If you'd like to know what to do in Foxton, start here. The village of Foxton in Leicestershire is rich in history and has some remarkable hidden gems that are well worth discovering.
St Andrew's Church, Main Street, Foxton
Softwell Lane Nature Reserve, off Swingbridge Street, Foxton
The Baptist Chapel and Graveyard, Main Street, Foxton
Foxton Locks and Inclined Plane
The Canal at Foxton
by Carl Bedford (updated May 2020)
When the plan for a canal from Leicester to Harborough was originally planned in early 1792 it was to have passed through the village of Foxton on the way to its termination at the present day basin at the top of the High Street) in Market Harborough. However, a major Foxton landowner Sir John Palmer, Lord of the Manor, prompted by some of the other local landowners, vetoed the idea of a canal cutting the village in half. He said the canal would cause flooding, bring illness due to 'evil mists' and also result in the 'drying up of the springs' which supplied the village with water.
Sir John managed to obtain a promise from the original promoters of the Harborough Canal that they would change their planned route in order to avoid the village. Then "Canal Mania" in the summer of 1792 was such that a new scheme to extend the proposed canal into Northamptonshire, to join up with the planned Grand Junction Canal from London, quickly overtook the original plan and a more ambitious project came into being.
Under the new scheme, in order to placate Sir John Palmer and the other opposing landowners by avoiding Foxton village, a tunnel would have been built near the site of the present Foxton Locks to take the canal into Northamptonshire with a separate branch canal to Market Harborough via Lubenham, from the far end of the tunnel. This plan resulted in an Act of Parliament being passed in 1793 authorising the formation of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal Company, known for many years simply as the "Union Canal Company".
Economic difficulties were then brought on by war with France, which unfortunately broke out just as the Bill went before Parliament, so the new Company struggled to collect the subscriptions promised by shareholders. The company's financial problems were aggravated by rises in prices, trouble with workers and landowners, plus construction difficulties, particularly in making Saddington Tunnel. This resulted in work being suspended in 1797 when the canal reached Debdale about a mile on the Leicester side of Foxton. This point was chosen for a wharf and basin because there was already a lane leading to the turnpike road between Leicester and Market Harborough. This meant that goods could be carried by horse and cart to supply South Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, particularly coal which was one of the main economic reasons for building the canal.
During construction Foxton had already been affected by the creation of jobs locally and judging from an entry in the parish register concerning the baptism of a child in 1795, whose parents were "lodgers whilst working on the canal", it may have resulted in a temporary increase in the local population. When the canal reached Debdale some of the Foxton ratepayers were hit in their pocket because the Canal Company required them to help pay for the upgrading of the lane from the new wharf down to theTurnpike. Because part of it lay within Foxton Parish and a rate, in labour or money, could be levied on a parish in order to carry out such work, with the threat of a fine by the magistrates if necessary. The Foxton Ratepayers also had to undertake the cost of maintenance after ten years, and it wasn't long before the Turnpike Commissioners put a Toll Bar at the bottom of Debdale Lane in order to collect charges from the new traffic.1 A Toll House was built at the junction with the turnpike and the toll keepers at one time were members of the local family of Foxton carriers named French. They lived there long enough for their cottage to be known as "French's Side, Turnpike Gate", on a 19th century Census Return.
Various attempts were made by the Union Canal Company, both prior to the canal's arrival at Debdale and during the decade or so whilst it terminated there, to revert to the original plan of bringing the canal through Foxton village in order to avoid the expense of building the tunnel through to Lubenham. Again these efforts came to nothing due to continued opposition from Sir John Palmer and the reluctance of the Canal Commissioners to authorise such a major deviation from the authorised line without a further Act of Parliament. However, Sir John's objections were eventually overcome and a new Act of Parliament was obtained in 1804 2 allowing the company to deviate from the line authorised under their first Act and to continue the canal on to Market Harborough by cutting a channel through the village and then passing over towards Great Bowden, thus skirting the high ground between Foxton and the market town. They then hoped to join the Grand Union Canal, which had opened in 1800, by a route across the Welland Valley surveyed by the famous engineer Thomas Telford in 1803. Nothing came of this however and the Union Canal Company called it a day when their canal finally reached Market Harborough in 1809, ironically resulting in completion of the canal from Leicester by a route more or less as originally planned in early 1792.
