Opened in 1794, the Sleaford Navigation brought trade and prosperity to Sleaford and, in the 1830s, local pride in the waterway was expressed in the building of Navigation House in Carre Street. Instead of erecting a simple shed to house the weighing machine for goods, the Company of the Proprietors of Sleaford Navigation chose to commission a substantial building to provide a dwelling and offices for the Company clerk, a prestigious setting for Board Meetings and a symbol of mercantile achievement. Above the door was the company coat of arms, designed by Sir Joseph Banks, showing the importance of the trade routes, “Coal in, corn out.”
Sadly, the coming of the railways in the 1850s meant that the wider commercial viability of the navigation was brought to an end and, in 1878, steps were taken towards the eventual winding up of the Company of the Proprietors and Navigation House became a private residence.
By the 1950s the house was unoccupied and beginning to fall into disrepair. With no remedial action being taken, the condition of the building was such by 1976 that the owners threatened to demolish it.
It was this threat that led to the creation of the Sleaford Navigation Society which was formed with the express purpose of preventing demolition and saving the building for posterity. The historical importance of the house was highlighted and, although restoration was not immediately undertaken, the threat of demolition was averted. A plan to take down the house and re-erect it at a different location was also opposed as it was pointed out that the position of the house by the wharf, near the warehouse, gave it context and heritage.
Between 1995 and 2001, the Sleaford Pride Regeneration Project drew on funding from a variety of sources to advance development within the town and in 1998 the Navigation Stables were converted into small business units. Heritage Lottery money provided the funding for the stabilizing and restoration of Navigation House but it was agreed that the idiosyncratic tilt of the house, occasioned by the positioning of the weighing mechanism, should be preserved. Following painstaking restoration, Navigation House was re-opened as a Visitors’ Centre in 2005. The committee room was retained and the clerk’s office recreated while the other rooms became display areas for elements of Sleaford history. Upstairs, display material was installed alongside Interactive games which were designed to help visitors understand some of the challenges of waterborne trade.