Canal Development

Development of Grand Junction Canal

TNA = The National Archives at Kew

GJC = Grand Junction Canal
RAIL 830 39 = reference for GJC minute books, held at TNA
ODNB = Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The next step in the national transport revolution was conducted under the shadow of the French Revolutionary War in 1793 when coastal shipping became vulnerable and movement of goods was brought inland. Earlier successful canal-building ventures had captured the attention of investors and speculators; canal mania was underway and local aristocracy and gentry were in the forefront, influencing decisions about transport, either to exploit mineral wealth or to ensure that traffic was diverted outside their estates (unless they could see advantages with allowing passage across their land). The Grand Junction Canal was particularly versatile in handling full size narrow boats and barges; it was the longest wide-gauge canal in Britain and traders benefited from lower transport costs for non-time-dependent and bulky items.

Loading a barge with sheep dip, from BLH&MS collection Ref:bk678

Loading a barge with sheep dip, from BLH&MS collection Ref:bk678

Whereas there was a usable road before the turnpike, the River Bulbourne was not commercially viable for bulk carriage of freight prior to the canal. It was referred to as a winterbourne river in the upper reaches because it often dried out during the summer. An analysis of peat deposits has revealed that the undeveloped area adjacent to the river to the north-west of Berkhamsted was waterlogged and boggy from early times, probably due to the construction of the millpond at Upper Mill which was one of two mills recorded in Domesday (J.R. Hunn, Archaeological evaluation: land at Castle Mill Berkhamsted Hertfordshire, 2003). It was this tendency to flood that caused severe problems for the town that were alleviated only with the arrival of the canal.

The Bridgewater family was influential in the affairs of the turnpike trust, but the Duke of Bridgewater was better known as the “father of inland navigation”. The Bridgewater Canal connected his coal mines at Worsley with the river Mersey and opened up new markets for his coal. He was commended by Arthur Young as “one of those truly great men, with the soul to execute what they have the genius to plan” (K.R. Fairclough, ‘Egerton, Francis, third duke of Bridgewater (1736–1803) ’, ODNB, Oxford, 2009). His ambitious and risky scheme brought him to the brink of ruin but with the help of his engineer James Brindley, he succeeded in 1776 and this was the inspiration for subsequent canal builders.

As with turnpikes, the first step in the initiation of the Grand Junction Canal was for promoters to advertise in newspapers. In July 1792, “the Friends to this Undertaking” were invited to prepare their application to Parliament (St James Chronicle, 8 Jul 1792). By October, at a meeting in Northampton, the chairman William Praed reported on the chief engineer William Jessop’s proposed route from the Oxford canal in Braunston via several towns in Northampton, Buckingham, Bedford, Hertfordshire, back into Buckingham and on to Middlesex, along with several collateral cuts (navigable channels) including Watford (St James Chronicle, 27 Oct 1792). In June 1793 the first general meeting of proprietors was held in pursuance of the Act, which was passed in April. A committee was appointed along with sub-committees for lower and upper districts, the treasurer was allowed cash “in discharge of demands” and names were put forward for the role of clerk. It was resolved that landowners along the route would be admitted as proprietors and allotted shares according to guidelines in the Act (RAIL 830 39, 1 Jun 1793). In preparation for the second general meeting, a section of the Act was published to apprise proprietors of the procedure for logging names and numbers of shares in the company book and for issuing share tickets accordingly (St James Chronicle, issue 5066 (24 Aug 1793). At this meeting, arrangements were made for a delegation to attend the next meeting of the Oxford canal company, which was proposing a rival scheme (RAIL 830 39, 5 Sep 1793).

Were self-interested local gentry still to the fore? According to McCahill, referring to the Black Country: “noble landlords served on committees and invested in ventures that would move their coal, iron, or limestone to hungry markets as cheaply as possible”; they supported canal bills in Parliament and influenced timings and routes to suit their own needs (M.W. McCahill, ‘Peers, Patronage and the Industrial Revolution, 1760-1800’, Journal of British Studies,vol.16, no.1, Autumn 1976, p.88). Few aristocrats in Hertfordshire had minerals to transport, but investment opportunities did not pass them by. A meeting was held in Watford in 1792 to discuss the line of the canal and thanks were extended to the Earls of Essex and Clarendon “for their liberal and disinterested assistance to the Undertaking, by permitting it to pass through their respective properties.” (Star, 23 Oct 1792). With the incentive available to landowners of one share for each eighth of a mile of land that was cut through (to a maximum of ten shares), allowing the canal to cross their land was hardly disinterested and as both earls were members of the committee, they had a say in running the company. Furthermore, in 1794 Praed was authorized to offer Essex £12,000 as compensation and for the purchase of land through Cassiobury Park; this was rejected as inadequate and the amount was raised to £15,000. The final settlement with Clarendon was £5,000, and no land was purchased (A.H. Faulkner, The Grand Junction Canal, Newton Abbot, 1972, pp.31-32). He insisted that the canal bridge in Grove Park should be built in keeping with the elegance of his estate and no boatmen were allowed to set foot on his land.

