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Wilts & Berks Canal

The North Wilts Canal 1810-1820.
Jack Dalby

    Of the three 1810 schemes (for extending the W&B canal) it is obvious that the one which would best serve the W&B and be the least costly to build was the Severn Junction (SJ). They required an alternative supply of coal having experienced difficulty in obtaining a sufficiently large quantity from the SCC and had, as we have seen, made some preparations for procuring this from the Forest of Dean. There were two possible routes from the Forest to the W&B. The Bristol Junction would open the way to the Severn without the expensive aid of the K&A; the Severn Junction, however, would be only half the length, an easier line to build and would make use of the T&S already deeply involved in the Forest coal trade.
    The T&S would obviously support the Severn Junction proposal in preference to the Bristol Junction which would threaten their trade with South Wales, and by providing another line for the distribution of South Wales and Forest coal would deprive them of the tolls they would collect from this trade and the coal supplied to the W&B via the Severn Junction.
    The estimated cost of the Bristol Junction is not known, but it would have been a difficult and expensive line to build, involving some 70 locks. By tapping the Gloucestershire coalfield it would provide a further alternative supply of coal both for Bristol and the W&B but as far as is known the W&B Proprietors had no such financial interest in this field as they had in the Forest of Dean. There had been talk in 1803 of the W&B obtaining coal from these pits by means of a railway from Pucklechurch to the River Avon. The K&A were prepared to support any such proposal but nothing was done at this time; the railway was built in 1832, the K&A being the majority shareholders.
    The W&B lost interest in the Bristol Junction when the GJ claimed heavy compensation for all coal and iron imported into their canal from an extended W&B; the W&Bs grandiose scheme of an all canal line from Bristol to London became much less attractive.
    The T&S had another good reason for preferring the Severn Junction; it offered them a chance of bypassing the poor upper Thames navigation which had always been unsatisfactory to their interests. Since their canal had opened in 1789 the Company had been fighting a running battle with the Thames Commissioners trying to induce them to improve the river. An Act of 1795 had empowered the Commissioners to carry out improvements to the navigation; money had been subscribed for the purpose but despite the building of a number of locks above Oxford little real improvement had materialised. In 1797 James Black in a report to the T&S Committee suggested that a road be built between their canal at Inglesham and Acorn Bridge on the line of the W&B, that by a land carriage of 7 miles from canal to canal Abingdon etc. may be supplied with coals and in bad water times goods by the same carriage may be forwarded to Abingdon and avoid the river. Such are the benefits that will accrue from the making of this road and ultimately prove the advantage of a communication by a 7 mile canal by the vale of the Acorn Brook (now the River Cole) to the W&B canal.(Ref.2)
   No action was taken.
     In the 1810 proposal Whitworth stated that if the Severn Junction was built the T&S would have to alter their locks between their summit and Brimscombe Port. This suggestion would only be valid if the T&S renounced boats wider and longer than the narrow boats capable of navigating the W&B. Presumably he was concerned about the waste of water involved in the passage of smaller boats through locks 92ft long and l3ft wide. The 68ft locks below Brimscombe could by careful manoeuvring accommodate 72 ft boats diagonally across the 16 ft wide chamber.
     A meeting between representatives of the two Companies was held at Abingdon on 14th July, 1810. The W&B agreed to forget the Bristol Junction and build the Severn Junction but not on the lines earlier suggested by Whitworth and Black. The W&B end of the link was to be at or near Swindon and the T&S end at or near Cricklade below Latton lock. It was resolved that "The union of the two canals will be of very great Public Utility and of advantage to the Proprietors of both Concerns, allowing the T&S to bypass the bad upper Thames navigation."(Ref.3) This agreement was a compromise, James Black again proposed his line between Shrivenham and Inglesham; this would be shorter and allow the T&S to use the whole length of their canal, but would increase tolls on coal to the W&B and introduce it some way east of the centre of the line. The Earl of Peterborough again turned this proposal down stating that while he personally favoured the idea he feared that Lord Radnor and Mr. Warnford would bring insurmountable difficulties on account of their extensive water meadows at Shrivenham.
