A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.
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Before the canal age Wiltshire was little served by navigable rivers. The head of the Thames navigation was at Lechlade in Gloucestershire, whence coal and other goods brought up the river were distributed in the neighbouring parts of Wiltshire, (fn. 1) and agricultural produce collected. Barges worked above Lechlade to Cricklade, and even perhaps occasionally to Ashton Keynes, from time to time, but there is little evidence of this trade. Probably it was only carried on during times of abundant water, and ceased as soon as the Thames & Severn Canal was opened in 1789. (fn. 2) On the other side of the county the making navigable of the Hampshire Avon had been authorized in 1664–5. The work was partially done by about the end of the century, a few barges passed, and then the works were said to have been washed away by a flood. They were not rebuilt. (fn. 3)
The idea of joining the Thames to the Bristol Avon by a canal was as old as the reign of Elizabeth I, and several proposals were made, but the project was too great for the times. (fn. 4) When the canal age came, the Kennet had already been made navigable from the Thames at Reading to Newbury (fn. 5) and the Bristol Avon to Bath, and in the latter case there had been proposals in 1734–5 and again in 1765 for the extension of the navigation above Bath to Lacock and Chippenham, which had come to nothing. It was Francis Page, who had recently become the owner of the Kennet Navigation, who seems to have made the first serious proposal to connect the two. In an interview in October 1770 (fn. 6) James Sharp told George III that 'Mr. Page has told me of another proposition . . . to continue the canal near the River Kennet, in a direct line from Reading to Newbury, and from thence to Hungerford, Marlborough, Calne, Chippenham, and from thence to the River Avon to Bath. . . . It is very possible sometime or other, inferior people may get into their bedchambers at Somerset House, and never be removed from thence till they are landed upon the Parade at Bath.' When in 1788 a meeting was called at Hungerford to promote such a canal, then called the Western Canal, under the chairmanship of Charles Dundas, Francis Page attended and supported it.
The needs of the countryside for transport at the time can be deduced from a pamphlet issued soon afterwards: 'The price of carriage of coals, and all other heavy articles, will be greatly reduced; the estates of gentlemen and farmers, will be improved at much easier expense by the introduction of free-stone, timber, brick, tile, and other building materials; lime, peat-ashes and manure, of all sorts. They will find new markets for the produce of their farms and estates: corn, malt, cheese, and other productions, will meet with a ready and cheap conveyance to the great marts.' (fn. 7) The route surveyed and approved by Robert Whitworth and John Rennie was the same as Page had originally suggested, and in November 1790 a further meeting 'resolved unanimously that a junction of the Rivers Kennet and Avon, by a canal navigation from Newbury to Bath, by Hungerford, Ramsbury, Marlborough, and the Cherhill lower level, under the White Horse Hill, and through Calne, Chippenham, Lacock, Melksham, and Bradford, at the estimated expense of £213,940 is practicable, and will be highly useful and beneficial to the subscribers, and to the public at large'. (fn. 8)
Sufficient support was lacking, however, from the landowners and country gentlemen who were its promoters; the merchants of Bristol do not seem to have been brought in. The project lay dormant, until it was suddenly revived in Bristol during the canal mania of 1792. Another group of promoters held a meeting there in December 1792, and began to raise subscriptions. Dundas and his supporters moved quickly, absorbed the new men from Bristol and Bath, and action began upon what now became known as the Kennet & Avon Canal. (fn. 9) The route was resurveyed by Rennie, who now abandoned the Marlborough-Calne line, and recommended a new route by Devizes, with a branch to Marlborough and another to Calne and Chippenham, so substituting a short tunnel at Savernake for a long one under the White Horse Hill in Cherhill.
By early 1794 the branch to Marlborough had been dropped, and that to Calne and Chippenham relinquished to another company proposing to build a canal, the Wilts. & Berks. In that year the Kennet & Avon was authorized from the Avon at Bath by Bradford-on-Avon, Devizes, Pewsey, Burbage (for Marlborough), Great Bedwyn, and Hungerford to the Kennet at Newbury, and a committee of 24 was chosen to control it, 10 from Bristol, 7 from the Hungerford district, and 7 from the middle district centred upon Marlborough.
