If the men behind the building of the Louth Canal had got their act together a little quicker, we would not now regard the Duke of Bridgewater and James Brindley as the fathers of British Canals and the promoters of the Sankey Brook Navigation would not be able to argue that they built Britain’s first true artificial waterway. In the end, the Louth Canal was slow in getting started and the promoters lost their chance to make their mark in history.
1756 Drainage expert John Grundy was asked to survey a line from the town of Louth in north east Lincolnshire to the Humber Estuary. However, following the survey no further action was taken for several years.
1760 A subscription list was opened at the end of January. The main contributor turned out to be Louth Town Council though numerous other individuals also subscribed.
The town clerk, Sam Towmaw, wrote to one of the country’s top civil engineers, John Smeaton, to ask him to take a look at Grundy’s survey.Smeaton replied within a week but did not say he was on his way, instead he offered advice on how to go about preparing a Parliamentary Bill. Towmaw wrote back asking once again for Smeaton to look at Grundy’s plan, explaining that the promoters were unwilling to go ahead without confirmation of the route from him. Again Smeaton replied quickly but explained that he was very busy and they should not be delayed on his account. Again he gave advice, for instance he told them not to rush into anything and to give as little warning as possible to local landowners in order to give them less time to put any opposition reports together. Eventually the promoters were able to persuade Smeaton to come to Louth and in August he took a look at Grundy’s 1756 survey – basically, Smeaton agreed to the route. Soon after this the promoters approached the local landowners and, rather than meeting with opposition, all the landowners supported the scheme – some even offered money to help promote the Bill.
1761 With virtually everything agreed upon it would be sensible to assume that a Bill would be put forward immediately.However, it was over 12 months from Smeaton’s endorsement of the route to the printing of his reports. It was not until another 15 months had past by (December 1762) that a Bill was finally presented to Parliament.
1763 The Act of Parliament was granted in March but no work was started. Being a very early canal, lessons had not yet been learned and the Act of Parliament did not include a provision for raising capital in order to build the canal. Thus the newly appointed Commissioners had to raise the money by other means. They attempted to do so by trying to borrow money from businessmen who would, in return for lending up to £14,000, be given rights to tolls on certain parts of the route. They received no offers at all.
1764 Still with no cash whatsoever, the Commissioners revamped their lending scheme and this time they raised the necessary funds – though it took over a year to do so. Clearly “Canal Mania” was not yet born!
1767 Construction of the Louth Canal finally began 4 years after its Act had been granted and 12 years after the project was first promoted. Within a few months the first 5 miles of the canal were open from Tetney Haven to Fire Beacon Lane where two wharves were constructed. Further subscriptions then had to be found and it took another 3 years for the remaining 7 miles to be completed.
1770 In May the full line of the Louth Canal was officially opened from Tetney Haven to Louth. In its 12 miles the canal had 8 locks, the lowest being a sea lock near the junction with the Humber.All but two of the locks were unique to the Louth Canal – rather than having straight inner walls the chambers of these locks were built with 4 elliptic bays on each side. Wooden posts were inserted at the points where the bays met and the lock foundations were made of Elm baulks. It is thought that John Grundy designed them this way to give them extra strength but the effectiveness of this plan is questionable as the locks needed repairing just as often as any other lock. None of the canal’s locks were built to the same dimensions (one being as long as 100ft) though they could all take boats 72ft long by 15ft wide.Boats known as Sloops, Billyboys, Keels and other sailing barges were used on the waterway.
It soon transpired that the construction work had not been good. Money was desperately needed to rebuild certain sections. The Commissioners again offered rights to tolls for anyone who offered money. In the end it was one of the Commissioners who came to the rescue, Charles Chaplin leant the company £28,000 in return for exclusive rights to the canal’s tolls for 7 years. After the 7 year lease was up Chaplin would be given first refusal on a new lease.
1777 When the tolls lease ran out Chaplin did not take up the new lease. The Commissioners advertised the lease but found no takers.Maybe Chaplin knew this would happen as he was then offered (if not begged to take) the lease on revised terms. This lead to Chaplin virtually taking over the whole concern.
The Louth Canal was never “busy” though it did well enough to turn Louth into a small inland port with wool and corn being exported and coal imported. In fact, a legal battle over the import of coalgave the company an almost unheard of victory against Customs. When the company were ordered to pay duty on coal because it arrived by sea the Commissioners managed to avoid paying up because Tetney (sea) Lock was designated as being in the Humber Estuary, not on the coast and was therefore adjudged to be out of Customs jurisdiction. The company did not manage to avoid the introduction of “Coal Meters” however. These were inspectors who were appointed to keep a check on the company after disagreements had occurred over coal weights and payments.
