A Brief History of the Wilts & Berks Canal

Peter Scatchard

The Wilts & Berks Canal was conceived late in the period now associated with "Canal Mania". The success of canals, both as commercial enterprises in which to invest and as by far the most effective form of inland transportation for bulk materials and goods had been amply demonstrated elsewhere throughout England, particularly in the heartlandís of the Industrial Revolution, the Midlands and Pennine flanks. By the late Eighteenth Century, the general fear was that the North Wessex area might be in danger of "missing out" on the benefits of the Industrial and Transport Revolutions. The discovery of exploitable coal resources south of Bath in the Somerset Coalfield proved the final justification for the formation of a Company to finance the building of the Wilts & Berks Canal.

A committee of potential investors having been formed in 1793, commissioned a survey of possible routes from Robert Whitworth and his son William, the former a pupil of the great canal builder James Brindley. With a suitable route identified, the necessary Parliamentary Act granting compulsory purchase and other necessary powers was duly obtained in 1795 and work commenced at the southern extremity of the line later that year. Given the distraction provided by the Napoleonic Wars, it is perhaps not surprising that the 52 miles of canal from Semington Junction on the Kennet and Avon Canal to Abingdon on the River Thames Navigation took 15 years to complete, the official Opening Ceremony being conducted on 14 September 1810. In addition to providing a route for coal to the immense London market, the W & B served to bring cheap coal to the market towns of Melksham, Calne, Chippenham, Wootton Bassett, Swindon, Farringdon, Wantage and Abingdon and to Oxford, whilst also offering economic transport for the regional export of agricultural produce and such locally produced goods as bricks, building stone, day pipes, etc.

The North Wilts Canal was nine miles long and had twelve locks. With aqueducts over the River Ray and the Upper Thames, and a short tunnel near Cricklade, it was opened on 2nd April 1819, linking the Wilts & Berks Canal at Swindon to the Thames & Severn Canal at Latton. This provided an alternative route for trading boats enabling them to avoid the difficult Thames Navigation above Abingdon.

However, the W & B always proved of limited economic value; the Kennet and Avon, built as a wide canal offering passage for 14 feet beam boats (compared to the W & B narrowboats with only a seven feet beam) provided a shorter, speedier and more economic route to the London market. The Somerset Coalfield rapidly became worked out. Additionally the rural nature of the region through which the canal passed provided little by way of high-value cargo able to afford the canal fees and dues necessary to repay investors and to leave a surplus adequate for the essential continual maintenance.

Ironically, the best times of the W & B Canal came in the 1830s, a mere 15 to 25 years after completion - ironically, because peak revenues and profits for the W & B Canal company came about through Isambard Kingdom Brunel's G. W. R., the Great Western, or more affectionately God's Wonderful Railway; the W & B provided an efficient means of transporting the vast quantities of iron, brick, stone, aggregate and timber needed in the building of the railway which, apart from the eastern and western extremities, is never more than a mile or two away from the line of the canal. Thus did the W & B contribute towards its own eventual and probably inevitable downfall.

The rest of the nineteenth century is marked by the slow, steady and inexorable decline of the W&B As more and more traffic shifted from canal to railway, tolls and fees tumbled, operating costs had to be slashed to match the falling revenues and the essential maintenance was cut back and back, in turn causing further problems for the few remaining operators; the last boat recorded into Wantage Wharf in the mid 1890s, for instance, was able to transport only 17 tons compared with the designed limit of 34 tons, thanks to severe silting up of the channel through lack of dredging, reducing the available depth of water and thus the draft of the laden vessel. By 1900, traffic had all but ceased on the W & B apart from a small number of movements along the south-western end of the canal, with occasional boats still making the journey into Swindon from the Kennet and Avon Canal. How long such traffic could and would have continued in its desultory way we will never know -one wet and stormy night in early 1901, nature, aided by the long years of neglected maintenance, stepped in to administer the 'coup de grace'. To carry the canal over the River Marden between Calne and Chippenham, the canal engineers had built the Stanley Aqueduct, one of the few major structures on what was generally a somewhat unsophisticated canal largely lacking great feats of engineering. That night, an approximately four feet square section of aqueduct simply collapsed out of the roof of one of the row of arches, and like pulling out the bath-plug, the water from the canal just ran out, leaving the canal above Lacock literally high and dry.

With the canal all but useless, certainly for navigation, various parties attempted to officially abandon it and thus absolve themselves of their obligations and liabilities, but it was to be another 13 years before the official Act of Abandonment was passed by Parliament, with the land on which the canal had been built returned or sold to the adjoining landowners.

Since abandonment, the canal has continued to degenerate as nature gradually reclaims this work of man, aided in places by deliberate actions, such as the infilling with domestic rubbish of the locks in urban areas, even the use of the structures for military demolition practice during the Second World War, as at Seven Locks near Lyneham. Yet despite such destruction, much of the canal remains in surprisingly good condition, particularly in the rural areas which constitute the majority of its original course, requiring little more than the clearance of choking undergrowth and some dredging of the accumulated silt of decades to restore the W & B to a fair semblance of its former glory.

The major work required to restore the navigation is the rebuilding of structures, locks, bridges, wharves, etc., including new ones to cope with the effects of developments undertaken since abandonment, such as the crossing of the M4 Motorway south of Swindon. Post-abandonment development has taken place mainly in the urban areas of Abingdon, Wantage, Grove, Swindon, Wootton Bassett, Chippenham and Melksham and alternative routing has had to be considered in many of these areas.

Since 1977 groups of volunteers have been working at many sites along the canal and its restoration to full navigational standards is now a distinct possibility, thanks mainly to the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust.


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