Chapter VII.
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“The canals which intersect Middlesex are the Grand Junction Canal, and the Paddington Canal.  The former striking off from the Thames at Old Brentford, passes the grounds at Sion Hill and Osterley; and, running through a rich corn district near Hanwell, Norwood, Harlington, West Drayton, Cowley, Uxbridge, and Harefield, leaves this county near Rickmansworth.  This canal, which is navigable for vessels of sixty or seventy tons burthen, has fourteen locks to Harefield Moor, where the level is 114 feet two inches above that of the river Thames.  From its numerous cuts, side branches, and collateral streams, it is, beyond doubt, the most important inland navigation in the kingdom, as it affords a direct water communication to all the various manufacturing towns of Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, and several other counties.  The general breadth of this canal is thirty feet, but at the bridges it is contracted to fifteen.  The Paddington Canal branches off from it near Cranford, and is continued on a level from thence to the dock at Paddington, the sides of which are occupied with yards and warehouses, for the reception and security of merchandise.  The advantages derived to the metropolis and the country at large from this canal are likewise various and important.  A third canal, called the Regent’s Canal, stretching from the Thames, west of London, to join that river near Limehouse, has been lately projected, and is now carrying into execution.

Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Vol. XV. John Wilkes (1817)

Today, it is difficult to image the areas of Hanwell, Norwood and Harlington, etc., being rich corn districts, or for that matter Paddington Basin being occupied by yards and warehouses ― one warehouse survives, although put to a different use ― but such was the landscape through which the new canal passed and which it served.  Completed in 1805, until surpassed in 1887 by the Manchester Ship Canal the Grand Junction was Britain’s most expensive canal project.  Originally estimated at £400,000, its eventual cost was in the region of £1,500,000. [1]

Cost overruns are not unusual in complex construction projects.  In our own age the British Library, the Millennium Dome, the Scottish Parliament, the Edinburgh Tramway and the Channel Tunnel are examples of construction projects that have significantly exceeded budget.  Even the Manchester Ship Canal, at £15,000,000, was almost three times over budget and two years late in opening.  Each of these projects attracted much concern among its investors, as did the Grand Junction Canal.

This chapter draws mainly on contemporary sources to provide a feel for the financial and engineering difficulties that beset this 18th Century ― to use today’s terminology ― ‘transport infrastructure project’.



“It was in the year 1792 that this undertaking first had its origin.  In the beginning of that year the Marquis of Buckingham instructed Mr. Barnes, the eminent engineer, to make a survey of the country between Braunston, in Northamptonshire, the place where the Oxford Canal has its junction with the present canal, and the Thames near London, in order to mark out a line of canal, whereby the circuitous course of the Thames Navigation from Oxford might be avoided, and the transit of goods to the metropolis accelerated.”

Navigable Rivers and Canals, Joseph Priestley (1831)

When Barnes completed his survey in 1792, questions still to resolve were the line that the Canal should follow south of Two Waters (Hemel Hempstead) and the location of water sufficient to supply the Tring summit.  Some of the Grand Junction Canal Company’s earliest published circulars address theses issues.

One of the first recorded shareholder meetings, [2] convened by the Earls of Essex and Clarendon, took place at the Essex Arms, Watford, on 20th October, 1792.  The main business of the meeting was to consider the plan of the Canal and decide whether it should reach Southall through Watford and Harrow, or take a longer but more favourable line along the Gade and Colne valleys through Rickmansworth and Uxbridge.  Having inspected both routes, Jessop favoured the latter and supported by Barnes recommended accordingly.  The Rickmansworth route being accepted, the meeting went on to vote in favour of a short branch to link Watford to the main line, which, on account of their first decision, now bypassed the town.  On the following day the Rickmansworth route was again approved, this time at a meeting chaired by William Praed and held at the County Hall, Northampton.  Jessop reported to the Committee that there were many reasons for preferring the Rickmansworth route.  These are unrecorded, but it is likely that a sufficiency of water was prominent among them.

Although water supply was an issue that affected the entire Canal, supplying the Tring summit was to prove particularly challenging.  Writing in 1805, the civil engineer Thomas Telford, who had recently inspected the Canal, referred to water supply in the introduction to his report:

“. . . . the Line of Canal has unavoidably been carried over a country, in many points of view unfavourable for Canal operations.  The line of the canal passes over and skirts along some of the highest ground in the central parts of England . . . . this circumstance has subjected the canal to the inconvenience of two summits, and has rendered the supplies of water more difficult to be procured than when canals are carried upon lower levels, or are connected with more mountainous countries. . . .”

Supplying the Tring summit with water appears not to have been investigated thoroughly at the outset, suggesting that the level of traffic that built up following the Canal’s opening was greater than anticipated.  In his report to the Committee of 24th October 1792, Jessop expressed the opinion that the flow from Bulbourne Spring together with that from the “Tale at New Mill” (Tring Brook) would, between them, supply 30 lockfuls a day and that any deficiency could be made up by steam pumping from a reservoir, although none had then been planned; some ten years were to elapse before the first of the Tring Reservoirs was opened at Wilstone. [3] Another important water resource is the Wendover Stream; diverting its abundant supply to the Tring summit appears not to have been contemplated at this stage, for Jessop makes no mention of it and neither is the supply channel (later to become the 6¾-mile Wendover Arm) shown in the deposited plans.

In retrospect, Jessop’s opinion that “the practicality of getting water sufficient is beyond doubt” proved over-optimistic, for despite the resources that have been applied down the years to flooding the Tring summit, water shortage has continued to pose a problem. At the time of writing, the Tring summit was last closed through water shortage in February and March 2012 ― this was inconvenient, but during the Canal’s commercial heyday drought could seriously hinder the passage of trade (and canal families’ piecework income):

“Between Marsworth and Boxmoor, on the important canal which connects London with Braunston and Leicester, there are 50 pairs of barges waiting for water to float them through the locks.  This block is the worst effect of the drought in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.  It is causing serious delays in the London supply of all kinds of merchandise — coal and ironware from the Midlands, new corn from some of the arable counties, condensed milk from Aylesbury — and in the Midlands supply of sugar, tea and other commodities in bulk from London.  Heroic exertions on the part of the Grand Junction company’s engineers and servants do not enable more than 80 to 90 barges a week to pass over Tring Summit, whereas in times of plentiful water 130 pass.”

Bucks Herald, 11th October, 1902.

Telford also identified in his survey a number of sections where the water that had been procured was being wasted through leakage.  One example that he gave was to the south of the Tring summit:

“it will be chiefly in the upper part of the line in this district, that is, between Cow Roast and Box Moor, that much attention and expense will be required, in order to prevent leakage.”

In fact it was along the section of the Canal to the south of Boxmoor where leakage was later to bring the Company into conflict with the local water millers, a conflict in which Telford was to become involved.



Following the passage of the first Grand Junction Canal Act (30th April, 1793), construction began promptly.  By December of that year the Committee was able to report that “the works on the Grand Junction Canal are proceeding with an astonishing rapidity, and the number of men now daily employed amounts to 3,500”.  However, their report goes on to say that expenditure was greater than anticipated and it reminded subscribers to settle promptly the calls on their partly paid shares.  This was an early indication of the cost overruns that were to affect the project and that required recourse to Parliament on several occasions for authority to raise additional capital.  Jessop had already informed the Committee that his construction estimate included an allowance for the inflationary pressure on wages from competing canal projects (this was the period of canal mania):

“I have thought it necessary to make very large allowances for the increase 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.”

Report to the Committee, 24th October, 1792 – William Jessop

But what Jessop could not have allowed for was the additional inflationary pressure of the French Wars (1793-1815) together with the cost of function creep [4] that so often affects major projects.   He did, however, inform the Committee that even if the project was completed at twice his estimated cost, it would still be worth doing.



