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An account of the Grand Junction Canal, 1792 - 1928, with a postscript.
Ian Petticrew and Wendy Austin.


We describe the following narrative as an ‘account’ rather than a ‘history’ to distinguish between a work based mainly on secondary sources such as books, periodicals and newspapers ― albeit contemporary with the period or event being described ― from one that draws mainly on primary sources, which in this case would be the Grand Junction Canal Company
s accounts and supporting records, minutes of meetings, circulars, correspondence and legal documents.  Readers in search of such a history may wish to refer to The Grand Junction Canal by Alan H. Faulkner (David & Charles, 1972) and to The Canals of the East Midlands by Charles Hadfield (David & Charles, 1966).  William Jessop, Engineer by Charles Hadfield and A. W. Skempton (David & Charles, 1979) provides a biography of the Grand Junction Canal’s Chief Engineer at the time of its construction.

Our account began life as a local history project relating to the market town of Tring in north-west Hertfordshire.  Our aim was to document the history of the Grand Junction Canal in the locality, with particular emphasis on its wharves, their wharfingers and traders, the types and volumes of goods passing over them, significant dates and, most importantly, the impact that the Canal had on the development of the town and its surrounding area.  We set our boundary as the main line between Marsworth Junction and Northchurch, the branch canals to Aylesbury and Wendover and, for good measure, the Tring Reservoirs.  That, we felt, was sufficient for our purpose; it was at any rate as much as time and budget would permit, for expeditions to the the National, County and British Waterways archives, not to mention libraries and museums, soon consume available resources under both headings.

Local historians share with magpies the habit of collecting, not shiny objects, as a rule, but documents, images and artefacts relating to their locality.  Among the collection we had amassed over the years was a fair amount of material relating to the Grand Junction Canal (since 1929, the southern section of the Grand Union Canal), most of it concerning the Canal’s construction and the problems associated with ensuring a sufficient supply of water to the Tring summit.  We believed that more focussed digging would unearth material relating to the Canal’s commercial life in our locality, but dig as we could we found very little.  It was almost as if our canal wharf was regarded during its commercial heyday as commonplace and unworthy of comment, in much the same way that we might today view a local filling station or supermarket.  And so it looked as if the product of our endeavours would be much thinner than we had hoped, containing conclusions based more on conjecture than on fact.

However, in the course of our research we uncovered much information about  aspects of the Canal that lay beyond our boundary and although mostly of a secondary nature it seemed a pity to waste it.  It had also occurred to us by then that anyone having read our planned ‘fragment’ might reasonably ask, “Well, what about the rest of it? ― Where does the Canal start and finish?  When was it built?  Why was it built?  Who built it?  What sort of goods did it carry?  What became of it?” etc.  And so, having realised that our original plan was not going to deliver what we had hoped,* we redefined our objectives and sat down to attempt answers to those wider questions.

Our account is divided into five sections: Part I. comprises background material; Part II. gives an account of the Canal’s construction;  Part III. provides a brief historical survey of the Canal’s route, from Braunston to Brentford including the important Paddington Arm; Part IV. deals with the coming of the railways and the Canal’s commercial decline; and, as a postscript, Part V. provides an account of the waterway following the amalgamations and acquisitions that took effect in 1929, 1932 and 1948.

We hope that you find our account interesting and informative.

I.P. & W.A.

October, 2012.

* . . . . what little local information we did unearth we published separately under the titles ‘The Wendover Arm’, ‘The Aylesbury Arm’ and ‘The Waterway comes to Tring’ (hard copy only).   We have added our conclusions on the
Canal’s impact on the development of Tring in the Addenda.



Wendy perched on a balance beam at Foxton Locks on the ‘old’ Grand Union Canal.


We would like to thank Miss Catherine Bushell for her generous assistance.  Catherine’s father and uncle were the proprietors of the Tring Dockyard (Bushell Brothers) on the Wendover Arm, and she spent much time with us recounting her childhood experiences of life in the Dockyard.  Catherine also made available to us many family photographs and papers.  Colin Davies gave generously of his time recounting his career in the family’s timber business ― James Davies (Timber) Merchants Ltd ― at Hayes Bridge on the Canal’s Paddington Branch and recalling the firm’s use of the Canal.  Colin also gave us access to the family photograph albums.  Michael Stanyon, Archivist to the Apsley Paper Trail museum (well worth a visit), provided us with much useful information on the use of the canal by John Dickinson’s paper business.  Barry Martin, historian to the Wendover Arm Trust, provided us with details of the branch canal to Wendover (now in the course of restoration), particularly with regard to the location of its wharves and the experimental use of asphalt as a lining.  We would like to thank Mike Bass, a noted Tring historian, for contributing some of the photographs.  Finally, we are grateful to Mrs. Violet Higginson who for our benefit described her early life as a member of a canal family.



Ian propped up by a windlass at Braunston Marina ― happy days!