Chapter V.
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“Down to the middle of last century, the trade and commerce of England were comparatively insignificant.  This is sufficiently clear from the wretched state of our road and river communication about that time; for it is well understood that without the ready means of transporting commodities from place to place, either by land or water, commerce is impossible.”

James Brindley and the Early Engineers, Samuel Smiles (1864)

The following are pen pictures of the main personalities instrumental in bringing the Grand Junction Canal into being.  Thousands were involved in some way its construction ― promoters, administrators, accountants, lawyers, civil engineers, contractors, craftsmen, labourers and no doubt many others ― but with few exceptions there is little information about how particular people contributed to the project or about their careers in general.  Even the Canal’s Chief Engineer, William Jessop, an outstanding civil engineer of his era, had to wait over a century and a half for a biography, which through shortage of information caused its authors no small difficulty to prepare.  By comparison the career of the Canal’s Resident Engineer, James Barnes, who rarely receives any credit for his substantial input, remains something of a mystery ― even the attribution of his painting (below) is uncertain ― as do those of his professional assistants.

At the bottom of the social strata one can barely imagine the harshness of the itinerant canal labourer’s working conditions and his life spent at other times, while at the opposite end even the professional engineers endured a tough existence while pushing to the limits their era’s knowledge of civil engineering to solve problems, the solutions to which were to lay the foundations for the following railway-building age and beyond.




GEORGE NUGENT-TEMPLE GRENVILLE (1753–1813), 1st Marquis of Buckingham, was the second son of George Grenville and Elizabeth Wyndham.  Educated at Eton and Oxford (which he left without a degree), Grenville entered Parliament in 1774 where he was a sharp critic of the American War of Independence.  In 1782 he served a short term as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, returning to English politics the following year.  For his services to George III, Grenville was created Marquis of Buckingham in December 1784 (although he desired and was peeved at not having received a dukedom).  Between 1787 and 1789 he served a second term as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, proving effective but unpopular in the role.  Following his return to England, he played little active part in politics although his views on Irish affairs, in which he was an early advocate of Catholic emancipation, continued to be respected.

Buckingham was a man of considerable industry and some financial ability, but he did not shun expense in what he considered good or useful causes.  He commissioned and paid for James Barnes to make an initial survey for a route for the Grand Junction Canal, became a major shareholder in the Grand Junction Canal Company, and was one of the principal sponsors of the 1793 Grand Junction Canal Act.  His help was recognised by the proprietors at the first ‘General Assembly’, held on 1st June, 1793 at the Crown & Anchor Tavern in the Strand . . . .

“Another vote of thanks went to the Marquis of Buckingham, who had given very strong support to the project and who was described at the meeting as ‘Projector and Patron of the undertaking’.  Indeed, the Marquis’s coat-of-arms was incorporated into the Company’s official seal.”

The Grand Junction Canal, Alan H. Faulkner, David and Charles (1972)

The Marquis also helped the economy of the area around his family seat at Stowe by lending the Company the cost of constructing the Buckingham branch of the Grand Junction Canal.  The branch was to prove of considerable benefit to the town and its locality until the 1850s, when its trade was taken by the railways.  He was similarly involved at Aylesbury, where a branch canal had been authorised in the Grand Junction Canal Act of 1794 but eh Company, believing that the limited trade would not justify the loss of water to the main line, was reluctant to built it.  In 1811, the Marquis, helped by pressure from Aylesbury traders, succeeded in having work on the Arm started and it eventually opened in 1814 or 1815 (the exact date is not recorded).  The Arm brought industry to the town and, among other commodities, carried out emigrants destined for the Americas via Liverpool, much to the delight of the workhouse superintendants.

In other respects the Marquis appears to have been unpopular with his peers, exhibiting an overbearing manner, excessive pride and an extreme proneness to take offence.  George III said of him: “I hate nobody, why should anybody hate me . . . I beg pardon. I hate the Marquis of Buckingham.”  Horace Walpole was even less polite: “He was weak, proud, avaricious, peevish, fretful . . . and had every one of those defects in the extreme with their natural concomitant, obstinacy.”  In addition to his unfortunate personality, his great round bespectacled face and enormous belly made him the subject of fun and ridicule.

The Marquis died of diabetes at Stowe, the family seat, on 11th February 1813, his much-loved wife having died in the previous year.




WILLIAM MACKWORTH PRAED (1747–1833), a banker by profession, became the first Chairman of the Grand Junction Canal Company, a post he held with distinction from the campany’s formation in 1792 until he retired in 1821.  In the view of Alan H. Faulkner, Praed “proved a tower of strength in the early years of the concern” [1] and particularly so during the years up to the opening of the canal in 1805.  During this period Praed was involved in much parliamentary work, in land purchase negotiations and in investigating problems, such as those posed by the Blisworth Tunnel (which were to delay the Canal’s opening throughout by several years) and later with the Great Ouse aqueduct (which failed in 1808).  Following the Canal’s opening, Praed’s name appears periodically in the press where he is reported presiding over the half-yearly shareholder meetings at which the Company’s gradually increasing revenues were announced.

William Praed  was the eldest of the six children of Humphrey Mackworth Praed (1718?–1803), MP and banker at Truro, and his wife Mary.  Educated at Eton and Magdalen College, he married in 1778 Elizabeth Tyringham (1749–1811), the wealthy daughter of banker Barnaby Backwell of Tyringham [2] in Buckinghamshire.  Elizabeth had just inherited the family estate following the death of her brother and this became the Praed family’s seat until his final years, when he appears to have returned to the family’s ancestral home in Cornwall.  In 1792, the old manor house at Tyrinham was pulled down and the Tyrinham Hall that stands today was built to a design by Sir John Soane RA. [3]

In 1780 Praed was elected MP for St Ives, [4] holding the seat until 1806 after which he represented Banbury briefly before retiring from politics.  To Praed must go the credit for guiding the Canal’s enabling legislation through the House of Commons:

Endowed with a strong mind and with an active disposition, he did not confine his public services to the discharge of duties in the House of Commons.  To him the nation is mainly indebted for one of the most useful and most successful of our public works, The Grand Junction Canal”.

The Parochial History of Cornwall, David Gilbert (1838)

In 1793, grateful Company shareholders presented him with a gift of silver plate for his parliamentary work on their behalf.

In 1779, Praed became a partner in his father’s banking firm at Truro and in 1801 formed a banking partnership of his own with Philip Box, Kendon Digby, and Benjamin Babbage, the firm trading from premises at 189 Fleet Street (another building designed by Soane).  Bankers were inevitably linked to the financing of canals; [5] a local banker would often be appointed a canal company’s treasurer, and bankers were involved in providing waterway proprietors with short-term credit, although they generally took little part in providing long-term capital.  They also helped to place shares.  Many of the bank’s customers came from the West Country or from Buckinghamshire.  The business was eventually absorbed into Lloyd’s Bank.

In 1801, Praed joined his banking partner Philip Box to become one of the Grand Junction Canal Company treasurers.  In 1808, he was a leading proponent of the ‘old’ Grand Union Canal; this waterway linked the Grand Junction Canal with the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal to provide access to Leicester and onwards to the River Trent and beyond.  In 1813, in honour of his work as Chairman, his portrait was commissioned for the boardroom.  Praed Street, Paddington, at the terminus of the Canal’s Paddington Arm, is another memorial to Praed’s enthusiasm.  Built in 1828, it became the backbone of the Grand Junction Canal Company’s profitable real estate.

Praed stepped down as Chairman in 1820, his place being taken by the Hon. Philip Pleydell Bouverie, R. C. Sale becoming full-time Clerk.  He ceased to attend company meetings after 1823, but his sons and London banking partners retained a close interest on his behalf.  Praed’s eldest son, James Backwell, inherited the estate at Tyringham and his father’s banking interests, while another son, William Tyringham, was also involved in the London banking firm and became the Grand Junction Canal Company’s Treasurer.

Praed died at the family seat of Trevethow in Cornwall on 9 October 1833 and was buried at the local parish church in Lelant.  In St Peter’s Church, Tyringham, is a monument decorated with a relief carving of a canal lock.



“It is, we think, a useful rule that if a man desires his work to be well regarded after his death, he should take care to leave in reliable hands a large collection of personal papers, into which historians and seekers after doctorates can happily burrow.  Jessop did not.”

Thus Charles Hadfield in the Preface to his biography of William Jessop, [6] and it is perhaps for this reason that Jessop’s reputation is over-shadowed by the other great civil engineers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly his younger contemporaries John Rennie (Snr) and Thomas Telford.  Other than the biography, there exists a Memoir of William Jessop (1843) by the civil engineer Samuel Hughes, to which Hughes adds this intriguing postscript . . .

“The author of this paper and the publisher consider it necessary to state that, although they have not derived from the immediate relatives of the late Mr. Jessop any of that assistance which they ventured to expect, yet their thanks are eminently due to several valued friends of the author who had the happiness of personal intercourse with that distinguished engineer.”

It is difficult to understand why Jessop’s relatives ― particularly his sons John, William and George ― apparently felt unable to assist in providing the information that they must surely have had.  As for the great Victorian biographer, Samuel Smiles, in his Lives of the Engineers (1862) he makes little mention of Jessop, most of what he does say appearing as a footnote to his Life of John Rennie . . . . .

“Mr. Jessop was among the most eminent engineers of his day.  His father was engaged under Smeaton in the building of the Eddystone Lighthouse; and, dying in 1761, he left the guardianship of his family to Mr. Smeaton, who adopted William as his pupil, and carefully brought him up to the same profession.  Jessop continued with Smeaton for about ten years; and, after leaving him, he was engaged successively on the Aire and Calder, the Calder and Hebble, and the Trent Navigations.  He also executed the Cromford and the Nottingham Canals; the Loughborough and Leicester, and the Horncastle Navigations; but the most extensive and important of his works of this kind was the Grand Junction Canal, by which the whole of the north-western inland navigation of the kingdom was brought into direct connection with the metropolis.  He was also employed as engineer for the Caledonian Canal, in which he was succeeded by Telford, who carried out the work.  Mr. Jessop was the engineer of the West India Docks (1800-2), and of the Bristol Docks (1803-8), both works of great importance.  He was the first engineer employed to lay out and construct railroads, as a branch of his profession; the Croydon and Merstham Railroad, worked by donkeys and mules, having been constructed by him as early as 1803.  He also laid down short railways in connection with his canals in Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Nottinghamshire.  During the later years of his life he was much afflicted by paralysis, and died in 1814.”

WILLIAM JESSOP (1745-1814) was born in Devonport, the son of Josias Jessop, a foreman shipwright in the Naval Dockyard, and his wife Elizabeth.  William was educated locally, proving proficient in languages and particularly in mathematics and science.  Following the burning of Rudyerd’s Tower, a wooden lighthouse on the Eddystone Rock, the great civil engineer John Smeaton designed a new stone lighthouse and Jessop senior was given the task of overseeing its construction.  In 1759, Smeaton took William as a pupil, lodging him at his home at Austhorpe, near Selby.  Following Jessop senior’s death in 1761, Smeaton became William’s guardian.