1789 With Charles Chaplin virtually running the whole canal, the other Commissioners had taken something of a back seat. However, hey were called into action when complaints about the state of the waterway began to grow. It was reported that the canal was so shallow throughout the route that 2 horses had to be used to drag sailing boats through the mud! Coal prices were rising because of the delays and because boats were unable to carry full loads. The Commissioners ordered Chaplin to do something but it would appear that rather than make costly repairs he simply filled the canal with sea water. Local landowners now complained that the water levels were too high and that salt water was reaching their crops. Not wishing to take the blame or get rid of Chaplin, the Commissioners simply blamed the lock keeper at Tetney Lock, finding him guilty of negligence!! This, of course, did nothing to help the state of the route and the complaints continued.
1795 Charles Chaplin died and his son, Thomas, inherited the tolls lease though it would appear that he was some what reluctant because he instantly offered to give it up. Although this offer was apparently accepted by the Commissioners, it would appear that nothing changed as the Chaplin family was in control for many years to come.
1811 After many years of pressure, the canal (now run by George Chaplin, grandson of Charles) was finally dredged and widened.Over the next few years other repairs and upgrades were also made.
1828 After running the canal for over 60 years, with little evidence of any control from the Commissioners, the Chaplin family found the legality of their lease under threat from people who felt the family should be doing more to maintain the route. Also at this time it was discovered that whilst the tolls on the canal had risen steadily every year since the Chaplins had taken over the lease, the family had never increased their interest payments on the toll profits. The Chaplins were in a very strong position because many of them were also Commissioners. George Chaplin claimed that they had not increased the interest payments because the route had never been profitable. Following numerous legal battles a new Act of Parliament was passed which allowed the Chaplin family to hold on to the lease but, in return, they were forced to repair several locks and make other improvements.
1847 The East Lincolnshire Railway Company put forward their plans to build a line from Grimsby to Louth. As part of the railway’s Act of Parliament they obtained the right to buy the toll lease from the Chaplins. Later in the same year the bigger Great Northern Railway Company bought the East Lincolnshire Railway and the lease passed into their control. When the railway line opened it had little effect on canal trade which, although never big, remained steady in spite of tolls being raised to the highest legal level.
1876 The toll lease (still held by GNR) came to an end and the canal’s Commissioners announced that the lease would be auctioned on a yearly basis. The railway company went into debate about whether or not they should enter a bid. They knew only too well that they could out bid any individual but they were unsure what would be more advantageous (or less damaging). They could retake the lease and keep competition at bay but they would then be responsible for the costly maintenance of the canal. Alternatively they could allow someone else to purchase the lease though that would mean the tolls would be lowered and create competition. In the end they decided that competition was not likely to hurt them and they did not bid for the lease at the auction which was held later in the year. The problem for the Commissioners was that nobody else put in a bid either! After all, who would fancy trying to compete against the mighty GNR? The Commissioners were then left holding their own baby, they ran the tolls themselves for several months until a new lessee was found.Thereafter an auction was held each year and the lease was purchased without any problems though in one year, 1882, the leaseholder defaulted and the Commissioners ran the tolls again until the next auction. During most of this time income continued at a steady rate though towards the end of the century profits began to decrease. By this time a new activity, Angling, had become a big source of income for the canal and the waterway was kept well stocked with fish.
1915 During the early part of the new century trade dwindled away until it became almost none existent. Although railway competition was not as harmful as it had been for other canals, the Louth Canal suffered because it had no other inland waterway connection and, although technically in the Humber Estuary, its coastal entrance was often difficult and dangerous. The outbreak of WW1 put an end to any hopes of a revival.
1920 Severe floods damaged a lot of the navigation works.This, and the fact that not a single boat had used the canal for 5 years, led to the Louth Canal Company applying to the Ministry of Transport for permission to close down the route.
1924 Despite certain members of Louth Council attempting to keep the canal open, the Commissioners were granted the right to close down the canal. Over the following few years all land and property was sold off.
1986 The Louth Navigation Trust was formed in order to protect the waterway which had survived intact, though without a single boat, since its closure 62 years earlier. As well as the trust, a number of local authorities were also involved in the scheme with ultimate aim of securing the future of the waterway and its historic structures.Over the next decade the trust gathered support and did a little work – such as preservation of Ticklepenny Lock which created a lot of local interest.
1996 In March it was reported that work on the towpath, along with other environmental improvements, was to begin later in the year with work beginning at the head of navigation in Louth. A few mile downstream, between Keddington Lock and Ticklepenny Lock, a country park was planned which would include the canal and its towpath as a feature.