Construction had begun by 1796. The rising prices of the time made the building more expensive than had been expected, as scarcity of money succeeded the prodigality of the canal mania. By 1799 the section of canal from Newbury to Great Bedwyn was open, and that from Foxhangers below Devizes to Bath by 1804, Foxhangers having previously been linked to Devizes about the end of 1802 by a double-track horse tramroad. In 1807 the Devizes-Pewsey section was complete, and that from Pewsey to Great Bedwyn was finished about the end of 1809. Finally, the whole canal was opened on 28 December 1810 on the completion of the Devizes locks.
The Kennet & Avon is a broad, or barge, canal, built to take barges carrying up to 60 tons, although much of its traffic was carried in narrow boats from the Somersetshire Coal, or the Wilts. & Berks., Canals. It is 57 miles long from Bath to Newbury, with 79 locks, which raise the canal 404 ft. 6 in. from Bath to the summit level at Savernake, and then lower it 210 ft. to Newbury. The main engineering features of the canal are the Dundas (Limpley Stoke) and Avoncliff aqueducts over the Avon between Bradfordon-Avon and Bath, the Bruce tunnel at Savernake (502 yds.), and the great flight of 29 locks at Devizes which lift the canal from the Avon valley to the Vale of Pewsey.
While the Kennet & Avon was being built, the Wilts. & Berks. (fn. 10) was also under construction. This, the second of Wiltshire's important canals, originated partly in Page's and Rennie's original line for the Kennet & Avon by way of Calne and Chippenham, and partly in a proposal to by-pass the poor navigation of the upper Thames by a canal from Kempsford above Lechlade to Abingdon. As authorized in 1795, its line was from the Kennet & Avon Canal at Semington, near Trowbridge, by Melksham, Dauntsey, Wootton Bassett, and Swindon to Abingdon to join the Thames, with branches to Calne and Chippenham. The engineer was William Whitworth. By the middle of 1801 the line was open from Semington to near Wootton Bassett, together with the Calne and Chippenham branches. It was completed to Swindon in 1804, and to Abingdon on 22 September 1810. The Wilts. & Berks., unlike the Kennet & Avon, was a narrowboat canal, taking craft of about 30 tons. The main line from Semington to Abingdon was 51 miles long, the Calne branch 31/8 miles, and that to Chippenham 2 miles long. It rose 189 ft. 3 in. by 24 locks from Semington to the summit between Wootton Bassett and South Marston, and then fell 163 ft. 9 in. by 18 locks to Abingdon. There were also three locks on the Calne branch.
Both these important canals were finished in 1810; the first had cost about £950,000, and the second £256,000. The traffic of the Kennet & Avon was based on coal, mainly derived from the Somerset coalfield by way of the Somersetshire Coal Canal, which joined it at Limpley Stoke, some from the Gloucestershire field by way of horse tramroads to the Avon. This coal was carried eastwards along the canal to wharves such as those at Avoncliff, Bradford-on-Avon, Hilperton, Seend, Devizes, Honey Street (in Woodborough), Pewsey, Wootton Rivers, Burbage, Great Bedwyn, Little Bedwyn, and Froxfield, to Hungerford, Newbury, Reading, and places on the Thames. Supplies of coal also passed for a short distance upon the Kennet & Avon, and then entered the Wilts. & Berks. at Semington to be landed at all the wharves along the line, such as Melksham, Lacock, Chippenham, Calne, Stanley (in Bremhill), Dauntsey, Wootton Bassett, Wroughton, Swindon, Stratton St. Margaret, and South Marston, and places to Abingdon and the Thames.
