Navigation House: Virtual Tour

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Navigation House - front doorWelcome to Navigation House

Take a look at the crest over the door – The Navigation Company crest was designed by Sir Joseph Banks, the patron of the navigation who also chose the motto:

“Leve fit quod bene furtor onus.”

“The heavy burden, correctly carried, becomes light.”

The crest depicts a number of different elements, including the figures of a farmer and miner, some scales and cargo.

For more information on the details of the Navigation Company crest visit the Sleaford Navigation Trust website.

Navigation House door crest


This grade II listed building has been carefully restored to the Tudor-Gothic style in which it was built by the Proprietors of the Sleaford Navigation in 1838. Take a closer look at the windows – you’ll see the frames are crooked! This is because of the subsidence that has taken place here over the years.

In its heyday

Navigation House was originally intended to be a shed to keep a weighing machine in. However, the Sleaford Navigation opened in the time of ‘Canal Mania’ and by the 1830’s was doing so well that the Company could afford to be much more elaborate…

Navigation House was built instead of the shed, and the building became home to the weighing machine as well as the Navigation Company’s office clerk.

In the beginning

It hadn’t always been plain sailing for the Sleaford Navigation Company.

Before work could begin on making the River Slea navigable up to Sleaford, an Act of Parliament needed to be passed. It took 20 years of pressure and three attempts before the Navigation Act finally went through.

In June 1792 the whole of Sleaford had a party in the Market Place to celebrate the final passing of the Act, with games, dancing, fireworks and 4,200 pints of beer!

The Canal Company Clerk’s Office

As well as working at Navigation House, the clerk also lived upstairs. His job was to operate the machine to weigh canal cargo such as coal or corn, and charge a tollage according to the weight. This was how the Company shareholders made their profit.

Hogshead of ale: half a shilling; Chaldron of coal: two pence; Quarter of barley/oats: one pennyCargo and Tolls

Coal and corn were the two most regular passengers on the Slea and trade in these goods was vital to Sleaford’s economy.

Lincolnshire was short of fuel but had the perfect hinterland for agriculture, meaning locally produced grain could be exported on the Navigation in return for coal, imported from various places including Yorkshire and Manchester.

In order to maintain the upkeep of the Navigation, the Navigation Act outlined tolls to be levied on transported goods, priced on the bulkiness of the cargo and its value.

Goods exported from Sleaford

Corn, wheat, barley & oats

Goods imported into Sleaford

Wine, perry, cider, tea, hops, rice, fruit, salt, malt, flour, oil, seeds, nails & coal

Corn was a very lucrative business for farms, and mills and many warehouses were required in Sleaford to store it. Consequently the Navigation Company profited from this regular commodity being shipped on the Slea in huge quantities.

New inns opening in Sleaford meant goods arriving via the Navigation for the development of brewing. Luxury items like tea, cider, perry, fruit and wine were also arriving, indicating how prosperous the town had become.

The more trade and industry boomed in and around Sleaford, the busier and more affluent the economy of the Navigation became.

The Growth of Sleaford

While the Sleaford Navigation’s wharves were busy loading coal, grains and other goods, business also prospered in the town. Many new firms started as a result of the access to easy transport the Navigation offered.

There were four manufacturers of coaches and carriages (one owned by the Fox brothers), William Henry Smith and Co produced Steam Ploughs and John Henry Payne owned a brass and iron foundry. Established trade also benefited; being on the doorstep of the mills, the Navigation was the perfect way for them to transport grain.

Bottled water factory Lee and Green’s (built in 1883) was a lucrative business, providing a wholesome alternative to alcohol for the many Methodists of the town. Henry Sutton, who had a baker’s shop on Southgate, had the massive brick tower mill in Money’s Yard constructed in 1796. This was well positioned at the head of the Navigation.

An old drawing of the Lee and Green bottled water factory

Most of the industrial growth had happened by 1825 and as a result of river and trade, Sleaford was a thriving market town.

The great age of canal building lead to two thousand miles of canals being built across Britain within fifty years! This was the age of ‘Canal Mania’.

Decline of the Navigation

The Industrial Revolution was a time of great invention and change, and it wasn’t long before canals were knocked off the number one spot and replaced by something bigger, better and faster – the steam-powered train.

When the Boston, Sleaford and Midland Counties Railway was welcomed by Sleaford in June 1857, the Sleafordians had no idea it would spell doom for the Navigation.

Sadly, with the railway, the Navigation’s toll income declined rapidly and the town became just another stop on the line from Grantham to Boston Docks. Sleaford’s brief period as the terminus of an important transport network had come to an end.

