Wantage and the Canal
A short account of the Wilts and Berks Canal through the Vale of the White Horse.
By L. J. Dalby
Wantage owes a considerable debt to a nineteenth century transport route now almost obliterated. Long before the Wantage Tramway Wantage was linked, also by a branch line, to the Wilts and Berks Canal which connected the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington, near Trowbridge, with the River Thames at Abingdon. By means of this watery highway for nearly one hundred years Wantage received innumerable tons of building stone, road metalling and, most important, coal from the Somersetshire coalfield and, via the Oxford Canal, from the Staffordshire mines.
The Wilts and Berks Canal was built between 1795 and 1810 at a cost of a quarter million pounds, its declared purpose being “to open up an easy, cheap, and expeditious communication betwixt those rich Vales of the White-Horse and North-Wilts with the two great marts of the Kingdom London and Bristol: from which, bad Roads have hitherto in great Measure secluded them.” Wantage, then paying £2.25 for Sea Coal brought down the east coast and then by Thames to Abingdon, was promised Somerset coal at £1 per ton.
The main line was 51 miles long with 42 narrow (7ft wide) locks. Four branches connected it with Chippenham, Calne, Longcot and Wantage, the last three quarter miles long, ending at the wharf at the foot of Mill Street. The branch was cut through the grounds of Belmont House whose owner Samuel Worthington had inserted in the 1795 Canal Act a clause: “the Company must erect and forever afterwards maintain and keep in good repair a commodious and substantial carriage bridge over the Wantage branch in view of Belmont House belonging to Samuel Worthington Esq., and another proper and carriage bridge close to Grove top lock in the lands of the same gentleman.”
Scarcely had the bridge been built when, in 1812, Belmont House was demolished and all its stones, tiles and fittings sold. Until quite recently the remains of Belmont bridge straddled Belmont path, and one abutment can still be found lurking in the undergrowth.
But coal and stone were not all the canal brought to Wantage. During its building, the workers, navvies, i.e. navigators, came to live nearby. For the eastern end of the line Wantage was the obvious base, and the influx of these strangers with their ready money and easy ways was often a cause of friction and social unrest.
Other invaders followed from the industrial Midlands via the Oxford and Wilts and Berks Canals and the Thames. Known as “Travellers”, they brought with them cheap goods of all sorts and, seeking winter headquarters and a base for their door-to-door trading activities, they found the wharf an ideal centre. Here the Jolly Waterman provided hot meals for the visiting boatmen and its reputation was known along the length of the canal.
The opening of the Great Western Railway almost alongside the canal for most of its length in 1841 saw the gradual transfer of the lucrative coal traffic to rail and the decline of the canal. Wantage, however, an awkward two miles from the railway, still relied somewhat on its watery link. When in 1873 a meeting was held to discuss building a tramway and it was disclosed that the Canal Company proposed to charge £100 for the right to build a bridge across it at Grove, William Ormond, a local solicitor complained, stating that the Canal was nothing but a muddy ditch! But the muddy ditch nevertheless carried nearly 2,000 tons of coal to Wantage that year. Until the canal finally closed Hiskins and Son of Wantage remained active and in the period 1893 to 1896 carried 1,327 tons between Semington and Wantage and 1,477 tons between Wantage and Abingdon.
In 1901 an aqueduct west of Swindon collapsed and all traffic ceased. In 1914 Swindon, fed up with 3½ miles of derelict canal within its boundaries, obtained an Act for its formal closure. Shortly afterwards many bridges were levelled and parts of the bed, including the Wantage branch and wharf, were filled in. Most of the wharf buildings remain; the stable, a mixture of brick and stone bears the date 1830. The wharfinger’s house is built of massive stone blocks. Gardens now lie over the canal bed, and the towpath is a footpath, but this quiet corner still recalls something of the flavour of Old Wantage.
C. 1970 Originally printed by the Vale & Downland Museum.