By May 1794, Jessop was able to report good overall progress.  The canal from Brentford to Uxbridge was almost complete and he expected it to open by late September, although shortage of labourers [5] during harvest-time was a problem, which probably accounts for this section being opened (with the usual celebrations) rather later than Jessop had estimated:

“That part of the Grand Junction Canal from the river Thames, near Brentford, to the town of Uxbridge, was opened on the 3rd instant, for coals, and all sorts of merchandize to be navigated thereon; comprising upwards of twelve miles of this great undertaking.  The opening of this part of the Canal was celebrated by a variety of mercantile persons of Brentford, Uxbridge, and Rickmansworth, and their vicinities, forming a large party, attended by a band of music, with flags and streamers, and several pieces of cannon, in a pleasure-boat belonging to the Corporation of the city of London, preceding several Barges laden with Timber, Coals, and other merchandize, to Uxbridge.  After which the party dined at the White Horse Inn.”

Northampton Mercury, 15th November, 1794

Work was also progressing on the northerly of the Canal’s two summits at Braunston.  The Braunston summit was one of the early points of attack, work commencing there in May of the previous year:

“One part of the Braunston canal, which is to form the Grand Junction, was begun last week with great spirit.  Three hundred and seventy men were paid on Saturday night, and more hands are arriving every day.  Another part will shortly be set about by Mr. Clifton, with his new machine for saving three fourths of manual labour, in cutting and removing earth, &c.”

Northampton Mercury, 25th May, 1793

It is doubtful if Mr. Clifton’s “new machine” was a success, for there is no further mention of it.

The summit level is just over 3 miles long (comparable to that at Tring), 2,042 yards of which passes through the Braunston tunnel, which Telford later described as “being in a tolerably straight direction”, a reference to the slight S-bend in its alignment.  Because the ground in the vicinity was impervious clay rather than absorbent chalk, water supply was not to be the challenge that it was at the Tring summit.

The 1793 Act also authorised the construction of a 1½-mile branch from the summit to Daventry.  Jessop estimated that it would require eight locks to cope with the 52 feet difference in levels and cost £6,000 to build, but he could offer no opinion as to the branch’s commercial viability.   Because of its falling gradient from the town, the Daventry branch would have supplied the summit with water, but although its position is shown in the Canal’s deposited plans it was not built. [6]  Instead, the Braunston summit is supplied with water by what Telford later described as “small rills on the Braunston side of the summit” and by a feeder channel from Watford Park, which joins the summit near Welton.  These feeders worked in conjunction with a small reservoir (which no longer exists) near the northern end of Braunston Tunnel and the much larger Drayton Reservoir, opened in 1796, which lies to the north west of Daventry.

In his report, Jessop expressed reservations about the quality of the bricks being made for Braunston Tunnel [7] and the quantity; “as is commonly the case at the outset of brick-making, they [the brick-makers] want flogging to their duty”.  A section of canal to the east of the tunnel had been flooded and was being used to transport bricks.  Work on the cuttings was progressing well, as were the high embankments at Weedon, Heyford and Bugbrook (the great embankment between Wolverton and Cosgrove was a late addition to the original plan).  Work had also begun on the Blisworth Tunnel, but too little had been done to give any indication of the setbacks yet to come.  The Wendover Arm was by now seven-eights complete (so was probably complete by the end of 1794); here, Jessop draws attention to the “very leaky” terrain over which it was being built, a portent for the future.

Jessop also refers to progress on the Tring cutting (“The Deep Cutting at Marsworth”), where the ground along the line had been cut to an average depth of five feet, sufficient to make Jessop hopeful “that this heavy piece of work will be executed at an expense considerable less than was first expected” ― it was not to be.

Tring Cutting, looking north from Marshcroft Lane bridge (No. 134).



By August, 1795, the Committee was becoming concerned about escalating costs.  To date, the value of work on the Canal amounted to £296,000 and Jessop estimated that a further £312,000 was needed to complete construction, of which monies owing and assets in hand amounted to £177,000, leaving a deficit of £135,000.

In explaining the position to their shareholders, the Committee pointed to a number of unforeseen expenses, some of which had been imposed by Parliament, such as a change in the method by which the canal banks were formed (£17,000) and an additional duty on bricks (£7,200).  Other items included the purchase of water mills (to obtain their water rights, £10,500), construction of reservoirs (£7,000) and an alteration to the line of the Canal to pass through Cassiobury and Grove Parks (£9,000), this being offset by Parliament authorising an additional levy of two-pence per ton “for and in consideration of the more constant, speedy, and safe communication proposed by the said deviation”. [8] The Cassiobury/Grove Park deviation brought the Canal closer to Watford ― to which a branch was then planned ― and despite the high cost of the land, it probably cost little more to build than the original route, which would have required an aqueduct across the Bulbourne and a tunnel at Langleybury.

In addition to the financial impacts of changes and additions to specification and the inflationary pressures of the age, land was also proving more expensive than anticipated:

“The price of materials, the expense of carriage and provender for horses, have been much enhanced; and the dearness of provisions has greatly enhanced the price of labour.  And the price which hath been paid for the land purchased (in general) much higher than the same had been calculated upon.  Before beginning the work, Mr Jessop found it advisable to make the locks something larger than they were first intended, and to make the tunnels something wider and higher; the canal has also been made five feet in depth, instead of four feet six inches, as computed in the original estimate.”

GJCC Statement of Expenditure, 6th August, 1795

A further expense to find its way into the report was “the payment of interest to Proprietors out of capital stock”.  During this stage of the Canal’s construction, shareholder received 5% p.a. interest payable on the nominal value of their shareholding, with interest payments being funded mostly from capital due to the Canal’s very limited earnings at this stage.  The Company projected that between midsummer 1794 and March 1798, interest payments to subscribers, if continued, would account for £75,000 and that suspending them was “a measure highly expedient”.  In the event, the Committee decided to credit subscribers’ accounts with the interest owing, but to suspend payment until directed by a future General Meeting.

And so began the process of finding ways and means of financing the Canal’s construction, which were to continue for the remainder of the project.  This involved containing costs ― even Jessop’s role as Chief Engineer was eventually dispensed with (ostensibly) as a cost-cutting measure ― increasing tolls, raising further capital by selling shares, and raising loans, much of which required the authority of further Acts of Parliament.  These measures commenced later that year with an application to Parliament to raise a further £225,000 of share capital. [9]




Northampton Mercury, 5th June, 1796.

Every major construction project has its critics and that to build the Grand Junction Canal was no exception.  In 1797, a long pamphlet appeared entitled “Observations on the present state of the Grand Junction Canal, submitted to the Attention and Consideration of the Proprietors”.  In it, numerous allegations were laid against the Committee implying mismanagement and incompetence.  The author cited, as evidence, the heavy overspend on budget, money wasted on wharfs and tunnels (most notably on the Blisworth Tunnel, which was by then in limbo) and the heavy expense of building the Tring cutting.  Overall, the pamphleteer considered the Committee to be “inert and inexperienced”, pointing to declining investor confidence and the fall in share price from a £90 premium to £30 to support that view.  To make the best of a bad job, the writer recommended that the Canal’s “upper [southern] end ought to stop, and the lower end prosecuted as far as the inland coal trade would extend”.

