Chapter VI.
TRING: History About Library Contact TRING: Home

Foreword Contents Canal Profile System Map (North) System Map (South) Site Search




 “This chosen infant though in the cradle yet now promises upon this land a thousand thousand blessings which in time shall bring ripeness.”

These words (arranged from Shakespeare) engraved on the corporate seal, summed up the hopes and aspirations of the Company of Proprietors of the Grand Junction Canal when their great civil engineering project commenced in 1793.

The opening of the Oxford Canal in 1790 provided the first major link for the conveyance of heavy goods between London and the Midlands.  Although that canal prospered, the link that it provided with the Metropolis was, at 154 miles, over long and at times unreliable due to the vagaries of the rivers Cherwell and Thames, both of which it shares for part of its length.  In addition to its long and sinuous course, in its upper reaches the Thames suffered from shallows (shoals) in dry weather and flooding in times of heavy rainfall.  Thus, to satisfy the needs of commerce, a shorter and more reliable waterway was necessary.

Around 1790, a proposal was made for a more direct route running from Braunston on the Oxford Canal in Northamptonshire to Brentford on the Thames.  This scheme promised to reduce the journey by 64 miles, while the elimination of the difficult navigational conditions posed by the Cherwell and the upper Thames added considerably to its benefits.  In the spring of 1792, the Marquis of Buckingham commissioned James Barnes of Banbury to undertake a survey.  Considering what had to be done and the state of transport at that time, Barnes performed the work quickly, for on July 1st, 1792, the Marquis of Buckingham was able to convene and chair a public meeting at Stony Stratford Parish Church:

“Yesterday [July 1st, 1792] a meeting was held at Stony-Stratford, pursuant to public advertisement, to take into consideration the expediency of forming a Canal from Braunston to London, & the measures proper to be adopted preparatory to an application to parliament for that purpose. ― The Meeting, which was the most numerous ever known upon a like occasion, was held in the parish-church, as the only place sufficient to accommodate so large a company. ― The business was opened by the Marquis of Buckingham (at whose sole expense the survey had been made) and his Lordship declared, that the active part he had taken in the business arose from the most disinterested motives, and solely for the benefit of the tract of country through and near which the proposed Navigation was intended to pass. ― The question for an application to Parliament was carried with very little opposition: and the eagerness with which the subscription was filled, sufficiently showed the favourable opinion which the country entertained of the success of the scheme.”

Northampton Mercury, 21st July 1792

Although the Mercury informs us that the Marquis’s motive for floating the scheme was not solely that of financial gain, in this era of canal mania, with investors flocking to subscribe to almost every canal scheme then being put forward, his Lordship probably entertained an expectation of a handsome return on his investment.

A further meeting was held on 20th July, 1792.  According to the Northampton Mercury it was a “very numerous, respectable Meeting of Noblemen, Gentleman, Clergy, Tradesmen, Manufacturers, and Others, holden at the Bull Inn, Stoney Stratford” under the chairmanship of the astute London banker and Member of Parliament, William Praed.  Among the decisions taken were to apply for an Act of Parliament; to appoint Messrs Gray (Buckingham) and Acton Chaplin (Aylesbury) as solicitors and clerks (their names appear on many Company notices in the following years); appoint Philip Box Treasurer; appoint a Committee; raise capital of £350,000 in £100 shares, with an immediate call of £1 per share (to help pay the expense of further surveying and to apply for an Act of Parliament); and to agree that the Company be incorporated as “The Company of Proprietors of the Grand Junction Canal”.

Despite Barnes’s successful completion of the Oxford Canal and of his preliminary survey for the Grand Junction Canal, the scheme’s investors appears to have had little confidence in his ability as a canal engineer.  It was decided that he should proceed to the detailed survey, but the Committee were instructed to obtain the services of an “able engineer”:

“That Mr. Barnes do immediately prepare a Plan and Section of the proposed Canal, to be laid before the Committee hereinafter appointed; and that the said Committee do forthwith engage Mr. Jessop, or (if he should decline it) some other able Engineer, to examine and verify the said Plan and Section.”