As Smeaton’s pupil, William gained wide experience, excelling on surveys and designs for river and canal navigations.  He assisted Smeaton in improving the navigation of the rivers Aire and Calder in East Yorkshire and later of the river Trent in Nottinghamshire.  It was during this period that be met his wife Sarah, their entry in the marriage register at the Parish of Birkin, East Yorkshire, reading . . . .

“Married in this Church by Licence: William Jessop of the Parish of Pontefract and Sarah Sawyer of this Parish, 3rd February, 1777.”

Following their marriage, William and Sarah lived in the parish of Fairburn adjoining Ledsham, and their first two children were baptised in the church there.  Soon after their second son was born they moved to Newark-on-Trent, where Jessop played an active part in Local Government.  He was elected an Alderman of the Borough in 1786, later becoming Mayor (1803) and was a Justice of the Peace (1805).

In 1772, at the age of twenty-seven, Jessop became an independent practitioner.  Among his first projects was the Selby Canal, for which he gave evidence in Parliament during the committee hearing for the Act, and when work commenced in 1775, he was appointed Engineer at a salary of £250 (with the Pinkerton brothers as contractors).  The canal was completed in 1778 and soon became heavily-used; the town of Selby flourished, with a custom house that enabled traffic to proceed straight to the North Sea without stopping at Hull. [7] Other work on the Grand Canal in Ireland kept Jessop involved there intermittently between 1773 and about 1787, and again from 1790 to 1804 when he was Consulting Engineer for the company.  There was much other work besides.  This was the era of canal mania, and with an extensive portfolio of projects behind him, Jessop had come to be regarded as the leading waterway engineer of his generation.  His services were constantly in demand, with most promoting committees endeavouring to obtain him to formulate their plans and steer their Bills through Parliament, where he appeared on twenty-seven occasions, far more than any other engineer of his day.

Despite the vast amount of work that Jessop undertook in the Midlands, in 1793 he accepted the position of Chief Engineer to the Grand Junction Canal Company.  This involved, among other commitments, journeys to London to appear before parliamentary select committees to give evidence on behalf of the Company’s plans and proposals.  This from a hearing on the 1794 Bill:

“William Jessop, Esquire, being examined, said, That the Petitioners are now proceeding to make the said Canal, agreeable to the Powers vested in them by the said Act. That by Levels and Surveys, lately made, it appears practicable to make certain Navigable Cuts from the several Towns of Buckingham, Aylesbury, and Wendover, in the County of Buckingham, and also from the Town of Saint Alban, in the County of Hertford, to join and communicate with the said Grand Junction Canal and Collateral Cuts, or some of them.

And the Witness further said, That the making and maintaining such Navigable Cuts as aforesaid, together with proper Railways and Roads to communicate therewith, would afford the Inhabitants of the several Towns and Places, lying near the intended Cuts, a much, more regular and better Supply of Coals, Merchandize, Corn, and Manure, and various other Articles, and at a much less Expence than at present, and that the making the said Cuts would, in other Respects, be of Public Utility.”

Journal of the House of Commons, 10th February, 1794.

Among the major engineering problems to confront Jessop and his Resident Engineer, James Barnes, were the canal’s two tunnels (the third, at Langleybury, was avoided by a change to the line).  The first, at Braunston, hit quicksand, which had not been detected during the selective borings made during the survey, but despite this and other problems the tunnel was completed ahead of schedule in June 1796.  The long tunnel at Blisworth proved a far greater challenge.  Treacherous strata, underground springs, indifferent workmanship and a deliberate variation in the tunnel’s alignment, made without Jessop’s knowledge, brought work to a halt in 1797, and it was to be eight years before the tunnel was completed.  At this point, Jessop appears to have considered the tunnel impractical, for he proposed to the Board a scheme for crossing Blisworth Hill using a succession of locks, the summit being supplied with water by steam pumping.  Barnes, on the other hand, favoured perseverance with the tunnel on a slightly different alignment.  Following an inspection of the works by the civil engineers Robert Whitworth and John Rennie, who concurred with Barnes, the Board directed that work on the tunnel continue, although on a different alignment and under the direction of Barnes.  Thereafter, Jessop appears to have been relegated by the Company to an occasional consulting role:

“In 1797 the Grand Junction referred to Barnes as ‘our Chief Engineer’ and Jessop was politely removed from office on the pretext of saving money.”

A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, A. W. Skempton, Ed. (2002).

In the intervening period a road was built on which to transfer goods across Blisworth Hill, but when this proved unsatisfactory, Jessop and the engineer Benjamin Outram proposed a plate tramway.  Completed in 1802, the double-tracked tramway sufficed to open up the route to commercial traffic until Blisworth Tunnel was completed in 1805.  The convoluted economic argument that Jessop uses to justify the tramway’s construction survives (Appendix I.) ― no doubt he, Outram and the Butterley Iron Works (referred to below) benefitted.

During this period Jessop was also involved with other major canal projects.  The Bill for constructing the Rochdale Canal to link the Bridgewater Canal in Manchester with the Calder & Hebble Navigation (a broad canal) fell to Jessop to pilot through Parliament, which he did successfully in 1794 after two earlier attempts had failed through opposition from water mill owners.  Jessop’s plan for the canal included ninety-two locks over its thirty-three mile length, and to placate the mill owners, it was designed to avoid drawing water from the natural rivers and streams, but to be supplied from a series of reservoirs fed by surplus water.  Mostly complete by 1804, the canal became the main highway of commerce between Lancashire and Yorkshire, carrying cotton, wool, coal, limestone, timber, and salt as well as general merchandise. [8]

Towards the end of 1793, Jessop was appointed Consulting Engineer to the Ellesmere Canal Company.  This was his first collaboration with Thomas Telford, twelve years his junior, and they worked together periodically throughout the remainder of Jessop’s career.  The Ellesmere Canal [9] has a complicated history, for what was planned differs considerably from what was eventually delivered. [10] Suffice it to say that the canal includes, for its time, one of the major civil engineering achievements in the British Isles, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  Completed in 1805, the aqueduct strides across the Dee Valley on 18 ashlar stone piers, each with a span of 53 ft to their centres – 45ft clear – and a maximum height above the valley floor of 126ft, the canal being suspended in a cast-iron trough, 11ft 10in wide.  It is unclear exactly with whom the credit for the conception and design of this fine aqueduct should rest, but between them Jessop and Telford delivered a masterpiece in utility and appearance.  Today, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is recognised by its status as a Grade I Listed Building and a World Heritage Site.

To add to his waterway achievements, Jessop engineered railways on which the traffic was horse-drawn.  In June 1801, he was appointed engineer to the Surrey Iron Railway, which ran from Wandsworth to Croydon and was the first public railway, independent of any canal, to be built under an Act of Parliament.  He also designed the railway from Kilmarnock to Troon, opened in 1810.

Outside of his civil engineering activities, Jessop had interests in commercial ventures, including investments in several of his canals.  But his most successful business venture was The Butterley Company.  Based at Ripley in Derbyshire, the company was set up originally by fellow-engineer Benjamin Outram to manufacture cast-iron edge rails, a design that, in 1789, Jessop had used successfully with flanged wheels on a horse-drawn railway for coal wagons in Loughborough.  In 1793, with Outram’s assistance, he constructed the Cromford Canal.  During the excavation of the Butterley Tunnel, large quantities of coal and iron were discovered.  Fortuitously, Butterley Hall fell vacant and Outram, with the financial assistance of Francis Beresford, a solicitor, purchased the Hall and its estate.  The following year they were joined by Jessop, who became one of the founding members of the Company, which grew and prospered . . . .

“The extensive iron works of the Butterley Co. were established about 1793.  They consist of three blast furnaces, foundry, and steam engine manufactory, and give employment to a great number of persons.  They have also extensive works at Condor Park, and extensive collieries in the neighbourhood.  The Cromford Canal is conducted underneath these works through a tunnel of 2,966 yards in length.”

History, Gazetteer and Directory of Derbyshire (1846)

By 1796 Butterley was producing nearly a thousand tons of pig iron a year.  By the second decade of the next century, the company had expanded with another works at Condor Park, both works having two blast furnaces and an output of some 4,500 tons per year.  In 1814 the company produced the ironwork for the Vauxhall Bridge over the River Thames, and later the ironwork for the train shed at St. Pancras Station.  On his Jessop’s death in 1814, his third son inherited his father’s interest and continued to develop the firm into the long-lived Butterley Company, which continued in business until 2009.

During his career, Jessop was involved in a wide range of civil engineering work, his portfolio listing canals, river improvements, land drainage schemes, docks (including the West India Docks), harbours (including Bristol Floating Harbour) and railways/tramways ― indeed, his career bridges the gap between the canal and the railway engineers who came later.

Alas, Jessop has failed to gain the lasting fame that he deserves due principally to his modesty, with some of his work even being attributed wrongly to his assistants.  The scarcity of documentary material also extends to his personal life.  But in his day he was highly regarded by almost all those who had worked with or for him.  Although Telford has come to be considered the man of greater genius, he placed firm reliance on Jessop’s judgment . . . .

“In all matters of masonry work he felt himself master of the necessary details; but having had comparatively small experience of earthwork, and none of canal–making, he determined to take the advice of Mr. William Jessop on that part of the subject; and he cordially acknowledges the obligations he was under to that eminent engineer for the kind assistance which he received from him on many occasions.”

Life of Thomas Telford, Samuel Smiles (1862)

Writing about the construction of the Ellesmere Canal, Telford’s biographer Sir Alexander Gibb remarks . . . .

“. . . . and so began a connection between Telford and Jessop that lasted a quarter of a century to the pleasure and advantage of both.  Telford had a profound trust in Jessop’s judgement, and up to his death in 1814 sought to bring him into any work with which he was connected requiring special engineering skill, particularly in regard to water or harbour work.  Jessop was of a retiring nature, and is consequently among those who have passed almost unchronicled”.

Gibb goes on to say that . . . .

“Jessop’s report and his advice were valuable because they were always constructive, and he never suggested an alternative from any conscious or unconscious desire to exhibit his own learning.”

The Story of Telford: the Rise of Civil Engineering, Sir Alexander Gibb FRS CE (1935)

But Telford’s own view is unclear, for in his writings he makes no mention of Jessop’s participation or leadership in the Caledonian Canal project, nor does he acknowledge his senior colleague’s contribution to the engineering of the Ellesmere Canal.  Such surprising omissions serve to detract from Jessop’s reputation while they reflect no credit on Telford.  But let the last word rest with the civil engineer Samuel Hughes, who departs from the general view that the Grand Junction Canal is Jessop’s most notable achievement . . . .

“The promoters of the first great public dock establishment in the metropolis [London] called upon Mr. Jessop to conduct their works, and he had the honour of completing the great project of the West India Docks, with their numerous accompanying details, in a manner which entitle him to rank among the greatest engineers which this or any other country has ever produced.”

Memoir of William Jessop, Samuel Hughes CE (1843)

Late in life Jessop became increasingly inflicted by a form of paralysis, and he died at his home at Butterley Hall on 18 November 1814.  He, his wife Sarah (d.1816) and his son Josias (d. 1826) ― also a successful canal engineer ― are buried in Pentrich churchyard, where they are commemorated.