The pamphleteer’s allegations probably contained sufficient germs of truth to encourage the Committee to mount a vigorous defence.  At the General Assembly held on 7th November 1797, it was resolved to publish a rebuttal of the main allegations, preceding which the Committee assured their shareholders that they had “conducted the affairs of this Company with the strictest zeal and integrity”.  In their response, the Committee gave credence to the charge that costs were continuing to exceed budget.  Again, they were at pains to attribute overruns to additions to their original plan (some of which had been heard before), such as the need for the Aldenham Reservoir, [10] for aqueducts across the Colne and a change in the line at Harlington, while other unexpected costs stemmed from additional linings for the Canal, clearing the Braunston Tunnel workings of quicksand “which from the borings there was no reason to expect”, and “widening and deepening the canal beyond the original design, and the consequent increase of expense in the width of every bridge”. [11] The inflationary pressures of the French Wars were also beginning to bite, with military needs competing for scarce manpower and manufacturing resources.  As the Company explained, procurement was being affected by “the difference of the War price for all labour and materials, when compared with the sums estimated for them in profound peace”.  But on the bright side, the Committee report that work on the Tring cutting and on short sections to the north and south of it were nearing completion, and that even in its unfinished state the Canal would soon generate revenue estimated at £20,000 p.a.

A section of the Committee’s response also provides an interesting explanation of the sequence in which the various sections of the Canal were built.  In addition to the commercial considerations ― i.e. what sections were likely to generate the most revenue soonest  ― there was the perennial problem of water supply to contend with, for an insufficiently flooded canal is near to, or completely useless.  In explaining why work on the section south of Blisworth tunnel should not yet go ahead, the Committee pointed out that not only were twelve locks required to take the Canal down to Cosgrove, but until the Blisworth tunnel was completed there would be insufficient water to flood them.  A section near Stony Stratford, about five miles in length, could have been completed but there was no commercial sense in so doing, while the section from Cosgrove up to Fenny Stratford could not be flooded until it had been reached by the Canal bringing water down from Tring.



The Committee supplemented their rebuttal of the mischievous pamphlet with a report [12] from Barnes on the present state of construction.  This is revealing.  To the south, the Canal was now open to Kings Langley and would shortly reach Two Waters (Hemel Hempstead), but Barnes then moves on to reflect on “the great difficulties, delays and impediments” to construction being caused by “the immense quantity of water springing from the earth at the locks”, while the porous ground over which the Canal was being built in the vicinity of the Nash and Apsley paper mills required it to be lined.  In later years, leakage along this section was to result not only in the Company paying heavy damages to the paper manufacturer John Dickinson, whose water mills had suffered in consequence, but in an alteration to the route followed by the main line.  North of Two Waters, work had begun cutting the section up to the Tring summit and much building material (bricks and timber) had been deposited along the route in readiness.  Barnes was optimistic that the ground over which this section was to pass would prove favourable.

Work had commenced at the outset on the Tring summit due to the heavy excavation required, about half of its 3-mile length being in a cutting some 30ft deep in places.  Although the Wendover Arm seems not to have featured in the original planning (1792), its importance in diverting the Wendover Stream 6¾-miles along the 394ft contour to the Tring summit must soon have been recognised.  The Arm was probably complete by the end of 1794, but in any event well before the southern section of the Canal reached the Tring summit early in 1799.

In his report, Barnes informed the Committee that work excavating the Tring cutting was progressing well, but two problems had been encountered.  A section of about 500yds was found to be extremely waterlogged, causing slippages in the adjacent walls of the cutting.  These required drainage headings to be driven into the banks behind the slips to lead off what Barnes describes as “a great quantity of water”.  Further south along the summit, a section of the Canal passed over ground that was found to contain gravel and was porous.  This Barnes planned to deal with using the earth from the slips, which was found to be suitable for lining and which, he says, “I intend taking away with barges”, implying that by this date part of the summit was already flooded.

At the northern end of the summit, the deposited plans show a rather different route was intended from that eventually taken.  The Canal plan and section show the summit pound continuing northwards along the contour from a location in the vicinity of Marsworth top lock (No. 45) to a point about ¼-mile to the north of Lower Icknield Way.  From here, the Canal was to descend via a closely spaced flight of ten locks [13] to the east of Marsworth Parish Church to join the present route.  However, the Canal as constructed follows a line to the west of Marsworth Parish Church, descending the incline from Bulbourne along the course of the northern outflow of Bulbourne Head (or Bulbourne Water) via the flight of seven locks seen today.  The Tring summit pound is thus about ½-mile shorter than originally planned, but why this change was made is unknown.

Section and plan showing the variation in the course of the Tring summit at its northern end.  The Canal, as built, passes to the west of Marsworth Parish Church, not to the east as shown, commencing its descent from the summit well to the south of Lower Icknield Way.

North of the Tring summit, Barnes believed the ground to be “upon trial, exceedingly favourable” stating that he expected the cost of the Canal per mile would be comparable to that of the section between Uxbridge and Two Waters.  Work had already begun in the vicinity of Marsworth and Cheddington, where Barnes reported finding plenty of good clay for brick-making, and he was optimistic that the section to Fenny Stratford would be completed at the same time as the Tring summit was reached from the south.  He then moves on to report progress on the problematic Blisworth Tunnel.

The Blisworth tunnel was recognised to be one of Grand Junction Canal’s three major engineering challenges, [14] construction having commenced in 1793.  Trial boring along the line of the tunnel from the hill above failed to reveal that the strata through which the tunnel was to pass dipped in the centre.  The effect of this was to cause the horizontal tunnel to move out of a layer of impermeable clay and into one of porous, unstable rock which, together with the layer of impermeable clay beneath it, formed a subterranean reservoir.

By the end of 1795 the tunnel had moved into this water-bearing stratum, resulting in such severe flooding in the workings that excavation came to a virtual standstill.  The Committee was then faced with the decision of whether to restart the tunnel on a different alignment, the option favoured by Barnes, or take the Canal over Blisworth Hill using a system of locks, reservoirs and steam pumping, the solution favoured by Jessop.  Faced with their professional advisors’ conflicting views, the eminent civil engineers John Rennie Snr. and Robert Whitworth were engaged to assess the situation and give an opinion.  Following inspection and deliberation the pair decided in favour of the tunnel and the Committee ruled accordingly, placing Barnes ― who must already have been carrying a considerable burden of other responsibilities ― in direct control of the works.

In an age when large-scale tunnelling was in its infancy, Jessop’s recommendation was undoubtedly the safer, although it would have brought its own costs and problems.  Locking over Blisworth Hill would have caused a significant delay to traffic added to which would be difficulty in ensuring a sufficient water supply at the summit; there was also the cost of operating and maintaining the locks and pumping system.  On the other hand the tunnel has been much affected down the years by distortions caused by movement in the interface between the clay and oolite layers, which has led on several occasions (most recently in the late 1970s and early 1980s) to closure while expensive repairs and rebuilding was carried out.

By November 1797, the tunnel’s workforce had been deployed to more important construction further south, work being continued, at Barnes’s insistence, by a skeleton team who continued to drive headings into the hill to carry off the large amount of subterranean water (a pilot heading later became the standard tunnelling technique).  Barnes reports that this essential work was proceeding, and he recommends that full-scale activities recommence by the following spring in order that the tunnel “may be completed without loss of any time”.



By June 1798, the advancing Canal had reached Berkhamsted from where Barnes submitted a further report.  In it he informed the General Assembly that by the end of September he expected the Canal to be navigable from Brentford to Wendover.  He then returned to a problem described in his previous report, “that the deep cutting at Tring summit hath occasioned a great additional expense, by the various slips that have unfortunately happened” and he goes on to describe “the bottom of the Canal is in many instances so soft, that a staff may be run down eight or ten feet perpendicular below the bottom level of the canal with great ease”.  The condition of the ground through which the cutting was being driven was probably due, in part, to it passing along the course (as it then was) of the River Bulbourne, and partly to cutting into the aquifer from which rose some of the springs in the locality, the Bulbourne Springs and Clarke’s Spring being close to the line of the Canal.

