The main people

Sir Joseph Banks

Joseph Banks is a fascinating figure and no brief description can hope to do him justice. In 1768, he joined an expedition, led by Captain James Cook, to explore the uncharted lands of the South Pacific. The expedition circumnavigated the globe and visited South America, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Java. Banks collected an enormous number of specimens on the way and, on his return, his scientific account of the voyage and its discoveries sparked considerable interest across Europe.

Banks was interested in plants that could be used for practical purposes and be introduced into other countries for possible commercial use. After he became president of the Royal Society in 1778, he promoted the career of many scientists and in his capacity as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, sent many botanists abroad to find new plants and extend the Gardens' collection.

It was from a position of considerable influence that Banks was able to assist the passage of the Act of Enablement for the Sleaford Navigation through Parliament in 1792. In spite of spending a great deal of time at his London house in Soho Square, Banks retained his interest and involvement in Lincolnshire and saw the inauguration of the Sleaford Navigation and the neighbouring Horncastle Canal as instrumental to the economic future of the area. As well as promoting both ventures, he was sufficiently involved to find time to choose their mottoes and design their respective crests. The crest designed by Banks is still used today by Sleaford Navigation Trust.

Sadly he seems to be better known in Australia than in Lincolnshire. There he is commemorated in Botany Bay, in the Banksia tree, in a suburb of Sydney by the same name and in Bankstown and Revesby.

For further information check out the Sir Joseph Banks Society which is based in Horncastle, their web site can be found at

Benjamin Handley

Benjamin Handley was born in 1755 at Newark where his father William served three times a mayor. Around 1780, Handley moved to Sleaford and established what became a very successful solicitor's firm. Being only about 19 years old at the time, he played no part in the failed project of 1773 to build a Navigation along the Slea/Kyme Eau to the Witham but was certainly involved in the renewed proposal of 1781/2. He was present at a meeting held at the George Inn, Sleaford, on December 17th 1782, when the engineer John Varley was asked to make a second survey, the first having recently failed to pass through Parliament. Handley must have been quite influential in the town by then as he was elected to the post of solicitor and clerk to the group of Navigation supporters, which included such locally important people as Sir Christopher Whichcote of Aswarby, Sir Jenison William Gordon of Haverholme and Sir Joseph Banks of Revesby.

This attempt to obtain a Navigation failed in 1784, mainly due to opposition from the landowners on Holland Fen and the idea was dropped for a few years but when the scheme was revived publicly in 1791 Handley was there again, acting as solicitor (this time with Benjamin Cheales) and throughout the negotiations, in particular with the Witham Drainage and Navigation Commissioners, he was in touch with Sir Joseph Banks with whom he seems to have built up a close relationship.

When success was obtained in parliament for a Sleaford Navigation Act on June 11th 1792, Handley was appointed Treasurer to the new company and, to mark the appreciation of the shareholders for his efforts over the years to bring the water­way into being, on the day of the opening to traffic (May 6th 1794) he was presented with a solid silver cup inscribed around the base, "The Gift of the Company of Proprietors of the Sleaford Navigation, May 6th 1794". This cup is now the property of Sleaford Navigation Trust and is displayed in Navigation House.

Handley was appointed Treasurer rather than Clerk, the post usually occupied by a solicitor, because he was also a banker. In April 1792 he had been co-founder, with Anthony Peacock and William Kirton, of the "Peacock, Handley, Kirton & Co. Bank" in Northgate, Sleaford (today Lloyd's Bank). His share of the initial capital for this enterprise would have come from the fortune he had made as a solicitor and landowner. Great support for the newly-formed Navigation was given by the bank, including allowing overdrafts at ½% below the normal for that period and the partners themselves made loans to the company. A loan of £1,000 made by Handley in 1795 was eventually repaid in three instalments between 1812 and 1814 and he would seem not to have taken the 5% interest allowed to him on this amount.

