Canal into Highway - Fleming Way

by E. V. Tull and K. Walter

When Robert and William Whitworth surveyed the route of the Wilts & Berks Canal in 1793 they followed the 330-foot contour for as much as possible of the eight mile summit length. The route thus passed through the damp fields of the clayland one mile north of the small hilltop town of Swindon. This was near enough for the operation of the coal trade, while inconveniencing no one except a few local farmers whose fields were bisected.

Thirty years after the opening of the canal the Great Western Railway reached the Swindon area on a converging route a few hundred yards further north. The siting of a railway junction and major factory at the foot of the hill gave birth to New Swindon, but this boom-town was at first trapped between the two lines of transportation; its north-south thoroughfares were constrained to a small number of bridges under the railway and over the canal. The eventual result was a maze of narrow, truncated streets on both sides of an obsolescent canal; many of these streets still exist today, making Swindon a nightmare for traffic managers and road users. In 1906 the canal ceased to carry through traffic, and eight years later Swindon Corporation succeeded in having an Act of Abandonment passed by Parliament in respect of it. They thus acquired the canal and some adjoining land and buildings. However, the silted, weed choked waterway was an expensive embarrassment, and soon after the Great War they had the one and a quarter mile urban stretch of the canal filled in. In the harsh economic climate of those days nothing further could be done with the site, so it became a weedgrown, rubbish strewn eyesore for the next 40 years (see Fig 1, below).

Those bridges which could be demolished without affecting adjacent dwellings or business premises were removed. One of these was the narrow, stone built bridge of 1803 which carried the old Saxon way known as Drove Road over the canal half a mile east of the town centre. Its site became covered by Drove roundabout, nowadays known as the Magic Roundabout.

Nearer the town centre were two bridges which could not be conveniently disposed of; namely Whale Bridge and York Road Bridge. They had little else in common. Whale Bridge was the third successive one built on or near the same site where Princes Street, running the length of the low ridge from Regent Circus, had to be connected with Corporation Street on the far side of the canal. The final Whale Bridge, built in 1893, was a very plain structure. It consisted of a corrugated steel deck on abutments of blue glazed engineering bricks, with a span of about 25 feet and width 36 feet including two narrow pavements. The sides of the bridge were of sheet steel topped with lengths of timber.

Th addition to the two main streets joined by Whale Bridge no fewer than four other streets converged on it, namely Lowestoft Street and Gordon Road on the south side, and Medgbury Road and Oriel Street on the north. The approaches were short and steep, and there was a perilous double bend in the northern one. (The bend is manifested today in the form of an oval roundabout with its long axis aligned at 45 to the old canal line). All this contributed to an increasing number of road accidents throughout the long existence of the bridge. However the obvious remedy, the removal of the bridge, was not practicable in those years. The Whale Public House, originally built in the 1840's, was rebuilt in 1906 tight against its northeast corner and a large motor repair building, owned from about 1920 by the influential Harry C. Preater, stood equally tight against its southeast corner. Furthermore, on the northwest corner there was a fine example of a Victorian gents' urinal elevated to the level of the bridge deck, a surprisingly prominent position for such a facility in those days. The various interests vested in these three buildings were such that the bridge, sandwiched between them, remained safe from demolition for 40 years after the water beneath it had disappeared.

York Road bridge, 450 yards east of Whale Bridge and only 250 yards short of Drove Road, was similarly hemmed in by buildings and embanked streets, and was built only fourteen years after Whale Bridge. However, unlike Whale bridge, which owed its siting to a farm road of the pre-canal era, York Road bridge originated from forward planning by Swindon Corporation. The extensive fields north of Swindon hill which comprised the Rolleston estate were developed between about 1895 and 1905, after which the developers began to acquire fields south of the canal for the same purpose. The new spine road, named York Road, was to begin almost opposite the southern end of Graham Street and to head straight towards Old Town, which the planners of the day may have expected it to eventually reach via Belle Vue Road (although this has not yet happened). A bridge was therefore planned to connect the two development areas, and Graham Street had been embanked for this purpose.

By the time York Road bridge was erected, c. 1907, the canal was derelict and its ultimate fate predictable, but its water presented a problem to the builders of this last bridge to be built over the canal within Swindon borough boundary. Anecdotal evidence ('Canal Days in Swindon'; Dr E.V. Tull, page 54) is that the channel had to be temporarily diverted a few yards south to permit the construction of the southern abutment, and there is some corroborative evidence (K Walter, unpublished ,manuscript.) that the completion of houses at the northern end of York Road was delayed, presumably by this operation.

