Chapter VIII.
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“The Basin of the Canal at Paddington is a large square sheet of water occupying many acres, with warehouses on either of its sides, and so commodiously sheltered, that goods of every kind can be shipped or unloaded without the danger of being wetted.  This is a most desirable advantage, as the fly boats from Manchester bring a variety of fine articles that require every care.  Since the canal has been brought to Paddington, this place has become an extensive and well frequented market for cattle, sheep, butter, poultry, etc.”

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

In 1819 the travel writer and watercolourist John Hassell published an illustrated account of a journey from London to Braunston along the route of the Grand Junction Canal.  However, the title that Hassell chose for his travelogue ― A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal in 1819 ―  is something of a misnomer, for having visited Paddington Basin he then travelled by road to Watford, thereby excluding the Canal’s busy southernmost section, which, following Paddington Basin, he felt “ceases to be interesting”.  At Watford he began his journey during which he wandered quite widely from the Canal to visit places of interest.  Churches, manor houses, stately homes (together with their occupants and artworks), villages, towns and historical events all come under his pen. But, with the exception of Paddington Basin, canal wharves, their operators and the nature and extent of their trade go unnoticed, as do the boatmen; perhaps in Hassell’s day such subjects were too mundane to be worthy of recording. And although details of the waterway’s construction and its challenges would still have been fresh at this time, Hassell tells us very little about them or the people who achieved this great feat of civil engineering, the M1 of its day.  Thus, while he provides some interesting cameos, Hassell too often frustrates by dwelling on subjects of no relevance to the matter in hand.

Nevertheless, the three chapters that form this section of our account are influenced by Hassell’s plan.  They provide a brief description ― a complete study would easily fill a book ― of the route followed by the Grand Junction Canal, in our case southbound from Braunston to Brentford.  And to address the apparent shortcomings in Hassell’s account, we focus out attention on the waterway, particularly on further construction following its delayed opening in 1805.

With regard to commerce, more is written about the Canal’s southern section.  This is due to the greater prevalence of industry in the south and to the early abandonment of most of the wharves along the Canal’s rural northern section.  By the 1930s, the Grand Union Canal Company listed only six of the sixty wharfs north of Berkhamsted as hosting tenant traders, and most of those were connected with the sand trade in the Leighton area.

Grand Union canal: Birmingham to Marsworth.


From its northern extremity at Braunston in Northamptonshire, the Grand Junction Canal follows a south-easterly path to the Thames at Brentford, a distance of 93½ miles (viz. system map).  Within its length it passes through the counties of Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire (for a short distance), Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex; crosses summits at Braunston and Tring; passes through long tunnels at Braunston and Blisworth, and negotiates 102 locks [0].  There are substantial embankments at Wolverton, Weedon Bec, Heyford, Bugbrook and Cosgrove, and substantial cuttings on both approaches to Blisworth Tunnel and at Tring (1½ miles).  There are three significant aqueducts ― Benjamin Bevan’s Great Ouse Aqueduct (1811); the New Bradwell Aqueduct at Milton Keynes (1991); and Brunel’s ‘Three Bridges’ Aqueduct (1859) at Southall.  On the Paddington Arm there is a further significant aqueduct across London’s North Circular Road, the present structure dating from 1993 when the road was widened.  There are also numerous small aqueducts, including three that carry the Slough Arm over the Fray’s and Colne rivers and the interesting Kilburn Aqueduct (now a part of the Ranelagh sewer), which lies buried beneath the Paddington Arm near Little Venice.


At Braunston, the Grand Junction and Oxford canals meet at an unusual triangular junction.  From this point the Oxford Canal heads north to Rugby and Coventry, and south to Banbury, Oxford and the Thames.

In 1929, the Grand Junction, the Regent’s Canal and the Warwick canal companies amalgamated to form the Grand Union Canal (Chapter XIV.).  The effect of the amalgamation (together with the negotiation of running rights over a 5-mile length of the Oxford canal) was to extend the former Grand Junction main line from Braunston to the outskirts of Birmingham.  Thus, at Braunston Junction, the main line turns south along the Oxford Canal to Napton Junction, from where it heads in a westerly direction via Leamington, Warwick and Knowle to reach Camphill Locks at Birmingham. [1]  During the 1930s, the Company invested heavily in improving its Braunston to Birmingham section in an attempt to regain trade from the railways.  The waterway was widened and deepened, and new wider locks and bridges constructed, but as the Company could not afford to extend these improvements over the entire main line to London, their plan to use larger craft (12ft 6in beam ‘wide boats’) on the route failed to materialise.

Braunston Junction looking south along the Oxford Canal.

Braunston Junction: a third Horseley Iron Works bridge spans the entrance to nearby Braunston Marina.


The village of Braunston was once an important hub in our national transport system, thriving for many years on the transportation of goods by canal between the Midlands and London.  The original canal depot now hosts Braunston Marina, and although little of its Georgian and Victorian commercial past is plainly evident, its entrance remains dominated by one of three splendid cast iron bridges built by the Horsley Iron Works ― its two partners span the nearby turning from the Grand Junction into the Oxford Canal.  Well-known canal carrying companies including Pickfords and Fellowes, Moreton & Clayton had facilities at Braunston, and many former canal families have links to the village, if only to the graveyard of All Saints Church.  Today, leisure boating dominates and Braunston Marina provides mooring facilities for some 250 boats together with the attendant servicing and support facilities.

Commencing at Braunston Junction, the Grand Junction Canal heads in an easterly direction, ascending a flight of six locks to reach the first of its two summit levels, before passing through Braunston Tunnel (2,040yds).  The Daventry and Drayton reservoirs to the south of the Canal act as feeders for the 3½ mile Braunston summit pound.
Norton Junction lies some 2 miles to the east of Braunston Tunnel, at which point the ‘old’ Grand Union Canal [2] heads north towards Market Harborough and — via the former Leicestershire & Northampton Union Canal and the River Soar Navigation — to Leicester, Loughborough and the River Trent.

The northern portal of Braunston Tunnel.

The Leicestershire and Northampton Union Canal was originally planned to link the River Soar at Leicester with the River Nene at Northampton, and from there to connect with the Grand Junction Canal. It received its Act in 1793, but by 1797 funds had run out with construction halted at Debdale, some 6 miles from Market Harborough.  There progress rested until, in 1805, a further Act was obtained authorising the Canal to be extended to Market Harborough, which it reached in 1809, some miles short of and with no prospect of ever reaching Northamptonshire, let alone its county town.  Perhaps prompted by the project’s failure and their continuing wish to connect to Leicester and onwards to the Trent, the Grand Junction Canal Company had James Barnes survey a route ― as did Thomas Telford ― to link the two canals.  In fact Barnes was to undertake three surveys, which together with Telford’s is indicative of the difficult terrain to be crossed, for it lacks river valleys or any other obvious routes for a canal.

