Brian Stovold [treasurer of the East Vale Branch] wrote the following articles for an exhibition currently on display in the "Vale and Downland Museum", Wantage. [Display ended 22nd. September].

Wantage Past and Present

"At the beginning of the 19th Century, Wantage boasted of few means of communications with the outside world. Railways, of course, had not yet been established and there were only three very slow means of locomotion. First, there was the Wilts and Berks Canal which was the principal means of conveyance of goods to and from the town. Next there was a coach which ran twice a week to London, starting from the "Alfreds Head Hotel". It is said that in those far off days, no one ever thought of going to the metropolis without having previously made his or her will. This showing what a dangerous or marvellous event it was considered to be. Then the bandwagon, which was driven for many years by a man named "Blisset" went to London once a week and its "goods" office was in the yard in Wallingford Street, next to "The Ivies"

Wantage Past and Present by Agnes Gibbons and EC Davey 1901
In Lewis' Topographical Dictionary for 1831 the town is thus described:

"The streets are very irregularly built, and contain few good houses; an Act of Parliament has been passed for paving and lighting; the inhabitants are supplied with water from wells, and from a brook which runs into the river, The principal branches of trade and manufacture are those of sacking, twine, malt and flour. Coal is brought hither, and corn and flour and malt sent to different parts by means of the Wilts and Berks Canal, affording a communication with London, Bath and Bristol. The Market in which the corn is pitched is on a Saturday; chiefly for corn, also for pigs and cattle and cheese, July 18th for cherries, and the 18th October, a statute fair, a cheese fair is also held the first Saturday in every month."


Construction of the Canal 1795 - 1810

Construction of the canal started from the west end and moved eastwards.

Bricks for the engineering walls, i.e. locks, bridges and culverts were made in brickyards along the route luckily. Kimmeridge clay was found in generous amounts along the route. The last bricks built at each yard were used to build the next kilns.

Bricks were of a standard size 10" x 4.75" wide x 3" - larger than the common statute bricks, so reducing the amount of brick tax then payable. By June 1805 the canal was navigable as far as the east end of the summit pound at South Marston.

By June 1807 the canal was complete to Challow, a total of 49 miles. One mile beyond was nearly ready, leaving 8.5 miles to reach Abingdon, (not allowing for the 0.75 miles Wantage branch).

Between Longcot and Abingdon the engineering works consisted of 12 locks, 10 arch bridges and the aqueduct over the Letcombe brook.

The Thames was reached officially on 10th September 1810.

The canal settled down to business, and even expansion was foreseen.

Firstly, there was a scheme to build a canal from Abingdon to Marsworth, on what is now the Grand Union Canal.

Secondly, a scheme for a canal to be known as the Central Junction, to join the Wilts and Berks at Abingdon, following the River Windrush, and passing Burford, Bourton on the Water, and Shipton-on-Stour, to Stratford on Avon was surveyed, but never progressed to Parliament following opposition from the Grand Junction and Oxford canals.

The scheme that finally went ahead was the North Wilts canal, connecting The Wilts and Berks at Swindon with the Thames and Severn at Latton, near Cricklade.

This canal had the advantage of enabling coal from the Forest of Dean to be imported to the area. It also, from the point of view of the Thames and Severn canal proprietors would have the effect of cutting out the stretch of the Thames between Lechlade and Abingdon - which was not well maintained, at the time.

The North Wilts was opened on 2nd April 1819. It cost 44,750 subscribed and 15,000 borrowed from the Exchequer Loan Commissioners (This debt was repaid in 1836)

Although a separate company, it ran into financial problems as soon as it opened, and in 1820 the Wilts and Berks canal and North Wilts were united as one company.

The canal prospered only briefly before being overshadowed by the new Great Western Railway which chose Swindon as its Head Quarters, and followed the canal for much of the canal route.

The Great Western line opened entirely in 1841, and quickly took away the local traffic. The route from the Somerset coal fields was not affected so the coal trade continued.

