botolph’s Church which can be seen for miles around.