A new company, the ‘Grand Union Canal Company’ ― not to be confused with the company of that name formed in 1929 ― was promoted to build the link, which extended from Norton on the Grand Junction Canal, to Foxton on the Leicestershire & Northampton Union Canal.  Benjamin Bevan was appointed Engineer, and he chose the shorter route proposed by Barnes over that by Telford.   The undulating countryside to be crossed required cuttings, embankments and two significant tunnels, one of 1,528 yards at Crick and another of 1,166 yards at Husbands Bosworth, both of which were built wide enough to allow two narrow boats to pass abreast.  All the locks were built narrow (7ft) and grouped into two flights at opposite ends of the Canal ― two staircases of five separated by a short pound at Foxton and a staircase of four and three single locks at Watford ― linked by a 22-mile pound.  Other than the earthworks, water supply was also a problem, with the Canal depending on that gathered in reservoirs at Welford, Sulby and Naseby, which, in effect, also provided free gratis a supply to the Grand Junction Canal.  The 1¾-mile Welford branch was built as a navigable feeder to channel water from the reservoirs into the Canal, the short pound between Welford Lock and the terminus being the highest point on the present day Grand Union Canal system.

The northern extremity of the ‘old’ Grand Union Canal at Foxton (junction with the former Leicestershire and Northampton Union Canal), and the commencement of the famous 10-lock double staircase.  Note the narrow (7ft) lock gate.

The extent of the celebration that accompanied the Canal’s opening in 1814 are perhaps difficult to understand in an age when our navigable inland waterways are regarded in the general scheme of things as unimportant . . . .

“On Tuesday the 9th inst. the Grand Union Canal was formally opened by the Committee of Management, who assembled at Long Buckby Wharf, with several of the neighbouring Gentlemen and a Deputation from the Union Canal Committee, proceeded in a boat, decorated with flags and accompanied by an excellent Band of Music.  The interest of the passing scene was heightened by the Boats which followed, some laden with spectators, and others with merchandize from London.  The Inhabitants from the adjoining villages crowded to the banks, and loudly greeted the Procession.  In eight hours the whole line was passed, and the encomiums justly bestowed on the Works must have gratified the Engineer, (Mr. Bevan) who in three years and a half has so happily and ably executed a Canal of 23¼ miles in length, attended with considerable difficulties in its progress, and having in its line two Tunnels; and several heavy Embankments. ― The festivity of the day was concluded by a Dinner in the Town-hall at market Harborough, at which Sir Jas. Duberly presided. ― This Navigation completes the water-communication thro’ Leicester, between London and the Derbyshire Canals, thereby opening new Markets for the produce of Leicestershire, and giving a direct route for the trade between the Metropolis and Nottinghamshire, and the Eastern parts of Derbyshire and Yorkshire.”

The Leeds Mercury, 20th August, 1814

Despite the jubilation that accompanied its opening, the ‘old’ Grand Union was never a financial success due to its heavy construction costs and reliance on traffic originating from other systems; later, the railways were to capture most of its trade.  Although the Canal and its bridges were built wide, its locks were not due to the Grand Junction Canal Company wishing to discourage wide boat traffic on the lower part of its system, where its tunnels (Blisworth and Braunston) were too narrow to permit two wide boats to pass abreast.

In 1894, the Grand Junction Canal Company bought the old Grand Union and the adjoining Leicestershire & Northampton Union Canal, which were then on the verge of financial collapse.  The Board realised that if trade was to develop, their Leicestershire canals needed to be improved and they commenced a programme of dredging and ― despite the problem with tunnel width on the main line ― alterations to permit the passage of wide boats.  Other problems to be addressed were, on the old Grand Union section, the excessive time taken to lock through the long Watford and Foxton flights and shortage of water.  The use of inclined plane boat lifts at Foxton and Watford was an attempt to address all three problems with a single solution ― bypassing the narrow flights of locks using boat lifts would enable wide boats to enter the canal while reducing both the delay in locking and the water wasted in the process.

Designed by Gordon Cale Thomas, the Grand Junction’s engineer, the boat lift installed at Foxton used two caissons, each capable of accommodating a single wide boat or two narrowboats abreast, entry being through vertical guillotine gates that created a watertight seal when closed.  The caissons, when filled with water, balanced each other.  The lift, which was powered by a small stationary steam engine, took some 12 minutes to complete a lift compared with, at best, 45 minutes for the passage of a single narrow boat through the Foxton flight.  No water from the upper pound was lost in the process, for what flowed out in the downward caisson was returned in the upward.  But the Company was reluctant to install a second lift to bypass the Watford flight ― that at Foxton had cost £40,000 ― or alternatively widen the Watford locks.  This defeated much of the scheme’s overall objective:

“If we have a cargo in Leeds for delivery to London, we will presume that we start from Leeds with a short boat measuring 57 feet 6 inches by 14 feet beam [governed by lock dimensions] . . . . we could journey by Wakefield, Barnsley, Doncaster, Keadby, Newark, Nottingham, Loughborough and Leicester, as far as the flight of seven locks at Watford on the Grand Junction Canal . . . . these locks can only accommodate narrow boats, and form the remaining obstacle to prevent us reaching London.”

Evidence from H.R. de Salis (Vice Chairman Fellow, Morton & Clayton)
to the Royal Commission (1906).

The Foxton boat lift conveying two pairs of narrow boats.

Although the Foxton boat lift achieved its purpose, in practice its rails suffered excessively from stress due to the weight of the caissons.  More important, the anticipated growth in traffic on the Leicester section failed to materialise and the lift’s operating and maintenance costs could not be justified on what there was.  After eleven years in service it was taken out of use and eventually sold for scrap in 1928 for the princely sum of £250.  Today, the Foxton Inclined Plane Trust has cleared the site of foliage for visitors to see, their ambitious long-term aim being to rebuild the lift.

Despite the Company’s efforts to promote the Leicester route, its trade continued to diminish.  During the 1930s, as part of their canal improvement scheme, the  Grand Union Canal Company planned to rebuild the Foxton and Watford locks to accommodate wide boats, but they the  failed to secure the necessary government grant.  Following a brief revival during WWII., regular trade had ceased by the 1950s leaving the waterway almost derelict.  But having managed to survive into the era of leisure boating, the waterway has since gained a new lease on life.


To the south of Norton Junction, the Canal descends through the Long Buckby flight of seven locks to reach the village of Whilton and the 15-mile Blisworth pound.  Some 3½ miles to the south of Buckby bottom lock lies . . . .

“Weedon, a village in Northamptonshire 8 miles NNW of Towcester.  It stands on the Grand Junction Canal and has a great ordnance depot and barracks.”

The General Gazetteer, Richard Brooks (1820)

The ”great ordnance depot and barracks” referred to is the former Royal Ordnance Depot, [4] a relic of the Napoleonic Wars with their threat of French invasion.

 “Such as been the demand for small arms for the grand expedition, that an order has been made to the Board of Ordnance, for 22,000 muskets to be sent from the depot at Weedon; this requisition was received on Saturday se’nnight [the space of seven nights and days], and the whole was packed in cases and sent off for London on Monday morning, by canal boats.  On this occasions nearly two companies of the Bedford Militia, stationed at Weedon, were employed on the duty.  The arms will be replaced from Birmingham. Upwards of 120 pieces of artillery are said to be at the above depot, with ammunition wagons, forges, &c. all in perfect working order for immediate service.”