The supply of coal along the lines of the two canals, and from their wharves by land carriage to places farther away, was their principal contribution to the economy of the county. They brought also stone for road-making, salt for men and cattle, bricks, timber, and roofing material for building, and manure for the land, and took away corn, 'the cheese for which north Wiltshire is so much celebrated', (fn. 11) and other produce. In addition, the Kennet & Avon carried a considerable long-distance traffic between Bristol and Bath at one end, and Reading and places down the Thames to London at the other. Soon after it was opened there were attempts by the Wilts. & Berks. Co. to work up a similar long-distance traffic, and to propose a canal link from their line at Abingdon to the Grand Junction Canal at Marsworth beyond Aylesbury. This would have given an all-canal line to London, but the narrow and more roundabout waterway could not in this respect compete with the broad and straighter Kennet & Avon.
Local traffic such as coal, and heavy long-distance cargoes carried in barges on the Kennet & Avon, was supplemented by fly or express boats for light merchandise, which ran to a time-table. These craft travelled fast, usually by day and night, and had precedence at locks. They seem to have worked on the Kennet & Avon from 1824, mainly for through goods, but also for fast local traffic. In 1825 a fly-boat was put on the Wilts. & Berks. between Bristol and Melksham, and another soon afterwards from Melksham to Abingdon, and from Abingdon by Swindon to Gloucester. This last ran by way of the North Wilts. Canal, (fn. 12) which was opened in 1819 from Swindon on the Wilts. & Berks. to Latton, where it joined the Thames & Severn.
Passengers were carried on most canals, but usually the services were occasional, such as on market days. Both the Kennet & Avon and the Wilts. & Berks. had passenger boats, but it is not possible to be certain over what periods. In 1808, before either canal was fully open, a boat was working between Shrivenham and Bath: there was a service between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon at intervals between 1808 and about 1840, (fn. 13) and as late as 1851 a passenger boat was working between Wootton Rivers and Devizes.
The idea of a canal from the Thames to the Severn, (fn. 14) like that of a waterway from the Thames to the Bristol Avon, had been long in mind. It was brought nearer when in 1779 the Stroudwater Canal was completed from the Severn at Framilode to Stroud. Meetings were held in 1781, and in 1782 the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, which had a direct interest in promoting a through water route between the Midlands and London, helped to get a survey made by Robert Whitworth. (fn. 15) A meeting of supporters of the canal in January 1783 decided to go ahead, and an Act was obtained in the same year for a broad canal to run from the Stroudwater at Stroud by Brimscombe, Chalford, Sapperton, Siddington, Latton, and Cricklade to the Thames at Inglesham, with a branch to Cirencester. It was opened in 1789, the main engineering feature being the Sapperton tunnel, 3,817 yds. long, at that time the longest canal tunnel in Britain. The Thames & Severn Canal was 28¾ miles long, with a rise from Stroud of 240 ft. 11 in. by 28 locks to the summit at Sapperton, and a fall from the farther end of the summit at Siddington of 128 ft. by 16 locks to the junction with the Thames. The cost was about £220,000.
Though built as a trunk canal, the Thames & Severn (fn. 16) was used only for a short time as the main route between the Midlands and London, for a shorter line by way of Oxford was opened one year later, in 1790. It was, however, the only canal route from Bristol to London until the construction of the Kennet & Avon. It in fact depended for its receipts upon local trade. This consisted mainly in the carriage of Forest of Dean and Staffordshire coal from the Severn to the Golden Valley, Cirencester, Latton, Cricklade, Kempsford, and Lechlade, where a depot was established to supply the neighbouring parts of Wiltshire, Berkshire, and Gloucestershire.
This local trade was not enough to yield the shareholders a satisfactory profit, and many attempts were made to persuade the Thames Commissioners to improve the river down to Oxford, and so to encourage a through trade from the Severn to the Thames. (fn. 17) When at last it was clear that the Commissioners did not intend to act, the canal company decided that the only alternative was to support a canal linking the Wilts. & Berks. at Swindon to the Thames & Severn at Latton, a proposal that in one form or another was as old as the Wilts. & Berks. itself. (fn. 18) Such a canal would enable barges to avoid the bad navigation of the upper Thames by passing through canals all the way to Abingdon, from which town downstream the Thames was adequately supplied with locks. The disadvantage was that the Wilts. & Berks was a narrow canal. The capacity of the Thames & Severn, therefore, would not be fully used and much of its water wasted.