As the channel through Foxton cut across, and was actually on, parts of the village streets, the face of the village was changed forever. Two of the streets, Middle Street and North Lane, were truncated and altered in order to allow access to the single brick bridge built over the canal in the village itself. The cutting of the canal resulted in changes to the early street pattern and a concentration of housing below the line of the canal, rather than on the high ground around the church and former manor house, which have now endured for over 200 years. The 1804 Act of Parliament, authorising the canal to be cut through the village, actually named the village streets the canal would cross and this is one of the earliest known sources for Foxton street names.
As described in this Act the canal would "be continued ... across a Street in the Village of Foxton aforesaid called Westgate Street,... across another Street called Cross Gate Street,... across another Street called Wood Gate Street,... and across another Street ... called Flagon Street and then across the Turnpike Road ... in an Easterly Direction ... and back across the said Turnpike Road in a Westwardly Direction". The Act of Parliament, the 1841 Census Return and other documents show us that it was North Lane that was once "Westgate Street"; Main Street was "Cross Gate Street"; Middle Street was "Wood Gate Street" and Swingbridge Street was "Flagon Street".3
The coming of the canal brought new business opportunities to the village with the opening of a "coal wharf" and a blacksmith's shop, both of which were established by the main canal bridge and the weigh-bridge for the wharf can still be seen. The Shoulder of Mutton Inn, already open at the time of the Foxton Enclosure in 1770 catered for the grazing of boat horses on its paddock and when the canal came through the village was being run by John Brown, who was also in business as a brickmaker at Debdale.4
The next significant 'canal event' to affect Foxton was the formation of the original Grand Union Canal Company in 1808, to build a canal from the Union Canal between Foxton and Debdale, near to where the earlier tunnel had been proposed, to join the Grand Junction Canal in Northamptonshire as had been planned in 1792, but with locks at each end to overcome the high ground between the two. The locks at the Foxton end were originally intended to be in the usual form of a line of individual locks with level pounds in between but Benjamin Bevan, the engineer for the Grand Union, then decided to build them as two staircases with side ponds instead, and a passing pound in the middle, in order to save water.
This resulted in the famous flight of 10 Locks which is such a prominent feature of the local landscape. Construction of the locks began in 1810, after the new company had obtained the necessary Act of Parliament, and the Grand Union Canal opened in 1814, thus providing the final link in a navigable waterway from Leicester to London.
The G.U. Company built cottages at the locks in order to house their Toll Clerk, a joint appointment with the Union Canal Co., and a maintenance staff of lock keepers and carpenters. This resulted in a second small community being established in the parish of some four or five families.This community totalled around 20 persons for much of the 19th century, together with boat crews stopping at the junction from time to time, particularly when the canal was frozen during some of the terrible winters experienced in earlier times.
In the village itself, another inn opened around 1820 near the canal wharf. This was the Black Horse, the opening of which coincided with the closure of the earlier Admiral Rodney at the bottom of the street on the death of the owner Thomas Coleman.5 A Thomas Chapman who looked after the 'swivel bridge' in what was then called Flagon Street, also kept a beer house in the 1840's,6 at a time when licensing regulations had been temporarily relaxed. No doubt Thomas Chapman opened a hostelry in order to serve the boatmen who had to wait while he unlocked the bridge, and he called the new pub the 'Red Lion'. The Union Canal Co. paid him £2 - lOs a year in 1843 (£2-50p) for attending to the bridge, with a raise to £2 - 12s (£2-60p) the next year. This 'salary' then remained the same for almost 50 years until the job was suppressed in 1892 when, no doubt in order to save money, the Company replaced the padlock with a shackle the boatmen could undo themselves.
Around that time the toll clerk's post at Foxton Junction was also suppressed due to a falling off in trade and the number of maintenance staff was also reduced, resulting in the local canals becoming almost unnavigable. Sophia, the widow of John Frisby Bentley, the last toll collector at Foxton, continued to live in the toll cottage for several more years at a rent of £10 p.a., which included a mile of fishing rights.7 The earlier 'swivel bridge' was replaced by a more substantial swing bridge, purchased from the G.U. Canal Co. for £20 in 1885.