Northampton Mercury, 28th July, 1792

. . . . and Company papers later reflect the view that:

“. . . the opinion of Mr Barnes was not deemed of sufficient weight for the company to proceed upon, it was unanimously agreed to call in Mr. Jessop, who from his experience and abilities was looked upon as the first Engineer in the kingdom . . .”

Report to the General Assembly, 7th November, 1797

Shares in the fledgling company were soon trading at a considerable premium . . . .

“At a sale of canal shares in October, 1792, ten shares in the Grand Junction Canal, of which not a sod was dug, sold for 355 guineas premium; a single share in the same canal for 29 guineas premium.”

History of the Commerce and Town of Liverpool, Baines (1852)



Although weighed down with other work, Jessop accepted the appointment of Chief Engineer.  His first task was to re-survey the route proposed by Barnes, from which he concluded that:

I have reason for thinking that MR. BARNES has explored the Country with much assiduity, and has chosen the ground with much judgement; in the whole line there are only two places where I would recommend a deviation, and those are but of little importance . . . .

To the Committee of the Subscribers of the Grand Junction Canal: William Jessop, 14th January 1792

In his report, Jessop addressed three main questions:

  •     the general practicability of the canal;

  •     whether the line chosen was the most eligible;

  •     whether parts requiring expensive engineering could be avoided.

Overall, he felt that the scheme was practicable, that both the terminus with the Oxford Canal at Braunston and with the Thames at Brentford had been judiciously fixed, while the line between these points was favourable and as free from obstacles as the difficult nature of the country would permit.  The unavoidable difficulties that did exist and that would require the construction of either tunnels or deep cuttings lay at Braunston, Blisworth, Langleybury and Tring.

On the supply of water to the Canal’s two summits at Braunston and at Tring, Jessop doubted that the natural streams in these localities would provide sufficient water for any more than “thirty locks full per day”, sufficient for nothing more than a “moderate trade”, and if more was required, reservoirs and steam pumping engines would be needed.

Jessop estimated that the cost of the Canal, together with branches to Northampton and Daventry, would total some £400,000.  However, he also warned of the risk of wage inflation, for in that age of
canal mania‘, labour was in heavy demand and wage rates were likely to rise.  If they did, even to the extent of doubling his estimate, Jessop considered that the Canal would continue to be an “eligible project”.

At the time of Jessop’s report (Appendix) it appears to have been decided that, unlike ‘narrow’ canals designed to accept 72ft by 7ft narrow boats of 30 tons capacity, the Grand Junction would be built as a ‘broad canal’ capable of accepting barges with a 14½ft beam and a capacity of 50-70 tons, able to “navigate with safety on the Thames”.  Although the plan to use barges extensively came to nothing, [1] the wide locks that had been built to accommodate them did ease congestion in the Canal’s commercial heyday, for they could accommodate a pair of narrow boats abreast, as would its two tunnels.  This advantage continues to the present day in handling the Canal’s increasing weight of leisure traffic.



The prospective Grand Junction Canal stood to make a serious inroad into the Oxford Canal Company’s revenue.  In recognising that their route from the Midlands to London via the Thames was likely to be bypassed, the Oxford Canal Company put forward a competing scheme.

In 1792, Samuel Simcock and Samuel Weston surveyed a route from Hampton Gay on the Oxford Canal (six miles north of Oxford) to Long Crendon and Aylesbury, then crossing the Chilterns through the Wendover Gap to reach Amersham, Uxbridge and a terminus at Marylebone.  Also included was a branch from Uxbridge to the Thames at Isleworth.  The proposed scheme, for what was to be called the ‘London and Western Canal’ ― usually referred to as the ‘Hampton Gay Canal’ ― was announced in the official newspaper [2] together with a second proposal, which appears to have been designed as a compromise.  This scheme was for a canal starting in the parish of St. Giles in Oxford, then following a line via Long Crendon, Aylesbury and Aston Clinton to Marsworth . . . .

“. . . . in order to meet and form a junction there with a canal now in Contemplation and intended to be made from and out of the Oxford Canal within the Parish or Township of Braunston . . . . unto or near the Town of Brentford . . . .”