    Black also urged the T&S to support the W&B in promoting the Abingdon-Marsworth link which would bypass the lower Thames; he argued that the double threat might stimulate the Thames Commissioners into action. Subsequent to the meeting he proposed that a regulating lock should be built with a one foot fall from the Severn Junction to the T&S; this he stated would ensure amiable relations between the two Companies considering that the loss of water incurred by the Severn Junction by the inclusion of such a lock would be slight compared with the sacrifice the T&S would bear in allowing 20 ton boats to use their locks capable of passing 60 tons.
    Whitworth too had second thoughts; he was concerned about the danger of floods damaging both canals. The agreed site of the junction meant that at the crossing of the Thames the Severn Junction level would be only 2 ft above the Thames surface. He proposed altering the site to Redfurlong Bridge ¾ mile above Latton lock thus bringing the SJ level 9½ft above the river.(Ref.4) This proposal was accepted and the flood danger also minimised by carrying the canal over arches allowing flood water to pass underneath. The regulating lock, however, was not built until 1826 and then only after the very unfriendly relationship Black had sought to avoid.
    News of the agreement aroused strong opposition particularly from Thames interests. Lord Redesdale of Batsford wrote to the W&B claiming that his 40 years experience of canal Acts had proved "a greater sum of injustice and oppression had never been produced by any legislative measure in any country." He could see no possible advantages which his property or those nearby could derive from the SJ, indeed he saw great injury. "I know that canals produce great evils even when they are most advantageous, and that those evils are greatly increased by the officious manner in which the powers given to the adventurers are exercised."(Ref.5)
    The belief that the SJ would take water from the Thames had not yet been effectively scotched; rumours began to circulate which the W&B denied in a notice of 27th November, 1810, "Observations as to the intended Severn function Canal." In this Whitworth asserted that the canal had no intention of taking any water from the Thames over and above the 3,700 tons per day already supplied to the W&B by the Wanborough feeder, this quantity being sufficient for 24 locks. The W&B were empowered to build a reservoir at Coate and had also purchased land at Trow Lane, Tockenham for another to supply the lower levels west of Swindon. Apart from these large reserves, the summit level had been excavated 2 ft deeper and 6 ft wider than elsewhere, this extra stock of water could supply 10 locks per day for one month. There was therefore absolutely no need for water to be taken from the Thames at Cricklade.(Ref.5) Having thus attempted to reassure the Thames interests he proceeded to make a suggestion which he must have known would be highly unpopular with the T&S. He proposed that the SJ should be on a level for the 3½ miles between the T&S and the intended locks at Widdel Hill, that the supply for these locks be pumped from the SJ by an engine and then discharged back to the SJ, and that a regulating lock be built at the junction with the W&B.(Ref.5) The T&S would not countenance this suggestion that they should supply all necessary water. The finished canal had no such engine or regulating lock. The final 3½ miles was level and only stop gates protected T&S water.
    A Bill for the SJ was introduced in the House of Commons on 12th February, 1811 and immediately the University of Oxford lodged a petition against it. To this the W&B retaliated with a broadsheet in which Mr Hallett expressed "great astonishment at finding the University of Oxford petitioning against a canal which would so much benefit the poor of their City by producing a competition in coal as well as increasing the Tolls collected at their own lock called Boulters."(Ref.6) This lock near Maidenhead would benefit From the extra trade resulting from the building of the SJ.
