The Wey valley, including the river Wey and the Wey Navigation, which opened in 1653, has a fascinating history. The work to make the river Wey navigable from Guildford to the Thames (15 miles) was made under an Act of Parliament, 26 June 1651. Earlier attempts to pass an Act in the 1620s had been unsuccessful, despite some local support.
Though not the first river navigation in England, it was the first involving a considerable length of canal (9 miles of ‘new cut’), as well as 12 ‘pound’ locks. Apart from some interruptions caused by disputes in the later 17th century, barge traffic was continuous from late in 1653 to the summer of 1969, the principal cargoes throughout the useful life of the river being always corn, timber and coal.
Difficulties in raising money, followed by controversies over ownership and control, were only partially settled by a new and much longer Act in 1671, which vested the infrastructure of the Navigation and the ‘soil of the River Wey’ in trustees. Stability was not achieved until 1723, by which time Lord Portmore and the Langton family had between them bought up the majority of the shares (they were officially appointed as receivers and managers of the profits in 1748). For the next hundred years the two ‘Proprietors’, each owning a half of the river, ran the Navigation jointly. Lord Portmore lived at Weybridge and the Langtons in Lincolnshire, and none of the measures adopted to provide administration from a distance worked very well until a new type of manager appeared in William Stevens, lock-keeper at Thames Lock (1821) and later wharfinger at Guildford Wharf (1823).
Continuity and efficiency of management were then assured by the succession of three further members of the Stevens family as managers. They also ran their own barges and became managers of the Godalming Navigation. Eventually, by purchasing the various shares into which the river had been split, the Stevens family acquired the whole title between 1873 and 1902. In 1964 Mr Harry Stevens gave the Wey Navigation to the National Trust. The locks and banks are kept in repair and the river is increasingly used by pleasure craft.