Another who has passed almost unchronicled is James Barnes, “the eminent engineer” to use Joseph Priestley’s description of him. [11]

Believed to be James Barnes.

Although Barnes’s recorded portfolio of civil engineering projects is nothing like as impressive as that of Jessop, he nevertheless shares with Jessop the fate of being too little known for what he did achieve.  As Chief Engineer, credit for engineering the Grand Junction Canal usually goes to Jessop, although as the project progressed much of his input was on the basis of occasional consultancy.  Despite having surveyed the canal [12] and most of its branches, Barnes’s contribution is often ignored.  In his role of Resident Engineer, he drove the work forward throughout the canal’s twelve years of construction.  Most of the credit for what in its day was a significant feat of civil engineering, the Blisworth Tunnel, should also go to Barnes, who persevered after the initial failure brought work to a standstill [13] and who on two occasions took over the direct supervision of its construction after the contractor had failed.  And yet the source of Barnes’s training as a canal engineer is a mystery.

JAMES BARNES is believed to have been born in 1739.  His place of birth is unknown, but was possibly in the locality of Banbury, a town in which he spent most of his life engaged profitably in his parallel occupation of maltster and brewer.  The earliest mention of his canal engineering activities is in connection with the Oxford Canal on which, in 1786, construction had been restarted following an eight-year pause due to lack of money.  Barnes was appointed “Surveyor of the Works of the Canal” for the remaining section from Banbury to Oxford, with six surveyors reporting to him including the engineer Samuel Simcock. [14]

Barnes’s business acumen had already shown itself in the growth of his brewing and malting activities in Banbury, while his interest in the Oxford Canal Company was evident through his holding of £80 of 4½% loan stock, but one can but wonder what engineering credentials gained Barnes this appointment.  Speculation suggests that he was at least a driver of men and one who learned quickly ‘on the job’, for a contemporary account describes him as being “strong minded but very illiterate” and that he . . . .

“. . . . made all his calculations by the strength of his memory, and [was] equally at a loss to explain what he had conceived to any other person, and from being lowly educated he had no means of conveying to paper his designs, yet would cost up the most intricate accounts without difficulty or error.”

A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal, John Hassell (1819)

Against this background, it is unsurprising that Barnes completed the southern section of the Oxford Canal on 1st January 1790, a year earlier than the contracted date.

While work on the Oxford Canal was in progress, Barnes, together with Samuel Simcock and Samuel Weston, surveyed a route for a canal from the River Kennet at Newbury to Bath.  This project did not proceed as such, but following a further survey undertaken several years later by John Rennie Snr., a revised route was adopted to become the Kennet & Avon Canal, which following some 40 years of restoration from a near derelict condition has now become popular with leisure boaters.

Despite his achievement in completing the Oxford Canal ahead of schedule, attention to his brewing interests appears to have given Barnes’s employers cause for dissatisfaction, for in December 1791 they expressed their view that his “various occupations and connections prevent that attention which is particularly necessary in his department . . .”  At the same meeting the Oxford Canal Company agreed to pay arrears of salary amounting to £835, for to help ease the company’s precarious financial position Barnes had not drawn his pay since 1787.  He and the Oxford Canal Company then parted company, Barnes being swept up in the canal mania of the early 1790s.  He undertook two surveys for a quicker route from the Midlands to London than by the existing Oxford Canal and the Thames.  First he surveyed the busy northern section of the Oxford Canal to show how it could be widened and shortened (work that was eventually undertaken in 1829 to plans by William Cubitt).  He was then commissioned by the Marquis of Buckingham to survey a route from Braunston on the Oxford Canal to Brentford on the Thames.  With minor adjustments by Jessop ― and a choice later being made between routing the Canal through Harrow or Uxbridge ― this route became the Grand Junction Canal.

For Barnes, now appointed Resident Engineer under Jessop, the major challenge proved to be construction of the 3,076 yards-long tunnel under Blisworth Hill where, in addition to failing contractors leaving him to take over supervision of the work on occasions, there were problems with the tunnel’s alignment, with quicksand and (throughout) with serious flooding.  Following a collapse in 1796, construction halted, not to restart until 1802, and then on a new alignment.  During this period, Jessop’s position with the Grand Junction Canal Company appears in some way to have been impaired, for by 1797 Barnes was referred to in the Company minutes as “Chief Engineer”, although Jessop continued in a consulting role. [15]

After many and varied problems the tunnel was eventually completed in 1805, almost five years after the rest of the canal.  To celebrate the occasion, the proprietors held a dinner to which Barnes was invited. On his health being drunk, “Old Barnes”, as he was usually called, returned the compliment . . . .

“Mr. Chairman and gentlemen ― I beg to return you my thanks ― and since we are met together, and the tunnel ended ― the least said is the soonest mended.”

A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal, John Hassell (1819)

Today, the Blisworth Tunnel is the longest in regular use on British Waterways.

To Barnes should also go credit for the huge embankment across the valley of the Great Ouse between Wolverton and Cosgrove.  It had been planned to cross the valley using flights of locks, but at Barnes’s suggestion the Cosgrove embankment was built to save water and provide quicker and more reliable transit, the Ouse valley being prone to flooding in times of heavy rainfall.  Although some slippage has been experienced, Barnes appears to have been lucky to avoid the severe difficulties caused by unstable material that Robert Stephenson was later to face when constructing the nearby Wolverton railway embankment.

In addition to his work on the Grand Junction Canal main line, Barnes also undertook surveys for branch canals to Aylesbury, Northampton, Buckingham, Chesham, Dunstable, Hemel Hempstead, Newport Pagnell, St. Albans and Wendover ― he probably surveyed the short Daventry branch, a section for which is included in the GJC deposited plans.  Of these proposed branches, five were eventually built; from Bulbourne to Wendover (needed to supply water to Tring summit; completed c. 1794, closed to navigation past Little Tring in 1904), from Marsworth to Aylesbury (opened c. 1814), and from Gayton to Northampton (opened 1815). [16]  The celebrations that accompanied the opening of the branch from Stony Stratford to Buckingham [17] were typical of what occurred when the canal came to town:

“A numerous party was handsomely entertained by the Marquis of Buckingham, at the Cobham Arms Inn, on the occasion, and a liberal supply of beer was given to the populace. ― This branch of the canal, nine miles and a quarter in length, has been completed in eight months, under the superintendence of Mr. James Barnes, Engineer to the Grand Junction Canal Company, and will secure to an extensive district of country the most substantial benefits.”

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 9th May, 1801.

By far the most important of the Grand Junction Canal branches was that from Bulls Bridge, at Hayes, to Paddington.  Surveyed by Jessop and Barnes, the Paddington Arm opened in 1801 to be followed in stages (between 1816 and 1820) by the Regent’s Canal (Engineer, James Morgan), which in effect extended the Paddington Arm to provide a highly profitable link around the outskirts of the City and, via the Regent’s Canal Dock, to the Thames at Limehouse (and thence to other Thames-side wharfs and docks) and to the River Lee Navigation.

In addition to his work on the Oxford and Grand Junction canal projects, Barnes was also involved with the two waterways that link the Grand Junction Canal with Leicester.  In 1796 he was engaged as consultant to the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal Company to survey the Saddington Tunnel, which was discovered to be out of alignment. Subsequently, three lengths of the tunnel were rebuilt and widened to permit the passage of Thames barge traffic, which was then expected from the Grand Junction Canal. [18] In 1799, 1802 and again in 1808, he undertook surveys for the Grand Junction Canal Company with the aim of connecting the two canals ― Thomas Telford also surveyed a route in 1803-4.  The ‘connecting’ canal, the Grand Union Canal (not to be confused with the canal system of that name created in 1929), was eventually constructed under the supervision of the civil engineer Benjamin Bevan, who chose the shorter route proposed by Barnes in preference to that by Telford.  Opened in 1814, the (old) Grand Union Canal extends from Norton Junction to Foxton, where it connects with the former Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal.  Today, both canals form the southern section of the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal.

Towards the end of his career, Barnes was employed in the construction of several railways, of which the Carmarthenshire Railway is significant.  Having gained its Act in 1802 it opened in the following year, thus predating the Surrey Iron Railway as the earliest operational public railway in Britain.  This horse-operated 4ft-gauge ‘plateway’, built with substantial earthworks, was planned to open up the coalfield to the north of Llanelli, but it never achieved its expected results and by 1830 most of its 16–mile route was derelict.  It finally closed in 1844.

Outside of his engineering activities, Barnes was a successful brewer at Banbury . . . .

“The Dunnell brewery was in North Bar, where, at the beginning of the 19th century, James Barnes had owned a small brewing business; his son-in-law Richard Austin [19] became a partner in 1808 and took over complete control in 1818.  By 1840 the brewery was exporting to India.  The brewery was purchased by Messrs. Harman c. 1850 after Richard Austin’s son Barnes had squandered much of his inheritance”. [20]

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 10 (Banbury)

In 1814 the North Bar brewery was described as having a hop garden, two malthouses, ten inns in Banbury and thirteen in the surrounding area.

Barnes also played an active role in Banbury’s public life.  In 1799 he was elected a ‘Capital Burgess’ of Banbury Corporation, an Alderman in 1806 and was Mayor in 1801 and again in 1809.  And at a time predating the secret ballot, Barnes is known to have voted in the parliamentary elections of 1806 and 1807 for his former chief, William Praed, Chairman of the Grand Junction Canal Company.

Barnes’s wife Mary died in 1807, this brief announcement appearing in the British Register . . . .

Mrs. Barnes, wife of James Barnes Esq. formerly principal engineer, and conductor of the Grand Junction Canal, but now an alderman and common brewer, of Banbury.”

James Barnes followed her on 18th January 1819, an announcement in Jackson’s Oxford Journal reading simply “A few days since died, suddenly, Mr. Barnes, an eminent brewer, of Banbury, in this county.”  His will shows that he owned 45 £100 shares in the Grand Junction Canal Company, then selling for about £280 each and returning an annual dividend of 7%.

Memorial to James Barnes, “Principal Engineer of the Grand Junction Canal”.

James Barnes was buried at Bodicote Church, just south of Banbury, where lie the remains of his wife Mary and daughter Mrs. Mary Austin.  His memorial describes him as “Principal Engineer” of the Grand Junction Canal Company, a fitting epitaph, for it was Barnes, principally, who surveyed the canal and, on the ground, brought the grand plan to fruition.



In addition to Jessop and Barnes, a handful of other civil engineers appear fleetingly during the construction of the Grand Junction Canal and its early years in operation; that is not to say that their contributions were insignificant, but rather that the record of what they achieved is far from complete.  One such was Benjamin Bevan.

Besides being a notable canal engineer, Bevan was something of a polymath who throughout his life showed a great love of science as well as considerable power in promoting its uses.  He submitted papers to learnèd journals and to institutions, such as the Royal Society, on a range of subjects including the use of the slide rule, geometry (a guide to Carpenter’s Rule and the Bevan Point), materials science, astronomy and geology.  He also corresponded with the computing pioneer Charles Babbage, with whom he shared a common interest in astronomy.