The Hereford Journal, 9 August 1809.

The Depot was built following an Act of Parliament of 1803, which provided for the acquisition of 53 acres of land; this was later extended to some 170 acres.  The site’s location was chosen for its considerable distance from the potential invasion shores of the South Coast while being well connected with other parts of the country via the Grand Junction Canal and the Turnpike (the A5).  The Depot housed armouries, storerooms, magazines, guns and equipment. [5] Nearby were barracks and stables for the officers, men and horses of troops of cavalry and horse artillery.  Security was tight, the Depot being surrounded by a high wall at the corners of which were bastions built as sentry lookouts, with patrol walks along the top.  Lodges were built at each end of the main enclosure, each equipped with a moveable portcullis.

The barracks block at Weedon, as depicted in Osborne's London & Birmingham Railway Guide (1840)

In 1804, Barnes built a ⅝-mile branch to service the new Depot.  The military branch canal entered the Depot under a portcullis, set in a building known as the East Lodge, which formed part of the surrounding wall.  The canal continued into the magazine, passing through a further smaller building and portcullis.  At the far end was yet another portcullis leading to a barge turning area outside the perimeter wall, but barges were also able to turn in a canal basin within the magazine enclosure.

Above, the East Lodge and portcullis; below, Barnes’s service canal.

Weedon Depot closed in 1965 and much of this interesting historic relic has since been demolished; what remains is used by light industry.  Now isolated from the main line, Barnes’s branch canal still runs through the middle of the site like a neglected ornamental feature.

See also Appendix I.


Gayton Junction lies a further 7½ miles to the south.  Here, the Northampton Arm heads east to the town where, at Northampton Junction, it connects to the River Nene and onwards to East Anglia’s waterways and The Wash.

Construction of the Northampton Arm was delayed for many years and in that respect shares a similar history to its contemporary, the Aylesbury Arm.  Authorised in the 1793 Act and surveyed by Barnes three years later, the Company was reluctant to build this short link from Gayton to the River Nene due mainly to the supply of water it would require from the main line. [6]  However, after much protest by the town’s citizens, the Company was eventually persuaded, but to save expense Barnes was instructed to build a double-track horse tramway using sleepers and rails released from the now redundant Blisworth tramway and the completed Wolverton embankment:

“GRAND JUNCTION CANAL.―We are happy to announce the completion of nearly all the great works which are going on upon this important and extensive line of navigation. On Monday morning last, the stupendous embankment between Wolverton and Cosgrove, near Stony-Stratford, was opened for the use of the trade. By this great work nine locks by its side, four down and five up, are avoided, and one level sheet of water is now formed, from Stoke Bruerne to some miles south of Fenny Stratford (this overlooks the lock at Cosgrove), as well as on the Buckingham branch, extending to within a mile of that town. The embankment seems to possess great stability.

The branch and iron railway, that is to connect the Grand Junction Canal with the New River at the town of Northampton, as also with the Leicestershire and Northampton Union Canal, are proceeding rapidly, and their completion may be expected about the end of next month.”

The Morning Post, 30 August 1805

. . . . but as mentioned earlier, the Leicestershire and Northampton Union Canal was never to reach Northampton.

Opened in 1805, the Northampton tramway was operated by the firm of Pickfords, which relocated from Blisworth wharves from where it had operated the hill tramway.  But that to Northampton proved unpopular, and in 1810, after much protest by the town’s citizens, the Company agreed to construct a narrow canal, although work on it did not commence for a further three years.  Built by Benjamin Bevan to Barnes’s survey, the 4¾ miles Northampton Branch opened on May 1st, 1815 to the usual celebrations:

“On Monday May 1, was opened the Branch Canal between the River Nene, at Northampton, and the Grand Junction Canal.  The day being remarkably fine, a great multitude of persons assembled to watch the first arrival of the boats, several of which were laden with various kinds of merchandise, manufactured goods &c. &c. from Ireland, Liverpool, Manchester, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, &c. &c. and upwards of twenty with coals.  From the greater facilities thus afforded to trade, particularly in the article of coals, the inhabitants of Northampton and neighbourhood may reasonably anticipate considerable advantage.  After mooring the boats, amidst the firing of canon, different parties spent the remainder of the day with the utmost conviviality.”

The Leicester Journal, 12th May, 1815

The limit of navigation was later extended to West Bridge, with wharves being built to serve mills, timber and coal yards.  Although a steady trade was established, it never attained a sizeable volume due mainly to the narrow locks that restricted the size of craft able to use the branch.


Southern entrance to Blisworth Tunnel.  The concrete ring (bottom left) is one of the reinforcing liners inserted throughout the central third of the tunnel’s length during major repairs carried out in 1982-84.

The village of Blisworth lies just to the south of Gayton Junction.  The canal reached Blisworth from the north in September 1796, but it was not until the Blisworth Tunnel was opened in 1805 that a direct link with the south was established.  In the intervening period, Blisworth Wharf, operated by Pickfords among others, became the busiest inland port in England.

Pickfords was already an established London-based road carrier when, in 1778, the firm began to convey goods by barge as well as by wagon.  At this time the firm’s operations were being conducted by 50 wagons, 400 horses and 28 barges, and by 1800 they had added 8 canal depots.  In 1803 their canal services reached Birmingham, and the firm went on to establish warehouses and wharves at London (City Road and Paddington) and at Brentford.  They advertised two classes of services:

  •     ‘fly boats’ travelling day and night with two steerers and two drivers (for the horses) at 3 to 3½ mph, covering 40-miles a day in stages, with fresh horses at each stage;

  •     by barge at 25 miles per day, with two men resting at night.

An article on canals in Rees’s Cyclopedia of 1805 praises Pickfords fly boat services “which travel night and day, and arrive in London with as much punctuality from the midland and some of the most distant parts of the kingdom, as the waggons do.”

During construction of the Blisworth tunnel, the village became a transhipment terminal for the goods being carried road over Blisworth Hill to the Northampton to Old Stratford turnpike.  Land was taken by Messrs. Barnes (he of the Canal), Roper & Co. and rented to canal carriage companies, including Pickfords, on which to erect warehouses.  However, the Grand Junction Canal Company received intelligence that their Resident Engineer was lining his pockets to their detriment; worse still, “. . . . that Roper and Barnes having no inconsiderable weight in the Councils of the Directors, it is probable that the navigation may stop at Blisworth many years, possibly for ever”. [7] And so the Company’s Northern Committee, which included the Marquis of Buckingham, “. . . thought it their duty, in consequence of some complaints, to navigate the Canal from Braunston to Blisworth, and to enquire into the state of the Company’s concerns in that part of the line.”  Their inspection found all to be above board, and that “. . . the part Mr. Barnes has taken in this concern has been with the purest and best motives; and that the Company have derived a very considerable emolument from his exertions”. [8]

But road communication across Blisworth Hill proved unsatisfactory, and so the pioneer rail engineer Benjamin Outram was employed to construct a double-track, horse-drawn tramway.  The tramway was in operation by mid 1800 and remained in use until the tunnel was opened to much celebration and the customary dinner in 1805:

“THE GRAND JUNCTION CANAL – 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 incomplete till Monday last, owing to a range of high land between Stoke Bruerne and Blisworth, in Northamptonshire, not being penetrated by a tunnel or arch, as intended; but all goods coming past that place, have been obliged to be unloaded, and placed on waggons, and conveyed on a railway over the hill, to be embarked again in other boats.