Other work carried out in the village in the latter part of the 19th century was the laying of sewers beneath the canal at the top of Middle Street when a mains drainage system was first installed. The canal was being polluted by sewage from the top of the village and whilst the local Sanitary Authority hoped the canal company would lay the sewers to prevent this, quite naturally the company declined and the ratepayers had to pay for the work. It was this old culvert that was broken into during the laying of new drains in the 1960's when Gartree Prison was being built, resulting in water from the canal flooding the village. Flooding also occurred at the end of the 19th century when a leak developed in the embankment at the top of North Lane, with the boys in the village retrieving a number of fish on that occasion.8
In 1893 both the 'old' Union Canal and the Grand
Union Canal were purchased by the Grand Junction Canal Company and a major change at Foxton Locks took place towards the end of the 19th century. This was the construction of an inclined plane lift at the side of the locks as part of a modernisation scheme to allow the passage of 'wide boats' or barges, and also speed up the passage of boats by allowing them to bypass the locks.
Unfortunately the hoped for increase in traffic did not take place and as no corresponding improvement was made at the Watford, Northants end of the Grand Union Canal, traffic continued to be limited to pairs of 'narrow boats'. The lift at Foxton opened in 1900 and for the ten years it operated it must have been quite a show piece of British engineering. Sadly it was too expensive to keep the steam engine, which provided the necessary power, in operation for the small amount of traffic, and after some refurbishment the narrow locks were returned to use in 1910 and use of the lift was more or less abandoned. Later, after the First World War, the iron work was sold off for scrap and Leicestershire lost one of the "wonders of the waterways" leaving only vestiges for us to ponder on today.
When public motor transport became available in the 1920's and 'charabancs' brought town dwellers out into the countryside, particularly at weekends and Bank Holidays, Foxton became a favourite destination for fishermen and picnic makers. Fishing matches were held along the banks of the canal and tea shops were opened in the village to provide refreshments for the visitors. One large tea shop was established on the canal side itself, between the top of Middle Street and the wharf and another one was at Rose Cottage on Main Street, or 'Bridge Street'as it was known as at the tim.9
For many years, besides the loading and unloading of boats, a smithy operated at the canal wharf, and for over a century this was in the hands of the local Saddington family. The main cargo brought in to the village was coal from the Leicestershire and Derbyshire pits but grain was also shipped out to Leicester and beyond, with Mr John Watson, a prominent 19th Century villager having a large business as a corn merchant, with depots at Market Harborough, Debdale and Kibworth.
As trade continued to fall off due to ever increasing competition, first by the railways and then by road transport, traffic on the canal through Foxton gradually declined, until only the occasional boatload of timber for the yards in Market Harborough remained, and not many boats passed the locks either, on their way between Leicester and London. The long stoppage due to the winter freeze in 1963 virtually put an end to canal carrying locally but fortunately canal boating for pleasure had started and this saved the day for the "Union" canals.
Pleasure boat movements can now exceed the numbers recorded in 'working days' and whether it is a visit to the canal museum in the restored boat lift engine house, a walk along the towpath through the village, watching a boat negotiate the swing bridge or the locks, the canal at Foxton will continue to provide an attraction for residents and visitors alike.
"The Leicester Line", Philip A. Stevens, David & Charles 1972.
L.N.U. Canal Company minute books in P.R.O. Kew.
Grand Union Canal Co. minute books in P.R.O. Kew.
Alehouse Recognizance Books 1753 - 1828 in Leics. Records Office.
1841 to 1891 Census Returns for Foxton in Leics. Records Office.
1 Mkt. Harborough to Loughborough Turnpike Trust minutes, L.R.O.
2 Act 45 Geo III, c 71 in Market Harborough Library, Local Studies Case.
3 Ibid and L.N.U. "Books of Reference"(QS 72/1-5) & "Navigation Books" in L.R.O.
4 Alehouse Recog. Books and notes in Brown Sisters' archives c/o Mrs P. Bailey, Foxton.
5 Will of Thos. Coleman Snr. of Foxton 1819 in L.R.O.
6 L.N.U. minute books in P.R.O. and 1841 Foxton Census Return in L.R.O.
7 1891 Foxton Census, L.R.O. & L.N.U. minute books, P.R.O.
8 "Foxton Story" 1973 Foxton Festival Booklet, Mary Matts / Derek Lewin.
9 Ibid, Foxton Photographs in L.R.O., Electoral Rolls and Property Deeds – F.W. Bray.