Taking Their Toll

Traditional Techniques: NarrowBoat, Spring 2008

Christopher M Jones

Christopher M. Jones investigates the complex ways by which carriers were charged for using the canals

For most people today, the waterways are synonymous with pleasure, whether it be boating, walking, fishing, industrial history or one of the many other aspects of leisure. But for the original canal companies, merchants, traders, carriers and boatmen, such a leisure ethos would be a total anathema. Canals were commercial undertakings and their use was solely for that purpose. Using them for pleasure was not understood, and in some cases actually discouraged. Most canal companies considered themselves ‘toll takers’, and anything other than commerce had no place on their waterways.

The means by which canal companies gained their revenues was by allowing commercial carrying craft to pass over the whole or a portion of their waterway, and charging carriers or the cargo owner a toll, usually based on the type and weight of goods carried and the distance covered. This toll was ascertained by several means, usually by gauging boats to determine the weight of cargo, but sometimes by just accepting the weight recorded on a declaration. This declaration was a document which the canal companies required the toll payers to provide, upon which the weight of cargo was recorded under the toll payers’ authority.

Without these, toll clerks had only the boatman’s word to rely on, which did sometimes happen. Both latter circumstances held obvious risks of fraud by traders and merchants, and some canal companies may have introduced methods of gauging to avoid this. But, even after the introduction of gauging, canal companies had to be vigilant as there were still opportunities for traders, boatmen and carriers to deprive canal companies of their full revenue.

Railway Competition

The first major threat to the canal companies’ income was the construction of railways during the 1830s and ’40s. This had an immediate effect on general goods, or sundries, traffic, and flyboat carriers were soon facing financial problems, even bankruptcy. Because their business was about speedy delivery, they could not compete with the faster railways and had to offer cheaper rates to retain their customers. This was obvious to canal company staff too, and toll reductions on goods traffic were soon brought in to try and stem the transfer of goods to rail. Some have said that, with the coming of the railways, the canals were doomed, but this was not the case.

Some canals did go into decline from such direct competition, but others had many advantages over the new railways and, ironically, high tolls was one of them. This was because the railways had to set their own tolls, or ‘carriage rates’, lower than canal tolls in order to obtain goods traffic. This meant they earned less per ton than the canals. Whilst this put cargoes in their wagons, it also put them at a financial disadvantage. Canals had been in existence for many years, so not only had they been earning revenue to pay off their original building costs, but some also produced a handsome dividend to shareholders. Railways, however, had not only to create and earn income from scratch, but also had to pay off the huge expense of construction. Some railway companies soon ran into financial difficulties and had to amalgamate in order to survive, financially ruining many investors.

Drawbacks

<p>The Grand Junction Canal toll clerk on the right has just taken his final gauging dip at his toll stop, to ascertain the freeboard of the boat, and jots down the figure from which he will calculate an average weight. The captain offers his declaration in order to hasten proceedings; flyboats were always in a hurry. Large carrying firms such as Pickford&rsquo;s had credit accounts with canal companies, so tolls were charged to their account and handling cash was avoided.</p>Credit: Christopher M. Jones

The Grand Junction Canal toll clerk on the right has just taken his final gauging dip at his toll stop, to ascertain the freeboard of the boat, and jots down the figure from which he will calculate an average weight. The captain offers his declaration in order to hasten proceedings; flyboats were always in a hurry. Large carrying firms such as Pickford’s had credit accounts with canal companies, so tolls were charged to their account and handling cash was avoided.

Christopher M. Jones

<p>The longboat (the term used on the south western waterways for a narrowboat) <em>Caroline</em> heads along the Kennet &amp; Avon Canal in the early 1880s, having loaded with timber at Bristol Docks. Tolls for timber were more complicated to calculate than other cargoes and were determined by several forms of measurement.</p>
<p>Sawn timber was measured in &lsquo;cube measurement weight&rsquo;, whilst the weight of round timber, like tree trunks, was determined by measuring with callipers, then using a special ready reckoner to determine cube measurement weight of irregularly shaped objects. It was a complicated business and often the gauged (dead) weight could differ greatly from the measurement weight. Because of this, a special Statutory Declaration was used, under the Statutory Declaration Act of 1835, signed by a commissioner for oaths or some other legal representative, as an official sworn declaration of the weight of cargo. <em>Caroline</em> was owned by boatman William Escott of Seend, and traded between Bristol and London.</p>Credit: Christopher M. Jones

The longboat (the term used on the south western waterways for a narrowboat) Caroline heads along the Kennet & Avon Canal in the early 1880s, having loaded with timber at Bristol Docks. Tolls for timber were more complicated to calculate than other cargoes and were determined by several forms of measurement.