On Monday morning, the weather proving very fine, an amazingly large concourse of people were 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 this internal communication by water, between the most distant places. One of the Paddington packet-boats, called the Marquis of Buckingham, was the first boat which went through the tunnel.  The principal company retired to the Bull Inn, at Stoney 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.”

Morning Chronicle, 30th March, 1805

There being no further use for the railway, it was dismantled and the materials reused in the construction of the Northampton tramway.

Horse tramway (or plateway).


The Blisworth tunnel ― 3,056 yards in length ― lies to the south of the village and is approached at both its ends through substantial cuttings.  There is sufficient width within the tunnel for narrow boats to pass, but not wide boats.  The tunnel has no tow path; the barge horses were led over Blisworth Hill while the boat crews ‘legged’ through.

Walking the barge horse over Blisworth Hill.  On the right is a ventilation shaft ―
a former ‘pit’, built to service the tunnel while it was being built.  A number of them
were afterwards extended into the chimney-like structures seen today.

In the age preceding mechanical propulsion, where a tunnel did not have a tow path one method of propelling a boat through was by the use of human legs placed against the tunnel roof or (in the case of the Braunston and Blisworth tunnels) the walls.  This practice, known as ‘legging’, required two people to perform.  Each lay at opposite ends of planks (‘wings’) placed across the bows of the boat.  Holding the plank with their hands, they then walked the boat along using their feet against the tunnel walls.  Professional leggers were available, who in the early days of the Canal sometimes terrorised the boatmen into employing them, which led to complaints about:

“. . . the nuisance arising from the notoriously bad characters of the persons who frequent the neighbourhood of the Tunnels upon the plea of assisting Boats through them.”

Grand Junction Canal Company Minute Book, 10th November, 1825

Eventually, in 1827, the leggers were registered and employed by the Company who issued them with brass armlets for identification. They were paid a standard rate of 1s 6d for a single trip, Blisworth men working south and Stoke Bruerne men north.  In 1859, the novelist Charles Dickens commissioned John Hollingshead to write a number of travel articles to appear in the periodicals that Dickens published.  Among them is an account of a journey that Hollingshead made along the Canal, which includes a description of legging a narrow boat through Blisworth Tunnel (Appendix II.).

Above: fitting the wings (or legging boards).  Below: legging.

When steam tugs appeared in 1871, the professional leggers were made redundant; this from the Company’s Minute Book:

26th April 1871: Mr Mercer reported that a tug was now at work at the Braunston Tunnel and that the same charges were being made as at the Blisworth Tunnel viz: Boats with cargoes of 25 tons or upwards each, 1/6d each way.  Boats with cargoes of under 25 tons, 1/3.  Empty boats 1/-.  And that the services of the leggers would no longer be required . . . Resolved that a weekly allowance of 5/- each be made to [former leggers] Mr Benjamin, 75 years of age and 44 years at the tunnel.  R Thomas, 65 years of age and 38 years at the tunnel and John Fox 64 years and 19 years at the tunnel.

But the new steam tugs were not universally welcome:

6th June 1871: Letter from Mr Cherry reporting that some of the boatmen refused to avail themselves of the Tugs in use at the Blisworth and Braunston Tunnels . . . . Resolved that all boats using Blisworth and Braunston Tunnels between the hours of 4 am and 8 pm be hauled through the same by the Company’s tug at the following scale of charges viz: Boats with cargoes of 25 tons or upwards, 1/6d each way.  Boats with cargoes of under 25 tons, 1/3.  Empty boats 1/-.  Any boatman refusing to have his boat so hauled be charged a sum not exceeding one penny per ton for the weight on board.

The introduction of steam propulsion was not without other problems.  Ten years earlier, two fatalities had occurred:

27th September 1861: The chairman reported that on the 6th inst an accident had occurred on board one of the Company’s steam boats in the Blisworth Tunnel, by which two men, Webb and Edward Broadbent had been suffocated and two men severely burnt and that every possible attention had been given to the men injured who were now in the Northampton Infirmary and that the sum of £45 had been given by the Company to the widows of the deceased persons.

The need for better ventilation led to the uncovering of some of the ‘pits’ that had been sunk during the tunnel’s construction; seven of the nineteen originally built are now used for this purpose, the others have either been capped or filled in.  A heavy build-up of soot on the tunnel brickwork was another problem associated with steam propulsion, which led to the introduction of a ‘brushing’ hopper.  Fitted with a curved brush that matched the tunnel’s profile, the craft was towed through the tunnel, its brush sweeping the soot from the brickwork into the hopper.

Horse-drawn traffic continued on the Canal until well into the 20th century, necessitating a continuing need for tugs:

“Although the old horse-drawn boats are rapidly being replaced by motor-driven craft, the Canal Company still maintains a regular service of tugs for the towage through the tunnel [Blisworth and Braunston] of craft which cannot proceed under their own power.  At Blisworth the Company has a warehouse of five storeys, for the storage of goods of all kinds.”

From a Grand Union Canal Company publicity article (1937)

The “regular service of tugs” was withdrawn in the following year.

The village of Stoke Bruerne lies a short distance from the southern end of Blisworth Tunnel.  When the canal reached Stoke from the south in September 1800, this village also became a busy transhipment terminal for canal goods conveyed over Blisworth Hill on Outram’s horse-tramway.  Today, Stoke is known for its Canal Museum.  Founded in 1963 by Charles Hadlow, an engineer, and Jack James a boatman turned lock keeper, it was the first museum devoted to our inland waterway heritage, although it has since been joined by others at London (Battlebridge Basin), Gloucester and Ellesmere Port.


From Stoke the canal descends through a flight of seven locks to reach its next level, the 5½-mile Cosgrove pound; only the lock at Cosgrove separates it from the adjoining Fenny pound.

The main line descends through Cosgrove Lock (No. 21) on the left.  To the right is the remnant of the branch to Stony-Stratford and Buckingham, now used as moorings.   Rails set into the towing path signify that Cosgrove once exported sand and gravel, the worked out pits (now flooded) being visible from Cosgrove embankment.