    The Bill was given its first reading on 4th March and during the following two weeks a veritable flood of objections poured in, mainly from towns along the Thames who feared that the money they had subscribed to the Commissioners would be in jeopardy. The Oxford Canal Company joined the petitioners against; they faced increased competition in their large coal trade which had hitherto been partly protected from the invasion of Forest coal by the difficulties on the upper Thames. The T&S naturally petitioned in favour stating "the navigation of the Thames was imperfect, precarious and dangerous and because of it the expectations of this Company had fallen very short."(Ref.2) The Bill was then hastily withdrawn as it was suddenly realised that the T&S would also have to apply for a Bill to make the junction with their canal.(Ref.13)
    Whitworth, who had been appointed as Engineer for the project, produced his estimate for the SJ in July 1811; if the Swindon termination were to be at Eastcott his figure was £60,000 and if at Swindon Wharf, £62,000. The fall of 59 feet from Swindon to Latton was to be divided into 11 locks to conserve water and the estimated price had been reduced by planning to cut for nearly 3 miles besides roads and across common land.(Ref.5) He weakened his previous argument that W&B water supplies were ample by this admission that there was a need to conserve water and also by asking that the Bill should seek to raise up to £10,000 for the building of Coate reservoir.
    Violent opposition to any scheme for bypassing the upper Thames could always be expected from Edward Loveden, sometime MP for Abingdon, a prominent Thames Commissioner and a Proprietor of both the T&S and W&B. This opposition is easy to understand; Loveden owned Buscot lock near Lechlade. Not only was his toll of one shilling for every five tons passing as high as any on the Thames but he also charged another similar toll for the return journey, this double toll being unique on the river. This charge was in operation from as early as 1771 to 1821. The tolls collected for March 1791 were £8.10s.0d representing the passage of some 400 tons.(Ref.7) This is a surprisingly small figure and an indication of the restriction of trade imposed on the T&S by the state of the upper Thames, at this date their line being open for 18 months.(Ref.8)
    Loveden called a special General Meeting of the T&S Proprietors at the Globe Tavern, London on 7th January, 1812. Whitworth and Atherton, whose interest in the Forest of Dean we have already noted, attended; they were both T&S Proprietors, Whitworth holding 18 shares and Atherton 14. It was resolved:
                 that it is in the interest of the T&S to cooperate with the Thames Commissioners in making every practical improvement in the navigation from Lechlade to London, that from observations of very expensive works recently judiciously made at Culham, from information of others equally important actually ordered at Clifton and of more intended to be made with all possible despatch, and from reliance on the further assurances given by the Commissioners that the whole river within their jurisdiction should be forthwith be made an effectual navigation, the Proprietors of the T&S do not at present perceive any necessity for a junction with the W&B at Latton and therefore judge it now not expedient to consent thereto.
    The resolution was passed by 572 share votes to 401.(Ref.7)
    This complete about face provoked John Disney, the T&S Chairman, into writing a long letter, dated 18th February, 1812, addressed to all the T&S Proprietors and pointing out the dangers involved. He outlined the history of the SJ project and described how the W&B committee had been persuaded to drop the Bristol Junction in favour of the SJ; how the 1811 application for an Act had to be abandoned as the T&S could not prepare their application in time, but that early in January 1812 both parties were ready to reapply to Parliament as they had agreed to the junction. At the meeting on 7th January a certain Thames Commissioner had attended and stated that a Bill was about to be presented to Parliament for the improvement of that river between Abingdon and the T&S and because of this statement a resolution was passed that the T&S should withdraw their consent. At this meeting there were, apart from himself, only two Proprietors who were acting members of the Committee, and they did not vote on the question at all. It was supported by some gentlemen who had come to town for that purpose, but whom he had not seen more than once before at any meeting over the past twelve years. He had since searched the register of the Private Bill office and no petition for any such Bill could be found. The sudden reversal of policy had so disgusted the SJ promoters that they had given up their