Hungerford in 1780 was a very prosperous town, in the midst of the coaching period 1750-1840. It lay on both the London to Bath road and the Oxford to Salisbury road. The town was full of inns, hotels, alehouses, stables, farriers and blacksmiths. Many of the timber frames High Street properties were re-fronted in brick as Georgian "make-overs".
An exploratory meeting:
On 10 March 1788 an exploratory meeting took place in Hungerford "to consider the Utility of an Extension of the Navigable River from Newbury to Hungerford and as far further as shall hereafter be thought eligible".
There was general approval of the idea, and a second meeting was called soon after, on 16 April 1788. This was chaired by Charles Dundas of Barton Court, Kintbury.
Again there was general approval but they wanted to explore the possibility of linking the Kennet Navigation the whole way to the Avon Navigation. "It appears to this Meeting that a Canal from Newbury to Hungerford only would not be likely to meet with general approbation and that nothing short of a Junction of the Kennet and Avon Rivers would answer, and be of material benefit to the County at large".
A committee was formed, and further meetings were held throughout 1788 (see adjacent advertisement for the meeting in July in Marlborough).
To be successful, the committee needed the approval of local landowners and other interested parties. They published a pamphlet to show the advantages of the proposed canal:
"The price of carriage of coals, and all other heavy articles, will be greatly reduced; the estates of gentlemen and farmers, will be improved at much easier expense by the introduction of free-stone, timber, brick, tile and other building materials; lime, peat-ashes and manure of all sorts. They will find new markets for the produce of their farms and estates: corn, malt, cheese and other productions, will meet with a ready and cheap conveyance to the great marts."
- Advertisement for meeting about the proposed canal, 29th July 1788.
- John Rennie, (1761-1821). Surveyor and Chief Engineer of the Kennet and Avon Canal. Painting 1810 by Sir Henry Raeburn.
- Hungerford in 1794, showing in red the route taken by the canal.
- The Kennet and Avon canal passing very close to Dun Mill, which pre-dated it by centuries.
- Canal and wharf area (now Canal Walk), August 2007.
- 132 High Street "The Bridge". Owned by John Pearce between 1792-1810. It was much embellished as compensation from the Canal Company.
- The eastern portico of the Bruce (Savernake) tunnel, built 1808, (April 2010).
- The plaque commemorating the naming of the Bruce Tunnel (April 2010).
- Ladies' Bridge, near Stowell Lodge, (April 2010).
- Caen Hill Flight of locks near Devizes.
- The Canal & River Trust Interpretation Board at Hungerford wharf, 31st July 2021.
Commissioning the engineers:
At the end of 1788 the Committee commissioned three engineers to survey possible routes: Messrs Barns, Simcock and Weston. All three proposed Newbury, Hungerford, Ramsbury, Marlborough, Calne, Chippenham, Lacock, Melksham, Bradford-on-Avon, to Bath (not the route eventually adopted).
Their surveys were sent to Robert Whitworth for comment. He queried the adequacy of the water supply at the summit (something that would be a recurring issue for the Kennet and Avon Canal).
The committee then appointed John Rennie to carry out a further careful survey. Rennie was a strange choice – aged 29 yrs, Scottish, with little previous knowledge of canal construction (although he was skilled engineer, and had previously worked with Boulton & Watt). [Rennie was born on 7 June 1761, the fourth son of a prosperous farmer on the Phantassie estate near the village of East Linton, 20 miles east of Edinburgh. He played truant from school to watch what went on at the local millwright's workshop - run by the celebrated mechanic, Andrew Meikle, the inventor of the threshing machine - and began to work there when he was 12 years old, while continuing his education. He studied at Edinburgh University and then worked for Boulton and Watt, a firm based near Birmingham which manufactured steam engines. In 1791, Rennie moved to London and set up his own engineering business. His first works were canals, notably the Lancaster Canal (1792 - 1803), the Kennet & Avon Canal (1794 - 1810), and the Royal Military Canal (1804-1909), and also improving the drainage of the Norfolk fens. Meanwhile Rennie also acquired experience as a bridge designer, using stone and cast iron to produce bridges with daringly wide arches. These included the Lune Aqueduct (1793 - 1797), Kelso Bridge (1800 - 1804), Waterloo Bridge (1811 - 1817), Southwark Bridge (1815 - 1819) and London Bridge (1824 - 1831), which was completed to Rennie's design by his son George after his death. Rennie also worked on the development of docks and harbours for commercial purposes, including Grimsby (1797 - 1800), Leith (1801 - 1817) and the London Docks (1801 - 1821). His largest projects were the civil engineering works required as the Royal Navy began to build the infrastructure for its century of world domination, including Sheerness Dockyard (1813 - 1821) and the great breakwater at Plymouth (1812 - 1821). Rennie was also commissioned to give advice on other novel maritime structures, notably steam-powered dredgers, diving bells and the famous Bell Rock lighthouse. Rennie died on 4 October 1821 and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.]