The main line passes through Cosgrove village, following the right bank of the Tove to near its confluence with the Great Ouse.  A public wharf was established about half a mile north of Cosgrove, where the road to Castlethorpe crossed the canal.  This is Castlethorpe Wharf (a.k.a Thrupp Wharf), and it hosts a public house, the Navigation Inn.  When the Inn was put up for sale in 1876, the wharf was described thus:

The excellent WHARF-YARD, with landing for tying-up eight boats; coal and coke yards, lime-kiln, capital warehouse (capable of storing 150 quarters of corn), salt-house, granaries, weighing-house, with weighing machine; stabling for eleven horses, lock-up coach-house, large barn, with slated roof; piggeries, excellent walled kitchen garden, and other appurtenances thereto belonging.  There is a COTTAGE, containing three rooms, Adjoining, which is now used as a warehouse. And also all the CLOSE of first rate Arable LAND, containing 9¾ Acres, or thereabouts, adjoining the before mentioned Property, and fronting the road aforesaid; together with A CLOSE of excellent Pasture LAND, containing 11½ Acres, or thereabouts, adjacent thereto, with good thatched hovel, and appurtenances created thereon, the whole being now in the occupation of the said John Ayres.”

Cosgrove lock (No. 21) lies at the junction with the former Stony Stratford and Buckingham Arm.  Authorised in the Grand Junction Canal Act of 1793 and originally planned as a short branch to Old Stratford and the busy highway of Watling Street (the A5), the Arm was soon extended a further 9¼-miles to Buckingham, [9] principally at the instigation of the Marquis of Buckingham who loaned the Company the construction cost:

“The branch of the Canal from Buckingham to the Grand Junction Canal was opened this day with great rejoicings.  A barge with the Marquis of Buckingham, Mr. Praed, and Mr. Selby (Gentlemen of the Committee) and Mr. Box, the Treasurer, accompanied by a large party of Ladies and Gentlemen, and a band of music, led the way to the procession of 12 barges, laden with coal, slate, and a variety of merchandise.  Upon their entrance to the basin at Buckingham they were saluted by the firing of several cannon.  A numerous party were handsomely entertained by the Marquis of Bath at the ‘Cobham Arms Inn’ on this occasion, and a liberal supply of beer was given to the populace.  This branch of the Canal, 9¼ miles in length, has been completed in about eight months, and will secure to an extensive distance of country most substantial benefit.”

The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1st May 1801

As elsewhere, water-borne transport was to have a considerable impact on the town and its locality.  Coal, stone, bricks, manufactured goods, imported produce from London Docks were all more readily available at much lower cost than ever before; and local produce could be moved faster and more easily, whether it was foodstuffs to the local market, or loads of hay and straw destined to nourish and sustain the motive power of the Metropolis.  Within a few years, trade on the branch had reached 20,000 tons per annum and was to remain at this level for almost fifty years.

The first section of the Arm to Stratford was, in common with the main line, built as a wide canal, but the extension to Buckingham was built narrow.  Its route led over easy ground, only two locks being required, so construction progressed quickly.  In its early days the Arm was successful, but from the 1850s railway competition led to its decline, which was further aggravated by leakage and by Buckingham Corporation using it as a dump for the town’s sewage, which caused silting.  By 1904, Bradshaw’s Guide was describing its upper section as being “barely navigable” and by the 1930s the Arm was derelict.  All that now remains is a section of about 100 yards, which extends westwards above Cosgrove lock and is used for moorings.  The remainder of the canal has been filled in, although there is an ambitious restoration scheme, the Patron of which is the present Speaker of the House of Commons.

A relic of the Canal’s horse drawn days, the Cosgrove horse tunnel
enabled barge horses to be led under the Canal to the stables.


Immediately to the south of Cosgrove lock, the Canal crosses the valley of the Great Ouse on a substantial mile-long embankment:

“All the works of that extensive and complicated undertaking, the Grand Junction Canal, are now completed.  The stupendous embankment that had been raised between the villages of Wolverton and Cosgrove, near the market town of Stony Stratford, has been lately opened for the use of trade and internal navigation. . . . The arches erected under this embankment, to create a passage for the river Ouse, which arches were believed and reported to be in a sinking state soon after the central arches were struck, are at present considered as sufficiently firm, and the embankment is thought to possess all imaginable strength and durability.”

The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, July-Dec, 1805

Reference to the “arches were believed and reported to be in a sinking state” refers to the three arches of a brick-built aqueduct, designed by Jessop, which carried the embankment over the Great Ouse.  When the timber shoring was removed the aqueduct began to show signs of failure . . . .

“After its erection Mr. Bevan, the engineer, of Leighton Buzzard, being called upon, gave it as his opinion, it would not stand twelve months; his prediction was verified, for in less than six months after its construction, the materials were so indifferent, that a continued leak of the aqueduct was observable.”

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

The embankment had experienced slippage in 1806, shortly after its opening.  This was repaired, to be followed in February 1808 by failure of the aqueduct:

“On Friday morning last the inhabitants of this town were thrown into the utmost consternation, by information which arrived from Wolverton, that the large embankment for carrying the new line of the Grand Junction Canal across our valley, about a mile below this town, had fallen in; and that the river Ouse was so dammed up thereby, that this town must shortly be intirely inundated to a great depth.  I hastened to the spot, where my fears were very much allayed, by finding that one of these arches, which had been propped up underneath with timber, soon after the centres were removed, was still standing; and that this one arch, owing to there being no flood in the river, was able to carry off the water of the river as fast as it came down.  On examining the other two arches, I found that about 22 yards in length of the middle part of each had fallen in, and blocked up the arches, laying the canal above in complete ruins, emptying it as far as the nearest stop-gate on each side, and exposing the remains of 500 quarters of coke and cinders which the contractors had lain in the arches.  The ends of each of the broken arches were found standing in a crippled state.  Most fortunately for the Public, as well as the Company, the old line of the canal and locks across the valley are still remaining, and in sufficient repair, immediately to convey the barges, and prevent interruption to trade: but the loss of £400 per month, which I am told has of late been the amount of extra tonnage received by the Company for goods passing over this embankment, will be lost to them during the period of re-building the arches and repairing the canal over them.”

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 27th February, 1808

A subsequent investigation attributed the aqueduct’s failure, not to deficiency in Jessop’s design, but to poor workmanship on the part of the contractor.  The legal dispute with the contractor that followed was settled in the Company’s favour, with damages being awarded for loss of trade and the cost of the replacement.  Today, the Great Ouse is bridged by Benjamin Bevan’s iron trunk aqueduct of 1811:

“The new aqueduct bridge of the Grand Junction Canal, over the Ouse River, below the town of Stoney Stratford at Wolverton, which has been for some time in preparation, of cast iron, in lieu of that of brick, which fell down in 1808, was on 22nd January, at one o’clock, opened for the passage of boats, the Empress, belonging to Mr. Pickford, and his Queen Charlotte, being the first of 30 which passed this first metal aqueduct that has been constructed anywhere in the South of England. ― The whole length of the iron-work is 101 feet; it is wide enough for two boats to pass each other, and has a towing path of iron attached to it; it is firm and tight in every part.  Mr. Benjamin Bevan, the Engineer who designed it, and about twenty persons only besides the boatmen were present, no announcement having been made of its completion.  The opening of this Aqueduct and the passage of trade over the embankment, will, it is expected, add full £500 per month to the revenues of the Company.”