project. The W&B, wishing to improve their canal, and having large properties in the Forest of Dean in stone and coal mines, finding that they could not reach them with the aid of the T&S sought the communication otherwise. They projected a line from Foxham to Berkeley, "a measure pregnant with the most destructive consequences to us and calling for opposition to the last shilling of our resources." Certain members representing 747 shares had met on 14th February 14th to discuss what should be done; they decided to call a General meeting to reconsider the January resolution. The facts he would lay before the meeting would convince them that unless the resolution was revoked their Company would perhaps be totally destroyed. He urged all Proprietors to attend.(Ref.9)
    This meeting was held on 18th March. Disney pointed out that the works noted in the January resolution were of remote interest only to the T&S and that a conference with the Commissioners had disclosed that no new works were ordered or contemplated. It was resolved that the junction would be highly beneficial and that all necessary steps should be taken to revive and promote the SJ. It was also resolved that application should be made to the Commissioners to pay out a specific sum of the money they had collected to improve the Lechlade-Oxford section.(Ref.8) Two years later the Commissioners were to admit to the W&B that it was wholly out of their power to do so.(Ref.10)
    Deputation’s from the two Companies met at the Castle Inn, Marlborough on 18th July, 1812, the chair being taken by Lord Radnor representing the W&B. Some of the details on which both would consent to the junction were settled, of these the most important concerning Forest coal. This was to be entitled to such discounts as would reduce the toll taken by the T&S to two shillings and sixpence per ton, and as an added inducement to its importation to the W&B, boats returning empty having delivered such coal would be exempted from all tolls. No such concession was to apply to Somerset coal entering the T&S although each Company agreed to compensate the other for all foreign coal imported. The W&B were to supply all water for the SJ and not pump any back. Finally a recommendation was made that a general meeting of each Company should agree to provide one third of the cost leaving one third to be subscribed by landowners and the general public.(Ref.11) This was not a popular suggestion at a later meeting of the T&S Proprietors despite the great advantages they expected from the canal; the truth was that they did not have £20,000 on hand nor could they hope to raise such a sum.(Ref.2) The W&B did not improve their predicament by issuing a notice stating that although the proposed canal promised a fair return on its cost, as the principal beneficiaries would be the two canal Companies, the public could hardly be expected to raise the sum allotted to them. The potential of the project was demonstrated by the fact that the value of W&B shares rose when the SJ was agreed, and fell again when it appeared that the T&S had withdrawn their consent.(Ref.12)
    The next joint meeting was held at the Ram Inn, Cirencester on 14th August with John Disney in the chair. He reported later that the meeting was well attended, many people being there who had no financial interest in either canal. It was agreed that the project should go ahead and be renamed "The North Wilts Canal" (NW). Whitworth's survey and estimate were accepted, the W&B subscribing five twelfths of the cost, the public four and the T&S three twelfths. The meeting then adjourned to the same place on 28th October.
    When, at this later meeting, the T&S formally agreed to the junction, Lovenden strode up to the Clerk, John Lane, snatched the minute book from his hands and struck his name out of the list of those present, declaring that he would not have his name appear when he did not approve the resolution.(Ref.8)
     A Petition to introduce the NW Bill was presented to the House of Commons on 18th December, 1812 and on the same day the T&S asked for a Bill to allow them to complete the canal by making an additional cut to join and communicate with it. This application almost came to grief in February 1813 when the Committee examining it reported that no map, book of reference or list of landowners had been deposited. The basin for which permission was sought was only 192ft by 60ft and the maps etc. should have been deposited by the NW petitioners. One can imagine the frantic preparation of these papers, which the T&S supplied early in March. Both Bills received the Royal Assent on 2nd July, 1814.(Ref.14)
    A Petition in support of the NW Bill from "several Gentlemen, Traders and other inhabitants of Cricklade and neighbourhood" has been preserved; it is dated 2nd January, 1813 and has 45 signatures.