BENJAMIN BEVAN was born at Ridgemont, Bedfordshire, on 26th December, 1773, the eldest of the four children of Joseph Bevan, a farmer and prominent local Baptist.  Benjamin’s brother William and sister Mary died in infancy, and when Joseph Snr. died in 1782, he bequeathed to his eight-year old son his considerable farming interests.  In 1799, Bevan married Mary Allen at Bedford; they were to have five children, the eldest of whom (Benjamin Jnr.) also became a surveyor and canal engineer.

Bevan appears to have made the transition from farming to surveying early in life, for during a parliamentary committee hearing in 1826 he claimed that he had been a surveyor and civil engineer for 30 years, and that was how he was described at the time of his marriage in 1799.  In the publication 200 years of British Hydrogeology, [21] the section on the geologist and canal engineer William Smith throws a little more light on Bevan’s early connection with canal engineering . . . .

“One further point of importance when considering Smith’s canal work is his role as a teacher.  One of this country’s later most active and important canal engineers, the above mentioned Benjamin Bevan (1773–1833), had been a brewer and land surveyor in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire.  He was encouraged to become a canal engineer after meeting Smith in 1801, when Smith taught him the rudiments of stratigraphy [22] on tour [23] with Farey.”

Whatever its roots, Bevan’s earliest recorded connection with the Grand Junction Canal was in 1804, when he was employed to supervise the repair of leakage on the Little Tring to Drayton Beauchamp section of the Wendover Arm.  Presumably he dealt with the problem at the time, although leakage was to defy a permanent solution and recurred periodically over the next century, eventually leading to the canal’s closure west of Little Tring in 1904. [24]

It is possible that during his work on the Wendover Arm Bevan utilised the geological ‘tuition’ he had received from William Smith to tap into a subterranean water supply, water being needed badly at the Tring summit (Appendix II.).  He also proposed a reservoir to collect surplus water from the Canal and from various local feeds, with steam–driven pumping being used to return it to the summit ― the outcome was the Marsworth Reservoir which, together with its pumping station (replaced by Tringford pumping station in 1818), was opened in 1806.

Bevan was associated with the early use of side–ponds as a means of saving water at locks. [25] In 1805, he reported on the construction costs and extra time spent passing through locks 58 and 59 at Berkhamsted, which had experimental side ponds, and in 1815 he constructed four more at King’s Langley as part of efforts to resolve a long running dispute over water rights with the owners of Nash mills.  Although long out of use, side ponds can still be seen at various locks of the Grand Junction Canal, such as those on the Marsworth to Bulbourne flight.

Following completion of the Blisworth Tunnel in 1805, James Barnes retired from the Grand Junction Canal Company after thirteen years of service.  Bevan, Henry Provis and John Woodhouse were appointed jointly to succeed him, Bevan being allocated the central section of the canal from Leighton Buzzard to Hunton Bridge.

Although it fell outside of his area of responsibility, Bevan became involved with the construction of the embankment and aqueduct across the Ouse at Wolverton.  The original plan had been to take the canal across the Ouse at river level, using two four lock flights to descend into and ascend out of the Ouse Valley.  This scheme would have slowed canal traffic and wasted water, besides leaving the canal vulnerable to river flooding.  In 1800 Barnes suggested, as an alternative, carrying the canal cross the Ouse Valley on a high embankment using an aqueduct to bridge the river.  This proposal was accepted, but as the embankment and aqueduct [26] were expected to take two years to complete, a temporary locking system was installed to permit traffic to cross the Great Ouse valley while the embankment and aqueduct were being built.  The work was put out to tender, and in December 1802, a contract was let to a consortium headed by Thomas Harrison of Wolverton.  Work on the embankment and on the three-arched brick and stone aqueduct, to Jessop’s design, commenced in August 1803 and was opened to traffic on 25th August, 1805.  However, in January 1806, a section of the embankment failed; this was repaired, the failure being attributed to poor workmanship by the contractor, who disputed this claim and submitted an account of additions of his own.  In 1807, Bevan and Henry Provis were assigned to examine the contractor’s claims.  By this time Jessop’s aqueduct was showing signs of failure and in February 1808 it collapsed, severing the canal.  Fortunately the locking system across the Great Ouse valley was still in place and was used to bypass the failed aqueduct.

As a temporary solution, Provis designed a wooden trough to bridge the Great Ouse, Bevan being given the task of designing a permanent replacement.  Telford’s cast iron trough aqueduct at Pontcysyllte had by now proved itself, and Bevan adopted this construction for his structure, although the Ouse aqueduct troughs had to be substantially larger and stronger than at Pontcysyllte due the Grand Junction Canal’s greater width.  The iron units were cast at the Ketley foundry at Coalbrookdale, transported to Cosgrove by canal and assembled and erected on site.  During its long life, Bevan’s iron aqueduct has experienced only two stoppages for maintenance, in 1921 and in 1986.

During Bevan’s time with the Grand Junction Canal Company, he undertook other civil engineering assignments.  He surveyed the River Ivel from Biggleswade to Shefford, with a view to making it navigable (1807), reported on the state of the navigation of the River Welland (1810), and supervised the construction of the ‘old’ Grand Union Canal from Foxton to Norton Junction, notable for its flight of ten locks at Foxton and for the Crick (1,528yds) and Husbands Bosworth (1,166yds) tunnels (1810-14).  Bevan also supervised the construction of the Northampton Branch (1813-15), and planned and estimated the cost of the short (1¼-mile) Newport Pagnell Canal, which opened in 1817:

“The conveniences afforded by this communication with the Grand Junction Canal in the transit of coal agricultural produce timber deals stone and groceries are important to the town and neighbourhood of Newport Pagnell.”

Navigable Rivers and Canals, Joseph Priestley (1831)

. . . . that said, the Newport Pagnell Canal was short-lived.  In 1864 it was bought by the Newport Pagnell Railway Company who used it to form part of their track bed.

Following Bevans departure from the Grand Junction Canal Company in 1817, he engaged in other bridge design, river improvement, sewage and drainage schemes, as well as being retained until the time of his death in 1833 as Engineer to the ‘old’ Grand Union Canal, his son then taking over that role.

Bevan’s death on 2 July, 1833, came about as he might have wished, in the pursuit of knowledge.  His wife reported that they had been in bed, but that he had got up and gone into the front room to observe an eclipse of the Moon.  While it was taking place he succumbed peaceably, probably to a heart attack.



HENRY PROVIS was born at St. Gluvias, Cornwall, in 1760.  Thought to have trained as a surveyor, he was employed in 1791 by the architect Sir John Soane as a clerk of works.  Among other projects with which Provis was associated was the building of Tyringham Hall, the seat of the Grand Junction Canal Company’s Chairman, William Praed.  Tyringham’s close proximity to the embryonic Grand Junction Canal probably led Provis to see in it an employment opportunity ― he would certainly have known Praed ― for in 1802 he commenced work for the Company at a salary of £200 p.a. supervising work on the southern end of the canal.  However, it is clear from the occasional references to him that Provis was also given a range of work on the northern section, including supervising work on the new locks at Stoke Bruerne, taking over work on the Blisworth Tunnel after the contractor had been dismissed, and work at Wolverton, both before and following the collapse (1806) of a section of the embankment leading to Jessops Great Ouse aqueduct.  When the aqueduct itself collapsed in 1808, Provis planned and supervised the construction of a temporary wooden trough to carry the canal across the Ouse until Bevans iron aqueduct was completed in January 1811.  The Grand Junction Canal Company later awarded him a 50 guineas gratuity for this work.

Following the opening of the Paddington Arm in 1801, a strain was placed on the water supply to the Canal’s southern section, which by 1809 had become serious.  To remedy the problem, Provis proposed building a 3½-mile feeder from the River Brent at Kingsbury, through Neasden to join the Paddington Arm at Lower Place.  The project went ahead, a conveyance document dated 5th May, 1810, recording that £215 was paid by the Grand Junction Canal Company for land “being of the width of 15 feet little more or less and containing together by survey 1 acre and 24 perches little more or less.”  The feeder was brought into use c. 1811.  In 1835, the Brent Reservoir was  opened and the feeder was then supplied through a tunnel in the dam wall.

Undoubtedly, the most enduring of Provis’s contributions to the Grand Junction Canal is the 6¼–mile Aylesbury Arm.  The Arm was originally intended to form part of a larger canal project, the Western Junction Canal, which was to link Aylesbury to the Wilts & Berks canal at Abingdon.  In 1810, Provis, together with William Whitworth and John Barker, surveyed the route.  Had the canal been built, its 36½ mile route would have run from Abingdon, crossing the Thames on an aqueduct, and then via Thame, Cuddesdon, Long Crendon and Stone to Aylesbury and onward to connect with the Grand Junction Canal at Marsworth.  However, the parliamentary Bill was withdrawn by the promoters after strong opposition from landowners, leaving the Aylesbury Arm a mere branch canal, although today the focal point of major commercial redevelopment in the town.  Following its opening c. 1814, Telford, no less, was asked to undertake an inspection; his report stated that the Arm was “in a very perfect state”, a tribute to Provis’s work.

While working on the Grand Junction Canal, Provis won a 100-guinea prize for the design of what became the Islington Tunnel on the Regent’s Canal (a waterway that connects the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal to the Thames at Limehouse, and to the River Lee Navigation).  The company advertised the competition in 1812, the committee of judges including Jessop.  It is, perhaps, of little surprise that the award went to Provis, for his was a copy of a Jessop design!  However, it appears to have been considered unsuitable, for the tunnel was eventually built to a design by the Regent’s Canal’s engineer, James Morgan.

During his time with the Grand Junction Canal Company, Provis accepted commissions elsewhere, the most important of which was for the cast iron Tickford Bridge across the Ouzel at Newport Pagnell.  Dating from 1810-11, it is one of the oldest cast iron bridges capable of carrying modern traffic, although with some strengthening.  Designed by Provis, the bridge was based on Thomas Wilson’s patented method for the construction of iron arches.  Commenting on the North and the Tickford bridges, Hassell observed that:

“Both these bridges were built by Mr. Provis of Paddington, an engineer of celebrity, from his own designs: they are specimens of durability and pure taste, and highly ornamental to the entrances to the town either way.”

A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal, John Hassell (1819)

Following his departure from the Grand Junction Canal Company in 1816, Provis was appointed county surveyor for the northern district of Buckinghamshire and, in 1822, for the county.  Among his projects were improvements to Aylesbury Goal.  In 1828, the scheme for the Western Junction Canal re-emerged and Provis was again consulted.  He prepared a new line, building on a survey undertaken by Telford in 1819, [27] but departing from the direct line taken by Telford between Thame and Aylesbury preferring to follow the Thame Valley.  However, demands from the Grand Junction Canal Company for compensation should the proposed canal lead to a loss of profits brought this final attempt to link with the Wilts & Berks to nothing.

Provis died at his home, Bridge Lodge at Sherrington, Buckinghamshire, on 23rd August 1830.  At the time of his death he was working on the design of Olney Bridge over the River Great Ouse in Buckinghamshire.  Provis’s structure replaced the 17th century bridge referred to by the poet William Cowper in The Task; it was opened in 1832 and is now classified as an Ancient Monument and listed building.