The Tradesman Vol. VI., Jan - June, 1811

Benjamin Bevans cast iron trunk aqueduct of 1811.


The Canal now enters Wolverton, the first town of any size on its southward journey.  Wolverton was once home to the London and Birmingham Railway Company’s locomotive works before this was transferred to Crewe, after which Wolverton Works concentrated on the manufacture and repair of rolling stock.  At Wolverton, the Canal passes under the former  London and Birmingham Railway ― which Robert Stephenson conveyed across the Ouse Valley on a fine brick-built viaduct (1838) ― before crossing Grafton Street on the New Bradwell aqueduct (1991).  It then commences a circuitous journey around the eastern outskirts of Milton Keynes, during which it becomes a travelling companion to the River Ouzel [10] until their paths eventually diverge at Grove Lock, to the south of Linslade.

Stony Stratford lies to the south-west of the canal at Wolverton.  Here, at ‘Watling Works’, the engineering firm of Edward Hayes was once located.  Although originally in the agricultural engineering business, the firm was to make its mark in boat-building, not canal boats, but steam boats of various descriptions for coastal and harbour work ― and this despite being some distance from the Canal and many miles from the sea:

“In 1845 the late Mr. Edward Hayes started the works for general engineering, but gradually the business has become confined to the building of steam yachts, tugs and launches.  These are exported to all parts of the world for steamers and machinery of various descriptions have been built for the British Admiralty, Crown Agents for the Colonies, the Board of Works, Trinity House Pilots, the Shah of Persia, the Sultan of Morocco, besides various foreign governments and well-known shipping lines.  During the late South African War a little steamer destined to work in connexion with the landing of troops and stores actually steamed from the place she was launched, the Old Stratford Wharf, which is a branch of the Watling Works, along the Grand Junction Canal to the Thames and thence to Delagoa Bay, South Africa.

In Stony Stratford it is not an unusual sight to see one of these steamers being drawn on large eight-wheel trolleys by a powerful traction engine from the Watling Works, where they are built, to the wharf half a mile away, and often followed by its engine and boiler on separate trolleys . . . . The steamers originally built for the riverside work of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade came from the Watling Works, and the present Mr. Edward Hayes has taken out numerous patents for improving steamers, one of the most recent being for cheapening and facilitating the exportation of small steamers abroad, making it possible to erect steamers at the site of their work and where only unskilled native labour can be obtained.”

The Victoria History of Buckinghamshire (1908)

The steamer that sailed to South Africa was the 65ft Curlew.  Built in 1902 and launched into the Canal, she then set off for London, grounding on a shoal at Leighton Buzzard en route from which she was hauled by a team of horses.  Having reached the Port of London under her own steam and successfully completed her trials, she then sailed on to her overseas customer.  The larger of Hayes’s vessels built for export were prefabricated.

The firm ceased boat-building in 1923 due to the glut of small war-surplus vessels on the market, but at least one of their craft survives.  Following her retirement from the Thames Water Conservancy Board, the river tug Wey (originally named Pat) was repatriated and is now on display at Milton Key Museum.



Newport Pagnell Canal: charges authorised under its Act

At Great Linford the canal approaches the M1 (north of junction 14) and the site of the junction with the former short ― and short-lived ― Newport Pagnell Canal (1¼-miles).  As with the Aylesbury and Northampton arms, the Grand Junction Canal Company were unenthusiastic about building this branch, the view being that as Newport lay close to the main line there was nothing to justify a branch.  But the citizens of the town disagreed.  In 1813, after some years of fruitless argument, they decided to promote the branch themselves while harbouring the grander ambition of extending it eventually to Olney, Bedford and beyond.  Benjamin Bevan surveyed the line, an Act was obtained in 1814, work commenced in 1815, and the canal, built as a broad canal, opened early in 1817.

During its comparatively short life the Newport Pagnell Canal remained in the ownership of its promoters, and while their grander ambitions were unfulfilled, the Canal did pay a modest dividend throughout most of its life.  In 1864 the Canal was bought by the Newport Pagnell Railway Company who used part of it for their track bed. [11]

Proposed canal linking the Great Ouse at Bedford with the Grand Union Canal at Milton Keynes.
Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway Trust.


Fenny pound extends for 11½-miles from Cosgrove lock southwards to Fenny Stratford.  Located just to the east of Watling Street (the A5), Fenny Stratford lock provides the unusually small rise of 12 inches, for it was never intended to form a permanent feature of the canal.  Its purpose was, as a temporary measure, to control leakage through the uppermost part of the canal banks in Fenny pound by reducing the water level.  The problem was addressed in 1802, but although the Company considered removing the lock on more than one occasion, they were deterred by the cost and disruption to canal traffic, and the ‘temporary’ lock lives on.

The Canal was opened to Fenny Stratford in 1800, the event attracting public celebration and ending with the customary dinner for the Company hierarchy:

“The Grand Junction Canal was on Wednesday opened for barges from the Thames at Brentford, to Fenny Stratford, and early in the morning a number of boats started from Tring, at which place the canal has been completed these two years past; about one o’clock they passed through Leighton; 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 cannon belonging to the town, and other demonstrations of joy.  The Marquis and the proprietors retired to the Bell Inn to dinner.”

Jacksons Oxford Journal, 31st May, 1800

By the 1930s, regular local trade on the Canal appears to have mostly died out on the section of the Canal north of Berkhamsted, with Grand Union Canal Company publicity material of the period identifying very few of the wharves with tenants.  Of those that are listed, most are located along the section from Fenny Stratford to the Leighton area:

Grand Union Canal Company route map, c.1938.

“At this point thousands of tons of Leighton sand are loaded from the adjoining pits . . . and taken by canal boat both to Paddington and Brentford for distribution to all parts of London.  Mr L. B. Faulkner, one of the long distance canal carriers, has his depot and boat repairing yard at Leighton Buzzard. . . . At Fenny Stratford, quantities of farina [12] and sugar are landed from steamers in the River Thames.”

Grand Union Canal Company
publicity material, c. 1938

The farina and sugar referred to was probably destined for Valentin, Ord and Nagle, a tenant listed at Fenny Stratford wharf who manufactured brewing sugars from grain brought in by narrow boat.

Before the Canal reached Leighton, the deposits of sand in the locality had been used by building firms and in tile-making, but the Canal’s arrival opened up a much wider market.  Local hauliers transported the sand from quarries for loading into barges at canal-side wharves, from where it was shipped to London and to the Midlands.  But the constant passage of carts through the town caused such damage to the roads that the Council demanded that the sand firms set up an alternative form of transport.  This led, in 1919, to the building of the 2ft gauge Leighton Buzzard Light Railway.  Constructed from war surplus materials and equipment, the railway became the main means of moving sand from the quarries in the north of the town to its southern outskirts where the grading and washing sheds were situated and from where there was good access to the Canal and the mainline railway.  But transport by canal and rail declined in the years following the Second World War, for road haulage could deliver faster and more directly.  From the 1950s onward, Leighton Buzzard became home to many road haulage firms specialising in the transport of building aggregates, while the light railway has become a popular attraction for tourists and those with an interest in the industrial narrow gauge.