The linking canal, the North Wilts., was built by a separate company with the support of the Thames & Severn and the Wilts. & Berks., and the help of a loan of £15,000 from the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners. In 1821, two years after it was opened, the Wilts. & Berks. company reported to its shareholders that 'the managers of the North Wilts. having represented the impossibility of satisfying the demands of Government for the repayment of the loan which they have contracted, and proposing an incorporation with this canal, the committee, considering the large stake which the Wilts. & Berks. Canal have in that concern . . . are of opinion that the proposition should be acceded to . . .' . (fn. 19) The amalgamation took place in the same year. The North Wilts. Canal was 9 miles long, with 12 locks, an aqueduct over the upper Thames, and a short tunnel at Cricklade. Its cost was about £35,000. It showed its usefulness as soon as it was opened, and in time the traffic which passed through it had a considerable effect upon that of the parent canals.
The Kennet & Avon, the Wilts. & Berks., and the Thames & Severn were all in their way important waterways. They were a means of distributing coal and other necessaries along the valley of the Bristol Avon, the Vale of Pewsey, and the Vale of White Horse, and of taking away agricultural produce. They carried through traffic between Bristol or Gloucester and London. Yet these services were at little profit to the shareholders upon the combined construction cost of nearly £1½ million. Table 1 gives some comparative figures.
The Wiltshire Canals. Receipts, Dividends and Tons carried 1818–38
|Kennet & Avon||Thames & Severn||Wilts. & Berks.|
|Year||Toll receipts||Dividends||Tons carried||Toll receipts||Dividends||Tons carried||Toll receipts||Divi-dends||Tons carried|
|1818||£32,911 (fn. 20)||2.25% (fn. 20)||Unknown||£4,428 (fn. 20)||1.5% new (fn. 20)||Unknown||£7,627 (fn. 20)||None||Unknown|
|0.65% old (fn. 20)||(estimate)|
|1828||£44,247 (fn. 20)||3.1% (fn. 20)||Unknown||£5,505 (fn. 21)||1.5% new (fn. 20)||57,633 (fn. 22)||£10,719 (fn. 21)||None||51,502 (fn. 22)|
|1.2% old (fn. 20)|
|1838||£52,348 (fn. 20)||3.4% (fn. 20)||341,878 (fn. 22)||£6,489 (fn. 20)||1.9% new (fn. 20)||60,894 (fn. 22)||£12,798 (fn. 20)||2.9% (fn. 21)||62,899 (fn. 22)|
|1.9% old (fn. 20)|
This canal system into and across Wiltshire had begun with the opening of the Thames & Severn in 1789, been expanded by the completion of the Kennet & Avon and the Wilts. & Berks. in 1810, and been rounded off by the opening of the North Wilts. in 1819. It had not been in existence long, therefore, when the first proposals were made for a railway from London to Bristol, or even when the threats of competition these proposals carried with them were made actual by the passing of the Great Western Railway Act in 1835. (fn. 23) This line followed a route from London by Reading, Swindon, Chippenham, and Bath to Bristol. It, therefore, competed directly with the Kennet & Avon only in through traffic from Bristol and Bath to Reading and London, in the Bristol-Bath trade on the Avon, and in the local trade in the Bath and Reading areas, which could now be carried also from the railway stations there. The rest of the canal's trade, mainly coal from the Somersetshire Coal Canal, and imported goods from Bristol to Devizes and places along the line towards Reading, was not affected. The impact of the railway was enough, however, to cause a sharp fall in tolls and receipts, and in long-distance, although not in total, tonnage carried. Economy was practised, and efforts were made to increase efficiency, until in 1845, at the time of the railway mania, the canal company decided to promote a Bill to construct a railway, the London, Newbury & Bath Direct, alongside the canal.