It was said of Benjamin Handley that he, " great assiduity and intelligence, together with the advantages offered by the vast employ for the [legal] profession during the enclosure of the fens, amassed a great fortune." He was solicitor to, amongst others, the Enclosure Bills for Dorrington (1787), Rauceby (1788), Dunston (1793) and Sleaford and Holdingham (1794); for the Nocton and Dunston Drainage Bills (1789) and for the Sleaford to Tattershall Thorpe Turnpike Bill (1793). He owned land and property in New Sleaford, Holdingham, Algarkirk, Billinghay, Waddington, Heckington and Sutterton and his connections with the landowning society in the Horncastle district were established by his marriage to Frances Conington of that town.

Handley held the position of Navigation Treasurer for 32 years, tendering his resignation at the Annual General Meeting of May 1824. Having first appeared as an active supporter of a Navigation in 1782, his connection with the waterway had, therefore, extended over 42 years. He died on April 23rd 1828 and is buried in the chancel of St Deny's Church in Sleaford, where his tombstone can be seen today.

William Jessop

William Jessop was born in Devonport, Devon, the son of Josias Jessop, a foreman shipwright in the Naval Dockyard. Josias Jessop was responsible for the repair and maintenance of Rudyerd’s Tower, a wooden lighthouse on the Eddystone Rock. In 1755 the lighthouse burnt down and John Smeaton, a leading civil engineer, drew up plans for a stone replacement with Josias overseeing the building work. The two men became close friends, and when Josias died in 1761, the sixteen year old William Jessop was taken on as a pupil by Smeaton and worked on the Calder and Hebble and the Aire and Calder navigations in Yorkshire.

The first major work that Jessop is known to have carried out was the Grand Canal of Ireland. This had begun as a Government project in 1753, and it had taken seventeen years to build fourteen miles of canal from the Dublin end. In 1772 a private company was formed to complete the canal and consulted John Smeaton. Smeaton sent Jessop to take control of the project as principal engineer. Jessop re-surveyed the proposed line of the canal and carried the canal over the River Liffey, via the Leinster Aqueduct. He also drove the canal across the great Bog of Allen, a feat comparable with George Stephenson’s crossing of the Chat Moss bog with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Jessop was a very modest man, who did not seek self-aggrandisement. Unlike other engineers, he was not jealous of rising young engineers, but rather encouraged them, perhaps recognising the opportunities he had himself received from Smeaton. He would also recommend another engineer if he was too busy to be able to undertake a commission himself. He recommended John Rennie for the post of engineer to the Lancaster Canal Company, an appointment that helped to establish Rennie’s reputation. When Jessop was consulting engineer to the Ellesmere Canal Company in 1793, the company appointed the relatively unknown Thomas Telford as resident engineer. Telford had no previous experience as a designer of canals, but with Jessop’s advice and guidance, made a success of the project.

In 1789 Jessop was appointed chief engineer to the Cromford Canal Company. The canal was to carry limestone, coal and iron ore from the Derwent and upper Erewash valleys and join the nearby Erewash Canal. The important features of this canal are the Derwent Viaduct, which was a single span viaduct carrying the canal over the River Derwent, and the Butterley Tunnel. In 1793, the Derwent Viaduct partially collapsed, and Jessop shouldered the blame, saying that he had not made the front walls strong enough. The viaduct was repaired and strengthened at his own expense.

In 1790 Jessop founded, jointly with partners Benjamin Outram, Francis Beresford and John Wright, the Butterley Iron Works in Derbyshire to manufacture (amongst other things) cast-iron edge rails – a design Jessop had used successfully on a horse-drawn railway scheme for coal wagons between Nanpantan and Loughborough. Outram was concerned with the production of ironwork and equipment for Jessop’s engineering projects.

From 1784 to 1805 Jessop lived in Newark where he twice served as town mayor. In later life, he became increasingly inflicted by a form of paralysis, and 1805 marked the end of his active career. He died at his home, Butterley Hall, on 18 November 1814.

Jessop was in the unusual position of bridging the gap between the canal engineers and the railway engineers who came later. His name did not gain the lasting fame that it deserved because of his modesty and some of his works have even been wrongly attributed to engineers who acted as his assistants. Unlike some engineers, such as George Stephenson, Jessop did not stoop to undignified wrangles with fellow professionals. He was highly regarded by almost all those who had worked with him or for him.