Sawn timber was measured in ‘cube measurement weight’, whilst the weight of round timber, like tree trunks, was determined by measuring with callipers, then using a special ready reckoner to determine cube measurement weight of irregularly shaped objects. It was a complicated business and often the gauged (dead) weight could differ greatly from the measurement weight. Because of this, a special Statutory Declaration was used, under the Statutory Declaration Act of 1835, signed by a commissioner for oaths or some other legal representative, as an official sworn declaration of the weight of cargo. Caroline was owned by boatman William Escott of Seend, and traded between Bristol and London.

Christopher M. Jones

<p>As cement is being loaded into the steamer <em>Jason</em>, owned by Charles Nelson &amp; Co Ltd of Stockton, a tally man on the wharf keeps a record of how many bags are taken aboard. This figure, coupled with the measured weight in each bag, was entered on a declaration certificate. The captain presented this to the toll clerk who then calculated the toll. The gauged weight measured at the toll stop should tally with this declared weight; if it did not, further inquiries had to be made. Often the returnable jute bags became so impregnated with cement that they could account for an extra quarter of a ton on a full boat load, above the declared weight.</p>Credit: Christopher M. Jones

As cement is being loaded into the steamer Jason, owned by Charles Nelson & Co Ltd of Stockton, a tally man on the wharf keeps a record of how many bags are taken aboard. This figure, coupled with the measured weight in each bag, was entered on a declaration certificate. The captain presented this to the toll clerk who then calculated the toll. The gauged weight measured at the toll stop should tally with this declared weight; if it did not, further inquiries had to be made. Often the returnable jute bags became so impregnated with cement that they could account for an extra quarter of a ton on a full boat load, above the declared weight.

Christopher M. Jones

In order to combat the growing railway threat to their income, canal companies had to adopt methods of retaining their customers, and their weapon of choice was the ‘drawback’. Drawbacks came from the realm of customs and excise, where goods had import duty refunded if they subsequently passed outside the jurisdiction of the customs. This refund was called a drawback. On the canal, however, this was much more than a refund of tolls to encourage trade; it gave canal companies more control over traffics on their own and on neighbouring waterways.

Canal companies were managed by a company clerk or secretary, who handled the day-to-day running of the waterway, but the tolls were set by the individual canal company’s Parliamentary Act, and only the company committee or board of directors had the authority to change these tolls. The extent of the company clerk’s direct authority was obviously only on his own company’s canal, as adjoining canals were owned by other companies, but drawbacks gave them control far beyond these limitations. The amount paid out in drawbacks could be substantial; figures of 25% of a toll were not unknown. It may seem a lot but, if the traffic had not previously passed over the canal, the company still gained 75% of a toll they would not have had before.

The canal companies sometimes imposed limitations upon the trader, such as the minimum weight of a single load, before he could benefit from any drawback. The reason for this was that it was commonplace well into the railway era for boats to carry mixed cargoes of several different commodities. For example one boat might have had 5 tons of iron, 10 tons of coal, 10 tons of limestone and 1 ton of salt. This meant that toll clerks had to be vigilant to see if the cargo conformed to the declared weights and a different toll had to be worked out for each separate load. This took up time and increased administration, so a boat carrying a single cargo of one type was much quicker to deal with.

Drawbacks helped canal companies to attract traffic which they previously may not have had, and it allowed them to encroach into markets in another canal’s territory, undermining or poaching their trade. Conversely, in some cases it encouraged neighbouring canal companies to cooperate and share administration.

Drawbacks could divert existing traffic from one canal to another. In the first diagram, Canal A derives no revenue from coal traffic on Canal B as it passes its junction from the colliery to a merchant at the coal wharf, because to have his coal from the colliery on Canal A is more expensive. However, Canal A might offer a drawback to the merchant if he loads his coal at the colliery on Canal A, making his costs cheaper, providing he carries an agreed minimum tonnage per annum. In the second diagram, the merchant has accepted this offer, and Canal A has gained a traffic previously denied to it, effectively poaching traffic from Canal B. 

