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Is it a Union or a Junction?

My curiosity in the history of the Grand Union Canal comes from the simple sign post in the picture below. It's just south of the lock at Cosgrove, but there are lots of similar signs all along the Grand Union Canal.

The sign is just a mileage sign to Braunston, but why Braunston? Today Braunston is of course one of the most important place names in the canal network, but that's not the reason it's on the sign post. The clue is at the top of the sign, which has the initials GJC, which of course as many of you will know is the Grand Junction Canal. It's the Grand Junction Canal which was named in the Act of Parliament of 1793 which revolutionised the transport of goods between Birmingham and London and it was the Grand Junction canal that ended at Braunston where it linked to other canals going north to Birmingham. So that's why the sign has the initials GJC and why it says Braunston which was the end of the line for the Grand Junction Canal.

The canal we call the Grand Union Canal came into being relatively recently in 1929, it is just as the name suggests a 'Grand Union' between the Grand Junction and the Regent's canal companies. In fact the Grand Union was the end of a long tale of consolidation of canal companies struggling to compete against railways. In total over 9 canal companies were bought by the Regent's and Grand Junction before the formation of the Grand Union. But it's the start of the Grand Junction Canal that I find fascinating.

In 1793 there was an explosion in canal building that started a period that we now call Canal Mania. Canal Mania was really like an 18th century 'dot com' boom, just as bonkers and just as difficult to understand, with people coming from far and wide to invest in canal ventures, some of which would reward investors with success and wealth and others that would end in failure. The Grand Junction Canal, the main artery of what we know as the Grand Union today, was a child of that mania and was one of the successes. But maybe we should wind the clock back just a bit more to understand how crazy that period was.

The first official canal in England, at least as far as Acts of Parliament are concerned, was the Bridgwater Canal opened in 1761 and whilst the canal was a commercial success further canal building was a relatively slow burn. For the next 30 years there were only 25 new projects, less than 1 a year, perhaps mostly because investors had been scared off by unrelated disasters such as the government backed South Sea Company which had caused the ruin of many an investor. However by the early 1790's the need for an efficient transport system was so great it caused the dam to burst and in 1793 there were new Acts of Parliament authorising 21 new canals in a single year.

This must have been like an 18th century English gold rush, with investors trawling the country looking for new canal projects and one of those was the Grand Junction Canal. The Grand Junction was sponsored by the Marquis of Buckingham who commissioned an initial survey in the spring of 1792 and then convened an initial investor meeting a couple of months later at the Bull Inn in Stony Stratford on July 1st. The meeting, which according to the Northampton Mercury, was 'the most numerous ever known' and had to be moved to the parish church which was the only place large enough for the volume of people. That first meeting in Stony Stratford was such a success that by the time the bill was presented to Parliament the project had added several more eminent aristocrat sponsors including the Duke of Bridgewater, and William Praed as the chairman of the newly formed company. As an aside it's William Praed, who was a well known banker and MP of the time, who's name is still recorded today with a street outside Paddington named after him.

Investor enthusiasm in the Grand Junction Canal Company went nuts and by the autumn of 1792 shares were trading for 10 times the original value, as was succinctly put at the time, 'ten shares in the Grand Junction Canal, of which not a sod was dug, sold for 355 guineas' . No doubt investor sentiment was further encouraged by the words on the company seal, taken from Shakespeare, which I just love and I think is really an 18th century mission statement

"This chosen infant though in the cradle yet now promises upon this land a thousand thousand blessings which in time shall bring ripeness"

After that the momentum was pretty much unstoppable, the Grand Junction Canal Company was born, the act of parliament passed and the canal built. Of course the building of the canal, which was at the cutting edge of what was possible, required a monumental effort, a huge amount of innovation and almost endless tenacity. How the canal was built is too big a story for this blog, but built it was and by 1810, just 5 years after it was completed, it was carrying over 340,000 tons of goods in and out of London.

This blog is a story of how the Grand Junction Canal came about but I think the engineer responsible for building the canal, William Jessop, should get a mention at this point as well. In canal history William Jessop's name isn't often elevated to the same level as other greats of the time such as James Brindley and Thomas Telford. But in fact it was Jessop who was by far the dominant influence during the canal mania period when canal building was at it's zenith. Who knows why history has often bypassed Jessop, perhaps because he was apparently an unassuming practical man, he just got on with things. Perhaps also because he had no enthusiasm for the architectural embellishments shown by those who came after him such as Telford. You can certainly see Jessop's relatively 'zen' style in the bridges and buildings on the Grand Junction, but nonetheless his engineering achievements cannot be understated. But more of that another day in another blog I'm sure.

I wanted to finish this blog with a picture of the canal as it is today in Milton Keynes, where much of the canal remains as Jessop left it except that now it is integrated (for good or bad) in the city landscape. So here's a couple of pictures of bridge 91, which probably hasn't changed much in 200 years, other than repairs and the strengthening rods added in 1921. However in the background you can see the Milton Keynes grid road, H9 (yes, they're all based on a horizontal and vertical numbering scheme), which dwarfs the canal bridge in size and function. But standing on the tow path the canal transports you to a different world with only the traffic noise as a reminder of what lies beyond.

More soon.

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