When Barnes undertook his survey of the Braunston to Brentford route, he was faced with the problem of how best to take the Canal over the barrier imposed by the Chiltern Hills.  This 47-mile chalk escarpment extends north-eastward from the Wiltshire Downs and the River Thames towards the Dunstable Downs and Luton; skirting around it was not an option.  Of the slight depressions in the ridge, Barnes chose to take the Canal through the Tring Gap.  The problem was then to obtain sufficient water to supply the summit level and the declining gradients to the north and south.

The water resources in the immediate vicinity of Tring comprised, principally, four springs, at Miswell, Frogmore, Dundale and Bulbourne Head.  The outflows from Miswell and Frogmore powered a watermill at Gamnel, which the Company bought, diverting its millstream (the Tring Brook) into the Wendover Arm.  It is unclear how the Dundale outflow was treated, but today it flows underneath the Wendover Arm into Tringford Reservoir.  As for Bulbourne Head:

“About two miles from Ivinghoe is a place called Bulbourne, belonging to John Sear, Esq. of Tring Grove.  Here is said to be the original source of the river Thames: there are two springs, which divide within ten yards of each other, one running due east and the other west. [15] Mr. Sear has made a fine canal for a pleasure-boat, one mile in length.”

Topography of Great Britain, George Alexander Cooke (pub. 1817)

At this date, the two springs ― known together as Bulbourne Head or Bulbourne Water ― formed a considerable lake and the source of the River Bulbourne, which today rises several miles to the south in the vicinity of Dudswell.  The deposited plans show “Bulbourne Water, purchased of Mrs Mary Seare” [16] to lie along the Canal’s summit route near the present day hamlet of Bulbourne.  The 1793 Act gave the Company authority to purchase part of Mary Sear’s “plantation”, [17] providing that the Company built a dam, fitted with a sluice, which the lady could use to discharge water into the Canal or hold it back, which suggests that she made use of the “Bulbourne Water”, perhaps as Cooke seems to think, for leisure purposes.  A further provision in the Act also forbade the Company “to erect any lock within the distance of One Mile on either side of the Bulbourne Head aforesaid, without the consent of Mary Sear . . .” but the reason for this provision (and others like it elsewhere in the Grand Junction Canal Acts) are lost in time.  It might, however, explain why the original plan was to descend from the northern end of the summit from a point on Lower Icknield Way to the east of Marsworth Parish Church, rather than from Bulbourne Junction.

Today, the dried-out depression once occupied by Bulbourne Water is plainly visible in satellite mapping, with the Canal crossing its western end.  The reason that Bulbourne Water is now dry stems from the draining effect of the Canal cutting on one side, and of the London & Birmingham Railway cutting (constructed some 40 years later) on the other.  It appears that during the construction of the railway cutting, it was anticipated that the feed to Bulbourne Water would be intercepted . . . .

The excavation for the London and Birmingham Railway, through Tring-hill, is proceeding rapidly.  Mr Townsend the contractor has upwards of 500 men employed besides a great number of horses.  It is expected they will intercept the Bulbourne springs when they get deeper.  These springs at present come directly into the Grand Junction Canal.  There is only one fault to be found with the work in this neighbourhood, and that is the steepness of the banks, they being only, for the excavations, in the ratio of nine inches horizontal to one foot perpendicular.  In the event of a sharp frost, this ground, which is a sort of chalk rag, will slake down like lime, and will consequently be a great nuisance after the road is finished.  The banks of the Grand Junction Canal, in the deep cuttings collateral with the railroad, are more than one to one, yet the slips which have occurred after a sharp frost have been prodigious.

The Mechanics' Magazine, Volume 23, 1835

. . . . and such was the case.  Robert Stephenson, the railway’s civil engineer, was later to report:

“. . . . The Tring cutting on the L and B R/Way presents another forcible example of the constant and rapid absorption of water by the chalk.  In the execution of that cutting a very large quantity of water was encountered, notwithstanding the situation was on the summit of the chalk ridge, forming the actual brim of the basin, where it could not be supplied with any water but such as fell upon the immediate neighbourhood, yet it yielded upwards of one millions gallons per day, and continues to yield an extraordinary quantity up to this hour, without any sensible diminution.”

Minutes of proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers: Volume 90, Part 4

Like Barnes before him, Stephenson had cut into the aquifer that fed the Bulbourne Springs.  The “large quantity of water” to which he refers is now channelled from the railway cutting through a heading to enter the canal summit to the south of Marshcroft Lane Bridge.  During the drought of 1934, Edward Bell, the Company’s section inspector, reported that he was able to walk through the dried out heading, but not wishing to retrace his steps he emerged into the railway cutting.  In his memoir he mentions, as he climbed up the steep embankment, “feeling very scared as an express train thundered along below”.

And so the Tring cutting was driven through waterlogged ground, with its walls slipping in places.  In his report, Barnes again explains the technique of driving headings into the cutting walls to carry off the water, but he now describes a further technique, that of “piling, stretching and campshooting” (sic.) with the canal bed being “planked very close”.  Following World War I, the banks along Tring summit were strengthened to protect against erosion.  In his memoir, Edward Bell recalls that:

“. . . . considerable difficulty was experienced in the Tring Summit because halved tree trunks had been laid in the bed of the canal across the waterway at intervals with timber piles at each end of the tree to prevent the toe of the high offside bank from encroaching into the waterway.”

Memoirs of a British Waterways Canal Engineer, Edward Bell

No doubt Bell had encountered Barnes’s piling, stretching, campshooting and planking.



By June 1798, between two and three miles of canal had been completed north of the Tring summit, about one million bricks had been made and a team of nine moulders were at work making more.  Barnes recommended to the Committee that the cutting northward should proceed swiftly to meet with “the Great Chester Road” at Fenny Stratford, thereby capturing the road transport to London and increasing the Company’s toll revenue accordingly.  This would then free up manpower resources to enable “a strict attendance to the execution of the [Blisworth] tunnel”, which Barnes believed could be completed in two years “or thereabouts; then, if the tunnel should not be early proceeded upon, the want thereof will be so great an impediment to the navigation, that the delay will hereafter be very much lamented”; in that assessment he was undoubtedly correct, although the impediment would be mitigated to an extent by Jessop and Outram’s horse-drawn railway over Blisworth Hill.

Barnes’s report (2nd June, 1798) was accompanied by a summary of the Company’s cash account at 1st May, 1798:


… … … … … … … … … … …






Purchase of land, salaries, etc



Payment of interest to subscribers



Building cost of 47 miles of Canal



Reservoirs, Feeders, etc. + WIP









Monies owing






Funds available



That only half of the 93½-miles of canal had been opened by this date was a clear indication that the funds then available were insufficient to complete the project and that further capital was needed.  And so the Committee announced their intention to raise £150,000 of 5% loan stock, convertible to shares by 25th March, 1803 (most of it was).  But the under-estimation of construction costs continued, the outcome being that in later years the Committee were to return to their shareholders for further capital in one form or another until by June, 1804, the Company’s capital account exceeded £1.3M.  Against this background, it becomes easier to understand why the construction of some of the planned branch canals were delayed or not proceeded with.

In the meantime, the continual haemorrhaging of capital through the 5% p.a. interest payments on subscribers’ shareholdings, ceased.  This decision was taken at the General Meeting held on 6th November 1798, by which time the cumulative interest already paid exceeded £40,000.  At this meeting it was decided to convert the interest due for the 12 months ending midsummer 1798 into “a Mortgage or Assignment of the tolls of the said Navigation”, at 5% p.a. interest (a further loan), and that following midsummer 1798, shareholders would instead receive dividends to be paid out of toll revenue after deductions had been made to cover operating expenses.