Credit: Christopher M. Jones

Christopher M. Jones

Credit: Christopher M. Jones

Christopher M. Jones

<p>In the days when boats carried mixed loads, toll clerks had to be mindful of potential fraud, such as a cargo of higher value being buried beneath a lower value one. If there was suspicion of such activity there was sometimes no option but to physically climb under the cloths and look, which could be back-breaking work moving heavy cargo. Should a higher value cargo be uncovered, the whole cargo was charged the higher toll unless the carrier could prove a genuine mistake had been made.</p>Credit: Christopher M. Jones

In the days when boats carried mixed loads, toll clerks had to be mindful of potential fraud, such as a cargo of higher value being buried beneath a lower value one. If there was suspicion of such activity there was sometimes no option but to physically climb under the cloths and look, which could be back-breaking work moving heavy cargo. Should a higher value cargo be uncovered, the whole cargo was charged the higher toll unless the carrier could prove a genuine mistake had been made.

Christopher M. Jones

When the railways became established, they too used drawbacks to increase traffic against the canals, so drawbacks could work both ways. Another advantage of drawbacks was that they were temporary; if withdrawn, the original toll was intact. As a result, the 19th century carrying trade, involving waterways, railways, and also coastal shipping, was in a constant state of flux, with every party periodically adjusting their charges to gain an advantage over the other.

One specific drawback was on coal delivered in London during the 1840s, no doubt designed to encourage competition against ‘seacoal’ brought from north-east England to London by ship. Boatmen arriving at Hawkesbury Junction toll office would see any drawbacks on offer chalked-up on a board. If they wanted to take advantage of the London coal drawback, they were given a certificate signed by the toll clerk, and took it with them to either Brentford or Paddington stop where they got it signed by the Grand Junction Canal Co (GJCC) toll clerk, to prove they had passed one of those offices. The GJCC had been informed by the Oxford Canal Company (OCC) that they were starting this drawback, to which they agreed and allowed their staff to sign these certificates. In this way, both the OCC and GJCC companies would benefit from any increase in the London coal traffic. On their next trip with coal, upon arrival at Hawkesbury Junction, the boatmen handed over their signed drawback certificate, so long as it was within one month of the date of issue. If everything was in order they were paid a drawback on that subsequent load, although they were expected to pass on the money to the merchant who owned the coal in order to encourage trade, rather than pocketing it themselves.

Lowering Tolls

In spite of the various, and sometimes confusing, array of drawbacks on offer, canal tolls were still considered too high and, as the railways spread over the country, their impact upon trade grew, with increasing complaints from canal traders about their inability to compete due to high tolls. Eventually the canal companies gave way and a number of tolls were reduced to keep the trade. This was done rather reluctantly because, once reduced, it was difficult, if not impossible, to raise them back again without losing traffics.

Another reason for the canal companies’ reluctance to reduce tolls was that they feared a cycle of reductions could occur. If the canal reduced their toll lower than the railway, the railway would respond likewise and so the canal would be forced to reduce again. The only beneficiary of this was the toll payer, whilst the canals and railways received less money for the same service.

Because tolls were altered from time to time, it was pointless printing them on a notice. When a carrier or trader wanted to know the toll on a particular traffic, he had to contact the individual canal companies and ask, giving a specific loading and destination point. This was a major problem for carriers and traders. A trip from London to Birmingham entailed contacting six separate canal companies: the Regent’s, Grand Junction, Oxford, Warwick & Napton, Warwick & Birmingham, and BCN. Later, the Warwick canals were managed as one company. On top of this, six separate toll credit accounts had to be organised and managed, causing extra administration. Railways often seemed much better able to deal with this as they could offer a single carriage rate for the entire trip through the Railway Clearing House. In order to counter railway competition, the canals eventually started to fight back by organising ‘through tolls’.