1997 It would take only a relatively small amount of work to allow light craft to use short stretches of the canal. Fixed farm bridges would need to be replaced with movable ones and slipways could easily be installed. However, because the route is in such a remote corner of the country its main traffic is expected to come from sea-going pleasure cruisers. To accommodate these all the road bridges will have to be replaced and all 8 locks will have to be restored – and in some cases, completely rebuilt. It is thought that before any of this can be done interest and support would best be gathered by restoring the warehouses and other canal buildings first. Once these waterside structures are put to good use people may start saying “why aren’t there any boats” instead of “why would anybody want to take a boat up there”!!
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Louth is said to be a pleasant town. The canal basin is on the north east side of town at Riverhead, off Victoria Road and alongside River Head Road and Thames Street. The Woolpack Inn is near the start of the canal. Louth basin is said to be “spacious” with a number of large warehouses which are still in good condition and awaiting new uses.Facing the basin a new housing development is about to begin (1996). In its heyday the basin also had a boat builders yard and at its eastern end a dry dock can still be seen. There is a small slipway for light craft which could easily be adapted for trail boats though at present they could not leave the basin because the first lock (known as Louth Lock or Top Lock) has been converted into a weir.
There is a towpath along the whole of the canal even though the route was mainly used by sailing Sloops and Yorkshire Keels. The waterway heads away from Louth towards the north east, using the course of the River Lud to the village of Keddington where a minor road crosses the route. There is a lock nearby but its walls have entirely collapsed and have been replaced with gabions by the local drainage authority.Apparently the new structure uses many of the original lock bricks.Just below the lock, the canal and river split to run parallel into Keddington Corner. This stretch is to be developed as a country park.
Ticklepenny Lock (named after a family who had long associations with the navigation) was the first main focus of canal trust working parties. Its structure has survived intact and this is thought to have been helped by a concrete road bridge built right over the top. A new movable bridge or a road diversion will be needed before boats could use the lock. The next lock is Willows Lock which is also in good condition, this time thought to be because it is remote and well away from the usual vandalism. Salter’s Fen Lock is on land occupied by a sewage works. The lock has collapsed and will have to be completely rebuilt.
There are few roads across the Louth Canal and only one A-Road on the whole route. However, just south of Alvingham a fairly busy road crosses the route on a new concrete bridge which replaced the original swing bridge. Replacing this will be one of the most costly features of the restoration, not only is the road well used but there are farm entrances close by. Just below the bridge is Alvingham Lock which, because it is close to a well used road is the most photographed location on the canal. It will also be the most popular spot on the restored canal because, as well as the easy access, it is close to the pretty village of Alvingham which has a restored mill and two attractive churches which share one churchyard. All of the locks to this point were of the unique curved wall variety.
About 1½ miles north east of Alvingham Lock the canal is crossed by another minor road at a point marked on my map as High Bridge House.At this point the canal turns sharply north west, close by is Outfen Lock which was constructed with normal straight walls. The route heads north west across completely flat land known as the Lincolnshire Marshes. Numerous farm bridges cross the waterway and several minor road bridges between here and Tetney Haven have been flattened and strengthened to take tractors and heavy lorries.Apparently it should not be too difficult to jack these up to a navigable height. At Austen Fen one such minor road crosses the canal beside a derelict warehouse which was built in 1854 by a Mr. Motley who used it to distribute goods from Hull to the neighbouring villages. These goods included groceries, flour, dried fruit and sugar. Two miles further on another minor road crosses at a place known as Fire Beacon where there used to be two wharves. This was the head of navigation for 3 years while the full line was awaiting completion.Amazingly there is a boat building business here today though it currently manufactures water-ski boats. It is well placed to cash in on boats of a larger – though much slower – type when the canal is re-opened. Another 2 miles north west brings the Louth Canal to Thoresby Bridge which carries the A1031 over the route. About ½ a mile further on the canal bends north east to the site of Tetney Lock. There is a settlement named Tetney Lock on the minor road beside the former sea lock. Nowadays there is a sluice just downstream of the original lock which used to have 2 pairs of sea-doors, 2 sets of navigable gates and a sluice. The lock keeper was instructed to regulate the depth of water in the canal by using a beam built into the lock to act as a gauge. The lock has completely vanished and a concrete span now crosses over the waterway where the original bridge stood.
Although Tetney Lock was a sea lock there is still another 2 miles of canal before the Humber Estuary is reached. The first mile heads north east and then the route turns north to reach Tetney Haven at the mouth of the River Humber. Sadly, a large oil pipe currently blocks this stretch of the canal stopping river and coastal pleasure craft from reaching Tetney.
Directly opposite the canal entrance, across the Humber Estuary, is Spurn Head while just 3 miles upstream of Tetney Haven is the seaside resort of Cleethorpes The fishing port of Grimsby is a further 2 miles north west.
Visit The Official Web Site of the Louth Navigation Trust