Photo: Commercial traffic in early 1900s at Paper Mill Bridge, Little Baddow
The history of the Company really falls into four parts based upon the amount of income derived from the tolls barges paid for operating on the navigation. The first period, 1797 to 1845, was the most profitable. Traffic gradually increased and the total tonnage of goods moved in 1828 was 52,813; in 1831 45,103 (of which 33,112 was coal); and in 1838 47,295. 1842 was the peak year when about 60,000 tons of goods were moved. This increase was brought about by the items of railway equipment being carried for the construction of the Eastern Counties Railway, London to Colchester section, opened in 1843.
The second period, 1846 to 1865, is marked by the Company’s reduction of tolls to compete with the Eastern Counties Railway and the Maldon—Witham— Braintree Railway. Whilst the yield from tolls decreased the tonnage of goods moved remained about the same: in 1848, 49,677 tons; in 1858 54,282 tons; and in 1865 51,502 tons.
The third period, 1866 to 1914, is that during which the Company declined as a Navigation. This was because the railway could now not only compete with canals but also with coastal traffic that actually brought bulk goods into Heybridge Basin for the navigation to distribute inland. This decline is borne out by the tonnages carried. In 1866 44,656 tons; 1875 33,214 tons; 1890 17,072 tons and in 1914 12,120 tons. The Navigation Company overcame the decline in the use of the navigation by selling some of its property and deriving increased rents from its remaining properties in Heybridge and Springfield.
But of the greatest importance was the income in the early years of the twentieth century from the now mature cricket bat willows which the Company had planted in the 1860s.
These additional incomes helped to keep the Company solvent. The fourth period, 1915 to 1973, is one of absolute decline, for trade on the navigation never returned to its pre-First World War level owing to competing rail, and later, road transport. Between the Wars and until March 1972, the main commodity carried was timber: 5,716 tons in 1925 and 2,669 tons in 1947. This was taken to Brown & Sons’ wharf at Springfield, first by horse drawn barge and after 1960 by diesel driven barge.
A fifth phase in the life of the navigation began in May 1975, when the Company of Proprietors opened up the line for amenity use by the public. The Company commenced operating the pleasure cruiser Victoria, and in addition invited owners of small powered boats to moor them along the line and cruise along its length. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Navigation Company diversified its activities and then ran info financial difficulties, going into administration in 2003.
These notes are taken from the booklet 'The Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation' by Peter Came B.A. by kind permission of his family.