On 3 November 1790 a meeting was held in Marlborough, and it was decided to go ahead with the canal - at a projected cost of £213,940.
This was the period of canal mania following the Duke of Bridgewater's highly successful canal at Manchester. Other canals were proposed locally to link with the Western Canal:
- Bristol & Severn canal (to Gloucester)
- Bristol to Cirencester canal
- Bristol and Western canal (to Taunton)
Funding the project:
Speculators rushed to meetings to invest in virtually any canal, and there are dramatic accounts of the riotous crowds attending a Western Canal meeting at Devizes.
On 14th December 1792, Charles Dundas called a meeting at Hungerford, and 3,500 shares were set up. The project was over-subscribed.
Rennie was asked to make a further survey of the route. He reported in July 1793, and explained that he had changed his mind (still anxious about the water supply to the summit). He now advised a route through Great Bedwyn, Devizes, and Trowbridge. Marlborough would be served by a branch canal from Hungerford, and a further branch canal from Devizes would serve Chippenham and Calne. A tunnel 4,312 yards long would be needed at the summit, but nevertheless he projected a saving of £20,000, and 18 months to 2 years of construction. The new route approved at a meeting at the Castle Inn, Marlborough on 27 August 1793. The following month, on 6 September 1793, the name was changed to Kennet & Avon Canal.
Canal mania continued, and more canals were projected to link to the Kennet and Avon:
- Bristol & Salisbury
- Dorset & Somerset Canal
- Somerset Coal Canal
- Wilts & Berks Canal
1793 was when the French Revolution expanded into European War. As a result there was a financial crisis in England. The estimated cost rose from £213,940 to £377,364 (even excluding the Marlborough branch).
However, on 17 April 1794, the Kennet & Avon Canal Act received Royal Assent. The company was authorised to raise £420,000 (by 3,500 shares of £120 each).
On 20 May 1794 John Rennie was appointed engineer. He made a further change, now proposing he build a wide canal (for 60 ton barges) rather than the more usual narrow canal (which would handle 25 ton barges only). It would be 40 feet (12.2m) wide, with locks 14ft (4.2m) wide by 70ft (21.3m) long. Significantly, each fill of a lock would use on average 60,000 gallons of water.
He made some other changes:
- A saving of £47,000 by reducing the tunnel of 2½ miles to 500 yds, by raising the summit level up at the Crofton flight of locks, and supplying water to the summit pound by means of a pumping station,
- By-passing Trowbridge (saving the construction of one aqueduct, and shortening the canal by 2 miles).
Robert James says (Oct 2015) that John Rennie built Avenue House, The Croft as his temporary residence in Hungerford whilst he was building the Kennet and Avon Canal.
Construction work starts:
In October 1794 work started at Bradford-on-Avon and at Newbury. Lots of small firms had tendered for short sections. Often they were over-enthusiastic, tendering for more than one lot. Sometimes they failed to carry out adequate surveys, and found unsuspected problems with rock or natural springs. In many sections there was a lack of clay for brickworks. Huge numbers of bricks were required for the bridges and locks.
As an example of the way the work was arranged, see Advert in the Reading Mercury, 27 April 1795 for tenders for "cutting and embanking" the canal between Oakhill and Great Bedwyn, about four miles. This included building six locks, road and occupation bridges, on a loength totalling 14 miles.
A report in 1796 stated that the Newbury to Bedwyn section was expected to be completed in 12 months. However, the French Revolutionary Wars dragged on, with a resulting inflationary effect in England. At harvest time, workers often found they could earn more on farms, and at the eastern end, contracts were required to stipulate that "no contractor to employ labourers who lived within 20 miles of the canal during the six weeks of harvest time".
In July 1796, 822 (of the 3,500) shareholders were in arrears. Work had to slow. There were delays from unsuspected springs between Newbury and Crofton.
12th June 1797: The first section of the Kennet & Avon canal, the six miles from Newbury to Kintbury, opened:
"A barge of nearly 60 tons, having on board the band of the 15th Regiment of Dragoons, then stationed in Newbury, left that place at twelve o'clock and arriving at Kintbury at half-past two, where the Committee of the Canal, having dined with their Chairman, Mr Charles Dundas, embarked at six o'clock and arrived at Newbury about half-past nine, the passage of the party affording great interest to a large number of persons assembled at different points on the route."
The works proceeded to Hungerford. As it approached Hungerford Common, it was cut alongside Dun Mill, which had been present for centuries. It was very fortuitous for the then millowner, Mr Harrison (mill owner from 1753-1817), as he simply had to extend his mill by about 12 feet to enable him to have direct access to the canal at his own small wharf.
