Severn Canal


From olden times the Thames bore goods from London to its highest navigable reaches above Lechlade and in 1789 a canal was completed to extend the navigation to the river Severn.

One hundred and fifty years ago we were sending heavy goods in great ships to America and India, but here at home we were dispatching sacks of coal and hardware strapped to the flanks of pack horses. Wheeled traffic stuck in the mud and broke up in the ruts where the track crossed a pocket of clay. The upkeep of these tracks was the responsibility of the Parish and only grudgingly would they pay rates to keep them in any better condition than necessary for their own village use. Under public pressure, Parliament at last moved in perhaps the only way it could in a free society by authorising the formation of turnpike companies to collect tolls for the maintenance of their own enclosed stretch of route. Between 1750 and 1790, sixteen hundred of these companies were formed and as the roads improved, so did the coaches. At the time of Queen Anne (1710) the massive coaches carrying only seven people were tugged along at a walking pace by a team of six horses. By 1750 the more lightly built stage coach, pulled by two or four horses was still without springs. A journey of 100 miles took about a day and cost eight to ten shillings, the weekly wage of an agricultural worker.

Industries were springing up; coal, iron, pottery, grain had to be moved to the growing towns and following the invention of the pound lock a wave of canal building started, again by private companies financed by the issue of shares. Who would not invest his money in shares of a company to move goods in barges holding 30 tons upwards when a pack horse was the alternative?

The Thames and Severn Canal Company was one of the later ones to be formed- It was incorporated in 1783 and work on the canal was completed in 1789 when it stretched from the existing Stroud Water Canal up the Golden Valley, under Cirencester Park and thus to Inglesham and the Thames at a cost of a quarter of a million pounds. The barges it carried were up to 70 ft. long and 7 ft. wide carrying 30 tons of goods.

The men who dug the canal were mostly Irish and Scots who lived in huts and tents and followed the digging in its slow process across the countryside. Gangs of eight, three diggers, two wagon fillers, two drivers and an emptier, worked in eight hour shifts and

were paid £5 per yard, averaging 20 yards per week per gang. Unfortunately they were not paid in cash but in tokens which could only be used at the company shop at Brimscombe Port, near Stroud, an arrangement which was not improved until the Truck Act of 1841. The skilled men of the gang were the diggers or cutters of the canal navigation, and were called navigators and hence "navvys". The earth they removed from the bed of the canal formed the sides and towpath and the water was retained by a 12" thick layer of clay dug from the nearest pit. The tunnel at Sapperton, over 2 miles long, was dug simultaneously from its ends and intermediate points, by sinking shafts. The workers were accommodated in hostels at each end which are now the Daneway and Tunnel House Inns.

Canals are built to carry boats on water and as water runs down hill, the route of the canal has to be carefully chosen so that each stretch is perfectly level until the next lock is reached. The highest point of the Thames and Severn Canal is 363 ft. above sea

level so on coming up the Thames from the sea many locks (67) are needed each of which raises the water level about 5 ft. When a barge is sailing to the next higher stretch of water it passes through the first pair of gates of the lock which are closed behind it. The lock is then filled with water from the higher level and when the barge has floated up, the top gates are opened and the barge is free to move on.

Each time the lock is used it must be filled with water and thus a continual supply is needed even at the highest summit level 363 ft. up Fortunately at this height there are a series of springs at Thames Head, near Kemble. The Springs were connected to a large well from which water was pumped into the canal by a steam engine. At other places along the canal the river Churn supplied water near Cirencester and Ampney Brook near Cricklade.

Strangely enough, early failure of the Thames and Severn Canal was caused by these same springs. They were so powerful in winter that they burst through the clay bed of the canal and when they receded in summer the canal water ran away through the holes

and even continuous pumping was insufficient to keep the canal navigable. The highest tonnage carried, 89,271 tons, was recorded during the year 1841 and receipts were £11,330 from about 10 barges passing each day. The revenue of the canal company arose from tolls charged at the rate of so many pence per ton per mile carried. Milestones were set up along the towpaths so that this point to point toll could be accurately calculated. The charges were lowest for bulk cargoes such as coal and limestone, higher for more valuable cargoes such as iron ore and higher still for finished goods like iron castings and grocery, etc. The Thames and Severn Canal was closed in 1893 after being bought out by the G.W.R. It was restored in 1895 at an expenditure of £19,000 by a new Trust but it was again unsuccessful and it was taken over by the Gloucestershire County Council which spent £3,000 on repairing the bed at the summit level. All this was to no avail however, as the railways were by then carrying the bulk of the traffic and the last barge went through in about 1911 and the eastern section was finally closed in 1927, and the western end in 1933.

The Thames and Severn Canal leaves the Thames at the Round House at Inglesham. Round houses were built to accommodate the lock- keepers and length men, and they have 3 rooms, one above the other, with a spiral staircase built into the thickened wall on one side which holds the fireplace and flues. Four of these unique houses still exist between Inglesham and Sapperton and two are in use as weekend cottages; there are several other more conventional lock cottages. Along the canal all the wooden lock gates are rotten and the stone and brick work is being pushed aside by bushes and trees. Water is found only in a few places where the level of the canal is lower than the surrounding country and about four miles near Kempsford have been filled in with little to show except a bridge in the middle of a field. In other places, the dry bed, overgrown with bushes each side, makes good cover for game birds and wild life.

For about 50 years before the railways spread across the country between 1825 and 1875, the canals were also used for carrying passengers between large towns, as it was discovered that lightweight barges could be pulled along at a gallop by two horses. At a speed of 10 to 12 miles per hour the barge is continually sliding down the front of the wave caused by its own movement. C. S. Forester in 'Homblower and the Atropos' describes how Homblower travels from Gloucester to London on the canal and then down the Thames, a distance of 130 miles in about 24 hours through over a hundred

locks. It was a much more comfortable trip than in a jolting coach which took 13 hours for the journey at the same price of 10/- .

Conditions on the Thames were different from the canal; there were weirs on the river which were still controlled by the millers and fishermen. From the earliest times mills were driven by water power obtained by damming up the river. The pools above and below the mill also provided the best fishing on the river and were netted to provide food. The miller charged a toll from the barge to pass through his weir as locks were not built on the Thames for many years after the canal was in operation. Sufficient `paddles' were pulled out of the weir to accommodate the width of the barge which was then hauled up over the resultant waterfall by a team of perhaps 12 horses and 6 men. When the barge was through and the paddles put back, much of the water had drained out of the upper stretch of the river and in summertime the barge might have to wait for several weeks before there was sufficient depth of water for it to float. As this also meant that the mill could not operate there was continual strife between the millers and the bargees. It was not until locks were built all the way up the Thames that free passage was obtained but by then the railways had made the canal derelict.


These sites cover the ox18 area of Oxfordshire England, including  the following villages, OX18, Alvescot, Bampton, Black Bourton, Burford, Broadwell, Carterton, Clanfield, Kelmscott, Kencot, Langford, Lechlade, RAF Broadwell, Shilton, Parish Pump, Oxfordshire Events,


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