Through Tolls

<p>A fully laden coal boat from the Midlands approaches Steventon Lock on the Wilts &amp; Berks Canal. Its cargo was intended for delivery at Baulking, between Wantage and Shrivenham, for the Great Western Railway during its construction in 1840. A drawback was given on this and many other deliveries to secure the traffic against coal from the Gloucestershire coalfield, which would have been loaded at Keynsham on the Bristol Avon and brought via the Kennet &amp; Avon Canal.</p>Credit: Christopher M. Jones

A fully laden coal boat from the Midlands approaches Steventon Lock on the Wilts & Berks Canal. Its cargo was intended for delivery at Baulking, between Wantage and Shrivenham, for the Great Western Railway during its construction in 1840. A drawback was given on this and many other deliveries to secure the traffic against coal from the Gloucestershire coalfield, which would have been loaded at Keynsham on the Bristol Avon and brought via the Kennet & Avon Canal.

Christopher M. Jones

There were generally two types of toll: through tolls and local tolls. Local tolls were mainly for traffics within the confines of a particular canal, or traffic entering the canal from a neighbouring waterway but terminating at some point within the canal. Through tolls were usually on traffics passing through the entire length of canal and delivered elsewhere or using a considerable portion of canal before unloading.

A specific example of through tolls was managed by the GJCC for traffic between London and Birmingham, to improve the efficiency of canal transport against the railways. The GJCC started by opening toll credit accounts with all the canal companies along the route under a joint toll agreement, with some tolls reduced to make it economical.

When a boat passed the first toll stop on the journey, the carrier or trader was charged, through his toll credit account, all the tolls payable for that trip. This meant the boat completed the entire trip paying just a single toll. After the trip was completed the carrier or trader was invoiced all charges payable and, once paid, the GJCC then divided it up between the respective canal companies, and paid to each company those tolls due to them. The result of all this was that carriers and traders passing between London and Birmingham needed only to pay one toll and thus reduced their administration work, which was effectively taken over by the GJCC on their behalf. The GJCC were doing what the railways were doing with their single carriage rates.

Mileage Rates

Mileage also affected the toll charged. For instance, OCC tolls on coal traffic passing from Hawkesbury Junction to Braunston on the Grand Junction Canal were cheaper the greater the distance covered beyond Braunston. The following example was current from 1st July 1894:

• Between Braunston and Nash Mills: 10d per ton per mile;

• Between Nash Mills and Bull’s Bridge: 8d per ton per mile;

• Beyond Bull’s Bridge: 6d per ton per mile.

The tolls, and the places at which they changed from one rate to another, would fluctuate from time to time. All this meant that toll clerks had to be alert to any attempts to defraud the canal company. For example, traders declaring a load for a greater distance, to get the cheaper toll, might actually unload it for a merchant at a shorter distance and avoid paying the more expensive toll. This could happen quite innocently too, but still lead to accusations of fraud.

<p>Heading downstream on the River Severn is <em>Prudence</em>, owned and occasionally steered by Mark Hale of Grove, near Wantage. It is laden with coal loaded in the south Staffordshire coalfield and salt loaded at Hanbury wharf on the Worcester &amp; Birmingham Canal.</p>
<p>Hale specialised in carrying salt using his two narrowboats and, by 1830, was said to have also used a trow, possibly loading directly from salt works at Droitwich. Such was the impact of Hale&rsquo;s activities delivering salt to destinations along south midland waterways, from Bristol to the Thames, that one trader at Swindon complained that he could not compete with the low prices charged on salt that Hale had brought via the Kennet &amp; Avon to the district around Burbage wharf. This Swindon trader&rsquo;s deliveries came via the Thames &amp; Severn route and, to compensate, he was offered a drawback on salt by the Thames &amp; Severn and Wilts &amp; Berks canal companies specifically in order to regain this local trade. <em>Prudence</em> was equipped with mast and sail to assist when travelling on rivers, and the mate is using a sweep, or large oar, to help steer the vessel in a light wind.</p>Credit: Christopher M. Jones

Heading downstream on the River Severn is Prudence, owned and occasionally steered by Mark Hale of Grove, near Wantage. It is laden with coal loaded in the south Staffordshire coalfield and salt loaded at Hanbury wharf on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal.