Three of Provis’s sons became civil engineers; William and John both worked under Telford and were involved in the construction of the London to Holyhead Road and the Conway and Menai suspension bridges, while William also assisted Telford in surveying the Apsley deviation on the Grand Junction Canal.



JOHN WOODHOUSE was the son of Jonathan Woodhouse, a mining engineer.  He was born c. 1776, probably at Bedworth in the locality of Nuneaton where his father resided.

Woodhouse’s first involvement with the Grand Junction Canal Company was in 1802 when he and his brother Jonathan were members of a syndicate that was awarded the contract to complete the Blisworth Tunnel.  Work on the tunnel had been pretty much suspended for the previous five years in order to expedite completion of the remainder of the canal and increase the Company’s revenue (part of the Company’s cost–cutting at this time included Jessop’s change of position from Chief Engineer to occasional consultant).

The syndicate was to receive stage payments for work at the rate of £15.65 per yard of completed tunnel, as certified by Barnes, with a bonus of £1,000 if the work was successfully completed in two years and three months.  However, by 1803 the  Grand Junction Canal Company had become increasingly concerned about the sums they were advancing to the contractors to pay for materials (advances were offset against stage payments).  By the beginning of 1804, it was apparent that the syndicate had lost financial control of their operations and had sustained a substantial loss.  The outcome was that the contractors were dismissed and the  Grand Junction Canal Company took over direct control, John Woodhouse being retained to manage the works.

Woodhouse advertising for contractors -
Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 16th February 1811

The tunnel ― and thus the canal ― was finally completed on 25th February, 1805, at which point Barnes retired.  John Woodhouse was appointed area engineer of the Northern district.  However, he did not remain long in the Company’s employment, for in 1808 he appears to have been at work on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal where, at Tardebigge, he installed a boat–lift to a design that he had patented in 1806 as “an improved method for conveying boats, barges, or other vessels, from one level of a canal to another without the use of locks”. [28] The canal company was concerned at the expense of the 58 locks needed to take the canal down to the River Severn at Worcester; a series of Woodhouse’s patent lifts offered to reduce this number to twelve.  A trial lift was constructed, partly at his own expense, which appears to have performed the task.  However, the eminent civil engineer John Rennie gave it as his opinion that the lift was too fragile for permanent use, and it was removed.

Following the boat lift experiment, Woodhouse was appointed Engineer to the Canal, but in 1811 he took up the role of contractor, where the standard of his work appears to have been unsatisfactory and resulted in arbitration. In 1815, he undertook further work for the Grand Junction Canal Company, being awarded a contract to build side ponds for the six locks at Hanwell near the Thames at Brentford, and two at nearby Norwood.  These two flights of locks raise the canal by 68 feet in the course a mile, the side ponds being constructed as a water-saving measure.  When Provis inspected the work, he reported that the side ponds were unusable due to poor workmanship and Woodhouse was obliged to make repairs.

Further work for the Company commenced in 1817, when Woodhouse was awarded the contract to install the Tringford pumping station on the Wendover Arm. [29] The reservoirs at Tringford and at Startopsend were built between 1814 and 1818, in part to supply the recently opened Aylesbury Arm, which draws its water from the main line.  A further pumping station was required to service these reservoirs and to replace the pumping station at Marsworth.  Built during 1817-18, Tringford pumping station was equipped with a Boulton and Watt beam engine capable of pumping 80 lockfulls of water per day, the water being drawn from a well situated some 50 feet below the pumping station, which is fed by tunnels from the two reservoirs.  After Tringford commenced operation in 1818, the Marsworth pumping station was dismantled.  Tringford still performs its function, although the water supply, the building and its machinery are now much altered.

Following his work for the Grand Junction Canal Company, Woodhouse was appointed Engineer to the Gloucester and Berkeley Ship Canal, but on Thomas Telford’s recommendation he was dismissed in 1820 for purchasing from a son, masonry of a dubious quality for use in a sea wall.

Nothing else is known of Woodhouse, but his sons Thomas (1793-1855) and George (1801-68) had successful careers as civil engineers, both being associated with the eminent civil engineering contractor, Thomas Brassey.

As for John’s brother, Jonathan, he had gained experience in the family business installing Newcomen-type pumping engines into mines.  In 1802, he was contracted by the Grand Junction Canal Company to supply and erect such an engine [30] above Wilstone Reservoir and to erect the engine house, the keeper’s house and the smith’s shop.  This project was completed by August 1802, but due to problems driving the heading to Wilstone Reservoir ― several large springs were tapped ― the pumping station was not operational until June 1803.  Jonathan was then employed to drive the engine, but by 1835 had moved to become the engine attendant at Tringford pumping station where he remained until he retired in January, 1849, at the age of 74 and after 46 years’ service with the Company.  His son William (born 1814) succeeded to his father’s position.



Telford’s contributions to the GJC were small, but they are worth mentioning due to his eminence in the history of civil engineering.

Thomas Telford FRS

THOMAS TELFORD was born in Eskdale, Dumfriesshire, in 1757.  In common with many other civil engineers of his era he received no training as such, but entered the profession through one of its linked trades, in Telford’s case that of the stone mason. [31] Through a range of work he acquired not only a wide experience as a mason, but also in the specification, design and management of construction projects, all skills essential to the complete civil engineer.  In 1787 Telford became Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire.  Six years later, with a portfolio of successful bridge and other building work to his credit, he was appointed General Agent under Jessop in the construction of the Ellesmere Canal. [32]

By the time Telford was first consulted by the Grand Junction Canal Company, he had become one of the nation’s leading civil engineers.  Following the opening of the Blisworth Tunnel, the Company sought a professional opinion on the now fully completed Canal, and unsurprisingly they engaged an engineer of Telford’s eminence to provide it.  Telford duly delivered his report ― ‘The General State of the Grand Junction Canal’ (May 1805) ― which included a favourable verdict on the Blisworth Tunnel.  While even he could not foresee the extent of the repairs and rebuildings that the Tunnel was to require down the years, it is surprising that he failed to predict the problems that were shortly to be experienced with the Cosgrove embankment and its aqueduct.  Other inspections and reports that he was to undertake for the Company were, in 1815, of the newly completed Aylesbury Arm, on which he delivered a favourable report, and, in 1817, he selected the site of the Tringford pumping station, which eventually replaced those at Marsworth, Weston Turville and Whitehouses.
Telford’s tangible contribution to the present day canal stemmed from a problem experienced by most canal promoters, that of disputes with the owners of watermills.  The usual strategy was to buy the mills in order to acquire their historic rights to the water-flow that powered them.  But the Company did not acquire the ancient Apsley and Nash mills, [33] probably through a combination of cost and an absence of any hint of the long running disputes over water supply that were to arise, principally with John Dickinson, a determined man of volcanic temperament.  The problems stemmed from the Company’s diversion of the rivers Bulbourne and Gade into the canal, resulting in the loss of some of the mills’ motive power and of water for making paper pulp.  In an effort to remedy the problem, the Company installed a Boulton and Watt beam engine to back-pump water from the canal below the four locks next to Nash Mills, in effect recycling water that had already flowed down through the locks.  But this failed to provide a complete solution, due in part to a further problem, that of water loss through leakage in the bed of the canal in this section, which appears to have been badly constructed.

By 1812 the mills had been acquired by John Dickinson, who commenced litigation against the Company.  The outcome was that the Company was required to act to prevent the loss of water referred to.  Side ponds were built at the four locks in the disputed section in an attempt to reduce the water loss, but Dickinson’s complaints continued, resulting in further litigation.  Telford had already been consulted by the Company on the extent of water loss in the disputed section ― his opinion conflicting with that of Dickinson’s consulting engineer ― and he was now engaged to survey a deviation around the problematic section of the canal, a solution that had been proposed by Dickinson himself.  The survey, undertaken by Telford and W. A. Provis, [34] resulted in a new Act (17th March, 1818) to authorise the abandonment of the existing section of the canal and the construction of a deviation.  The Act stated that the route was to be along the course of the united Bulbourne and Gade, between Frogmore Swing Bridge and its junction with the tail-water of Nash Mills:

“On 14 March 1818 water fell for the first time over the new tumbling bay and on the 22nd Ann records: ‘Mr. D. opened the Channel from Nash Mill head to new line of Canal.’  In August a new line of canal at Batchworth was opened, and Dickinson dined with the Canal Committee afterwards.  Dickinson had contracted to carry out the brickwork for the new canal, and supervised it himself.”

The Endless Web, Dame Joan Evans, 1955.

The deviation opened to traffic in the following year.

Elsewhere Telford left an outstanding legacy of civil engineering work, among which are the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the Caledonian Canal, [35] the Göta Canal (Sweden), sections of the A5 trunk road ―  together with the fine suspension bridges across the River Conwy and the Menai Straits ― and the Shropshire Union Canal.

Thomas Telford lies in the central part of the nave of Westminster Abbey, where he was buried on 10 September 1834. The inscription on his gravestone reads:




RODOLPH FANE DE SALIS (1854-1931) was the last chairman of the Grand Junction Canal Company.  Together with W. H. Curtis, Chairman of the Regent’s Canal and Dock Company, he was responsible for the merger that in 1929 took the waterway into the next phase of its history, as a constituent of the Grand Union Canal Company.

R. F. de Salis and daughter Edith Margery
(c. 1888).

Born in 1854 at Fringford, Oxfordshire, he was the son of Henry Jerome Augustine Fane de Salis and Grace Elizabeth Warner Henley.  Educated at Eton and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge (M.A.), de Salis became a Fellow of the Geological Society of London and an Associate Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, professional accomplishments that, taken together, suggest a man well qualified to run a canal company.  Other roles in business that de Salis undertook were as Chairman of Singer Motor Company of Coventry, President of the Canal Association; and as a director of the North Staffordshire Railway, the Great Central Railway and the Coventry Canal Company.

De Salis became a director of the Grand Junction Canal Company in 1888, serving as Company Chairman from 1914 to 1928, when he retired.  This was a period encompassing not only the taxing operating conditions of the Great War but, in 1925-28, the negotiations that led to the takeover of the Grand Junction Canal Company’s canal assets by the Regent’s Canal and Dock Company.  Parliamentary approval having been given, on 1st January, 1929, the Grand Junction Canal Company became a constituent of the newly formed Grand Union Canal Company, although the takeover excluded the Grand Junction Canal Company’s valuable property portfolio at Paddington.  It fell to de Salis to oversee the terms of the takeover, which were approved at a shareholders’ meeting at the Company’s offices in the Strand on 8th February, 1928.  The meeting was reported in The Times the following day.  Much of what was discussed related to the terms of the sale and to the protection of the conditions of service of the existing employees, on which, to de Salis’s credit, much thought had been given.  The Chairman concluded his address by saying that:

“. . . . It is my duty today to ask your assent to a Bill promoted by the Regent’s Company for the purchase of the canal portion of our undertaking. This is a part of a larger scheme for taking over by the Regent’s Company of the Warwick Canals and making a through route to Birmingham . . . . I must say a personal word. I have been on this committee upwards of 40 years, and shall have been Chairman for close on 15 years when the Bill becomes law. I hope I have been a not unworthy successor to our first Chairman, Mr. Praed, whose portrait is over the mantelpiece. He made the canal; I am instrumental in forming it into a larger company with better prospects than it ever had, and I hand it over in a better condition than when I took the chair, and with the shares considerably enhanced in value.”