It was the eastern section - Abingdon to Swindon which suffered the most, e.g. stations at Challow, Shrivenham and Uffington.

The expectation that goods would be exported from the rural areas did not prove true either. Most boats returned empty having delivered the loads of coal.

Tolls income decreased, as competition from the railway increased.

By 1844 much of the coal and salt trade had vanished. When the railway from Chippenham to Melksham opened in 1848, further competition affected the Somerset canal route, from Mendip coalfields.

Economies were eventually forced on the company in the face of declining usage and income, leading to poor maintenance and hence delays to craft.

The final dividend was paid in 1871.

In the North Wilts Herald 5th September 1874, reports of discussions about closure were noted. In Wantage only one trader was active.

On the 21st November 1874 notice was given that an application was to be made to Parliament for an Act to close the canal.

The canal was saved by the formation of a new company in 1877, the owners being the Wilts, Somerset and Berks Canal Traders Association. Members of the company included James Hiskins, a coal and stone trader in Wantage; and the lock keeper at Seven Locks.

Unfortunately it was too late.

The new group, according to the Devizes and Wilts Gazette of 27th April 1897, did their utmost to foster and stimulate trade on the canal, experiments with sectional boats.

In 1891, another new company took over. The United Commercial Syndicate. They raised money, including 10,000 from Lord Wantage, to put into effect dredging and lock repairs, but only from Semington to Swindon. No trade, however, was created.

In 1889 the canal east of Swindon, according to observers appeared unused, it had a green film in places with patches of rushes and undisturbed flowers.

The end was nigh. In 1896 the business was transferred to a firm of boat owners at Bath and Bristol. They went into liquidation. By 1898 there was no traffic on the eastern end and only 8168 tons west of Swindon in that year.

The canal rotted. Pressure began to come from traders and residents of Swindon for closure because of the stagnant water, and health risks.

The final straw came in 1901. Stanley Aqueduct near Chippenham collapsed cutting off Swindon from the Kennet and Avon. A private bill was introduced into the House of Commons in February 1914.Even by that stage some of the canal had been infilled.

The Royal Assent was received on 3 lst July 1914. The Swindon corporation acquired all the property in Swindon, including Coate Reservoir for 10,000.


Imagine North Wiltshire and North West Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) in the mid to late 18th Century.

Transportation of bulk goods was extremely difficult and restricted trade of all but the most specialised goods to the local produce .Trade tended to depend upon proximity to river navigation. The nearest navigable river was the River Thames, and in those days even 10 miles was a long distance to travel, especially by packhorse. Otherwise goods had to be carried in small quantities by pack horse or dray. The network was basic and a far cry from the metal system of today, hence the enthusiasm for the development of the canal system in England in the 18th Century.

The turnpike roads were being developed towards the end of the 18th Century but were unsuitable for transporting heavy loads. See quotes from "Wantage Past and Present"

The first schemes to touch this area were surveyed in 1784. These entailed canals to bypass the upper Thames which was hazardous and not well maintained. The route from Kempsford to Abingdon, avoiding Oxford would have reduced the mileage considerably, but were defeated in Parliament by Oxford and Thames interests.

Bath Chronicle 3rd January 1793.

On the 3rd of January a notice appeared in the Bath Chronicle signed by the Earl of Peterborough whose estate was at Dauntsey. This called a meeting at Wootton Bassett Town Hall to discuss the promotion of a canal from Abingdon to Bristol or to another planned western canal (later to become the Kennet and Avon) at or near Chippenham.

It was agreed that the proposed canal will be of the greatest advantage to the Landed and Commercial interest of this county by opening a regular, safe and certain water carriage between all the towns and places near or adjoining such intended canal from Bristol to or near Abingdon, and there (by means of the Thames) to London.

A committee of 28 gentlemen was appointed with power to employ engineers to survey the route. This was at the time of canal mania. Whilst many of those attending the meeting were local landowners hoping that easy transport would improve the value of their land, speculators would have been there hoping for speedy returns.

