This article was written by Wendy Tibbitts for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.
In the mid 18th Century the growth of the Industrial Revolution brought with it an increasing need for efficient transportation of raw materials and finished goods around the country. In the previous century river navigation had gradually improved, but rivers did not connect all the places where they were needed and so short canals were cut between unnavigable bodies of water to improve the movement of goods and supplies. By the 18th Century Industrialists, such as the Duke of Bridgewater who owned coal mines in the North of England and wanted a faster way to carry coal to the industrial centres, and Wedgwood who wanted a safe way to convey his fragile goods from Staffordshire to the cities, began to invest in the cutting of major canals to improve the connections between existing waterways. Bridgewater’s canal that connected Manchester with the Northwest was opened in 1761 and within a few years the Oxford Canal and the Trent and Mersey canal were built. When people saw that money could be made out of building and running a canal the age of ‘Canal Mania’ began and a numbers of investors formed companies to plan and build new canals. Each proposal required the consent of Parliament before it could be built.
By mid-eighteenth century a waterway network existed in the North and Midlands. On reaching the Oxford canal the barges joined the Thames to travel south, but the Thames, with its flash locks and shallow areas was not a desirable water transport route and so the race was on to connect the canal network to London. In January 1792 a scheme was proposed to connect the Oxford Canal (which had been formally opened in 1790 after 20 years of building) with London. The experienced surveyor and canal builder Samuel Weston was employed to survey the route, subscribers were sought and the London and Western Canal Company formed in March 1792 with a budget of £250,000.
The route proposed for the Hampton Gay canal was published as “Mr Westons Plan of the New Canal from Thrup where it crosses the Cherwell to the Paper Mill at Hampton Gay , to the left of the Hampton Poyle, across the Gossard Road to Islip where it will cross the River Ray be means of an aqueduct, below Islip Bridge; hence skirting the high grounds on the South Side of Otmoor near Noke and Beckley to the lowest part of the Hills on the East side of Otmoor under Woodperry, hence between Waterperry and Stanton Woods, near Wanninghall, Ichford and Shabbington skirting the Hills on the Westside nearly parallel to the River Thame, leaves the Town of Thame nearly a Mile, Long Crendon, Chersley and Nether Winchenden on the left between this and Chesterfields it crosses the Thame, hence to Cold Harbour leaving Sir Wm Lees to the right passing by Stoke Mandeville to its source at Chalkshire from Cold Harbour a collateral Branch may be made to Aylesbury about 3 quarters of a Mile from Cold Harbour to the Mill Pool at Wendover. A short distance above this Mill rise the several springs intended to supply this Canal with water on its summit if this supply is insufficient recourse must be had to the Springs in the Neighbourhood of Princes Risbro, from the Pool above Longwick Paper Mill where the several streams that rise at Saunderton, Calverton and Monks Risbro unite; these being below the Mill dam at Wendover and the distance about 5 miles must be raised by a steam engine, another spring rises at Great Kemble about thee Miles from Wendover at Chalkshire rises another Spring about one Mile from Wendover, these two Springs may be collected in a large reservoir which they would fill to any extent in Winter, there are two Modes of passing this summit either by a tunnel of about 2 mile or a steam engine, and passing it over by Locks from the summit to the Misbourne stream where it crosses the London Road between Gt and Little Missenden hence to the surface of the Brook below Mr Drakes Park near the North End of Amersham, at this place it will go parallel and near to the Turnpike Road which goes thro Mr Drake’s Park, hence to the Mill Fail at the South End of Amersham, the Canal to Chalfont St Peters will keep the lower ground, from this Place leave the London Road to the right and follow the stream passing by Denham to its Junction with the Colne. Crosses the turnpike Road at the North End of Uxbridge to Cowley Mill, hence there will be no lockage. Leaves Drayton on the right Dawley Park on the left and crosses the London Road at Hayes turnpike passes under Northalt; Greenford Green, Horsenden Hill and Alperton, crosses the Brent below Kingsbury leaves Holsdon Green on the left proceeds to Kilburn crosses the Edgware Road between that Place and Paddington to a field belonging to the D of Portland in Mary le Bonne Parish, forming part of Willans farm opposite to the North End of Portland place from Uxbridge to this Place it does not interfere with any House or Garden. Total distance about 70 miles.”