At the final shareholders’ meeting later that year — perhaps bolstered by the prospects falling to a much larger trading organisation — de Salis responded to a pessimistic radio broadcast on the future of canal transport vis-à-vis road and rail thus:

“ . . . . but I do not think that he [the broadcaster] took sufficient account of the great advantages water has over other forms of transport in direct delivery to and from ship in towns and factories inland . . . . we find traders wish more and more to use the water route where possible, and it is the business of our traffic department to foster that tendency.  There will always be a large traffic in heavy goods, for which canals can beat competitors.”

Even the substantial investment that the new company was to make during the early 1930s in modernising their London to Birmingham route fell far short of what was necessary to bring the waterway up to a standard at which it could compete on favourable terms with road and rail, and its long-distance business gradually withered and died.  But in his closing address de Salis could not reasonably have foreseen the resurgence in the use of our canal system as a leisure resource, a resurgence substantially unaffected by their antiquated design.

See also Thirty Days on English Canals by R. F. de Salis (Appendix III.)




To the CHAIRMAN of the General Committee of the GRAND JUNCTION CANAL


CONFORMABLE to the directions of the Committee, we have surveyed a line for a railway at Blisworth; and you will receive with this, a profile of the Line extending from Blisworth to the crossing of the Towcester River, three miles one furlong and six chains, and an estimate of the expense amounting to £8,098.  To carry it further than this point is unadvisable, as the ground is some of the most favourable in the whole Line, and there will require four Locks to Stoney Stratford; the canal will cost to compleat it not much more than a railway.

It appears upon the whole probable that the communication between Blisworth and Stratford Bridge by the railway and canal will not exceed the expence of £24,000.

We will now state the probable advantage to result from this communication.  There is no proposition generally more true or self evident, that in the extension of a canal from any given point which supplies a country with necessaries (and particularly where coal is the principal article,) the extension increases the quantity of Conveyance, [in a duplicate ratio of the length to which it is extended], making allowance for local exceptions, such as interfering with districts, which have part of their supplies from other sources.

You will easily conceive that a canal might be so short, that no one would think it worth while to use it at all, in preference to land carriage from its originating point; extend it a little further and a few would make use of it; if in a canal of six miles in length, a person living in its vicinity would go three miles to it rather than go to its beginning, a person at twelve miles from its end would with equal reason go six miles to the canal, and one at eighteen miles distance would with still more reason prefer going nine miles to the canal, because it would be within one day’s journey, which is a very strong inducement to all who are so circumstanced.  On this principle you will conceive that a canal will accommodate a triangular district of country; not strictly so, but the sides of the triangle will be a mean between some in the inside of it, who will not come into the computation, and others on the outside who will.

The distance from Braunston Wharf to Blisworth in a direct line is thirteen miles and a half; from Braunston to Stratford Bridge is twenty-one miles, which bears the proportion of nine to fourteen.  The area of the country comprehended within the triangle, the perpendicular depth of which is from Braunston to Blisworth, will be to the area of that from Braunston to Stratford as the square of nine to the square of fourteen.

The carriage in the northern district of the canal from the 1st April, 1798, to the 1st April, 1799, also interrupted by two months of frost, has been 41,500 tons, exclusive of limestone, but deducting from this Mr. Pickford’s carriage and a few other goods conveyed to and from London, which may be about 7,000 tons (for we have no particular account of this) there will remain 34,500 tons of local trade, which is subject to increase by extension of the canal; if this were not affected by local exceptions, it would be fair to suppose that the increase by extension would be in the ratio which is assumed, from 34,500 to 83,481, making an increase in addition to the first quantity of 48,981 tons (it may also be fair to observe, that the existing canal is also subject to its share of local exceptions) but not to be sanguine, we will suppose the increase to be 50,000 tons, and leaving the greater rate of tonnage on salt, grain and other articles out of the question, and estimating at one penny per ton, this is twenty-eight miles from Braunston to Stratford will produce £3,500 per annum, in addition to the present receipts; to this we will suppose £500 per year may be added for the additional ten-pence or fifteen-pence per ton on the quantities which at present go by land carriage through Stratford, making £4,000 per annum.

Thus far as to its operation; except that we mention that the railway will greatly facilitate the carriage of Lime, Coal, and other materials on the execution of the works of the canal, but when the interval arrives, between the completion of the canal from Tring to Stratford, and the completion of the Tunnel, the facility which will be given to the carriage on the three miles and a quarter over the Hill by an iron road, compared with any that can be maintained by the common materials of the country is beyond calculation; if we may judge from the present state of the road, to which a good deal of attention is given, what it would be with only double the present carriage, it is difficult to conceive how it can in wet seasons be kept tolerably passable; but with the immense quantity, possible ten times the present quantity at least, which must either pass or be stopped when the whole communications is effected, except the three miles and a quarter, if this road were not made before, necessity would then loudly call for the execution of it; and while it would be doing, the canal might lose in revenue and reputation more than the whole cost of it.

Though great part of the advantage of a railway is lost under the circumstance of ascending a hill,** yet the expense of carriage on it will not exceed six-pence per ton; to this must be added two-pence for an extra loading, and possibly two-pence more for repair of roads and waggons, and rent of the land, making together ten-pence per ton; the freight by the canal from the railroad to Stratford will be six-pence, and adding the tonnnage for ten miles, coal will be delivered to Stratford from Blisworth at 2s. 2d. - the present price of land carriage is 6s. 8d. per ton.

The waggons will not unload at the end of the railway, but will be let down into the boats by a crane, and be discharged at Stratford.

We are not aware of having omitted any article of expence that can fairly attach to either the execution, or the use of it, but at all events we may say with confidence that the value of the railway when done with here, will cover everything which may have been unforeseen or unattended to.

As this subject naturally associates itself with the general concern, we cannot help feeling the strongest impression in our minds, how much the interest of the company calls on every proprietor to strain every nerve to furnish the means of completing the extension from Tring to Stratford, as there can hardly be a doubt that the consequent increase of revenue will pay at least £20 per cent. on the sum required to effect it; nothing can be more easy to execute, than the part of this line remaining to be done, and it is not subject to any probability of hazard or uncertainty.


Blisworth, April 8th, 1799.

** A principle later confirmed by the railway engineer, George Stephenson.




From “On the Utility, Structure and Management of Canal” by Joseph Townsend: published in
The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, Vol. XX, July-Dec 1813.

Most canals are distressed for want of water, because either they are above the springs, or they are not permitted to derive a supply from mill streams.  A knowledge of geology will, in most situations, relieve the engineer from distress, and teach him distinctly to what distance he must drive a level, or to what depth he must sink his shaft, that he may find ample supplies of water, such as no one can claim, because they nowhere break out in springs, till they issue either into the narrow seas, at the bottom of the ocean, or in the great abyss. . . .

It was this knowledge, derived from Wm. Smith, which enabled Mr. Bevan to direct his shaft into the chalk hills at Tring, by which he secured a supply of water for the Grand Junction Canal. . . .

In Dr. Rees’s New Cyclopedia we have a very interesting account of the manner in which Mr. Bevan supplied a part of the Grand Junction Canal with water.  This ingenious artist discovered, that on the north side of the chalk summit between Tring and Wendover, different water-tight beds in the lower chalk held up springs a considerable height above the canal, and, in order to avail himself of these, he began a tunnel in the upper bank of the canal near Wendover, which he drove half a mile southward to intercept the springs in their descent.  But observing that the principal of this water was in the winter and spring months, when the other sources were more than sufficient for the supply of the canal, he placed a strong water-tight valve in the most favourable part of his tunnel, which as soon in the autumn as the canal is amply supplied from its other feeds, he keeps shut until these begin to slacken in their supply.

The water in the immense planes of these beds of chalk accumulate, as in a vast subterranean reservoir, the springs rise to the level to which they originally rose, before this tunnel was begun, that is, twenty feet above the canal, and for many weeks after the opening of the valve in the beginning of summer they pour forth a most surprising stream of water into the canal, which otherwise would have found a vent miles off in the chalk vallies, or have slowly made its way down through the joints and fissures in the strata, to springs which issue at the bottom of the chalk below the level of the canal.

Had the Grand Junction, like the Kennet and Avon canal, been cut to the south-east of the chalk hills instead of being on the north side, as it is near Wendover, and had this canal been formed in a bed consisting of chalk rubble and of flinty gravel, Mr. Bevan would have had no need of penning up his chalk feeders in the autumn, in the winter, and in the spring.  Of this we can have no doubt, when we take a view of that immense quantity of water, which flows in the thick bed of gravel, far beneath the surface, all the way down the valley from Crofton, Bedwin, and Hungerford, to Kintbury, Newbury, and Reading.




Director of the Grand Junction Canal Company

In May and June of this year, on the invitation of my cousin, Mr de Salis, [36] I had an opportunity of seeing, in his steam-launch “Dragon Fly,” portions of the following inland Navigations, viz.—Oxford, Grand Junction, Grand Union, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, Leicester, Loughborough, Trent, Trent and Mersey, Macclesfield, Peak Forest, Ashton, Rochdale, Bridgewater, Manchester Ship Canal, Weaver, Shropshire Union, Stafford and Worcester, Birmingham, Warwick and Birmingham, and Warwick and Napton.  The tour was made by the courtesy of the Managers of these Navigations, to whom my best thanks are due; and who, I hope, will find nothing in these notes on what was, to me, a most interesting run, or in my observations on Canal development, which they might in any case consider as an improper requital for the facilities granted to us, or for the civility we almost invariably met with from all classes of Canal servants during the thirty days we were out.

May 11th: We left Oxford at 9 a.m. on May 11th, and passed at once from the Thames into the Oxford Canal.  The Canal follows the course of the river Cherwell to Banbury, the river being in one place canalised, — then locks up to Claydon, — passes over an exceedingly tortuous eleven mile summit to Napton, — and joins the Grand Junction Canal at Braunston.  The Canal was originally cheaply constructed, and follows the contour of the country, almost regardless of distance; which must, in these days of railway competition, tell against it.  It passes through a purely agricultural district, Banbury being the only town it touches; it connects Oxford with Birmingham via the Warwick and Napton, with Coventry via the Coventry, and with Leicester and the Derby coalfields via the Unions and Leicester Canals.  Its principal trade is in coal and Hartshill road stone for the district through which it passes; the difficulty of getting return loads is very noticeable, the bulk of the boats running back empty.

May l3th: We joined the Grand Junction Canal at Braunston, and, running through the Braunston Tunnel — a broad tunnel, 2,042 yards in length, worked by steam haulage, — we entered on the Unions, connecting Leicester with London via, the Grand Junction Canal.  These finely constructed canals have just been purchased by the Grand Junction Canal Company, and, forming as they do, a link connecting the Derbyshire coalfields with London, ought to have a great future before them.  As they pass through the rich Leicester grass country, the small town of Market Harborough being the principal place touched, their local trade must always, necessarily, be insignificant.