Since the first sections of the Canal had been opened for business, [18] toll revenue had been rising gradually, assisted by Parliament’s approval of additions and increases to the toll rates laid down in the 1793 Act.  The Act of 1805 [19] granted the Company further relief by lifting another provision of the 1793 Act, that which permitted toll-free use of the Canal by the armed forces.  Before the coming of public railways, there are numerous newspaper reports of the Grand Junction Canal being used for military transportation, undoubtedly added to by the needs of the French Wars.  Lifting this exemption would have provided a useful boost to revenue.



By June 1799, the Committee was able to report that they had inspected 64 miles of completed Canal, which despite the severe winter just passed they found to be in satisfactory condition.  Barnes was also able to report (probably in May 1799) that work on the section between the Tring summit and Fenny Stratford was progressing “very rapidly” and he remained optimistic that the terrain onwards to the temporary terminus to be set up to the south of Stoke Bruerne “appears so very favourable for execution”.  Furthermore, the problem of water supply would there be met by the drainage water issuing from the Blisworth Tunnel workings, which together with other sources was judged ample “to supply the locks equal to any trade that can be expected to arise”.

The major obstacle between Fenny Stratford and Cosgrove was the valley of the Great Ouse, which lies across the line of the Canal and is the lowest point between the summits at Tring and Braunston.  The Canal was originally planned to descend into the river valley via a flight of four locks and to ascend the opposite side by a further four lock flight.  Locking into and out of the river valley would have delayed traffic added to which, because the river was to be crossed on the level, there was the potential for serious disruption when it was in flood, which occurred from time-to-time.  The locks on the southern side of the valley would also have increased the demand for water from the Tring summit where it was often at a premium, this lockage water being lost into the Great Ouse.

An artist’s impression of the Cosgrove Embankment under construction, showing Jessop’s aqueduct and the original scheme for crossing the valley.

In 1799, Barnes suggested to the Committee that, as an alternative, the Ouse valley might be crossed by a high embankment in which a section would contain an aqueduct to carry the Canal over the river.  This would avoid the problems inherent in the planned system of locks, but such a substantial earthwork ― approaching a mile in length ― would take about two years to build.  The Committee decided in favour of the embankment and aqueduct, but to avoid delay to the opening of the final section of canal (Fenny Stratford to Stoke Bruerne) while they were being built, they decided to press ahead with the construction of the two planned flights of locks, but to build them as temporary structures. [20]  They were completed in September, 1800.

The progress now being made towards Cosgrove laid bare the obstacle of Blisworth Hill.  Other than excavating the drainage headings, work on the tunnel had been dormant since March 1797 when the original alignment had been abandoned.  It was now apparent that the new tunnel would not be complete in time to meet the main section of the canal then advancing rapidly from the south.  Writing in 1797, William Pitt described the problem that the Committee faced:

“The trade of this canal makes a stop at Blisworth at present; very considerable difficulties having arisen in the execution of a tunnel, or excavation, of about two miles in length, under the high ground at Blisworth: the difficulties arise from the under stratum, on a line of the tunnel, which consists of a calcareous [21] blue marl, extremely friable on exposure to air or moisture; and, the springs being powerful, the water, on coming in contact, converts this marl into liquid mud, which has occasioned the blowing of the shafts and sheeting of the tunnel; and some time must elapse before it can be finished and rendered navigable.”

The Agriculture of the County of Northampton, William Pitt (1797)

As arrangements currently stood, it was realised that Blisworth Hill would impose an increasing barrier to commerce, particularly in shipping the southbound cargoes of coal that were building up at the ‘port’ of Blisworth:

“Pit-coal from the Staffordshire collieries, is now brought plentifully to Blisworth, by the Grand Junction canal . . . . At Blisworth are erected extensive wharfage and warehouses for goods, two new inns on the canal banks, and there are five or six thousand tons of coal in stacks on the wharfs; a large number of canal boats and trading boats in the port, and two new ones on the stocks, building.  A considerable hurry and bustle of business is created here by this canal.”

The Agriculture of the County of Northampton, William Pitt (1797)

Apart from coal, toll records show that among the other bulk commodities that were now being shipped by canal were stone, timber, pig-iron, salt, bricks and slate ― indeed, in the years that followed the Canal’s opening, traditional thatched roof coverings in its locality were gradually replaced with slate.  The build-up of goods at the transhipment wharfs on either side of Blisworth Hill was such that the existing road [22] between them was considered inadequate to cope with the increasingly heavy flow of traffic.  To this end, Jessop investigated the feasibility and economics of constructing a double-track horse-tramway.  In his report of April, 1799 (counter-signed by Barnes), he submitted a detailed argument in favour of a rail link to run from Blisworth “to the crossing of the Towcester River”, [23] a distance of some 3¼-miles at an estimated cost of £24,000.  The Committee endorsed the plan, informing the shareholders that compared with road transport the facility of an “iron road” was “beyond calculation”. [24]

The Little Eaton Gangway, an example of a
horse-drawn tramway.

Benjamin Outram (1764-1805), canal engineer and the leading practitioner of early railways, [25] was contracted to construct the line.  The form of track that he used was L-shaped cast iron plates fastened to stone sleepers with oak pegs, the sleepers being laid on a bed of gravel and small stones.  No record of the line’s gauge has survived, but it is thought to have been 4ft 2ins, a gauge favoured by Outram for other of his railway projects.  The rail wagons were fitted with flat rather than the flanged tyres used by later rail vehicles; these were guided by the uprights of the L-shaped plates, the plates’ horizontal sections supporting the wagon’s weight.  Flat tyres also permitted the wagons to be run off the rails at either end of the line and hauled across the wharfs where ― at least in the cases of coal for nearby Buckingham ― they were hoisted into a narrow boat.  The tramway appears to have been in operation by June of 1800, for Company advertising of that date refers to “. . . . a temporary cast-iron rail road has been adopted, until the tunnel and locks could be completed . . . .”

Earlier that year, the Canal had reached Fenny Stratford where the usual ceremonial opening took place to mark the occasion:

“The Grand Junction Canal was on Wednesday opened for barges from the Thames at Brentford, to Fenny Stratford, in Buckinghamshire, and early in the morning a number of boats departed from Tring, in Hertfordshire, at which place the canal has been completed these two years past; about one o’clock they passed through Leighton, in Bedfordshire; and a short distance before they reached Fenny Stratford the Marquis of Buckingham, accompanied by a number of friends and principal proprietors, attended by the band and a party of the Buckinghamshire Militia, met them. — They then went in grand procession to Fenny Stratford, where they were received with firing of canon belonging to the town and other demonstrations of joy.  The Marquis and the proprietors retired to the Bell Inn to dinner”.

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 31st May, 1800



Work had now commenced cutting from the River Tove towards Cosgrove to meet the Canal advancing from the south.  When exactly the two sections met is unclear; the respected canal writer John Priestly gives only the year, 1800, [26] but other known dates suggest that, if this was so, it was late in the year.  By the following June, the Company was advertising the canal to be complete from Brentford to Braunston, with conveyance over Blisworth Hill by way of an “iron railway”.  It is unclear whether this advertising was purely to drum up trade, or an indication that the Canal did not open for business immediately.

During the summer of 1800, advertisements appeared in the press inviting the public to subscribe to a £100,000 5% convertible loan, its principal stated purpose being to fund completion of the Blisworth tunnel. [27]  Since work on the tunnel had been abandoned in March 1797, the only activity had been to drive a narrow brick-lined heading beneath the alignment of the future tunnel to drain the water that had led to the original workings being abandoned.  With the Canal now complete in other respects, attention was turned to the tunnel’s excavation.