Passing through the heart of the town, a number of houses, seven in all, had to be purchased and demolished. On the east side of the High Street were the homes of William Marchant, John Sherman and Henry head. On the west of the street were the homes of General Williamson (for "Stoney Hall"), William Dubber, Mary Lewington, and Robert Welsham. The magnificent road bridge was built, and compensation was paid to a number of local land and property owners.
Follow this link to see John Rennie's 1794 plans for the proposed Kennet & Avon Canal through Hungerford, and the list of proprietors affected.
The opening of the canal to Hungerford:
It was on 9th October 1798 that the canal was officially open to Hungerford:
"Tuesday the ninth instant, a Barge, having on board a staircase of wrought Portland Stone for J Pearse, Esq, of Chilton Lodge, several casks of Russian tallow ... making in the whole about 40 tons weight, was navigated on the Kennet and Avon Canal from Newbury to Hungerford".
One of the many difficulties encountered by the Canal Company was the need to purchase so many small parcels of land along the route. One such near Hungerford was that of a portion of land in Honey Furlong (on what is now Freeman's Marsh) from John Bannister. Norman Hidden's notes included a transcription:
"Deed of Sale. Jn Bannister of Hungerford, Saddler, in consideration of £1 16 0d conveyed to the Kennet and Avon Canal Company "all that piece of arable land (subject to right of Common) situate in Honey Furlong ... bounded on the east by meadows called the Hams, on north and west by Mr Loder Smith's land, and on south by the Companies new fence which separates it from John Bannister's land". Dated 16 May 1799. See also: "Plan of land purchased by the Kennet & Avon Canal Company of John Bannister".
Struggling to complete the canal:
There were ongoing financial problems and delays, but on 2nd July 1799 the canal was open to Great Bedwyn, and in May 1801 the Bath to Devizes section was complete. However, it was reported in 1803 that there was still no progress on the Bedwyn to Devizes middle section.
The Crofton Pumping Station:
The route changes of 1796 left the canal with a short summit pound, and a significant water supply problem. Rennie's solution was to make use of the natural springs at Crofton (just south of Great Bedwyn) and lift water to the summit pound by means of steam operated beam engines. The resulting Crofton Pumping Station was operational in 1807. Follow this for much more on the Crofton Pumping Station.
There were a number of further huge engineering feats to overcome before the canal was complete. These include:
The Bruce Tunnel:
The higher summit pound resulted in the need for a shorter tunnel than the originally planned one of 4,312 yards. In the end, the Bruce Tunnel at Savernake was 502 yards long. Even this was a great endeavour, being cut manually in 1808 using picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, horse and cart, and gun powder. It has the second largest cross section of any British canal tunnel still in use (the Netherton tunnel on the Birmingham Canal Navigation is the largest). There was no towpath, vessels being hand-hauled by chain.
It is remarkable that in 1862 engineers were able to dig a further tunnel for the Berks and Hants extension railway crossing diagonally over Rennie's canal tunnel.
Ladies' Bridge, in Wiltshire:
Whilst some landowners welcomed the provision of the canal across their land, the Wroughtons of Stowell Lodge did not - and they pressed for the canal to made very broad, like a lake, with water lillies where it passed near their mansion. Furthermore, the farm bridge near them was made of stone and highly decorated - remarkable as the most ornate farm bridge on the canal!. The bridge is named Ladies' Bridge after the two ladies involved - Susannah Wroughton (mother and daughter).
A fine aqueduct carrying the canal across the river Avon.
The second, and perhaps the grandest of the Kennet and Avon aqueducts. It is built at the junction of the Somerset Coal Canal.
Caen Hill flight, Devizes:
The most remarkable feat of all was the construction of the Caen Hill flight of locks at Devizes. There are 29 locks in all, with 16 locks in the staircase, each with side pounds to help maintain water levels.
The Bath Pumping Schemes:
A fascinating paper on the many and various pumping schemes embarked on at various stages of the canal construction in attempts to improve the limited water supply has been written by Neil Hardwick, who has kindly sent the well-researched paper on the subject to the Virtual Museum (Jan 2020). It is available in full here.
The Opening of the Canal:
Eventually, the whole canal open to traffic on 28th December 1810. There was no great celebration – everything was all too expensive! The final cost (in 1810) was £979,314 7s 9d, against the original (1790) projected cost of £213,940.
For the next chapter in the story of the Kennet and Avon Canal see "The Prosperous Years"
- Kennet & Avon Canal Photo Gallery (for additional archive photographs)
- "Plan of land purchased by the Kennet & Avon Canal Company of John Bannister"
- "The Kennet & Avon Canal", by Kenneth R. Clew, David & Charles 1973.
- "Queen of Waters", by Kirsten Elliott, Akeman Press 2010