The London Gazette, 15th September, 1792

The intention was that each company would build its own connection to Marsworth, from where the remainder of the route to Brantford would be over a jointly-owned canal.  But the Grand Junction promoters had powerful allies among the nobility and saw no reason to accept a compromise.  The St. Giles scheme then disappears but the Hampton Gay project did go before Parliament in 1793, its engineer, Samuel Simcock, giving evidence on its behalf.  But the scheme failed leaving the field clear for the promoters of the Grand Junction Canal.  In passing, it is worth mentioning that Aylesbury was to be bypassed by several canal schemes during the next thirty-five years, the Aylesbury Arm being all that was achieved of a grander scheme to build a 36½ mile canal linking the Grand Junction Canal at Marsworth, via Thame, to the Wilts & Berks Canal at Abingdon, the River Thames being crossed on an aqueduct.

Title on the deposited plan of the route.



At the meeting held at Stony Stratford on 20th July 1792, a decision was taken to apply for a canal Act as soon as possible. The principal sponsors of the Bill that was laid before Parliament included a number of eminent aristocrats. . . .

Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgewater
George Grenville Nugent, Marquis of Buckingham
Rt. Hon, Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield
Rt. Hon.William Ann Holles Capel, Earl of Essex
Rt. Hon. George Fermor, Earl of Pomfret
Rt. Hon. Thomas Villiers, Earl of Clarendon

This weight of blue-blooded support eased the Bill’s passage through Parliament, and the first Grand Junction Canal Act received the Royal Assent on 30th April 1793:

Title page of the Grand Junction Canal Act, 1793.

The Act authorised the “Company of Proprietors of the Grand Junction Canal” to raise capital of up to £600,000 to fund construction of the main line of the Canal from a point where the eastern branch of the River Brent enters the Thames at Syon House near Brentford, to the Oxford Canal at Braunston.  It also authorised branches to Daventry, the River Nene at Northampton, to the turnpike road (now the A5) at Old Stratford, and to Watford: the branches to Daventry and Watford were not built, although at the time of writing (2012) that to Daventry might.

Some of the caveats in the Act are interesting in that they illustrate objections on which the Proprietors were obliged to concede during the committee stage of their Bill:

  •     the tow path was to be on the far bank of certain estates including Osterley Park by which the canal passed (presumably to prevent boatmen entering the pleasure grounds of their owners) and it was not to take water from those domains;

  •     to ensure supplies to the owners of watermills, reservoirs were to be built to maintain the levels of the Rivers Bulbourne, Gade, Colne and Brent (the first two were never built, which later led to expensive litigation with the paper manufacturer, John Dickinson);

  •     that certain wharf and warehouse owners from the Thames to Bax’s Mill were to be given toll-free use of the canal;

  •     and that a stated minimum level of revenue was to be guaranteed by the Grand Junction Canal Company to the Oxford Canal Company as compensation for their loss of trade to the new canal. [3]

The Government also received toll-free use of the canal for certain purposes including the movement of troops and military equipment; indeed, in the era preceding the railways, the newspapers of the time frequently report on bodies of troops being moved in this way.  Thus the Act stated that:

“Officers and Soldiers on march, their Horses, Arms and Baggage, Timber for his Majesty’s Service, and the Persons having Care thereof; Stores for ditto, on Production of Certificate for the Navy Board or Ordnance.  Also Gravel, Sand, and other Materials for making or repairing any Public Roads, and Manure for Land, if the same do not pass any Lock.”

Other Acts were obtained in the following years for various purposes including, in 1794, authorisation to construct the branches from Marsworth to Aylesbury, from Old Stratford to Buckingham, and from Bulbourne to Wendover (the latter replacing the planned water supply channel with a navigable canal); in 1795, to improve the Canal’s route in the vicinity of Abbot’s Langley; also in 1795, to construct a branch from Norwood to Paddington; and in 1801 and 1804 to raise further capital.

On 3rd June 1793, William Jessop was appointed Chief Engineer, at a fee of 7 guineas a day, to take overall charge of construction, while James Barnes was appointed Resident Engineer at a rate of two guineas per day plus half a guinea expenses.