The next meeting was held at the Crown and Thistle Inn, at Abingdon 16 February 1793.

Robert Whitworth, a pupil of the famous canal engineer Brindley, and his son William were appointed to carry out a survey and estimate.

Over the next 2 years, many plans and amendments were put forward. The route at the western end, which also depended on the planned route of the Kennet and Avon canal, went through various guises before the actual line was settled.

At the eastern end it was unclear at first whether the canal would meet the Thames at Wallingford or Abingdon - A final decision was taken at committee (Wantage 16 May 1794). When Whitworth had surveyed the Thames in 1784 he found the stretch between Abingdon and Wallingford to be "hopeless" but when he returned he found it had improved. The decision to end at Abingdon saved 7 miles and 15,000. The total cost of construction was 255,262.10s 91/2d.

It is worth looking at the populations of the major towns near the route of the canal:

Population l801::

  • Melksham 5006

  • Calne 3767

  • Wootton Bassett 1244

  • Wantage 2339

  • Abingdon 4356

  • Swindon 1198

The route of the canal passed through no towns; Wantage, Chippenham and Calne were to be connected by short branches from the main line.

The Royal Assent was passed 30th April 1795 as is recorded in Hansard.


The Wilts and Berks Canal Amenity Group.

The group was formed in October 1977. It is a registered charity and in 1988 became a Company limited by guarantee.

The aims of the group have evolved since it was formed. The Group came together originally in order to attempt to:

  • 1) Protect the lines of the Wilts and Berks and North Wilts Canals, and to protect further infilling or any other destruction of them or their associated structural features.

  • 2) To generate public interest in the Wilts and Berks and North Wilts canal, their protection, preservation and improvement.

  • 3) To record what remains of these canals and their industrial archaeology by photography.

  • 4) To facilitate the use of these canals by wildlife of all kinds and to promote the general improvement of the immediate environment.

  • 5)....a. To promote the amenity use of the canals

  • .......b. To take such action as might be necessary to achieve these aims.

  • ...........(i) contact and negotiation with landowners, commercial and other interested people

  • ...........(ii) Physical action such as towpath and channel clearance.

  • 6) The encouragement of educational authorities and others to use the canals in all possible ways for the education of young people.

  • 7) To arrange talks and shows.

  • 8) To establish a reference collection of slides, photos.

  • 9) To keep its members informed by means of a periodic journal.

From a small start, the group grew. As local people became involved, a branch structure evolved. There are now several branches along the length of the canal.


Each of the branches hold monthly social evenings, with occasional talks.

From being a group wholly interested in the preservation of the remains, we have become steadily more active in restoration, such that our aims can be more readily described as follows.


Our objects are:

  • (a) to convince local authorities, government departments and other local organisations of the benefits and feasibility of the proposed restoration.

  • (b) convince landowners, local commerce and the general public of the merits of restoration.

  • (c) secure the route of the waterway and adequate water supplies.

  • (d) to establish the Amenity Group as a key member of a partnership with local authorities and other bodies that will facilitate restoration of the canal.

  • (e) implement and agreed programme for full restoration of the canal..

The Amenity Group has now been re-named................the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust


This site is visible from the A338 "Grove Bypass". Four years ago we became concerned about the state of the tail bridge at the end of Grove Common Lock. Firstly, it was on a public footpath and secondly, it was the only remaining tail bridge even if in a dilapidated and sorry state.

The final straw came when we heard that vandals had been out with crowbars attempting to remove the keystone to bring the whole arch down.

With help from Oxfordshire Count Council we have been able to rescue the bridge, initially making it safe and then rebuilding the parapet wall and top brickwork. The final rebuilding of the buttresses was completed this year.

Although out on its own and with no water nearby we believe the rescue of this piece of industrial archaeology to be of prime importance in bringing the restoration to the public notice.


Here, we were give the opportunity to work on a much longer length of disused canal, thanks to the generosity of the landowners.