Hale specialised in carrying salt using his two narrowboats and, by 1830, was said to have also used a trow, possibly loading directly from salt works at Droitwich. Such was the impact of Hale’s activities delivering salt to destinations along south midland waterways, from Bristol to the Thames, that one trader at Swindon complained that he could not compete with the low prices charged on salt that Hale had brought via the Kennet & Avon to the district around Burbage wharf. This Swindon trader’s deliveries came via the Thames & Severn route and, to compensate, he was offered a drawback on salt by the Thames & Severn and Wilts & Berks canal companies specifically in order to regain this local trade. Prudence was equipped with mast and sail to assist when travelling on rivers, and the mate is using a sweep, or large oar, to help steer the vessel in a light wind.

Christopher M. Jones

This rare surviving pair of completed toll permits from two canal companies relate to a single trip from Moira colliery to Oxford in May 1913. The Ashby Canal voucher or toll permit was issued at Ilott Wharf toll stop for two boat loads of coal loaded at the Moira Colliery Co’s Bath Wharf at Moira. Both craft were also owned by the Moira Colliery Co and named Pretoria and Doris. They were steered by Joseph Coles of Thrupp. The gauged weight is shown as 61 tons 10 cwt (20 cwt = 1 ton) but at the bottom the colliery weight is shown as 24 tons 10 cwt per boat. This adds up to only 49 tons, but it must be borne in mind the Moira company used the ‘longweight’ measure (see also ‘Gauging Boats on the BCN’, Summer 2007 NarrowBoat) of 25 cwt per ton for sales by water. Converted to the imperial measure of 20 cwt per ton this works out at 61 tons 5 cwt. The 5 cwt difference between this and the gauged weight was probably water in the hold. The 64 tons figure was added later and caused the complaint which ensured the survival of these documents. The rate per ton and mileage meant a toll of £1 17s 2d was due and charged to the colliery company’s toll credit account. 

After arrival at the joint Oxford and Coventry canal companies’ toll office at Hawkesbury Junction, the Coventry Canal Co toll would have been paid. The Coventry company always accepted the same weight as shown on the Ashby Canal permit. Next the pair were gauged to determine the Oxford Canal toll which was shown as 64 tons. At a toll rate of 2s 1d per ton, together with a wharfage charge of 1d per ton, because the coal was to be landed on the company’s Oxford wharf, it amounted to £6 18s 8d. The two 4-digit numbers on the left are the Oxford Canal gauging numbers for Doris and Pretoria. 

The reverse side of the Oxford Canal toll permit shows check-gauging figures entered as the pair travelled south. Upon arrival at each toll stop the clerk gauged the pair as a precaution against theft, which would show up in the gauging – assuming the boatman had not filled the bilges with water to make up for any loss of weight. Not all the places have been entered; Lower Heyford is not shown, perhaps because Joseph Coles passed at night whilst the clerk was asleep. Also, note the difference in the weight as determined by each clerk, which indicates that gauging was not an exact form of measurement.

The disparity between the Oxford gauging of 64 tons and the Ashby figure of 61 tons 10 cwt caused complaint from the Moira Colliery Co, which was acknowledged by chief toll clerk, Arthur Atkins of Hawkesbury Junction, who judged that “some allowance ought to be made for the extrordinary (sic) weather we have had this spring”. May 1913 was known for many thunderstorms and this could have caused water in the hold or cargo which would explain the increased weight and the trip time of 10 days. A typical trip time would be 3–5 days. Floods on the River Cherwell below Enslow often accounted for delays like this. 

Credit: Warwickshire County Record Office. CR1590/244/253

Warwickshire County Record Office. CR1590/244/253

Credit: Warwickshire County Record Office. CR1590/244/253

Warwickshire County Record Office. CR1590/244/253

Credit: Warwickshire County Record Office. CR1590/244/253

Warwickshire County Record Office. CR1590/244/253

Old Money

In the ‘old’ system of money, before metrication in 1971, there were 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. To convert from premetrication figures, 1p is the equivalent to 2.4d (old pence) and 5p is the equivalent of 1s (shilling)

The Bedworth canal carrier, John Griffiths, carried large quantities of coal to the London district, but organisation of this was often out of his hands. His coal carrying was usually under the control of coal factors who organised loading and delivery, so they would request Griffiths to send a certain number of boats to a particular pit to load, but the destinations were often unknown to him or his boatmen. His boatmen only found out where they were to unload en route, when the factors sent a telegram stating their destinations to Buckby stop, based on which of their customers had priority.