    The text closely resembles the preamble to the Act 53 Geo. 111 Cap. 182 which stated that,
                    the canal will greatly facilitate and render more convenient than at present, the conveyance of all kinds of commodities to and from the Towns near the line of such canal and will open a communication between South Wales and the Counties of Hereford and Gloucester and His Majesty's Forest of Dean, and the City of London.(Ref.15)
    The "Proprietors of the North Wilts Canal Navigation" could take water locally only during construction; they were not to take any from the T&S nor from any of the sources of the Thames. As all water used was to be supplied by the W&B double stop gates were to be fitted within 200 yards of that canal; these could be closed if the W&B, after inspection, were not satisfied that the NW were using water economically. The W&B were to be paid for all water supplied and could appoint three agents to take care of the NW locks. Another stop gate was to be fitted within 100 yards of the junction with the T&S who were to have powers to prevent passage when the NW water was lower than that of their canal. The Proprietors were empowered to raise £60,000 amongst themselves in £25 shares; if this amount was not sufficient another £30,000 could be raised either by the same means or by Mortgage or Promissory Notes. Work was not to commence until £44,000 had been subscribed. Tolls were to be the same as those taken by the W&B but those on goods between Cricklade and the T&S were to be reduced to one half. The Proprietors were to build an aqueduct at least 8ft wide and 7ft high over the River Churn and four other arches of similar size under the canal in the lands of John Lord Eliot to carry off flood water.
     The list of subscribers was deposited in the Office of the Clerk of the Peace in the County of Wilts on 14th September, 1813, together with a plan, elevations of the main aqueducts to be built, a sectional plan showing the location and fall of the 11 locks and also a list of the owners or occupiers of lands to be crossed.
     The total sum advanced was £44,750 from 116 subscribers. By far the greatest amount came from Proprietors of the W&B over and above that Company's £15,000. The Earl of Peterborough provided £5,500, the Morlands £1,700, Nathaniel Atherton £1,250, William Hallett £1,000, John Prower £800, James Crowdy £750, Joseph Priestley £700, William Whitworth £500 and Ambrose Goddard £225. Seven T&S Proprietors subscribed £1,900 of which the Disney family contributed £1,000. Thirty subscribers from Oxford produced nearly £6,000, six from Abingdon £1,400 and seventeen from London £3,000. The Bullo Pill Railway Company provided £500 and the T&S subscribed the £5,000 allowed in their Bill.(Ref.16) This sum had been agreed by the T&S when Disney reported in October 1812 at a NW Subscribers meeting where he stated that because of delays many subscribers had withdrawn their support and unless the two Companies subscribed in their Corporate capacity the project would have to be abandoned for lack of funds. The meeting had resolved that as the junction would provide a profit to them of £2,000 a year (nearly equal to their net revenue at that time), £5,000, the amount of their sinking fund, should be advanced together with £250 towards the expenses of the application to Parliament.(Ref.2)
    On 24th February 1814 Disney and Lane met Whitworth and Crowdy at Latton; they saw Lord Eliot's stewards and marked out the outline of the basin.(Ref.2)
    Friction developed between the Companies during the building of the junction. Whitworth had asked that the position of the basin should be altered to avoid an awkward aqueduct over the Thames. The T&S had agreed to this but the question then arose as to who should pay for the aqueduct now needed to cross the River Churn which flowed between the basin and the T&S. Counsel's opinion was sought in July, this stated that as the T&S first occupied the ground by making the basin they could not compel the NW to make the aqueduct, that canal now ending at the point of junction with the basin and not being continued to the Churn. The Acts were defective, neither Company could be compelled to make the aqueduct and it was doubtful if the T&S had powers to build it unless by arrangement with the NW or people connected with the river.(Ref.17)
    The T&S finally built it under the supervision of John Denyer, their Manager. Two estimates were obtained; if an iron cylinder were used the cost would be £230, a more conventional stone structure would cost £311. The latter was chosen.(Ref.18)
    The remainder of the NW was built under the supervision of William Whitworth. It included a 100 yard tunnel at Cricklade and three small aqueducts following earlier Brindley designs and consisting of embankments through the bottom of which rivers flowed in three low culverts.