The section runs from the site of "Stockham Bridge" just behind Metal Box to the outskirts of East Challow, and the towpath forms a public right of way.

The first task was to clear the scrub and undergrowth in the bed of the silted canal and to remove the willows which had also grown in the bed over the years since closure.

Once done, dredging could commence. This took several years, but once completed meant that we had a stretch of some 1200 yds. of open water. As several springs feed into the canal it never runs dry, and forms an interesting water and wildlife corridor and pleasant walk between Wantage and Challow.

Funds came from a variety of sources, including our own fund-raising, and grants from the O.C.C., British Telecom, the NRA and Thames Water.

Although virtually at a stage when routine maintenance will suffice, there remains several large and expensive tasks. Firstly, the building of a weir to keep the water at the correct level (to allow for through navigation in the future).

Secondly, the section is divided roughly, the last 200 yards by several pipes. Eventually we hope these will be moved, to enable the full section to be navigable for a boat trip.


Work continues south of Shrivenham where plans are in hand for a pocket-park alongside a restored section of over a mile of canal.

In and around Swindon, work is taking place, at Moredon on an aqueduct, and also south at West Lease, where a mile of canal is now in water with extension planned, to connect with a restored section of canal under the Skew Bridge at Kingshill.


Over the last three to four years work has continued at a pace - the first Narrowboat on the Wilts and Berks in probably one hundred years was put on the water here only recently, and on the weekend of the 13th and 14th of July, the first Trail-Boat Rally was held.


Moving on another three or four miles, work has been taking place at Foxham for several years, including the first lock restoration on the canal.


We plan to work on a stretch at Childrey, and we continue to plan the restoration of other short lengths.

We are always looking for keen volunteers to help on the work parties or even in purely a clerical role.

The East Vale branch meet on the 1st Wednesday of the month at the Plough at West Hanney from 8pm. Do come along.

The first section of canal restored by the Amenity group was the stretch at Calne, including the restoration of Chaveywell bridge.

Here in the east, we started work on the 300 yard section of canal behind the Grove Recreation Ground. This section is cut off at one end by the new Mably way, at the point where the Wantage branch left the mainline of the canal. The amenity area covers the pound between the remains of Grove Top Lock, where we have cosmetically restored the entrance walls, and the remains of Lime Kiln Lock. The footpath alongside the canal along the old towpath is well used, and the entire section forms a green barrier between Grove and Wantage.

A reopening ceremony was performed in May 1994 at which the Groups trip boat did a sterling service, since then however vandalism has reared its ugly head and the bridge at the entrance to Lime Kiln Lock remains had to be removed after the second bout of vandalism in a year.

We are looking at a more vandal proof design before further fund raising.

The section relies on run off from the nearby roads and fields for its water supply and unfortunately dries up during the summer months.

More work remains to be done on this amenity area before we can call it finished and fall back on routine maintenance. However it has added greatly to the local amenity.

Fund-raising for this section has come from various sources including the Grove Joint Environment Trust.

Earlier this year North Wilts District Council announced that they were prepared to pledge 38,000 towards the cost of a full feasibility study on the restoration of a navigable waterway. The total cost of such a study is likely to be around 80,000. We are therefore looking for funding from other sources including the other local authorities to raise the full cost.

A trust has been formed consisting of the Wilts and Berks Canal Amenity Group and representatives from the local councils and other interested bodies. This will raise the profile of the canal, and provide better opportunities to seek the major fund-raising which is required for the canals full restoration.

(Since this Brian compiled this article there has been some further re-organisation.  The original trust has been dissolved and has re-appeared as the Wilts & Berks Canal Partnership.  W&BCAG has now taken the name of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust)


For more information about the group contact :
Chris Toms, Membership Secretary, 16 Firham Park Avenue, Harold Wood, Romford, Essex RM3 0SJ.
[Tel: 01 708 342036].
Or you can email info@wbct.org.uk



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