After the Navigation…

In August 1879, Navigation Wharf “with the Warehouse, Cottage or Tenement (i.e. Navigation House), Blacksmith’s Shop, Buildings, Weighing Machine and Crane standing thereon” was sold to Mary Ann Sharpe for £1,800.

Navigation Abandonment ActThis auction notice shows that by that date there was already a blacksmith operating in the yard. This was Thomas Mettam, whose family ran the business there from about 1876 until the 1950’s, living in Navigation House (which they called ‘Wharf House’) and specialising in manufacturing and repairing waggons. They also built a steam-powered saw mill and had a side-line as undertakers and coffin manufacturers.

It was probably when Navigation House was converted to a private dwelling for the Mettams that the brick extension to the rear was built. The house was one of the first to have electricity connected and it also had an early version of a flush toilet installed, connected directly to the sewer system.

An entry in a 1931 Directory for Metams

After the Mettams gave up their business in the 1950s, the whole yard was taken over by Hubbard and Phillips, who used it as a distribution centre for their vans and extended their warehousing to encompass a large part of it. Part of navigation House may have been used for meetings but with no domestic resident the building slowly began to fall into disrepair.

Navigation House was rescued by North Kesteven District Council as part of the ‘Sleaford Pride’ project to restore the whole of the Navigation Wharf area. Navigation House itself was one of the last elements of the new development to be completed. Work began in 1998 to stabilise the structure, and lottery funding was then secured to turn it into a heritage centre, which was finally opened in 1995.

People behind the Slea Navigation

Peacock, Handley and Kirton

Peacock, Handley and Kirton

The bankers behind the Slea Navigation.

Anthony Peacock, Benjamin Handley and William Kirton were businessmen and partners in a newly opened Sleaford bank in their namesake – Peacock, Handley and Kirton. The Bank building still exists in Sleaford today as part of the Lloyds branch which is in Northgate. These three gentlemen were a driving force behind the Sleaford Navigation being realized and gave it their financial backing. Handley attended the public meeting held at the George Inn, Sleaford in October 1791, after which Jessop’s plan to adapt the Slea was passed in Parliament in 1792.

Benjamin Handley proved an invaluable asset. He was appointed Treasurer of the newly founded Company of the Proprietors of the Sleaford Navigation and made the Company a loan that gave the business a flying start.

William Kirton was a partner in the Bank and a Navigation shareholder. He shared a 48 ton sloop ‘Union’ with local merchant, John Brittain, which traded regularly along the Sleaford Navigation to Leeds.

Anthony Peacock was the Company chairman and a partner of the Bank. Sadly the Navigation hastened him to an early death in 1809; he was crippled with rheumatism from wearing wet clothes during his time superintending drainage-works on the Navigation.

William Jessop

The engineer behind the Slea Navigation

Plymouth born William Jessop was the premier canal engineer of his day and appeared before the House of Lords Committees more times than any other engineer.

He was instrumental in the fate of the Sleaford Navigation – his skills and experience were second to none and his were the plans that finally convinced Parliament to pass the Navigation Bill.

Sir Joseph BanksSir Joseph Banks

Explorer and Naturalist

The famous and influential Sir Joseph Banks was a huge asset to the project. Being from Lincolnshire he took a personal interest and pride in the area, as well as a vested interest as local landowner.

Banks acted as advisor to the newly formed Sleaford Navigation Company and his support was responsible for seeing off the previous local landed opposition.


The Navvies were a huge army of labourers from all over the country who were employed to dig the canals at the time of Canal Mania. ‘Navvy’ comes from navigator, or navigations and the term originated at this time, when canals were at the cutting edge of the transport revolution.

Working mostly with pick and shovel, navvying required great strength and physical stamina. It was said to take a year for an agricultural labourer to become a Navvy, whose day’s work involved shifting a staggering 20 tons of earth. For this work, Navvies would get paid every month and were given days off. A lot of the men spent their money in one go at the local pub and some were even persuaded to be paid their wages in beer.

Still, the working hours for the Navvies were long and accidents were common. They had a fearsome reputation as hard drinking and hard fighting men which meant some terrified locals sent their unmarried daughters away until work on the canal was finished!

The dress of the Navvy was distinctive. They usually wore moleskin trousers, canvas shirts, velveteen square tailed coats, hobnail boots, handkerchiefs, felt hats and coloured waistcoats.

Please click the button below for more information from inside Navigation House!

First Floor Tour
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