Plans for the tunnel [28] were drawn up by Jessop and the work put out to tender.  The successful bidder was a consortium, whose rate was £15 13s. per yard, payments to be made against completion certificates authorised by Barnes.  Twenty-one shafts (pits) are known to have been sunk along the tunnel’s alignment down to the level of the Canal, and from the base of each, excavations commenced in each direction to provide (including the two tunnel ends) forty-four working faces.  There is visible evidence that the debris hoisted up the shafts by winding engines (horse gins) was spread over the adjacent ground.

Excavation progressed well, but it became apparent that cost was exceeding budget and that the consortium would be unable to complete the contract for their stated price ― the eventual cost per yard was twice that originally estimated.  The contract was therefore liquidated, and in March 1804 Barnes again took over direct supervision of the work, Caleb Maulin being appointed site engineer.  Maulin did not survive long in the role, being dismissed after shortcomings appeared in his accounting; he was replaced by the highly competent Henry Provis, who also supervised construction of the flight of locks linking the Blisworth and Cosgrove pounds.

Surprisingly, the rate of fatal accidents on the Blisworth tunnel project appears to have been low.  So far as can be ascertained, only two coroner’s inquests (three deaths) were recorded in the press of the time, although the first of these reports refers to another fatality for which no report has been discovered; and there may have been others.

The first fatality was due to suffocation caused by ‘damp’.  Gases (other than air) in coal mines in England were collectively known as ‘damps’, a name thought to be derived from the German dampf meaning vapour.  If so, the term was probably introduced into England by German miners who were brought here in the 17th century to help develop deep mining:

“ACCIDENTS.—On Wednesday last an inquest was taken on the Plain, in the parish of Blisworth, on view of the body of Benjamin Ludlow, a young man employed on the Grand Junction Canal works, who having occasion to go down a sinking pit [one of the working shafts] on the Plain, before he had got to the depth of ten yards called to be drawn up, but the damp had so great an effect on him that he was instantly suffocated, and fell to the bottom of the pit; when David Williams, a miner, attempted to go down to his assistance, but had nearly lost his life in the attempt, as before he had descended fifteen yards he was under the necessity of making a signal to be drawn up, and was nearly suffocated when taken out.  The damp was so strong that it was necessary to throw a large quantity of water into the pit, and it was an hour and a half before any person would venture to fetch up the body of the unfortunate youth.  The Jury brought in the verdict Accidental Death.  The deceased had a brother who lost his life about two years since, by falling down a pit, on the Plain, more than thirty yards deep.”

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 8th November, 1800.

The second coroner’s report investigated two further fatalities, also at one of the tunnel’s pits:

“. . . As they were drawing two of the workmen up from one of the shafts, by a sudden jirk (sic) of the horse, the basket in which the men stood slipped off the hook affixed to the rope, by which accident they were both precipitated to the bottom (a depth of sixty yards); one of then was killed on the spot and the other survived but a few hours.”

The Northampton Mercury, 22nd October, 1803



By March 1805, work on the tunnel was complete and the final section of the Canal was flooded.  On 25th March, an opening ceremony took place with great jubilation (and the customary dinner for the Company’s big wigs):

“That grand line of communication between the metropolis and the most distant parts of the kingdom which the Grand Junction Canal was to effect, was completed on Monday last, when an amazingly large concourse of people assembled, some of them from considerable distances, to view the stupendous works at Blisworth Tunnel, and to see the grand procession in honour of the opening of it.  One of the Paddington packet-boats, called the Marquis of Buckingham, was the first that went through the Tunnel.  This was early in the morning, in order to join the other boats assembled at the north end of the Tunnel, at Blisworth, to form the grand procession.  About eleven o’clock the Committee of the Canal company (who had superintended this great work), Messrs. Praed, Mansell, Unwin, Parkinson, Smith, and a great number of others of the principal proprietors, entered the boats, attended by Messrs Telford, Bevan and other of the engineers employed on the Canal, and by a band of music, and proceeded into the Tunnel amidst the loudest acclamations of the spectators.  The pitchy darkness of the Tunnel was shortly relieved by a number of flambeaux and lights, but the company in general seemed lost in contemplating the stupendous efforts by which this amazing arch of brickwork (about eighteen inches thick in general, fifteen feet wide and nineteen in height, withinside, being of an elliptical form, 3080 yards in length) had been completed between the 10th August 1793, and the 26th February 1805.  The height of the hill, above the Tunnel, being, for a considerable way, full sixty feet, for drawing up the clay and soil which were excavated, and letting down the materials to different parts of the works, nineteen shafts, or Wells, were sunk on different parts of the line, and a heading, or small arch, was run or formed the whole length, below the present Tunnel, with numerous cross branches to draw off the springs of water, which would otherwise have impeded the work.

In an hour and two minutes the boats with their company arrived at the south end of the Tunnel, and were greeted by the loud huzzas of at least five thousand persons, who were assembled, and who accompanied the boats with continual cheers as they proceeded down the locks to Stoke, and from thence to Old Stratford.

The principal company retired to the Bull Inn, at Stony Stratford, and about six o’clock, 120 proprietors and friends of this grand undertaking sat down to an excellent dinner, Mr. Praed in the chair.  The utmost harmony and conviviality prevailed among the company till near twelve o’clock, when they broke up.  All the other inns in Stony Stratford were filled with company, and many of the parties did not separate till a late hour.”

Northampton Mercury, 30th March, 1805

Telford inspected the Blisworth tunnel a few months later:

“This Tunnel, which was opened on the 25th day of March last, has been laid out in a perfectly straight direction; the materials and workmanship seem good of their several kinds, and as headings have been driven so as to collect and conduct the water of the adjacent grounds into directions proper for protecting the Brickwork, and preventing injury being suffered by the goods in passing, I have no doubt but that, with due regulation and attention in future, this difficult and expensive work will fully answer the purposes of the Navigation.”

The General State of the Grand Junction Canal, Thomas Telford (1805)

The Cosgrove embankment and aqueduct were completed shortly after the Blisworth Tunnel.  Curiously, in his report Telford makes no comment on the standard of the work, except to say that it is in the hands of “respectable and responsible contractors . . . . and as I have, from good authority, their assurance that every part shall be left in a perfect state, it is unnecessary, at this time, to enter particulars . . . .” which suggests that the great civil engineer’s opinion was, naively as events were to prove, based on hearsay rather than on personal inspection.  One wonders whether the Committee were satisfied with what they read.  So far as the local press was concerned:

“Grand Junction Canal.—We are happy to announce the completion of nearly all the great works which were going on upon this important and extensive line of inland navigation, rendered peculiarly interesting to Englishmen by forming an immediate connection with the British capital, and the numerous canals which intersect and cross each other in all directions between our great manufacturing towns and works.  On Monday morning last, the stupendous embankment between Wolverton and Cosgrove, near Stony Stratford, was opened for the use of trade.  Boats navigating the Grand Junction Canal will now avoid the delay, labour, and danger, of passing eight locks.”

The Northampton Mercury, 31st August 1805



In the introduction to his inspection report of 1805, Thomas Telford felt obliged to include a few words in justification of the Canal’s much inflated construction cost:

“The number and magnitude of the obstacles to be overcome, united with the rapid increase which has taken place in the value of labour during the time the works have been under execution, must also, in a great measure, satisfy the minds of subscribers why additional sums have been required beyond those originally provided for the purpose of the undertaking.”

Although the Grand Junction Canal now formed a continuous waterway from Braunston to Brentford, with the important Paddington Arm also in operation, its investors did not at first receive the handsome returns that their investment was to produce in later years: [29]

“In 1806, I find the Blisworth tunnel completed, and a very masterly and surprising work of art; the whole main line of this canal is also completed, and some of its collateral branches; but the communication with Northampton is by a railway: on this great concern, (the Grand Junction Canal) £1,500,000 have been expended; shares at present under prime cost, and dividends small, owing to improvements still making, and paid for from the tonnage; but hopes are entertained of its coming to pay a good interest upon the expenditure.  Reservoirs of water and other improvements are in hand or in contemplation.”