Notwithstanding the compensation payments made to local landowners by securing this new route, the company avoided the expense of a 900-yard tunnel through high ground at Langleybury with associated locks, and an embankment aqueduct at Kings Langley (Acts of Parliament for GJC, 35 Geo III cap 8, 5 Mar 1795). John Rooper was High Sheriff of Hertfordshire and resident of Berkhamsted castle. He served on a sub-committee which influenced decisions for the Lower District, the northern half of the canal (RAIL 830 39, 1 Jun 1793, p.16). He was awarded nine shares but applied to the general committee for ten on the basis of his surveyor’s measurement of the length of cut expected through his land (RAIL 830 39, 5 Sep 1793, p.34). Thus local landowners were in a good position to profit from the proximity of the canal and they freely influenced decisions that were likely to affect their interests by procuring seats on the company’s committees.

At the height of canal mania, it was easy to raise capital. At the Northampton meeting (referred to above), it was reported that subscriptions of £361,900 had been raised, not including those to be collected from landowners. This fulfilled the requirements for a substantial proportion of shares to be subscribed prior to the Act, which empowered the company to raise £500,000 in shares of £100 each, with provision for a further £100,000 if necessary (J. Phillips, A General History of Inland Navigation, 4th edition, London, 1803, p.307). Reminders of payments of interest on subscriptions were often placed in newspapers.

Toll Collection

Building on the example of the turnpikes, revenue was collected via tolls. Gauging was the process used for measuring tonnage from the amount of water displaced when a boat was loaded with cargo. Information was stored in tables which have survived from 1804 for the Grand Junction canal. The toll was calculated per ton per mile according to the type of goods being carried, ranging from lime and limestone at a farthing through livestock or other types of mineral at a halfpenny, coal and coke at three-halfpence and other goods at a penny. Special rates applied when joining or leaving the Thames or the Oxford Canal. Military movements, timber, gravel and manure were exempt from rates and tolls, provided no locks were passed. After construction costs, ongoing expenses included compensation of up to £10,000 per year for Oxford Canal’s loss of trade as their proposal for the rival scheme to by-pass the Thames, known as the Hampton Gay canal, had failed. This generous agreement effectively halted opposition that might have delayed development, and ensured cooperation in linking to the Oxford Canal at Braunston; surveyors for the Grand Junction were able to appropriate their proposed route through Uxbridge rather than via Watford and Harrow (E.C.R. Hadfield, ‘The Thames Navigation and the Canals, 1770-1830’, Economic History Review, vol.14, no.2, 1944, p.176). Landowners with less than a furlong (220 yards) cut for the canal were offered a gratuity of £20 per 100 yards upon valuation. In contrast to donations of land to develop the turnpike, the Grand Junction Company had to buy it. In 1794, Mr Harcourt sold just over seven acres at Pendley for £600, worth £34,000 today (RAIL 830 39, 28 Mar 1794).

New Technology

New technologies evolved with the canal. The highest point was at Tring summit, 382 feet above sea level, requiring a cutting 1.5 miles long and 20-25 feet deep (Branch Johnson, Hertfordshire, p.203). Engineer James Barnes wrote in his progress report in 1797 that although the “deep cutting at Tring stands exceedingly well”, there was a section at its base where the soil was soft and water-logged and necessitated driving “headways round the backs of the slips” to drain the area. In most of Hertfordshire, he had been able to use the clay dug out of the channel for “puddling” and it was only in this section that the earth was too porous for lining purposes (RAIL 830 39, 15 Nov 1797, p.35). Similarly, it became apparent in a drought in the early 1800s that something must be done to prevent leakage from the Wendover Arm (a navigable feeder) and also to replenish water supplies around the highest points in the canal and over the next few years, reservoirs were built at Wilstone, Marsworth, Startopsend and Tringford (see British Waterways map)