Brantom’s Dock (with towing path bridge) in operation ― and following its transformation into an office block.

Linslade hosted a number of wharves.  Sandhole Bridge had wharves that served the sand quarries of Heath & Reach.  Whichello’s Wharf, named after Stephen Henry Whichello and Son, coal merchants, was situated to the north of the busy Leighton Road bridge and on the west bank of the canal.  To the south of the bridge, on the opposite bank, was the dock of Grant and Lawson, later known as Brantoms Dock.  Both served as coal yards, timber yards, agricultural machinery suppliers, brick and tile manufacturers, etc., and they undoubtedly attracted industry and commerce to this new part of the town. [13]  Both wharves had rectangular basins perpendicular to the canal for loading and discharging, with various warehouses, offices and other buildings set around.  In 1974 the basin serving Brantom’s Wharf ― by then choked with weeds and mud ― was filled in to make a car park, but its attractive towing path bridge was preserved through the efforts of the Leighton Buzzard Preservation Society.

Traces of another of the canal-side wharfs, Garsides Wharf, also exists complete with its semi-inset 2ft-guage railway track.  This line was not part of the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway, but served Grovebury Quarry and connected with other tracks serving quarries and works in the area to the south of the Linslade to Dunstable railway branch, and east of the Canal.  It appears to have been horse-operated at first but later used locomotives.  The last boatload of sand was shipped from the wharf in 1965.


The three locks at Soulbury.  One of the ‘northern engines’ pumping stations is on the right.

At Fenny Stratford the Canal begins its gradual ascent to Tring summit, and over the next 16½ miles ― much of it in company with the River Ouzel ― it negotiates a further 14 locks [14] rising by 105ft.  Within this section there is an attractive flight of three locks at Soulbury together with an old steam pumping house, one of what became known as “The Northern Engines”.

Ensuring an adequate depth of water was always at the forefront of the canal builder’s mind, particularly at summits where recourse to steam pumping from reservoirs was often necessary.  Even then, prolonged drought could bring traffic to a near standstill, and there are records of the cost of pumping coupled with the decline of traffic due to low water making a substantial dent in the Company’s profits (referred to in Chapter XIV).  In 1838, to help alleviate this problem, the Company awarded a contract to Grissell and Peto to build nine engine houses and culverts between Fenny Stratford and Marsworth, the aim being to pump lockage water back up the canal from the valley of the Ouzel to the Tring reservoirs.  By 1841 the engines were in operation and capable of pumping water around seventeen locks.  The Soulbury pumping station ― to the right in the picture above ― is one example, that at Seabrook [15] another and particularly attractive in having been fortunate to retain its yellow brick chimney.

Seabrook pumping station


At Marsworth Junction, the Aylesbury Arm branches off to the west.  Construction of this narrow canal was authorised by the 1794 Act (together with its contemporary, the Northampton Arm), but the Company was reluctant to build it due in part to their concern about the quantity of water that it would draw from the main line.  Henry Provis was appointed Engineer, construction commenced in 1813 and the branch was opened in either 1814 or 1815 ― oddly, there seems to be no reliable record of exactly when.  In its 6¼-mile journey, the Arm follows a fairly straight path across the Vale of Aylesbury, descending 95ft through 16 locks (the first two at Marsworth being a ‘staircase’ [16]) to its terminus to the south of Aylesbury town centre.

Initially the Arm was very busy, being used to transport grain, timber, coal and building materials, but competition from the Cheddington to Aylesbury railway, which opened in 1839, followed later in the century by the arrival at Aylesbury of the Metropolitan Railway, led to its decline.  By the Second World War trade had become spasmodic and the last regular delivery of coal to Aylesbury by canal was in 1964.  In the 1960s British Waterways considered the Arm for closure, but its fortunes revived with the growth of leisure cruising.  Aylesbury Basin now hosts a marina and is currently at the heart of a major town-centre redevelopment programme.  The Arm is also very popular with fishermen.

A more detailed account of the AYLESBURY ARM.

Turning into the Aylesbury Arm at Marsworth Junction (looking south).  Marsworth Wharf is on the right.

Marsworth Junction and the entrance to the Aylesbury Arm.
The silo on the right marks the site of the former British Waterways plant for manufacturing concrete piles used for bank protection.
The wharf site has now been cleared and is awaiting redevelopment.



The History of Northampton and its Vicinity,
(Pub. James Birdsall, 1831)

WEEDON or Weedon Beck, formerly called Church Weedon, but now generally Weedon Royal, from the barracks and depot erected there; it is bounded by Nether Heyford on the east, Dodford on the north, Everdon on the west, and Stow with Farthingstone on the south.

The works of this depot commenced about the year 1805, and consist of barracks originally intended for two troops of horse artillery but now capable of containing 500 infantry; they are strong buildings of brick erected in the form of a square; near them is a handsome hospital. Upon an eminence contiguous to the barracks is a most elegants edifice, consisting of a centre with corresponding wings, built of white brick intended as a residence for the officers of the ordnance department; which is said to have cost £18,000 in erecting.

There are eight store-houses, four being built on each side of the arm ot the Grand Junction Canal, which runs by this place, and a proportionate number of work shops for the artificers. The upper rooms of these store-houses are capable of containing 240,000 stand of small arms, which are placed under the charge of a store keeper. The lower rooms are appropriated for field artillery, and may be generally computed as containing about twenty four brigades, of six guns each, with all necessary stores, ready for service at the shortest notice; these are under the superintendency of a field train commissary. At an extremity of the canal branch, in an enclosed square, completely detached from the other buildings, are four powder magazines, one of which contains nearly 70,000 rounds of ammunition for the field pieces; the remaining three are adapted for powder and small arms ammunition, containing, when filled, about 5,000 barrels each. Alternately is a magazine and traverse, of equal altitude filled with earth for the purpose of preventing extended damage in case of explosion.

Weedon has been considerably enlarged and improved within these few years, and now contains several neat dwelling houses some of them being residences for officers &c attached to the depot. The quantity of ground purchased by government for this establishment is about 170 acres.



The Royal Military Depot stands on a slight eminence, and consists of a centre and two detached wings, with lawn in front; these form the residence of the governor and officers, while for the common men there are barracks on the top of the hill, capable of containing 500.  At the bottom of the lawn there are eight store houses and four magazines, adequate to contain 240,000 stand of small arms, with a proportionate quantity of artillery and ammunition; there are also a number of workshops for the military mechanics and a hospital capable of accommodating 40 patients.  In consequence of the establishment of the railways, this one military force is rendered so efficient and such power is afforded of presenting itself when ordered by the civil authorities, in any portion of England, in the course of a few hours, that the inutility of a number of these expensive establishments will doubtless soon begin to attract public attention.  A troop of a few hundred men can be forwarded by railway from this central depot to any important part of the kingdom where their services might be required with a magical celerity and precision that would be quite adequate to prevent mischief.  A small force permanently stationed here for such emergencies would certainly be much more efficient than our present very numerous but straggling military establishments, to concentrate the forces from which, without marching to the scene of action, would often take a much longer time than is needed in having a troop from Weedon to any of the important districts.