The Agriculture of the County of Northampton, William Pitt (1806)

. . . . and this letter dated 10th July, 1806, published in the much respected periodical, The Gentlemen’s Magazine: [30]

“Much has of late been said in the public papers, and perhaps with truth, of the excellence and utility of the Grand Junction Canal; but many of your readers who have seen their puffing paragraphs, will be surprised to hear that the benefit, if any, has hitherto, with the exception of a few individuals, been to the publick alone; and the original proprietors have as yet received no advantage whatever from the concern.  It is now 17 or 18 years since the undertaking was begun; new schemes have been successively proposed and executed, but the proprietors are still in vain expecting their golden dreams to be realized.  To the original speculators, this may be no more than the just reward of their views, if avarice, as it probably was with some, not the public good, was their motive for subscribing.  But so long a time has now elapsed since the commencement of the undertaking, that many of the first subscribers have been long dead, and their representatives are now suffering the consequences of ill-judged speculation.

From the pressure of the times, many widows and young ladies, whose fortunes, with the hopes of extraordinary interest, were vested by their friends in the stock of this Company, have either been obliged to sell their shares at a very great disadvantage and loss, or to struggle with difficulties which could not have been foreseen or expected . . . .”

The various applications to Parliament over the years to 1803 had authorised the Company to raise capital far in excess of Jessop’s initial estimate (£400,000):

Act 33 Geo. III





















Of this, £1,404,000 was raised, but later developments were funded from revenue that inflated the final bill to over £1,500,000, for there was much that remained to be done to complete the full extent of the project.  The important Paddington Arm had opened in 1801, although contemporary reports suggest that, initially at least, the facilities available to support trade at Paddington Basin needed much development. [31]  Following the opening of the Blisworth Tunnel, the iron rails from the Blisworth Hill plateway were reused to connect Northampton with the Canal at Gayton; but a decade was to pass before Northampton ― and Aylesbury also ― received branch connections to the main line.  By 1806, the Cosgrove embankment was showing signs of failure; repairs were made, but two years later the Cosgrove aqueduct failed, severing the canal and leading, in 1811, to Benjamin Bevan’s iron trunk aqueduct that stands today.  In places side ponds were built to conserve water and more reservoirs and pumping stations were built, particularly at Tring.

Despite the many calls on the Company’s exchequer during its early years, the Canal was coming of age and starting to flourish (Appendix II. gives a brief view of the waterway in 1813).  In 1810, annual receipts amounted to £168,390 12s; in 1815, £155,000; [32] and by 1819:

“. . . . the annual gross revenue of the canal amounted to the sum of £170,000; it possess 1,400 proprietors; and its shares of £100 have recently sold at from £240 to £250 each.  Many of the first capitalists in the kingdom are its proprietors, and its usual routine of business is so conducted as to give satisfaction to all who are connected wit it.”

A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal in 1819, John Hassell.

Share prices peaked at almost £350 (for a £100 share) in 1824, whilst dividends peaked at 13%, a level that was maintained for seven years until 1832, when it fell to 12%.  Following the coming of the public railways, the Company’s share price declined to around par and the dividend to 4%, at which levels both remained stable for a long period. [33]  By comparison, the Oxford Canal was built before the inflationary pressures of the French Wars, resulting in a lower construction cost and a higher return to its investors; in 1833, that company was paying a dividend of 32% on its £100 shares, which at the time had a market value of £595. [34]




The Grand Junction Waterworks Company was established in 1811 to exercise the water supply rights vested in the Grand Junction Canal Company by their Act of 1798. [35]

The Company extracted their supply from the Paddington Arm; unsurprisingly, this water was found to be of poor quality.  In 1820, supply was switched to the Thames near the northern end of the present Chelsea Bridge, opposite the Ranelagh sewer and Westbourne Brook.  When this became known it caused a public outcry:

“. . . . that the water now taken from the Thames at Chelsea by the Grand Junction Canal Company, and supplied to more than seven thousand families, was charged with the contents of the great common sewers, the drainings from dunghills and laystalls, the refuse of hospitals, slaughter-houses, colour, lead, and soap-works, drug-mills, and decomposed animal and vegetable substances; and that the most eminent professions men had pronounced it to be a filthy fluid, destructive of health . . . .”

The Hull Packet, 24th April, 1827

A campaign led by Sir Francis Burdett, M.P. for Westminster, resulted in the appointment of the first Royal Commission to inquire into the quality of the water to be supplied by the metropolitan water companies.  However, it was not until 1835 that powers were granted to open a new intake at Brentford.  This resulted in the magnificent Kew Bridge pumping station.  Opened in 1838, it was equipped with a Maudslay beam engine that pumped water along a thirty inch main for five and a half miles to Paddington.  This was the first long trunk main to be laid by any of the metropolitan water companies.

In the 1850s the quality of drinking water was again of public concern.  Charles Dickens took an interest in the topic and in carrying out research visited the Kew Bridge Pumping Station in March 1850.  He recorded details of his visit in his campaigning journal Household Words, in an article published in April 1850 entitled “The Troubled Water Question”.  The epidemiologist John Snow reported on an outbreak of cholera, pinpointing a workhouse in Soho that had escaped the contagion because it was supplied by the Grand Junction rather than the other local supply.

Following the passage of the Metropolis Water Act (1852) – under which it became unlawful for any water company to extract water for domestic use from the tidal reaches of the Thames ― the Grand Junction Waterworks Company again moved their intake, this time to Hampton (Sunbury Lock) where deposit reservoirs and a pumping station were completed in 1855.

Additions were made to the Hampton works during the remainder of the century and in 1882 the Company began to filter part of the supply there, thus relieving the Kew Bridge works.  A large open reservoir for filtered water was inaugurated on Hanger Hill, Ealing, in 1888.  Acts of 1852, 1861 and 1878 enlarged the area of supply and by the turn of the century the company’s boundary stretched from Mayfair to Sunbury.

Following the Metropolis Water Act (1902), the functions of the Grand Junction Water Works Company were assumed in 1904 by the Metropolitan Water Board and the company ceased to exist.



From: An Historical and Topographical Account of Fulham, T. Faulkner (1813).

THROUGH the northern extremity of this parish runs the Paddington Canal, for which an Act was obtained in the year 1795, communicating with the Grand Junction Canal at Norwood.  This latter canal was executed under a Bill obtained in the year 1793, and begins at Braunston in Northamptonshire, where it joins the Oxford Canal, and ends at the Thames near Brentford.  By this inland navigation the metropolis is connected with all the different canals which have been made in the midland and north western parts of England; thereby affording a cheap and easy conveyance of all the various articles of manufacture, and the produce of the counties through which the line of canals passes, comprehending the great and commercial port of Liverpool, the considerable manufacturing towns of Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Nottingham, &c. the salt mines of Cheshire, the potteries, the coals and iron of Staffordshire and Worcestershire, besides the great advantages resulting to the agricultural interests of the country by the transport of lime and various sorts of manure.  Great quantities of timber for his Majesty’s dockyards at Deptford, and for the use of ship builders in general, are conveyed by the same channel; also government stores and ammunition to the depot, which upon the completion of this canal, was established on an extensive scale at Weedon.  The length of the Grand Junction Canal, with all its collateral branches is 140 miles.  The canal was not completed till March 1805, when the Blisworth Tunnel was opened.  The long interval from its commencement until its final completion, may be attributed to the very considerable difficulties which the undertakers had to encounter, during the progress of the works, independent of the excavating such a vast length of canal, which is 36 feet wide, at the top level, 24 feet at the bottom, and 4 feet 6 inches in depth.  It required the erection of upwards of 200 bridges, the construction of 110 locks of 86 feet in length and 15 feet in clear width, and an average rise of 7 feet in each, requiring 9,030 cubic feet, or 250 tons of water; the forming of two tunnels, one at Blisworth and the other at Braunston; the former of 3,080 yards in length, 15 feet wide and 19 feet high, and the latter 2,045 yards in length and of the same dimensions as the former.