Because the destination was unknown when passing Hawkesbury Junction, the traffic could be declared for London, even though it might actually be for a destination many miles short of there. The OCC eventually came to an arrangement with the toll clerk at Buckby for him to supply them with a list of destinations declared by coal boats. They also had a similar arrangement with the GJCC that their toll clerk at Cowley supply a traffic return for all southbound coal boats passing his stop, so the OCC could keep track of this traffic. The Cowley clerk was paid a gratuity by the OCC for the extra work, with the GJCC’s approval.

As we have seen, tolls were changed from time to time, and could also be reduced for an individual cargo following a request from a carrier or even an owner-boatman. A typical example would be a trader tendering for traffic against the railway. He would write to the canal company clerk indicating that he was guaranteed a particular cargo if he could match or beat the railway rate on the same load. If the total tonnage was substantial enough to make it worthwhile, the company clerk might reduce the rate slightly for the carrier to get the traffic, but only for that specific cargo. Usually this was done covertly to prevent other traders from demanding similar reductions for their cargoes even if they were already profitable.

After charging the normal toll when passing the toll stop, the carrier received his refund as a drawback, either as cash, or credit, to his toll account. This method was quite common during the railway age and allowed some canal companies and carriers to compete successfully with the railways. It was the upheavals caused by the Great War which upset this balance and made railway transport much cheaper, starting the final slow decline of canal transport alongside the emergence of road transport, which eventually finished off both railway and canal.

The subject of tolls and their organisation is highly complex, and this article has only scratched the surface – and mainly on the canals of the Midlands. To understand their full story in a commercial environment is to understand how canal companies managed their businesses and competed with rivals, both on rail and water. It also highlights how carriers and traders managed their affairs in the competitive world of transport.

Acknowledgments

The author thanks Alan Faulkner and staff at the Warwickshire County Record Office for their assistance during compilation of this article.

These two Cromford toll permits, dated 7th May 1838, clearly show how a mixed cargo would be recorded and the amount of work needed to arrive at the toll. Although the boat could be gauged quite easily, and a total weight aboard arrived at, the individual rate for each cargo had to be worked out separately. Both permits were made out to canal carriers German Wheatcroft & Sons of Buckland Hollow and Cromford, although that for boat number 1459 has been changed to Nathaniel Wheatcroft. The permits show that Wheatcrofts were paying the tolls on behalf of their customers, as each consignment aboard was likely to be for a different customer. This is how most fleet carriers operated and was done to facilitate the traffic. After the trip was completed, Wheatcroft’s would have invoiced each customer his individual portion of the total toll, as in all cases it was the cargo’s owner who paid the toll; Wheatcrofts were merely acting as carriers. Permits were generally handed to the boatman at their point of issue, and handed back when passing the last toll stop on the trip. If a carrier wanted a record of this they could demand a copy permit when the original was handed back. If no toll stop was passed before the trip ended, the original permit was retained by the clerk who issued it, and a copy issued instead. Permits were collected back by the canal companies in case a boatman might try to use one twice and avoid paying a subsequent toll. Credit: Friends of the Cromford Canal

These two Cromford toll permits, dated 7th May 1838, clearly show how a mixed cargo would be recorded and the amount of work needed to arrive at the toll. Although the boat could be gauged quite easily, and a total weight aboard arrived at, the individual rate for each cargo had to be worked out separately. Both permits were made out to canal carriers German Wheatcroft & Sons of Buckland Hollow and Cromford, although that for boat number 1459 has been changed to Nathaniel Wheatcroft. The permits show that Wheatcrofts were paying the tolls on behalf of their customers, as each consignment aboard was likely to be for a different customer. This is how most fleet carriers operated and was done to facilitate the traffic. After the trip was completed, Wheatcroft’s would have invoiced each customer his individual portion of the total toll, as in all cases it was the cargo’s owner who paid the toll; Wheatcrofts were merely acting as carriers. Permits were generally handed to the boatman at their point of issue, and handed back when passing the last toll stop on the trip. If a carrier wanted a record of this they could demand a copy permit when the original was handed back. If no toll stop was passed before the trip ended, the original permit was retained by the clerk who issued it, and a copy issued instead. Permits were collected back by the canal companies in case a boatman might try to use one twice and avoid paying a subsequent toll. Friends of the Cromford Canal