The design of the bridge was complicated by the 30' misalignment of York Road with Graham Street. This caused the bridge to be aligned at about 15' to each of the two streets, lengthening the axis of the span by a foot or so beyond the 25-foot distance between the parallel abutments. The northern abutment was positioned where is can still be seen now (1994), but the southern one stood approximately where the centre line of Fleming Way now is. The southern abutment was flanked by two retaining walls which held small triangular embankments against its sides, thus strengthening it laterally.

The bridge was 42 feet wide, including two pavements of generous width. The deck was supported by longitudinal steel girders of 'top hat' section, riveted together at their upper flanges as shown in Fig 2. The depth of the channel so created was about 16 inches. On each side of the deck the outermost channel had a row of angle iron lengths fixed across it to improve the lateral stiffness. All the channels were filled with rubble, above which was a layer of small, oil impregnated wooden blocks forming a lightweight, shock absorbing filling under the tarmac surface. A striking feature of the bridge, especially when compared with Whale bridge, was the design of the bridge sides. These were of iron castings about an inch thick, with large trefoil perforations which both lightened the members and gave the bridge a touch of elegance. Unfortunately this enhancement was somewhat offset by two arrays of fiercely spiked railings at the south end of the bridge, and by the failure of the Corporation to check the luxuriant growth of nettles on the earthen embankments each summer.

All the brickwork was of good quality, blue glazed engineering bricks and the coping stones were large, carefully shaped stone blocks. The bridge was provided by Swindon Corporation and was evidently intended to last for many years, irrespective of what might become of the canal.

So what did happen to the canal? In the 1950's some ambitious plans were made for. the redevelopment of Swindon town centre. The need was recognised for a wide, uncluttered road running westward from Drove Road roundabout to connect with Fleet Street and Faringdon Road. This would relieve the traffic flow in Groundwell Road and Manchester Road, with their numerous intersections. It was decided that the 850-yard stretch of the W&BC site from Drove Road to Wellington Street (now the General Post Office), plus an additional 170-yard length of the North Wilts canal site to Fleet Street, would be converted into a road. It was to be named Fleming Way, after the formerly famous Swindon Town and international footballer, Harold Fleming.

The construction of Fleming Way began in the autumn of 1959. The first stage was from just west of York Road bridge to a point about 150 yards west of Medgbury Place. This was to provide an alternative north-south route via Medgbury Place and Newcastle Street, thus allowing York Road bridge to be demolished later. The work involved the demolition of two houses in Medgbury Road to widen Medgbury Place, and raising the level of the infilled canal by several feet to permit junctions with the two side streets. A sad part of the operation was the grubbing-out of a short but well preserved length of original canalside hawthorn hedge alongside 60 Salisbury Street. The only remains of the hedge nowadays are a few hawthorn standards just east of Graham Street.

The first stage of Fleming Way was completed by early 1961 and York Road bridge was demolished in May of that year, together with an adjoining shop premises. Most of the wooden blocks on the bridge were still in good condition and were used by local householders as domes-tic fuel. The northern abutment was simply made good with matching bricks, some of which were salvaged and some new, as can still be seen today. The whole southern abutment was demolished and replaced a few yards further south by a thick, reinforced concrete retaining wall, faced with new blue bricks and topped with original style coping stones. While this work was being done the second stage of Fleming Way was constructed from Drove roundabout, through the bridge site to join with the first section near Newcastle Street, but not opened to traffic at that time.

The third stage of Fleming Way was started in May 1962. It was first driven through a newly-created gap on the south side between the Garrard factory and the Preater motor repair complex, thus providing a new access to the Lowestoft Street cul-de-sac. This facilitated the demolition of nearly all the Preater buildings, including the tall, former flour mill which had dominated this stretch of the canal since 1893. Meanwhile, on the north bank the Whale Inn and the adjacent bargees' tenement, built c. 1842 and known as Cetus Buildings, were also demolished. West of Whale bridge the canalside houses of Gordon Road had already gone. (What is now called Gordon Road lies some 200 yards south of its original location.)

This wholesale demolition programme left Whale Bridge standing in a vast open space while a new roundabout, retaining the venerable name, was constructed around it in the autumn of 1964. In December the roundabout was opened to traffic and the bridge, now looking very small and insignificant, was quickly demolished, its 71 years of duty done. In early 1965 the greater part of Fleming Way, from Drove roundabout to Whale Bridge (sic) roundabout, was opened to traffic, and by the end of the year the final section, joining with Fleet Street and Milford Street, was also opened.

"Canal Days in Swindon" by Dr Eric V Tull, 1993.
"A History of the Queen's Park Community Area" by K. Walter, Queen's Park Community Council, 1989.
Evening Advertiser, various dates.


[reproduced from "Dragon~Fly" 53, June 1994.]

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