A newspaper article in The News, 8 December 1792 read “We have authority to announce to the public that the Hampton Gay intended canal, hitherto for called, from the circumstance of it commencing from a village of that name, is hereafter to be called The London and Western Canal, and that it is to pass by the towns of Thame, Aylesbury, Wendover, Great and Little Missenden, Amersham and Uxbridge, to the Thames at Isleworth in Middlesex. The line of Canal is the first national importance of any that has been projected for many years. It will open a direct and most extensive communication, by means of the Oxford Canal and the River Isis, to which it will attach both from the Northern and Western parts of the Kingdom to the metropolis; and in point of local advantages, it will furnish to the inhabitants of a country destitute of fuel, and manure for their lands, every comfortable affiance they can hope for, from an inland navigation. So beneficial a scheme of canal, has the patronage and support of all the principal Noblemen and gentry of the country, where it passes, and its prospects are so flattering, and of such manifest public ability, that cannot fail of receiving the sanction of parliamentary authority in the approaching sessions.”
The optimism of the advertisement was not based on reality, as a letter dated 5 December 1792, from surveyor Michael Russell of Brackley, Northamptonshire, to Sir William Lee of Hartwell recommends opposing the planned canal saying “Mr Drake, Mr Way and several other Gentlemen who have Estates from Wendover to Uxbridge intend to do the same”. Sir William raised an objection to the scheme and on January 23 1793 he received a letter from William Elias Taunton urging him not to object and saying “It will pass along a tract of country, where generally speaking fuel is extremely dear for want of a water communication, and it will be the means of introducing manure at a very cheap rate of carriage. Of course it will greatly alleviate the distresses of the poor, and in the end promote the cultivation and improvement of the landed property”. Seemingly this was trying to appeal to Sir William as a farmer (cheap manure), public benefactor (distresses of the poor), but also as a land owner when he added, “and the Landholder as a further inducement will be entitled to as many shares in the subscription, as he has furlongs cut through, to the extent of ten shares”.
William Elias Taunton was a solicitor and the Town Clerk of Oxford City Council and had shares in the Oxford Canal Company as well as the London and Western Canal Company. He was promoting the application to Parliament of the Hampton Gay canal proposal because an alternative proposal had been sent to the House of Commons from the rival Grand Junction Canal Company.
The second proposed route began at Braunston in Northamptonshire and went through Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire to Tring and then on to North London and down to the Thames. It would bypass Oxford and the Oxford canal company would miss out on the lucrative tolls from barges, so the Oxford Canal company were anxiously supporting the London & Western route. Although 20 miles longer than the Hampton Gay route the Grand Junction had a heavy-weight supporter in the form of the Duke of Buckingham. For a while the two companies discussed combining parts of their routes, but disagreed on the financial arrangements so eventually both proposals were put to Parliament, and a battle of words began. The London & Western published a 26 page statement of facts in their favour. The Northampton Mercury published “13 good reasons against carrying the whole of the Northern Trade of Great Britain through Hampton-Gay to Wendover, Uxbridge, Isleworth and London”. The principal criticism was that the Hampton Gay canal would have an insufficient water supply and a satirical song was published which mockingly called it “The canal with no water”.
In January 1793 the London and Western canal proposal was formerly submitted to Parliament and received its first reading, but the second reading on 8 March 1793 was deferred for six months after last minute petitions were received from the Town councils of Marlow and from Henley. These Thameside towns appear to have woken up to the fact that the Hampton Gay canal would take trade away from the Oxford Canal that fed into the Thames. The Commissioners of the Thames Navigation Committee had already resolved in their meeting of 29th December 1792 to object to both the Grand Junction and the Hampton Gay proposals, but on 30April 1893 Parliament passed the Act to allow the building of the Grand Junction Canal. This spelled the end of the proposal to build the Hampton Gay canal and the company was wound up in June 1793. The Oxford Canal however did manage to negotiate a good deal with the Grand Junction Canal Company that in return for allowing them to branch from the Oxford canal at Braunston they would received a bar-toll from each trader equal to the cost that would be paid if they had travelled into Oxford. The Grand Junction canal was built between 1793 and 1805. Its financial fortunes fluctuated over time and in 1929 it was bought by the Regents Canal Company and was renamed the Grand Union Canal.
The Amersham Museum acknowledges the help of the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies for the Sir William Lee correspondence, and documents containing the satirical song and the canal distances.
Robert Bennett of Bovingdon Barn, Winchmore Hill has explained the reason for the long delay in completing the waterway network to London: “When Brindley started to develop the idea of a canal joining the transport of coal in Coventry with the Thames river, the first move was to ask for parliamentary approval in 1769. To his surprise the principal objector was the Admiralty. The Admiralty explained that the fleet of colliers sailing north and south between the Tyne and London to fuel the needs of the capital, acted as a reserve for crews to be drafted to men of war when needed. If the coal was brought south in barges on the proposed canal it would undercut and kill the east coast trade. The Oxford canal company negotiated a compromise solution and agreed that no coal barges would travel south of Oxford, thus protecting the east coast trade”