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Transport records waterways and air transport

Inland waterways are of two types, rivers and canals, although rivers may be classed by being straightened out or by the addition of locks. The history of Bedfordshire's two principal rivers is only well documented from the period when they were made navigable, the Great Ouse to Bedford in 1689 (despite earlier attempts back to the 1620s) and the River Ivel in 1757. However, there are some 13th century references to the Great Ouse at the National Archives, Kew (see Ref. CRT160/12) People complained that the Abbot of Ramsey was impeding the navigation by building sluices at Houghton in Huntingdonshire.

The Great Ouse by D. Summers [book 160] and the excellent History of the Navigation of the Great Ouse between Bedford and St. Ives [Ref.CRT160/72], containing many CRO document references) draw heavily on the Francklin papers [Ref.Flitton].The Francklin family owned a half-share of the navigation rights between St. Ives and Great Barford and their papers contain Acts of Parliament and legal and financial papers from 1620 until the navigation rights were sold in 1869 [Ref: FN1261-1500]. Many of the seventeenth century papers have been transcribed in BHRS Vol. 24, 1946, and these show the difficulty in reconciling the interests of the owners of the navigation with those of the adjoining landowners. Legal agreements were made concerning sluices, osier-beds (a type of willow used for basket-work), rushes, fishing rights and tolls, but disputes were common [see also Refs: BS1834-1837; HA 267-274].

By 1860 the trade along the Ouse suffered increasingly from railway competition. The Francklin family and Lady Cullum sold their navigation rights in 1869 to John Kirkham of Great Barford but the rapidly declining income from the navigation did not pay for its upkeep and the works fell into disrepair. All navigation above Tempsford ceased in 18976 and above Eaton Socon in 1878, although the Great Ouse was briefly reopened to Bedford in 1893-97. In 1906 the County Council formed a special committee [Ref: GPD2] in response to a Royal Commission on canals and waterways, but the problem of the management of the Ouse navigation remained unresolved. After a long saga [see CRT 160/72] the Great Ouse River Authority (now the National Rivers Authority) acquired the navigation rights in 1935. The records of the Great Ouse Restoration Society, 1951-1979 [Ref. X635] are valuable in charting the later river improvements. Their journal, The Lock Gate , contains useful articles on the history of the Great Ouse and River Ivel navigations.

The story of the River Ivel is similar. In 1757 an Act was passed making the Ivel navigable from the Ouse at Tempsford to Hitchin and Shefford. Papers of the Ivel Navigation Commissioners survive [Ref. X95/398-408] along with various plans, leases and legal papers in the archives of Wade-Gery and Brackenhury, solicitors [Ref: WG2737-2749]. Edmond Williamson of Campton was appointed one of the Ivel Commissioners in 1805 [Ref: M6/6-9], but by 1877 the navigation was abandoned [Ref: X147/16-20].

The almost simultaneous abandonment of the Great Ouse and River Ivel navigations in 1876-78 was caused by rising maintenance costs and falling revenues in the face of increasing competition, firstly from the Grand Junction Canal and later the railway network. The Grand Junction Canal was begun in 1790 and passed near Leighton Buzzard in 1800 on its way to Birmingham. The company archives are held by the PRO, Kew, but a few records are held locally - notably a map of the route [Ref. R1/126], a few papers of John Millard [Ref: NC699-703] and David Willis [Ref: RY536] of Leighton Buzzard who held shares in the company, and some title deeds and correspondence in the Stockgrove Estate papers [Ref: KK471-475, 878-879]. The impact of the canal in reducing the price of fullers earth and coal is mentioned in the Russell estate steward's correspondence [Ref: R3/1688, 4501).

There is considerably more information about the failure, in 1811-1815, of the proposed canal from the Great Ouse at Bedford to the Grand Junction Canal in Buckinghamshire. The project is described in Samuel Whitbread and the Bedford Canal by P.E. Taylor (searchroom thesis: book 160), who uses the considerable information supplied by the Whitbread letters [Ref. W1/639-735], printed prospectuses and plans (including [Refs: H/WS1597-1608 and X37/29] and the Grand Junction Canal Company minutes (TNA, Kew). The scheme was revived briefly in 1891-92 [Refs. DC1/1/1-6; QCW1/4; R box 352], but the Bedford Railway had followed a similar route in 1846 and the project was abandoned.. Several other canal schemes were mooted in the intervening period, but quickly cam to nothing; Hertford to Biggleswade, 1810 [Ref: X67/846a], Bletsoe, Riseley and Swineshead, 1817 [Plan Ref.QCW 7) and Shefford to Fenny Stratford in 1824 [Plan Ref. X254/44 and PM2691].

It is only from the nineteenth century onwards that papers relating to inland waterways occur in local authority archives. The dilapidation of the Great Ouse, serious floods of 1823, 1875, 1908 and 1947, and the provisions of the Railway and Canal Trade Act of 1888 [Ref: Z234/2] whereby derelict waterways could be transferred to a local authority, meant that management of rivers and canals was of increasing public concern. Plans and papers were deposited at Quarter sessions [Refs: MCW, QCW] and after 1888 with the Clerk of the County Council [Refs: PDC; GPD; CCS].

River pollution became a problem with increasing population and industrialisation after 1850. The River Lea, which rises at Leagrave Marsh before flowing southwards through Luton, became seriously contaminated by sewage in the 19th century [Ref: QCW2; CCS84, 91] and the problem still recurred in the 1950s [Ref: JN 290-292].

Turning now to civil aviation records two particular topics loom large; the Royal Navy Airship works at Cardington and the R101, and Luton Airport. Most of the records of Shorts Brothers of Cardington are among the Air Ministry records at TNA, Kew, [see CRT130 Cardington 8, 12-14 and Z426/46-57]. We hold an official photograph album showing the construction of the works and airship sheds in 1916-17 [Ref: X766/1], company magazines of 1918 [Ref: X291/246/3], and designs and specifications for a rigid airship built for the French in 1919 [Ref: AD3971-3973].

On 7th October 1930 the airship R101 crashed at Beauvais, France, on her maiden flight to India. The disaster has intrigued researchers ever since. We hold illustrations, press cuttings and printed ephemera relating to the R101 and other airships, notably the items deposited by the late H.G. Tibbutt [Refs: Z426; X405]. The Lieutenancy records contain some papers concerning the funeral and memorial fund for the 48 victims [Ref: LC/Ser1/1] and a copy of the proceedings of the public enquiry is on the searchroom shelves [Ref: 130 CAR]. The newspaper simulation packs by the Bedfordshire Education Service (searchroom pamp. 160) are probably the most useful of the published sources. The majority of official papers and plans are at TNA, Kew, but the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden has some memorabilia.


Luton Corporation has run Luton Airport since 1938 and most records have been retained by them, including airport minutes 1936-1954 and ledger accounts, 1959-1964. Airport business is mentioned in the borough minute books held here [Ref: BorL.M.], papers [Ref: Bor L/CA/2b and Bor L/CT/3/22] and in the Janes archive [Ref: JN95, 267)] Further records, of the Board of Directors and various committees are in Ref. Z1033 (some under embargo until 2023).