May 19th: Noticing at Leicester the fine stretch of water constructed by the Corporation as a town improvement, we passed into the river Soar; which, with the exception of two cuts, and a short length of the river Wreak, is canalised to the Trent.  Money might be spent with advantage on the Wreak, but the Soar is a fine navigation; with, however, a river’s necessary drawbacks of liability to flood in winter and to drought in summer.  It flows into the river Trent opposite to the junction of the Derby and Erewash Canals; the Trent thus forms the connecting link between Nottingham and the South, between the Derbyshire coalfields and London, and between Nottingham and Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham, via the Trent and Mersey Canal.  It is worthy of remark that between the Trent and London the only narrow locks are the flight of ten at Foxton, and of seven at Watford, both on the Grand Union.

May 20th: We made easy running up the Trent and Mersey Canal, the first railway owned canal we had been on, to the junction of the Macclesfield Canal at Harecastle passing on our way the towns of Burton-on-Trent, — which contributes no trade to the Canal, the Breweries being entirely served by rail, — Rugeley, and Stoke-on-Trent, also the junction of the Coventry Canal at Fradley, and of the Stafford and Worcester Canal at Great Haywood.  This latter connects Birmingham and Wolverhampton with Manchester via the Macclesfield, or via river Weaver and the Bridgewater Canal.  As we approached Stoke a change in the character of the trade became apparent; we had hitherto chiefly seen through trade between large centres, but now cargoes of iron, salt, coal, and materials for the Potteries told us we were entering the zone of midland mines and factories.  Before reaching Harecastle we passed through the Harecastle Tunnel, 2,807 yards long.  This consists of two narrow tunnels, the one from Stoke to Harecastle having a towpath, but the other having to be worked by legging or poling.  These tunnels, being very low and unventilated, would be impracticable for steam traffic, and must prove a serious hindrance to its development.

May23rd: At Harecastle we branched off into the Macclesfield Canal, the property of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway Company.  This fine Canal, carried across a hilly country on a series of bold embankments, forms, with the Peak Forest and Ashton Canals the property of the same Company, the direct route between Birmingham and Manchester; it has not, however, been the policy of the Railway Company to develop canal trade, and consequently, though touching the considerable town of Macclesfield and passing through a country thick with cotton factories, there is but little doing on these Canals.

May 26th: From the Ashton Canal we entered the busy Rochdale, with its ninety broad locks in thirty miles; and, running for l¼ miles through the heart of Manchester, found ourselves on the Bridgewater Canal.  This Canal, one of the earliest made, and still one of the finest inland canals in the country, has now been absorbed by the Ship Canal, which will, doubtless, divert a portion of its Liverpool trade, but with coal trade from pits on its banks, trade from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, and from the salt and pottery districts via the Trent and Mersey Canal, it should prove a remunerative purchase.  We passed over the swing aqueduct, which carries the Bridgewater over the Ship Canal.  This, when full of water, weighs some 1,400 tons, and opens in 1 min. 15 secs.  Then, — the lift which is to connect the high and low level canals at this point not being yet constructed, — we ran back to Manchester, and locked down into the Ship Canal.

May 28th: Of the future of this magnificent enterprise, with its thirty-five miles of waterway 26ft. deep, having a section of 120ft. at bottom, its five sets of locks and eight swing-bridges, all worked by hydraulic power, its extensive Docks and Warehouses, and its heavy cuttings and embankments, it is impossible, and would be unfair, to speak on such a slight knowledge as I could hope to obtain on a casual survey.  It is, however, clear that if Manchester and the Shareholders of the Canal have done a great deal, there still remains much to do before the work can be considered complete.  The sewage question, must be dealt, with.  Besides the danger to health caused by the present insanitary state of the first ten miles of the canal—i.e., as far as Latchford Locks, where the canal becomes semi-tidal — the quantity of deposit passing into the channel as sewage must be large, and, if the full depth is to be maintained, will cause constant expense in dredging.  There is still, also, a good deal to be done to render the embankments and facings complete.  Whether ships of more than comparatively small size — 200 to 300 tons — will care to face the risks of an inland navigation and the difficulties of lockage, and will not prefer, rather, to discharge their cargo into trains of barges, which could be towed up the canal with ease, remains to be seen.  It is, also, obviously to be regretted that the headway of the bridges was, necessarily, limited to 75ft., this creates an additional difficulty for ships of any size.

We ran down the Ship Canal as far as the junction of the river Weaver, which flows into the canal below Runcorn, the discharge of its waters into the Mersey being provided for by sluices.  The Weaver is canalised for twenty miles, to Winsford; we travelled up it as far as Northwich, and were struck by its fine locks, weirs and sluices, and by the good condition of the waterway, — 10 feet deep.  The locks have centre gates, and we worked by hand capstans.  There is a heavy trade on the river, chiefly from the Salt district to Runcorn and Liverpool; this is carried in steam barges, having a capacity of from 200 to 800 tons, and often towing flats.  The navigation is in the hands of trustees for the County of Cheshire, towards whoso rates it contributes about £1,000 a year, after paying interest on Debentures and all expenses of upkeep.  The Weaver is connected with the Trent and Mersey Canal at Anderton, near Northwich, by a lift.  This is worked partly as a balance lift, being in duplicate, and partly by hydraulic power.

May 29th: We were 15 min. in the sluices, and were raised 50 ft. 4 in. in 4½ min.  The trough is 15 ft. 6 in. in width and 5 ft. 6 in. deep, and would, therefore, take any boat that could navigate on the Trent and Mersey Canal.  This canal is here at its busiest; the salt and chemical works established on its banks are a fertile source of revenue, and, to meet the requirements of this traffic, a heavy sum of money has recently been expended on raising the bridges, and improving the section of the waterway, between Anderton and Middlewich.  From Anderton we turned back to Barnton to see the working of the tunnel; through which a heavy trade of grain, coal, and salt passes between Runcorn and the salt and pottery district.  This is a narrow tunnel, 572 yards long, and is worked by tugs with broad wheels placed horizontally on the bows, to fend them off the walls of the tunnel.

May 30th: From Barnton we ran to Middlewich, where a branch of the Shropshire Union Canal connects the Trent and Mersey Canal with the main line of the former at Barbridge.  Crossing the main line we entered, at Hurleston, the Ellesmere branch, wich terminates at Newtown, and also branches off to Llantisilio, our destination.  This branch passes through a most picturesque country.  The rich, undulating, grazing lands of Cheshire are succeeded by the fir woods and lonely tarns of Ellesmere; then, as the Welsh mountains are approached, the country grows more hilly; the canal touches Ruabon,  — from which, however, it draws but little trade, — Llangollen, with its stone quarries high up on the mountainsides, and crosses on the way two magnificent aqueducts, at Chirk and Pontcysyllte.  The former of these is carried on stone piers and arches, the latter on stone piers and iron arches; both compare favourably with the modern railway viaducts alongside, and are fine examples of early canal enterprise.  At Llantisilio the Canal receives a beautiful natural supply of water from Lake Bala.  This arm of the Canal is in excellent order; its water supply is so pure that but little silt can be deposited.  The principal trade on it is road stone from Llangollen, carried by the Company in 20-ton boats.

June 3rd: Returning from Llantisilio to Hurleston, we turned up the main line for Birmingham.  I was much struck with the bold design of this canal, which is carried in almost a straight line from point to point.  It forms a through route, connecting Wolverhampton and Birmingham with Chester, and with Liverpool, via Ellesmere Port and the Mersey; and, excepting that its locks are narrow, is well suited for carrying a heavy trade.  It is the property of the Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Company, and the principal trade on it appears to be iron, raw and manufactured, from the Midlands, and return cargoes of grain.  This is carried almost entirely in the Company’s boats.  The traction employed is horse-power, excepting on the section of the Canal between Tyrley top lock and Autherley.  From Tyrley top lock to Wheaton Aston there is a seventeen-mile Pound, then one lock, then a seven-mile Pound to Autherley; between these points two tugs ply, one running each way daily, and taking the Company’s boats in train.  The Company have stables at Tyrley top lock and Autherley.

June 4th: At Autherley the Shropshire Union Canal connects with the Stafford and Worcester Canal, by means of a stop lock.  A half-mile length of the latter connects the former with the Birmingham Canal Navigations.  It is needless to dwell on the inconvenience to trade caused by this short link in a great through route.

The Birmingham Canal (railway controlled) rises by a flight of twenty-one locks to Wolverhampton.  Through these there is a heavy and constant trade; that from the Potteries and Stoke-on-Trent, via the Stafford and Worcester, and that from Liverpool and Chester, via the Shropshire Union, converging at this point; and this flight of locks, which took us, the circumstances being specially favourable, two hours to pass, is, necessarily, a great hindrance to its development.  The Company will doubtless eventually get over this difficulty by means of a lift or slide.  The canal between Wolverhampton and Birmingham passes through the populous districts of Smethwick and Oldbury.  Coal pits, which occasionally cause disastrous subsidences, are thickly scattered over the country; these form a nucleus for iron-works and factories, which bring a heavy local trade to the Canal.  This section, fed by numerous docks and branches, has in fact so heavy a trade that a double towpath has been found necessary.  The locks are, however, all narrow.  The Canal passes through the heart of Birmingham, and is there lined with wharves and warehouses.  There, also, the great, carrying firm of Fellows, Morton and Co. have their headquarters.

June 5th: Locking up on the Western outskirts of Birmingham, through a flight of six locks, we entered the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, which, with the Warwick and Napton, Oxford, and Grand Junction Canals, forms the through route between London and Birmingham.  This Canal, and the Warwick and Napton, with which it connects at Warwick, are under the management of Mr. Lloyd, than whom no one has done more to promote Canal enterprise, and to whose broad-minded views of Canal management much of the revival of interest in their development is due.  On these Canals the bulk of the trade is “through” i.e. between Birmingham and London, and a fair proportion of it is worked by steam traction, a loaded steamer towing one boat.  The locks are narrow; a great drawback to the increased use of steam, and it is perhaps not too much to hope that at some future time the money may be forthcoming to widen them.  If this were done, as the bridges are broad, a fifty-ton barge could run from London to Birmingham.  There is one tunnel — broad — on this Canal, at Shrewley near Hatton, 1,000 ft. long, it is worked by holdfasts fixed to the sides, about 5 ft. above water level.  By means of these, boats can be pulled through by hand.  This method, if slow, is better for the tunnel sides than “legging” or “poling”.

June 6th: At Warwick we branched off from the Warwick and Birmingham on to the Warwick and Napton Canal.  Both these Canals are in it state of practical efficiency.  Near Napton we again joined the Oxford Canal, and arrived at Oxford on June 9th, this being our 30th day out.

We ran, in all, 562 miles, on twenty Navigations, under fifteen managements, and passed through 437 locks.