Pumping-stations were built on the Wendover Arm, but pumping was later centralized at Tringford, using a state-of-the-art Boulton & Watt beam steam engine at a cost of £3,120 (A.H. Faulkner, The Grand Junction Canal, Newton Abbot, 1972, p.135). In 1805, an experiment was conducted in Berkhamsted. Two side pounds or reservoirs were built beside the canal connected by sluices to the lock, resulting in saving half the water needed to fill the lock, with the loss of “three minutes and a half only” for the passing barges (Lancaster Gazette, 27 Apr 1805). It seems the operation of these locks was complicated and despite this favourable test they added to the journey time, so side pounds later fell out of favour. In 1819, close to the Cow Roast beside the canal, there were two “water-gauge houses” inhabited by a Grand Junction Company employee and a representative of the Duke of Northumberland. They recorded the height of water at all hours of the day, and the times of the different boats passing the locks (J. Hassell, A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal in 1819, pp.19-20).

Disadvantages of the Canal

The canal brought disadvantages as well as benefits. People were well used to modifications to the road system but building the canal was a major upheaval. Local historian Percy Birtchnell wrote: “an army of ‘navigators’ (the canal labourers who added the word ‘navvy’ to our language) descended upon the district, living in special camps and offending staid townspeople by their drunken orgies.” (P. Birtchnell, A Short History of Berkhamsted, 1972, pp.84-85). Birtchnell did not supply his source for this information and it is difficult to find evidence of significant outrage in the newspapers of this period, but he may have read of the behaviour of navvies on the railway.* In 1816 a case was brought by John Dickinson against the Grand Junction Canal for the diversion of water from the Gade and Bulbourne rivers, which turned the wheels of his extensive paper mills at Apsley (downstream from Berkhamsted). Despite engineers’ assertions that there was no loss of water to the mills, damages of £3,000 were awarded to Dickinson after protracted litigation (Ipswich Journal, 3 Aug 1816). Apart from the Paddington packet boat, the canal was not a serious contender with road transport for passenger services, nor did the advantages of preserving livestock in prime condition for the London market detract significantly from droving.

Despite technical difficulties, some opposition and financial concerns, the Grand Junction Canal enabled bulky goods to be transported at reduced freight costs and the company achieved respectable profits for its shareholders in the end.

What if Berkhamsted had not been on the main route for turnpike and canal construction? According to Sweet, places that previously enjoyed good business could be stranded “high and dry in the interstices of the new communications network” (R. Sweet, The English Town 1680-1840: Government, Society & Culture, Harlow, 1999, p.100). Local towns were awake to the possibility of missing out on the benefits of the transport revolution. Just one mile of canal would have brought Hemel in to the waterways network, but despite the town’s lobbying, the company refused to act. Similarly, a proposed nine-mile stretch including 20 locks to connect with Chesham was not economically viable (A. Faulkner, The Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire, Hatfield, 1993, pp.9-10).

Meanwhile the collateral cut to Watford included in the original planned route was never built, perhaps because of the expense of crossing the lands of local aristocracy. However, these places were not left high and dry as their road connections were sufficient to ensure prosperity.

* Navvies on the railway arrived “bringing with them their necessary tools; they applied them vigorously for a short time; then… the remainder of the day was given up to the worship of Bacchus. Work carried on by relays ; consequently, there were many unemployed during the day, and these… were frequently drinking and indulging in the wildest extravagances. Dog-fighting was a favourite pastime, and pugilistic encounters of the most severe and brutal character were of almost daily occurrence … These men formed a strange medley, brought together from all parts of the kingdom. There was a large contingent of London Irish labourers, and these frequently came in collision with the navvies, and the night was often made hideous with their quarrels. Orderly and discreet persons gave them a wide berth… but… there were several instances when in open day ladies were molested in the public street. Some of the men were as brutal and ferocious as tigers, while there were others who were noble, manly fellows, and who, but for their drinking propensities, would have made their mark in the world in any pursuit of life.” ( H. Nash, Reminiscences, 1890, pp.66-71).

Profitable venture with aesthetic advantages

Benefits of the Grand Junction Canal were advertised at the time as opening a communication from London to “the Northern and Western parts of the Kingdom… which from its course through a number of considerable trading towns, must in a short time be very advantageous to the holders of Shares.” (Morning Post, 9 Nov 1793). Unlike the turnpike, profit was at the heart of this business. Vested interests were rife; investors were keen to maximize their earnings and favoured high tolls, whilst merchants were equally keen to keep their freight costs low. In 1802, company status was reported as fluctuating; shares stood at £150 but had ranged from £65 to £210, with complaints of lack of water and anticipating the extension to the Thames (Phillips, General History, p.310).

