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The Bankrupt Canal

My wife Ellison came across an interesting canal history book recently called "The Bankrupt Canal", of all places in the Oxfam bookshop. It turns out it's a short history of the Salisbury and Southampton canal which was never completed and went bankrupt in 1811.

I was immediately drawn to the story of this doomed canal, particularly as it was part of the canal mania boom of the late 18th century. Because of canal mania (21 new canals commissioned in 1793 alone) you could easily be fooled into thinking that any canal project started at this time would succeed, but not so for the Salisbury and Southampton. So it got me thinking about the Grand Junction Canal and why it succeeded but the Salisbury and Southampton didn't.


The Salisbury and Southampton Canal did have significant engineering problems whilst it was being built but these were really small compared to the Grand Junction. The main problem with the Salisbury and Southampton was the 880 yard tunnel under the city which was started but never completed There were issues with contractors, in-fighting with the surveyor and contractor, there was 'bad ground', 'bad bricks' and no money because the project was over budget. However if you compare this with what happened as the Grand Junction was being built they all seem pretty trivial.


Building canals in the late 18th century was very 'bleeding edge', most of what was being done had often never or rarely been attempted before. These projects were at the limit of what could be achieved with the knowledge and tools available in the 18th century. A great example of this is the Barton Aqueduct designed by James Brindley for the first Bridgewater Canal. The Barton Aqueduct was the first navigable aqueduct, described at the time as a 'canal in the sky' and ridiculed by Brindley's contemporary's. It was nonetheless completed against the odds and was the first of many engineering feats during the canal era which you can only look back at with wonder.


So then it's perhaps no real surprise The Grand Junction had a complete failure with the collapse of the first attempt at the 3,076 yd Blisworth Tunnel. Nonetheless the drive to complete the canal was so great that a temporary horse drawn railway was built over the hill the tunnel was to go through whilst a second attempt at the Blisworth Tunnel was contemplated. The tunnel was eventually completed but this didn't happen with the 880 yd tunnel under Southampton.


Of course construction problems with the Grand Junction went way beyond the Blisworth Tunnel. The first Aqueduct at Cosgrove over the River Ouse was an un-mitigated disaster, and collapsed in 1808 due to a failure of the contractor to build the bridge on an adequate foundation. But again the drive to complete the Grand Junction was huge, after the collapse of the aqueduct a temporary wooden bridge was built and opened to traffic just 4 months later after which the iron trunk aqueduct we know today was completed in 1811.


All the time this was going on reservoirs were breeding like rabbits at Tring Summit. Whilst the chalk aquifers in the Chiltern Hills, which supply the water for the Grand Junction, were enough, more and more reservoirs were needed to maximise the use of this water supply. At the same time a well was sunk next to the Wendover arm of the Grand Junction to pump water from the Marsworth reservoir to Tring Summit in 1810. There is no record of this work being linked to issues with the aqueduct failures at Cosgrive but the timeline suggests otherwise. My suspicion is that there must have been some difficult meetings between William Jessop (chief Engineer) and William Praed (Investment Banker and Chairman of the Grand Junction Canal Company). Perhaps the meeting where Jessop asked for more money to build yet another reservoir, a well and a steam pump might have started something like this:


"Ah, Mr Jessop, take a seat, I see you're asking for yet more money to build yet another reservoir to further maximise the amount of water you waste down the River Ouse"


Lack of money, in the end, was the thing that finally killed the Salisbury and Southampton canal. The project was badly over budget and a second act of parliament was needed to enable more money to be requested from investors. A third act of parliament was then needed, for the same reason, but never happened because investors were unwilling to plough more money into the project. In 1811, the same year that the iron trunk aqueduct on the Grand Junction was completed, any hope of the project continuing was exhausted and the Salisbury and Southampton canal was bankrupt.


Whilst the Salisbury and Southampton canal was over budget this paled into insignificance compared to the Grand Junction which ended up 4 X over budget and needed 10 acts of parliament (granted these were not all solely for additional money). Despite this investors retained faith in the Grand Junction, the canal was completed and in the end was a commercial success.


Compared to the Grand Junction, the Salisbury and Southampton seems to have been doomed from the start. Whilst the first investor meeting for the Grand Junction attracted so many people it had to be re-located to bigger premises, the same cannot be said for the Salisbury and Southampton. The initial investor meeting at the Star Inn in Southampton attracted just 89 subscribers. The project had no prominent backers and was led by the Mayor of Southampton and Thomas Ridding the town Clerk. In comparison the Act of Parliament for the Grand Junction had some big names behind it such as the Marquis of Buckingham and the Duke of Bridgewater and the company was led by William Praed, an MP and investment banker.


So what was the big attraction to the Grand Junction?


The Grand Junction was the water born equivalent to the M1, within 30 years of it's completion Pickfords alone had a fleet of over 115 fly boats on the Grand Junction Canal. The power house of the industrial revolution in the Midlands and North needed to Grand Junction for raw materials and to supply finished goods to London and beyond. In comparison the intention of the Salisbury and Southampton seems to have been to create rather than satisfy demand and also make Southampton a great sea port to rival London, Liverpool and Bristol. Investors just didn't see this whereas the business case for the Grand Junction was obvious and compelling.


As always history is told by the victors, indeed the history of the Grand Junction Canal, and it's success, often papers over the massive problems which were overcome in it's construction. But it's very clear that if it's backers had not believed in it's ultimate commercial success then it almost certainly would have gone the way of the Salisbury and Southampton and become just a footnote in history. Of course there's no problem in finding pictures of the main characters responsible for the Grand Junction, from left to right here they are, William Praed, William Jessop and the Marquis of Buckingham.

More Soon.

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