That the English Canals, forming as they do a fine and fairly complete system of waterways throughout the industrial parts of the country, are not taking the share of traffic which ought to fall to them, is clear; nor are the reasons far to seek.  England was the pioneer of Canal as of Railway enterprise; consequently canals labour under heavy disadvantages, some initial and irremediable — the result of having to compete for traffic under circumstances for which they were not designed — and some the result of the apathy engendered by the crushing nature of railway competition.  These latter are removable, and will disappear as it is realised that there is a large field in which, were our waterways up to date, they could secure traffic against any competition railways could bring against them.  The tortuous course followed by many canals is a disadvantage of the former class.  In the early days of canals the saving of initial outlay on heavy embankments and cuttings, while it increased the length of the navigation, increased also the mileage toll, and hence, in the absence of any serious competition, secured two advantages, — cheapness of construction, and greater distance on which to charge mileage toll.  A comparison of a few distances by rail and canal between centres of commerce, taken almost at haphazard, will show the reality of this drawback.

  By Rail. By Canal.
  Miles. Miles.
London to Birmingham



London to Manchester



London to Leicester



Birmingham to Manchester



* Via the Macclesfield Canal; the shortest route, but not, at present, in general use.

Disadvantages of the second class are: —

The general condition of canals. — Single locks, narrow and low bridges, small tunnels lacking any adequate means of ventilation or haulage, are characteristic of most canals.  Before they can hope to compete with railways their plant must be in as good a condition to meet modern requirements, and must take advantage of modern improvements to the same extent as that of their rivals.  Canal locks were designed for horse traffic; — of sufficient size, as a rule, for one boat only, and often coming thickly together where hills have to be surmounted.  Horse traffic is now antiquated.  A loaded steamer, towing one or more flats, can carry more economically.  But to allow her to do so, locks must be capable of passing at least one fifty-ton barge, or two thirty-ton boats; where they are close together, also, a lift or slide would save much time.  Besides want of economy a serious objection to horse traffic arises from the insanitary and immoral conditions under which it is, almost of necessity, carried on.  To steer a barge or to keep a horse travelling at 2½ miles an hour along a towpath does not require a man, or even a woman; consequently a Bargee has every inducement to marry young, and to bring up his family in the small cabin of his barge.  The children, having no fixed home, escape the School Board Officers, and are brought up with such ideas of decency and morality as might be expected.  The work, also, entails terribly long hours and exposure, which must tell prejudicially on the health and stamina of those who survive and grow up.  The substitution of steam for horse haulage would, by saving labour, do much to alleviate the Bargee’s lot; and is, therefore, on all grounds greatly to be desired.  Tunnels in which steam can be used are, at present, the exception.  They are occasionally passed by horse haulage, sometimes by holdfasts and hand haulage, more often by “poling”, or by the barbarous method of “legging”.  A long tunnel may often take two to three hours to pass.  Ventilation of tunnels, and the duplication or enlarging of single ones, will necessarily follow the increasing use of steam.

Management. — There are in England and Wales 3,050 miles of canal under 70 separate companies, or an average of 44 miles to each company.  There are 12,931 miles of railway under 21 companies, or an average of 616 miles to each company.  This multiplication of managements, natural in the early days of canal enterprise, seems well calculated to produce low efficiency at high cost.  Few companies can afford to pay for good men, or for works up to the modern standard.  Small shops, manned by local workmen, without machinery and without stores or skilled supervision, cannot possibly compete with modern railway works.  And yet, if canals are not, in their way, kept in as efficient a state as railways, they compete under a heavy disadvantage.

Railway Ownership: This is not likely, considering the tendency of modern legislation, to prove a serious bar to canal development.  Railway canals are, as a rule, as well kept as free canals, and are now compelled under the Railway and Canal Traffic Act to allow carrying at statutory rates.  Whether further legislation, allowing free canals, or traders, to acquire railway property at a valuation, where it is neglected, or where proper facilities are not given to traders, is required, time alone will show.

It has often been suggested, most recently in an article in the Times of May 16th last, which has since been issued in pamphlet form, that to get over the difficulties caused by multiplied managements and railway ownership, Government should acquire the canals of the country and work them as a Government department.  With this view I strongly disagree.  In the first place, government management is not notorious for economy, or for elasticity sufficient to compete with free enterprises, unless the latter are so tied down and handicapped with restrictions that Government have a practical monopoly.

The Post Office, the best-managed Government department, is a case in point.  Telephones and boy messengers have both, recently, forced the department, to fall back on its monopoly, and nobody can doubt that, were the field open, some enterprising Company would give London a halfpenny Post.

If, therefore, Government acquired Canals, one of two things would happen.  If Government carried at rates low enough to beat the railways, or fixed tolls low enough to enable the bye-traders to do so, Canals would not pay; then they would be maintained at the expense of the taxpayer, out of whose pocket the trader would receive the benefit of cheap transit.  Or else railways would not be allowed to carry certain classes of goods at rates lower than the Government officials might consider sufficient to pay the Canals and bye-traders; then the trader would pay in freight to prevent the taxpayer losing on his investment.

Then again, there are canals which have a reasonable prospect of paying, and canals which have not.  On the great through routes a heavy trade in such articles as grain, coal, stone, and iron would readily spring up; since, were managements centralized, they could be carried at a rate to defy railway competition.  Some local lines, also, have a large local trade in bricks, manure, &c.  Canals, on the other hand, feeding small towns, and not connecting trade centres, or having any special local trade, have, in face of the facilities now offered by railways, no future before them.

But, if Government were to acquire the canals of the country, it must take all, or none; the taxpayer would thus be saddled with a large quantity of non-paying property, costing as much to maintain as that which could yield a return.  If, however, canal development is left to private enterprise, the stronger canals, obtaining money on favourable terms, will, as opportunity offers, acquire canals acting as their feeders, or connecting them with through routes.  This course has recently been followed by the Grand Junction Canal Company, which has purchased the Grand Union and Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canals.  Or, where this is not done, groups of canals may be acquired by a Company or Trust formed under the auspices of the local traders or mine-owners.

Canal Companies, being under statutory obligations to maintain their waterways, are, when small, unable to do so to advantage; such Companies are, therefore, generally very ready to sell at an almost nominal price.  The larger Company, thus obtaining property at small first cost, will be able to spend the money required to bring canal works up to date, with good hope of a return.  And thus will Canals again become in the future, as they have been in the past, the principal highways of the country for heavy traffic.

[Chapter VI.]




The Grand Junction Canal by Alan H. Faulkner, David and Charles (1972).


About a mile and a half north of Newport Pagnell.


Soane was a specialist in designing country houses for the landed gentry, although his notable surviving work includes the dining rooms of 10 and 11 Downing Street and the Dulwich Picture Gallery.


Praed also had held the seat briefly in 1774, but was unseated following an allegation of voting irregularity.


In Transport in the Industrial Revolution (Derek H. Aldcroft and M. J. Freeman, Manchester University Press, 1983),  the authors state that “William Praed, who had strong banking connections in Truro, invested an eventual £19,400 in the Grand Junction”, although they don’t state what form the investment took.


William Jessop, Engineer by Charles Hadfield and A. W. Skempton, David & Charles, 1979.


Traffic ended effectively with the coming of the railway in 1870.  Today the canal is used for leisure.


The canal, which passes through fine scenery, was closed in 1952, the last complete journey having taken place in 1937.  Following a long programme of restoration, it is once again open to traffic.


More often known as the Llangollen Canal.


The only part of the canal built according to the original plans was the link from Chester to the Mersey at Netherpool, which gave rise to Ellesmere Port and was intended to serve Liverpool.


Navigable Rivers and Waterways, Joseph Priestley (1831).


The line that he proposed differed little from that eventually followed.


. . . causing Jessop to recommend the safer strategy of crossing Blisworth Hill using a system of locks, reservoirs and steam pumping.


Simcock had been an assistant to James Brindley on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire, the Old Main Line of the Birmingham Canal Navigation, and the Oxford Canal.  He was also Brindley’s brother-in-law.


The Grand Junction Canal, Alan H. Faulkner, David and Charles (1972).


The short (and short-lived) branch to Newport Pagnell was also constructed, but by Benjamin Bevan independently of the GJCC.  It is possible the Daventry branch may yet be built.


By 1932 the branch was disused and it was formally abandoned in 1964.  It is now mostly filled in (although its course can be seen clearly in places) apart from a very short ‘stub’ of about 100 yards at Cosgrove, which is used for mooring.  An ambitious scheme exists to restore the canal.


They never arrived.  In additions to width restrictions on the main line, the locks at Watford and Foxton on the ‘old’ Grand Union Canal were built narrow (7 feet width).  In 1900, the Foxton locks were bypassed by the famous but short-lived boat-lift ― a similar lift was intended for Watford ― while plans to widen both flights during the 1930s never materialised through lack of funds.  It is doubtful whether either scheme would have paid had it been completed.


Austin married Barnes’s daughter, Mary, in 1803.


 . . . . on racehorse breeding and training.


The Geological Society, edited J. D. Mather.


The branch of geology that studies the arrangement and succession of strata.


The tour referred to was made in the company of William Smith, the father of modern English geology, and John Farey, the Duke of Bedford’s Land Steward and another polymath.


The canal is currently being restored by the Wendover Arm Trust, who are employing an impermeable Bentomat membrane for waterproofing.


A lock is emptied first into the side pond.  When the lock is refilled, this water is the first to be poured back into the lock, thereby reducing the volume taken off the upper pound of the canal.  A side pond can save more than 40% of each lockfull.  Water is transferred between lock and pond via a chamber connecting the bottom of the lock with the bottom of the pond.  Control is effected by a paddle raised and lowered at the lock side; operating the side pond adds some 3 to 4 minutes to the time needed to negotiate the lock.

Built to a design by Jessop, it is believed to have been a three-arch brick structure.

What was unsatisfactory about Telford’s line isn’t know, but his direct route might have involved more expensive engineering work, while there was also the increased problem of water supply at a higher level.

A wooden tank holding water, and a narrow boat weighing 64 tons, was counter-balanced by a platform loaded with bricks, the two connected by eight chains running over cast-iron wheels.

The entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers (Prof. A.W. Skempton FRS et al, ICE Publishing, 2002) for John’s brother, Jonathan (1795-1822), states that “He may have worked 1817-1818 at Tringford pumping station”.  Other commentators attribute the pumping station to him.

The engine was capable of lifting 1,659,960 gallons of water (about 30 locks of water) each 24 hours, to a height of 75 ft. (23 M.) ― one ‘lock’ = 56,000 gallons.

Telford’s friend and occasional associate Jessop, who was apprenticed to John Smeaton, was a notable exception.

The debate continues as to what exactly each was responsible for, in particular in the case of the magnificent Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over the River Dee.

Formerly corn mills, but by then used in the manufacture of paper.

William Alexander Provis (1792-1870), eldest son of Henry Provis.  Thought to be Telford’s first pupil, he was Resident Engineer for the Menai and Conway suspension bridges and was associated with numerous other notable civil engineering projects.

A project extending over almost 50 years, part of which he undertook with Jessop.

Henry Rodolph de Salis AMICE (1866-1936), author of Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales (1904) ― further editions of which were published in 1918 and 1928 ― a recognised authority on canals, an ardent waterway explorer in his steam yacht Dragonfly (1895) and a principal witness to the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways (1906).  De Salis was Chairman of the carrying company Fellows, Morton & Clayton.