     Loveden watched the building in a mood of gloomy foreboding; in a letter of 2nd November he writes "... the North Wilts is a bad prospect and proceeds very slowly."(Ref.7) By 1817 work had virtually ceased owing to lack of funds; application was then made to the Exchequer Loan Commissioners for the money necessary to complete the line. This Commission was set up under the 1817 Poor Employment Act "for the carrying on of Public works and Fisheries, and the employment of the poor in manner therein." The Commissioners agreed to lend £24,000 at 5 per cent interest but only £15,000 was taken, £6,000 in March 1818, £6,000 later that year and £3,000 in 1819.(Ref.17)
    John Denyer wrote to J. S. Salt the T&S Treasurer on 21st January, 1817
    The traffic from Brimscombe to London is almost nil. I hope to see the North Wilts proceeded with in the spring, the completion of which I have not the slightest doubt will materially improve our Tonnage.
    On 25th August, 1818 he reported that work at Latton was under way and on 8th September
    The North Wilts is to go ahead, having got a loan from the Exchequer Commissioners.(Ref.19)
   Tolls of £26 were collected during May 1818 but the canal was not officially opened, without fuss, until 2nd April, 1819. Priestley marvels that it cost less than the estimated price of £60,000, the actual cost being the £44,750 subscribed plus the £15,000 borrowed.
    The NW Proprietors were in financial difficulties almost at once; during the first seven weeks of operation their tolls were only £150.20 At the end of the first year they could not repay the first instalment due to the Exchequer Loan Commissioners and proposed incorporation with the W&B who had little option but to agree that this was very much in their interests. In February 1820 they petitioned for a Bill to unite the two canals. "The Petitioners as a body, being considerable shareholders in the North Wilts and the two navigations being so interwoven and connected with each other as to regulations of trade and supply of water, apprehend that it would be beneficial and expedient to incorporate the two." The preamble to the resulting Act 2 Geo. IV Cap. 97 summarised the W&B and NW Acts and stated that both canals had been made except for the reservoirs and several of the feeders. As most of the Proprietors were common to both Companies it would be highly expedient and beneficial to unite the affairs and concerns of the two undertakings and as an agreement had been made the two Acts should be repealed and the powers, provisions and authorities of the same considered in one Act. All conveyances were to be transferred to the United Company and the powers to make reservoirs and to take water from Wanborough Brook were reserved. The rules governing both Companies were restated and were to be those of the United Navigations. No actions already brought were to be abated by the Act.21
   The W&B took over the Exchequer debt which was paid off by February 1836.(Ref.17)
   In 1821 Edward Protheroe was sending 18 boat loads of Forest coal from Brimscombe down to the W&B but at the same time William Quarrell of Cricklade and the Stranges of Swindon were carrying Somerset coal up to Cricklade despite the fact that Forest coal was charged one shilling per ton and Somerset coal two shillings per ton. The canal never came up to the expectations of the Forest coal concerns. During the later years for which records are available (1838-1862), with one exception, twice as much coal passed into the T&S from the W&B as came from that line. In 1840 over 15,000 tons of Forest coal poured down the NW for use in the building of the Great Western Railway. In a letter to the T&S written in 1828, Dunsford, the W&B manager, stated that Forest coal was never popular on that line for household use.(Ref.22)
1 K&A minute book 10 July 1803.
2 TS 164a&c Blacks reports.
3 TS 207 20/3.
4 GCLJF145411.
5 WRO 109/900/910.
6 GCLJV141.
7 Thacker, The Thames Highway.
8 TS 166.
9 GCLJV141.
10 TS 207 20/4.
11 BRO D EEL 07.
12 TS 207 20/4.
13 JHC Vol 66 p37-230.
14 JHC Vol 68 p91-592.
15 WRO 54/129.
16 WRO List of NW subscribers.
17 TS 193/22 and SRL D1-3.
18 TS 164C Aug 29 1816.
19 TS 220.
20 TS 207/15.
21 JHC Vol 76 p49-411.
22 SRL letter book.

Extract from "The Wilts and Berks Canal" by L. J. Dalby