The Bill had some success, but was in the end withdrawn after an arrangement for compensation had been made with the Great Western. There was an effort from 1848 (by which year the dividend had fallen to ½ per cent.) by the canal company to maintain its position by entering the carrying trade, but the pressure was too great, and in 1851 representatives approached the Great Western. The railway company agreed to acquire the canal for a payment that would yield ¾ per cent. a year on the shares, and the transfer was made in 1852. The carrying business was continued by the railway company until 1873, and then closed down.
The opening of the Reading-Hungerford line in 1847 (fn. 24) had meant more rail competition with the waterway, and this was increased by the Holt-Devizes line in 1857, (fn. 25) and the Hungerford-Devizes line in 1862. (fn. 26) These two lines caused a steady decline in the canal's local trade, while the diversion of Somerset coal from canal to railway between 1874 and 1898 (fn. 27) removed the main source of supply. By 1906 there was almost no commercial traffic within Wiltshire on the canal, and although efforts have since been made to restart it, they have been unsuccessful. Under the Transport Act, 1947, the canal became the property of the British Transport Commission. A few years before this transfer the canal had ceased to be navigable throughout its whole length, and in 1956 the Commission introduced a Bill to prepare a scheme for abandonment.
The main line of the Great Western Railway, which had avoided the route of the Kennet & Avon, ran close to that of the Wilts. & Berks. from near Abingdon to Chippenham, and its opening caused an immediate and heavy fall in traffic along the canal's eastern section from Swindon to Abingdon. The western section from Swindon to Semington was less affected, because for a few more years it still held the Somerset coal trade up the Avon valley. It too suffered decline, however, when, in 1848, the Wilts., Somerset, & Weymouth Railway was opened from Thingley Junction near Chippenham to Westbury via Melksham. (fn. 28) The post of wharfinger at Swindon was given up in 1861, and that at Abingdon in 1867; the last dividend was paid in 1870, and the diversion of Somerset coal to rail, that began in 1874, was the beginning of the end.
After some inconclusive negotiations with the Great Western in 1874, the company sold out in the same year for about £13,500 to a new group, the Wilts. & Berks. Canal lessees, who raised money to put the canal in order. They in turn leased it in 1882 to a group of Bristol merchants, who, after losing money, were released from their commitment in 1888. The lessees then again worked the canal until 1891, when another company, the United Commercial Syndicate, was formed to take it over. Once again the waterway was put in order, and this time a regular service of fly-boats from Bristol was started. Again the enterprise failed, and the syndicate then tried to abandon the whole canal except for the North Wilts., which the Thames & Severn agreed to take over. The attempt at abandonment was unsuccessful, and thereafter the canal decayed. Traffic ceased in 1906, and in 1914, at the instigation of Swindon Corporation, an Act was passed to close the canal, including the North Wilts. branch, and to use Coate Water, the canal reservoir, for public purposes. Soon afterwards the canal became derelict.
Railway relations with the Thames & Severn were more complicated. The canal was faced with direct railway competition when in 1836 the Cheltenham & Great Western Union Railway was authorized from Cheltenham to Swindon. (fn. 29) This company had its difficulties, and in May 1841 the line was opened from Swindon only to Kemble, together with the Cirencester branch. The company was then bought by the Great Western, which completed the line to Gloucester in May 1845. The canal, like most others similarly placed, had benefited from the carriage of railway construction material while the line was building. Thereafter the through trade between Gloucester and London via Swindon, and also the coal-carrying trade upwards from the Severn, was badly affected. Competition caused the tolls of the Thames & Severn to fall more heavily than those of the Kennet & Avon or the Wilts. & Berks., for there was little other traffic to fall back upon.
