Prosperity had come to Sleaford as a result of the opening of the Navigation in 1794 and those who had invested in the Company of the Proprietors of Sleaford Navigation had seen a good return for their money. The trade had brought revenue to the town, not only because there was now a new market for the grain being carried out, but also because the cheap transport of coal into Sleaford had allowed new industries to flourish. Goods were being brought into Sleaford from the surrounding area for transhipment along the navigation into the inland waterway network and this gave the town added importance. With the building of Navigation House, Sleaford asserted its pride in the Company and also celebrated its prosperous new role. Nothing could go wrong, could it?
Sadly, the bringing of the railway in the 1850s changed everything. Far from extending Sleaford’s role as a transport hub, the railway reduced it to another station on the way to Boston. At first the railway was no doubt seen as another evidence of technological innovation and business opportunity which would work in cooperation with the navigation, but that was not to be.
Farmers were encouraged to transport their goods by train for free! Previously, the Navigation Company had demanded tolls on all goods carried, dependant on the weight and nature of the cargo. What farmer could possibly refuse the offer of free transport, especially as the train could move goods more quickly than the boats? Trade shifted away from the navigation and the absence of the toll money meant there was far less to spend on the upkeep of the waterway. An accumulation of silt meant that voyages became unreliable and took even longer to accomplish. Shareholders began to see a steep fall in profits and an increase in liabilities.
Having more or less destroyed the competition, the railways began to charge the farmers for transporting their goods. By then though it was too late to revert to the Navigation as an alternative. The wider commercial viability of the waterway had been brought to an end and the Company of the Proprietors of Sleaford Navigation, anxious to rid themselves of a potentially ever-growing level of maintenance with no financial return, applied for an Act of Parliament to wind up the company in 1878. The process took some time and the Company finally ceased to be in 1888.
Interestingly, they did not apply for an Act of Abandonment which would have extinguished the right of navigation. The Navigation continued to be used for the transport of goods locally with sugar beet being carried from the lower sections of the waterway up the River Witham to Bardney until the 1950s.