The company applied to Parliament for permission to raise a further £400,000 for the Blisworth tunnel and an aqueduct over the river Ouse. The final capital invested in the project was £1.8 million, which means that it was originally underestimated by 260 per cent. Inflation and the rise in wage rates following the Napoleonic Wars was partly to blame, along with overcoming technical difficulties (constructing tunnels and retaining water in the system) and building new branches. The return to investors was relatively modest at the outset due to high construction costs, but dividends were maintained at a higher level in later years (except for a sharp drop in 1816, a year of heavy expenditure) because surplus cash was paid out rather than retained in the business (S.J. Hudson, Attitudes to Investment Risk Amongst West Midland Canal and Railway Company Investors, 1760-1850, Warwick, 2001, pp.95-6). Tonnage revenue began to pour in from 1795; just a trickle when the first 12 miles were navigable between Brentford and Uxbridge but reaching nearly £200,000 per year by 1825.

Tonnage revenue

Faulkner, Grand Junction, pp.224-5
[figures from Appendix 2: Tables of Dividends, Revenue and Tonnages]

In terms of advantages over other forms of transport, the canal lowered freight costs for non-time-dependent and bulky items. The haulage capacity of one horse was in excess of 80 tons on a canal barge on calm waters as compared to about one ton in a four-wheeled waggon on a good road or 10 tons on rails or tram tracks. Horses worked from dawn to dusk drawing narrow boats with an average 25-31 tons of cargo for 20-26 miles per day; fly boats ran faster services in relays overnight, transporting perishable goods (D.T. Smith, The horse on the cut, Cambridge, 1982, p.46). With water levels being controlled by reservoirs and locks, canals were operable when natural waterways were hampered by drought or flood. The section of Grand Junction Canal from Brentford to Berkhamsted was opened in September 1798 and to Tring early the following year.

Despite concerns about containing the burgeoning scope within financial limits, the canal was seen by investors as a profitable venture, with advantages over other forms of income. William Cobbett noted in 1802 that “the parliamentary wise-acres… after eighteen years of intense application, have discovered… that the navigation on the stormy seas is less lucrative and more hazardous than that on the grand junction canal…” (Cobbetts Annual Register, 18 Sep 1802, p.241). A month after the initiation of the canal, a subscription was raised and filled within hours for the Leicester and Harborough navigation to join the canal at Braunston; such was the enthusiasm to profit from the canal network (St James Chronicle, 7 Aug 1792). On a page of advertisements in 1795 (which includes a new stamp duty for wearing hair powder) the canal was described as “that great Work of Public Utility, and individual Advantage… which is in great forwardness” (Whitehall Evening Post, 23 May 1795). In 1796, “immense additional trade” was anticipated with the “vast superiority… of wide or River Boats, over narrow boats… to bring all the trade of the Staffordshire Potteries, &c. to London… by which the necessity of transhipping, and all the unavoidable losses attending it, to a vast annual amount, will be avoided.” (Morning Chronicle, 3 Nov 1786).

The proximity of the canal was seen as a benefit both aesthetically and economically when advertising properties. In 1778, Pilkington Manor was described with rich meadow land “through which runs a transparent trout stream” and by 1810 when the Manor was again on the market, there was the same rich meadow land “through which the Grand Junction Canal flows” (Morning Post, 29 Oct 1778 and Morning Chronicle, 20 Apr 1810). In 1800 the sale of timber at Whelpleyhill farm near Berkhamsted was advertised “with a hard Road to the Grand Junction Canal” and in 1802 in Bovingdon “coals abundantly supplied by the Grand Junction Canal” (Oracle, 5 Mar 1800 and Morning Post, 01 Oct 1802). In 1808, evidently from an elevated position with walled gardens “the principal front commanding a pleasing view of the country, the Grand Junction Canal and Berkhampstead Castle”; this substantial property sounds like Berkhamsted Place (Morning Post, 19 Apr 1808). Phillips described the canals of England by referring to amendments to Acts of Parliament; the Grand Junction Canal was “this magnificent and wonderful undertaking… it unites so great a length of interior country so near to the metropolis.” (Phillips, General History, p.304). It seems the canal was welcomed both locally and nationally.

The heyday of the canals was soon over with the arrival of the railway in 1838. Ironically, most of the raw materials used to build the railway were transported by canal providing a boost to business, but it soon became apparent that the railways posed a serious threat.

From MSc dissertation The social and economic impact of transport systems in Berkhamsted, 1760-1825
Development of Grand Junction Canal in Berkhamsted, 1760-1825
 printed in the
Berkhamsted Local History & Museum Society’s Chronicle volume XI, Mar-2014