By the early sixties the canal company was in serious difficulties (it paid its last dividend in 1864), but it had an asset in its great Sapperton tunnel. In 1865, therefore, it proposed to turn itself into a railway company, and build a line from a railway connexion at Stroud, through the tunnel, and on to Fairford, to join a railway branch from Oxford. There was heavy opposition, and the Bill failed. In this year the enterprising Richard Potter resigned from the chairmanship of the Great Western Railway, which had opposed the Bill, and some years later he began to buy the canal shares until he had a controlling interest. He probably had a railway conversion scheme in mind, for at the end of a letter written in September 1876 (fn. 30) to the canal company's clerk offering to buy shares, he says:'. . . I will conclude by saying that my scheme of reorganization involves not only the maintenance of your present position, but in all probability an enlarged sphere of employment and a higher status.' When in 1881 an extension of the Andover-Swindon line was authorized from Swindon to Cheltenham, (fn. 31) Potter and the canal company promoted a Bill for a branch through the tunnel to Stroud. This also was lost, but it had frightened the Great Western, which, through nominees, bought control of the canal from Potter in order to prevent any future railway being built.
In 1893 the Great Western, having no use for the canal, closed most of it. There was then an outcry, which led to the transfer of the canal in 1895 to a trust consisting of three canal companies, the Severn Commission, the Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Berkshire county councils, and the towns of Stroud and Cirencester. It was made a condition that the canal was not converted into a railway. The trust failed to make the canal serviceable, for the leakages through the limestone of the summit, which had always been a trouble to the canal company, seem now to have become worse. The trust abandoned the undertaking in 1901, and it was then taken over by the Gloucestershire County Council, although the companies and bodies which had formed the trust still had limited liabilities. The county council spent some £26,000 on the canal, and the Thames Conservancy a further sum on the upper river, but the engineering difficulties persisted, and hampered what little traffic had survived the previous interruptions. The last craft passed through the tunnel in 1911, and most of the canal, including all that lying within Wiltshire, was abandoned in 1927.
One last waterway, this time abortive, remains to be mentioned. In 1789 a canal, the Andover, had been authorized to run from the tideway at Redbridge to that town, and was completed about 1796. At the time of the canal mania of 1792 there had been a proposal for a canal from Bristol and Bath to Salisbury and Southampton, (fn. 32) but this collapsed when the Kennet & Avon was authorized. It was then suggested that the Kennet & Avon might be joined either to the Andover or to Salisbury. If the latter, another canal might be built from Salisbury to Southampton. (fn. 33) A paper written about January 1794 (fn. 34) says: 'The corporation and principals of the city of Salisbury are more anxious than ever for a communication with the sea, because they consider it next to a certainty that the Kennet & Avon will join Andover, by which a very grand junction will be formed, and Salisbury cut out without a branch to the Andover Navigation. The majority of Salisbury considered that by having a canal to Southampton only they should have much more inland trade than if extended to Bristol.'
The connexion between the Kennet & Avon and Andover was never built, nor was it ever joined to Salisbury, but in 1795 an Act was obtained for a Salisbury & Southampton Canal (fn. 35) to run from Salisbury to Kimbridge on the Andover Canal, and from near Redbridge on that canal to Northam on the Itchen via Southampton. Neither the Salisbury nor the Southampton portion of the canal was ever finished, though both were begun and partly opened. The line from Kimbridge to Salisbury, about 14 miles long, was intended to have 17 locks and a short tunnel near Salisbury. Contracts for it were let almost at once, but work proceeded only spasmodically, for money was scarce. In April 1802 this portion was navigable from Kimbridge through 7 locks to West Dean, and in January 1803 to the fifteenth lock at Alderbury, where a wharf was made, and a short horse tramroad built, 629 yds. long, to join the temporary wharf to the turnpike road. Very little traffic resulted, and even this seems to have ceased about the end of 1806. The proprietors, unable to raise money to finish a canal which offered no prospect of profit, met for the last time in March 1808. The works then decayed, and in 1834 the clerk recorded that 'The proprietors have mostly resumed their lands, pulled down the locks and filled it up'. (fn. 36) The bed was later used for the Kimbridge Junction to Salisbury (Milford) line of the Bishopstoke & Salisbury Railway, opened in 1847. (fn. 37)