A journey through Blisworth Tunnel

The boatmen were preparing for the passage of the Blisworth tunnel (nearly two miles in length), an underground journey of an hours duration.  The horses were unhooked, and while standing in a group upon the towing-path, one of the child drivers, a girl about six years of age, got in between them with a whip, driving them, like a young Amazon, right and left; utterly disregarding the frantic yells of a dozen boatmen, and nearly half a dozen family-boatmens wives.  At the mouth of the tunnel were a number of leggers, waiting to be employed; their charge being one shilling to leg the boat through.  We engaged one of these labourers for our boat to divide the duty with one of our boatmen; while the youth went overland with the horse.  A lantern was put at the head of the boat; the narrow boards, like tailors sleeve-boards, were hooked on like projecting oars near the head; the two legging men took their places upon these slender platforms, lying upon their backs; and, with their feet placed horizontally against the wall, they proceeded to shove us with measured tread through the long, dark tunnel.

The place felt delightfully cool, going in out of the full glare of a fierce noon-day sun; and this effect was increased by the dripping of water from the roof; and the noise caused by springs which broke in at various parts of the tunnel.  The cooking on board the boats went on as usual, and our space being confined, and our air limited, we were regaled with several flavours springing from meat, amongst which the smell of hashed mutton certainly predominated.  To beguile the tedium of the slow, dark journey— to amuse the leggers, whose work is fearfully hard, and acts upon the breath after the first quarter of a mile, and above all to avail themselves of the atmospheric effects of the tunnel, the boatmen at the tillers nearly all sing, and our vocalist was the captains straw-haired son.

If any observer will take the trouble to examine the character of the songs that obtain the greatest popularity amongst men and women engaged in heavy and laborious employments, he will find that the ruling favourite is the plaintive ballad.  Comic songs are hardly known.  The main secret of the wide popularity of the ballad lies in the fact, that it generally contains a story, and is written in a measure that fits easily into a slow, drawling, breathtaking tune which all the lower orders know; and which, as far as I can find, has never been written or printed upon paper; but has been handed down from father or mother to son and daughter, from generation to generation, from the remotest times.  The plots of these ballad stories are generally based upon the passion of love; love of the most hopeless and melancholy kind; and the suicide of the heroine, by drowning in a river, is a poetical occurrence as common as jealousy.

There may have been a dozen of these ballads chanted in the Blisworth tunnel at the same time; the wail of our straw-haired singer rising above the rest.  They came upon our ears, mixed with the splashing of water, in drowsy cadences, and at long intervals, like the moaning of a maniac chained to a wall.  The effect upon the mind was, in this dark passage, to create a wholesome belief in the existence of large masses of misery, and the utter nothingness of the things of the upper world.

We were apprised of the approach of another barge, by the strange figure of a boatman, who stood at the head with a light.  It was necessary to leave off legging, for the boats to pass each other, and the leggers waited until the last moment when a concussion seemed inevitable, and then sprang instantaneously, with singular dexterity, on to the sides of their boats, pulling their narrow platforms up immediately after them.  The action of the light in front of our boat produced a very fantastic shadow of our recumbent boatman-legger upon the side wall of the tunnel.  As his two legs stuck out horizontally from the edge of the legging-board, treading, one over the other, against the wall, they threw a shadow of two arms, which seemed to be held by a thin old man — another shadow of the same substance — bent nearly double at the stomach, who worked them over and over, as if turning two great mangle-handles with both hands at the same time.

[Chapter IX.]




An additional lock was built on the Apsley deviation, which, to save renumbering the entire series, is designated No. 69A.  Thames Lock (No. 101) is administered by the Port of London Authority.


The Grand Union Canal Company intended to buy the Oxford and Coventry canals, but this did not take place and running rights over the 5-mile section of the Oxford Canal from Braunston Junction to Napton Junction is all that was acquired.


Opened in 1814, it now forms part of the southern section of the Grand Union Leicester Line.


A trust has been created with the ambitious plan of restoring the Foxton Inclined Plane.


Also known as The Royal Military Depot.


Gunpowder was delivered to Weedon by canal, with up to 1,000 tons being in store at any time. Some defensive work, including the loopholing of the perimeter walls, was undertaken in 1831: this was for defence against internal insurrection, possibly stemming from Chartist agitation, rather than any foreign army!    The site is also said to have been equipped to provide a safe retreat for George III. and his cabinet should the threat of French invasion materialise, but the local historical society consider this to be a myth.


. . . . another feature that it shares with the Aylesbury Arm.  As eventually built, the Northampton Arm descends 109 feet through 17 locks.


This story possibly gained credence, not through Barnes’s reputation, but that of his business partner, John Roper.  In 1783, Roper became steward to a local aristocrat, the Duke of Grafton.  While in the Dukes employ, Roper became involved in setting out land for traders at Blisworth wharf, presumably in partnership with Barnes.  Until 1816, Ropers accounts were merely agreed by the Duke up to two or three years after the end of the year in question, with no external audit.  Thereafter, they were audited and certified within eight months of the year-end.  By the 1820s, the auditor was raising doubts about Roper, which in 1831 were to lead to his dismissal and to a protracted attempt to secure compensation for his defalcations.  Allegedly, Roper had falsified rental incomes from many cottages, ran businesses based on estate resources for mainly his own gain ― stone and timber at Blisworth, tiles and bricks at Alderton etc; used the Duke’s capital for his own trading and executed his duties in an autocratic manner, favouring only his friends.  Roper died in 1837.


GJCC circular dated 7th November, 1797.


Authorised, together with the Aylesbury and Wendover arms, by the GJC Act of September 1794.


Also known as the Lovat, the Ouzel is a tributary of the Great Ouse.


Opened in 1867, the railway was never a commercial success and fell victim to the Beeching closures a century later.  Like the canal company before it, the railway company also had ambitions to extend their line to Olney and beyond.


Fine meal made from cereal grain especially wheat; often used as a cooked cereal or in puddings.


The original town was not located at the present site, but further north in what today is called Old Linslade.  The present location superseded the original during the 1840s, after massive growth associated with the construction of the GJC and then of the London & Birmingham Railway.


Stoke Hammond; Soulbury (3); Leighton Buzzard; Grove; Church; Slapton; Horton; Ivinghoe (2); Seabrook (3).


At lock 35 to the north of Cheddington, and Grade II-listed.


The middle gate is common to top and bottom locks.  This is the only example of a staircase on the original Grand Junction Canal, although there are two splendid 5-lock staircase flights on the old Grand Union Canal (acquired in 1894) at Foxton.