The private Act having been obtained, work was begun almost immediately from both ends and on the problem areas, these being the tunnels at Braunston and Blisworth and the long cutting at Tring ― the long embankment and aqueduct across the Valley of the Great Ouse (between Wolverton and Cosgrove) was a later addition to the original plan.



To the Committee of the Subscribers to the
Grand Junction Canal


I HAVE apprehended that the intention of the Survey which I have lately made, in consequence of your doing me the honour of asking my opinion, comprehends the following heads of enquiry.

FIRST, The general Practicability?
SECONDLY, Whether the Line that has been chosen is in general the most eligible?
THIRDLY, Whether such parts as will be particularly expensive could be avoided?

On the first head, I have no hesitation in saying that I can have no doubt of the practicability.

On the second head, two leading objects are kept in view.  FIRST, that the points of commencement and termination should be such as best suit the intention of good communication, between extensive Inland Navigation in the North and the Port of London.  AND SECONDLY, that the line of communication should be as direct as it might conveniently be made.

If the Country were favourable to a junction with the Oxford Canal at any more southerly point than Braunston, it would be objectionable on account of the circuity of that Canal, and the consequent increase in distance; and I believe that it would not be practicable to have a more northerly junction.

For the same reason it would be unadvisable to join the Thames at any higher point of that River than New Brentford; and to fall lower into the Thames, would, if practicable, be at least very difficult and expensive.

The terminating points being this fixed, I had little expectation of discovering a shorter line between these points than the line pointed out by MR. BARNES; indeed I was rather astonished at finding in passing through so great an extent of country, intersected in various directions by Hills and Valleys, and where there was every appearance (if a line could be found) that at least it would be unusually circuitous) that is not more than 15 Miles longer than the distance by road.

The only obstacles which materially enhance the expense are the high grounds at Braunston, Blisworth, Langley Bury, and Tring; and I believe those are unavoidable from the enquiries which I have made, where other passes seemed to invite attention: I have reason for thinking that Mr. BARNES has explored the Country with much assiduity, and has chosen his ground with much judgement; in the whole line there are only two places where I could recommend a deviation, and those are but of little importance; one is, the cutting off a bend near Leighton Buzzard, if entering the County of Bedford is not an objection, and the notices have comprehended it; the other is, that the Entrance into the Thames should be at a point where the River Brent now discharges itself, instead of the point where the Plan now describes the junction higher up the River.

I have estimated the expense on the supposition that the width of the Canal should be 28 feet at the bottom, 42 feet at the water’s surface, and the depth of water 4 f. 6 in.

The Locks I have supposed to be 14 f. 6 in. in width, and 80 feet in length in the Chambers;—those will admit Boats that will carry from 50 to 70 Tons, and such as will navigate with safety on the Thames, on the Trent if the communication should take place with the navigation at Leicester, and on the Mersey if the present Canals should hereafter be widened, which is not improbable.

The Tunnels I should propose to be 16 feet in width, 18 feet in height, and to have at least 6 feet depth of water.

Locks of the above width will contain two of the boats which now use the narrow Canals, and those boats may now pass each other in the Tunnels.

Respecting the supplies of water, it is to be observed that, as there must be two summits, the quantity consumed will be more than one would require, but not so much more as some might suppose: the loss by exhalation and absorption cannot be at all increased by this circumstance, they are only such Vessels as pass both Summits that will require a double quantity of water; the lower levels may be amply supplied, it is the supply for the Summit only that is questionable.

The wetness of the season would have made any actual Admeasurements of mine useless, in ascertaining the supply for dry Seasons; but in examining Mr. BARNESS admeasurements I have very little doubt of the natural Streams, that may easily be brought to the Summits, affording a sufficient supply for a modest trade; his admeasurements were not taken in a very dry season, but I found he had made a considerable allowance for this circumstance, and with this allowance he found that 30 locks full per day would flow into the Summit at Braunston, and if this should not hereafter be found sufficient, a considerable addition might be made by the means of a Reservoir for collecting and preserving Flood Waters.

William Jessop, civil engineer.