The great range of chalk hills, near Tring, are passed by a deep cutting, extending 3 miles in length, and the greatest depth 30 feet.  In several other parts of the canal, there are likewise deep cuttings, of considerable magnitude.  The canal is carried over the valley of the river Ouse, between Wolverton and Cosgrove, by an embankment of 40 feet in height, and an aqueduct, which is now constructed of iron, the former brick one, of three arches, having fallen in in the year 1808.  There are likewise embankments of almost equal magnitude at Weedon, and at Bugbrook, besides numerous lesser embankments and aqueducts in different places; there are seven large reservoirs, from which, and other resources, the canal is at all times most abundantly supplied with water.  The trade upon the canal, which is now very extensive, has been uniformly increasing.  Articles of commerce, including those of every description, conveyed along the line in the last year, mounted to 527,767 tons.  This trade, great as it now is, must soon receive a very considerable addition from other lines of communication, which are now forming, particularly from the Grand Union Canal; the works of which are now in a state of such forwardness, that they are expected to be completed by the latter end of next year.  This canal will join the Grand Junction Canal at Long Buckby, in Northamptonshire, and the Old Union Canal at Market Harborough; a direct inland navigation will then be formed from the metropolis to the north eastern parts of the kingdom.

A canal is likewise now making from the Grand Junction Canal at Marsworth to the town of Aylesbury.  Another collateral branch from the Grand Junction Canal is likewise about to be made to the town of Northampton to join the river Nene.  And in the late sessions of parliament, a bill was obtained for extending the canal at Paddington to the Docks at Limehouse, by which the goods brought up by the Grand Junction Canal will be forwarded in the same boats directly to the place of their destination, instead of being deposited in warehouses at Paddington, and afterwards carried from thence into the city, and to the Docks.

We have thought it necessary to draw the attention of our readers to a work of such considerable importance as that of the Grand Junction Canal, embracing as it does so many objects worthy the consideration of a commercial people, and affording so many advantages to the merchant, the manufacturer, and the agriculturist.

[Chapter VIII.]




A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers (Prof. Sir Alec Skempton FRS and others, ICE Publishing, 2002).  Skempton’s estimate is probably up to the completion of the GJC main line in 1805, following which other development took place (e.g. in the period 1813-1818, two more reservoirs and a pumping station at Tring, and the Aylesbury and Northampton arms).  Jessop’s early estimate put the cost of the work at £372,175 “exclusive of collateral branches”, plus a further £18,785 for the Northampton branch.

Probably more guesstimate than fact, nonetheless:

The value, in 2010, of £400,000 in 1805: £25,300,000 using the retail price index, £329,000,000 using average earnings.

The value, in 2010, of £1,500,000 in 1805: £94,900,000 using the retail price index, £1,230,000,000 using average earnings.


“. . . a numerous meeting of the nobility, gentry, land-owners and occupiers, manufacturers, millers, tradesmen and inhabitants . . .”Northampton Mercury, 3rd Nov. 1792.


There are four interconnected reservoirs at Tring.  They collect surplus water from various sources, including the Canal, which is then used during periods of low rainfall to help maintain the water level at the summit.  Pumping is necessary to raise the reservoir water to the summit level.  The first reservoir to be built (1797-8) in the vicinity was at Weston Turville near Wendover, but this was for the purpose of supplying compensation water to millers along the Wendover Stream, rather than to supply the Canal.


Refers to the changes and additions to the original specification that tend to increase costs and delay completion.


It is often believed that the workforce was mainly Irish navvies.  This is not so.  At this time the workforce was mainly local agricultural workers, the traditional navvy being a product of the railway-building era.


At the time of writing (2012) a detailed planning application to build the Daventry Arm is being considered.


Telford later observed that the bricks at the tunnel’s northern end were “of an inferior quality; in several places they are considerably decayed, and have been bruised and worn away by the boats in passing. . . .”


35 Geo III. C. 8 received the Royal Assent on 5th March, 1795.


36 Geo. III. C. 25 received the Royal Assent on 24th December, 1795.


Near Elstree in Hertfordshire, it was built to compensate millers on the River Colne for water abstracted by the canal.  The reservoir is said to have been dug by French prisoners of war between 1795 and 97.


The original dimensions of the canal, as stated by Jessop in 1792, were 28ft (bottom), 42ft (top) and depth 4ft 6”.  The width was later increased to 43ft and the depth to 5ft, although Bradshaw’s Guide of 1904 describes a rather shallower canal.


The report is undated, but gives the impression that it was written in the Autumn of 1797.


On the sectional drawing, the ten locks in the flight (numbered 56 to 65) occur in half a mile, suggesting that a staircase might have been intended.


. . . . the other two being the Braunston Tunnel and the Tring summit.


 In fact south-east through Northchurch and Berkhamsted, and north-west through Gubblecote.


Mary Sear was by then the widow of John Sear.  She resided at Tring Grove, a substantial house that lay near to the present-day Grove Road/Marshcroft Lane junction.  According to the 1793 GJC Act, she possessed “a certain Plantation or Pleasure ground, with a piece of Water therein, called Bulbourne Head, in the Parish of Tring and is consenting that the said canal should be made through the same . . .”


. . . . for which, on 24th December, 1794, she received the sum of £176 5s. “of lawful money of Great Britain.”


Brentford to Uxbridge and Braunston to Blisworth.


45 Geo. III. C. 68, received Royal Assent on 27th June, 1805.


Timber being used in place of brick inverts to save expense.


Composed of or containing or resembling calcium carbonate or calcite or chalk.


Laid down by Barnes in 1797.


The River Tove, just over ½-mile S.E. of Stoke Bruerne.


. . . . the Committee doubted the ability of a road to handle the weight of traffic and to keep “tolerably passable” in wet seasons.  It must be remembered that although the age of the steam-worked public railway lay some 30 years in the future, horse-drawn rail transport was by no means new, being used extensively, for example, in collieries.  A horse tramway connected Northampton with the GJC for some years before the branch canal was opened.


 . . . . also Jessop’s business partner at the Butterley Iron Works, where the rails were manufactured.

Navigable Rivers and Waterways Joseph Priestley (1831).

Among the other “beneficial purposes” the advertisement refers to is the Grand Junction Waterworks.  Although this parallel business activity — the supply of water to the citizens of Paddington using canal water — falls outside the scope of this narrative, it is worth mentioning not least because the water company’s former (and architecturally interesting) pumping station now hosts the Kew Bridge Steam Museum at Brentford with its fine collection of pumping engines.  Among these is the huge Grand Junction Engine, which with its 90 inch diameter cylinder pumped water to London for almost a century (Appendix).

Tunnel width, 16ft 6ins, height from invert to crown, of 18ft; height water level to crown, 11ft.  No towpath.  Protective oak rails were to be laid along the sides.

. . . . until the period approaching the opening of the London & Birmingham Railway in 1838, when GJCC share prices and dividends began to decline.

The Magazine was Dr. Johnson’s first employer as a writer.  It ran uninterrupted for almost 200 years until 1922.

In the General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire (1804) the agriculturalist Arthur Young commented on the poor facilities at Paddington, including the need for a “beast and sheep market”.

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 5th February 1814; Morning Post, 1st November 1815 respectively.

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

Hadfield’s British Canals, 8th edition revised by Joseph Boughey (pub. 1994).

38. Geo. III. C.33, Royal Assent 26th May, 1798.