To the Summit at Tring he found that from Bulbourne Spring and the Tail at New Mill 30 locks full per day might be obtained, ― some might be collected by a Reservoir in this case also, but not much to be depended on: In Clay Soil such as at Braunston, the extremes of wet and dry Seasons differ as much as One Thousand to One: In Chalky and Gravelly Soils the difference is seldom more than Four to One, for in the former case heavy rains produce great floods, and little is absorbed; — in the latter case there are seldom any floods, for almost the whole is absorbed, and it only operates for a while to increase the supply by the Springs, which may be considered as the discharges of natural Reservoirs, dispensing frugally for many Months what would be washed from the surface of Clayey Soil in a few days.

But if the supply that may be brought into this Summit should hereafter be found to be insufficient, and particularly if the proposed Canal to Oxford should demand much additional supply, any quantity may be got from Streams at a lower level by means of a Steam Engine, so that in any case I considered that the practicability of getting Water sufficient is beyond a doubt.

In estimating the expense in making the Canal, I have thought it necessary to make very large allowances for the increased and increasing price of Labour, in consequence of the numerous works of this kind now in agitation, and I have full confidence that the expense will not exceed the estimate.  While I say so, I am of opinion, that if the expense were to be doubled it would be an eligible project, and productive of more public benefit than any thing of the kind that has yet been done in this kingdom: without enumerating particulars, it is sufficient to say, that the three great circumstances, viz. making a direct communication with the Great Northern Manufactories and the Port of London;—the supplying Coal at a cheap rate to the Inland Counties where that article is extremely expensive; and the carrying provisions of all kinds to the Metropolis, where the consumption is almost unbounded, must banish all doubt (if any there should be) from the minds of those who have had an opportunity of observing the effect produced by Canals already existing; in situations where the objects are much more limited.

As it has been a question, whether from the point called Two Waters the course of the Canal would be the most advisable by Watford or by Uxbridge, I viewed both the lines, and found there were many reasons for preferring the latter direction.  As the Committee are already in possession of circumstances sufficient to determine their opinion, it is unnecessary for me to state them.

Four branches, if found eligible, may be adopted and made and made part of the present Plan; One from Daventry,—One from Northampton to join the line at Gayton,—One from Stoney Stratford, and One from Watford; and I have little doubt but that many hereafter will contribute to expand its benefits.  As the Surveys of the two last-mentioned Branches are not yet complete, I cannot particularly describe them nor specify the Expense:—I can say that they are practicable, and I think very advisable.

The Branch at Daventry will be near a Mile and an half in length, and must have about eight Locks, as the fall is 52 feet—The Costs of it will be at least £6,000.  As Daventry is about three Miles from Braunston, if such branch could not be made, no Coal could pass on the main Canal to Daventry.  Whether the trade of Daventry will be such as to pay for the expense of this Branch, either its quantity, or from its being able to bear a high Tonnage, I am unable to judge.

The Branch from Gayton to Northampton will be 4½ Miles in length, and the fall will be 117 feet—the expense of it will be £18,785.  It might be doubtful whether as a Branch to Northampton only, the trade on it would answer this expense, but as the proposed communication with Leicestershire will probably bring a very considerable trade through it, I would submit to the Committee that they may with propriety adopt it.

Northampton, October 24th, 1792.

[Chapter VII.]




The Blisworth and Braunston tunnels were too narrow to allow craft wider than narrow boats to pass.  This apart, the canals beyond Braunston were built with narrow locks, as was the Northampton Arm and the ‘old’ Grand Union Canal (which forms the link to Leicester and the Trent).   Although the Grand Union Canal Company widened the Braunston-Leamington-Birmingham route during the 1930s with the same intention (to enable broad boats and ultimately river barges to operate the London to Birmingham service), that plan also came to nothing, and for commercial purposes the Grand Junction Canal remained a ‘narrow’ canal north of Berkhamsted.


 The London Gazette, 15th September, 1792.


A toll of 2s 9d per ton for coal passing into the Grand Junction Canal, and 4s 4d for all other “wares, merchandise and goods” (with some exemptions) passing over the junction with the Oxford Canal.  This was subject of a minimum total of £5,000 p.a. after the Grand Junction Canal reached Old Stratford; and £10,000 p.a. after the Grand Junction Canal reached the Thames, or following 1st January, 1804.