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A New Lease of Life for the Basingstoke Canal

[Published 1975]

booklet front cover (18K)

clearing towpath (21K) Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society

The Earl of Onslow
Julian Critchley, M.P.
Michael Grylls, M.P.
David Mitchell, M.P.
Cranley Onslow, M.P.
Lady Rachel Redgrave
The Rev. Lord Sandford
Sir John Verney
Paul Vine
Robin Higgs 18 Barnsford Crescent, West End, Woking, Surrey.

Hon. Treasurer Peter Youngs The Coppice, 192 Upper Chobham Road, Camberley, Surrey.
Hon. Secretary Mrs. L. Hamilton 2 Frome Close, Farnborough, Hants.
Membership Secretary Alan Babister 31 Elmsleigh Road, Farnborough Hants.
Working Party Organiser Frank Jones 182 Rectory Road, Farnborough, Hants.

The Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society
A registered charity. Affiliated to the Civic Trust; Surrey Amenity Council and the Inland Waterways Association.
Front cover: A Basingstoke Canal mile plate discovered in Odiham Woods.
Above: Volunteers clearing the canal towpath near Odiham.

A chronological history of the Basingstoke Canal

canal Token (23K)
Above: The Basingstoke Canal token

1769: A 21-1/2 mile long canal is proposed from Basingstoke to the Thames at Monkey Island.

1778: An Act is passed for a canal 44 miles long from Basingstoke through Odiham, Frimley and Woking to the River Wey, with a branch to Turgis Green.

1783: Efforts are made to start work on the canal after a delay caused by the war of American Independence.

1788: Work started.

1792: 34 Miles and 24 locks are completed. Plans are being discussed for an extension of the canal to join the River Itchen.

1796: The canal is completed to Basingstoke. There is a variation from the original plan in that the loop around Greywell Hill has been replaced by a 1,200 yard tunnel through it, and the branch to Turgis Green has not been built. The length of the canal is 37 miles; the waterway falls 195 feet through 29 locks, each capable of passing a fifty ton barge 72ft. 6in. long and 13ft. lOin. wide.

1810: The Kennet and Avon Canal is opened, thereby completing a direct water route between London and Bristol; some of the traffic formerly using the Basingstoke-overland route is diverted on to it.

1825: The Basingstoke Canal is in a state of decay; only one trader remains. A Bill for the Hants-Berks Junction Canal between Old Basing and Newbury fails to pass through Parliament.

1839: The London and South Western Railway is completed from London to Basingstoke. Trade on the canal has revived mainly because of the requirements of the railway engineers. Frimley Aqueduct is built to pass the railway under the canal.

1869: The first Basingstoke Canal Company is wound up.

1874: The canal is sold for £12,000.

1878: The concern is liquidated, and remains so for twelve years.

1890: There is a breach at Crookham: a small culvert gives out, the banks on either side give way, water floods the country all around and the canal is left dry for miles.
The liquidated company is without funds to repair the damage. J. Orlando Law and others raise £50,000 to completely restore and deepen the canal, and use it for transporting bricks from the Nateley works. The canal prospers for several years.

c.1900: The railway is widened from two to four tracks, and Frimley Aqueduct is extended proportionately.

c.1905: Nateley brickfields run short of clay; the brick traffic ends, and regular commercial traffic ceases above Aldershot.

1905: The canal is auctioned. It is bought for £10,000 by a Dorset landowner acting on behalf of the notorious M.P., Horatio Bottomley.

1905-10: Bottomley floats the "London and South Western Canal Corporation" and sells thousands of shares, many duplicated and worthless. The company goes into liquidation. Bottomley is twice prosecuted for conspiracy to defraud, but neither time convicted.

1911: A private Act of Parliament is passed enabling Woking UDC to carry out repairs to bridges and other canal works, and charge the company with a proportion of the cost. The repairs are proceeded with, and the owners duly approached for their share of the costs. They refuse to pay.

1913: The Court of Appeal rules that the Council cannot claim anything from the company, that the company cannot levy tolls, and that the company is under no liability to maintain the navigation. It is also ruled that such rights and obligations still lie with the concern liquidated 35 years ago but never wound up; every member of that concern is now dead. One of the judges states his opinion that the public right of navigation is not destroyed, but this is not relevant to the case.

1914: By the Railway and Canal Act of 1888, any canal that has not been fully navigated for three consecutive years can be abandoned. Mr A.J. Harmsworth has already twice navigated the Basingstoke to prevent abandonment. His third attempt fails; his narrow boat "Basingstoke", loaded with five tons of sand is forced to stop at Basing.

1923: The canal passes into the ownership of Mr A.J. Harmsworth for £5,000. He sets up a successful road and water transport service.

c.1925: Frimley Aqueduct begins to leak at the joining of the old and new parts - rumour has it that the fires of steam locomotives passing underneath are being extinguished - it is relined by the railway company. Mr A.J. Harmsworth, who has had no formal training in engineering, constructs a wooden trunk, 190ft. long, to carry the Canal's water supply past the workings and keep the barges going at the eastern end.

boathouse, Wharf Br. Farnborough c.1912 (20K)
Above: The former Hill's Boathouse at Wharf Bridge, Farnborough, about 1912.

c.1934: Drainage culverts from a pond on Greywell Hill have become blocked, water pressure builds up, and a tree on an island in the pond falls through the roof of Greywell Tunnel.

1947: Mr A.J. Harmsworth dies, aged 79.

1949: The Canal is auctioned on March 1st in 37 lots ". . . with boat houses and cottages, as a going concern above Woking. . ." It is bought for the reserve price of £187 10s. per mile, a total of £6,000 by a purchasing committee. Subsequently the New Basingstoke Canal Company is formed. Its managing director is Mr. S.E. Cooke.

1964: Mrs Joan Marshall, the general manager, leaves the company, having held the post for 15 years.

1967: The New Basingstoke Canal Company publishes policy proposals which would means the ending for good of through navigation of the Canal.

1968: The Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society and The Inland Waterways Association jointly publish 'Basingstoke Canal: the Case for Restoration'.

1969: 15,000 Surrey and Hampshire ratepayers sign a petition to the county council supporting public ownership of the canal and full restoration.

1970: The Inland Waterways Association hold their annual national rally of boats on the River Wey Navigation at Guildford, in support of the campaign to restore the Basingstoke Canal.

1972: Surrey and Hampshire County Councils agree to apply for compulsory purchase orders.

1973: Hampshire County Council takes possession of the 15-mile western end of the canal from Aldershot to Greywell.

1974: Full restoration of the Hampshire section is given the official go-ahead.

1975: Secretary of State for the Environment confirms compulsory purchase orders by Hampshire and Surrey County Council.

Opposite: Semi-derelict locks on the canal near Pirbright, Surrey. Below: The Harmsworth's former barge yard and boathouse at Ash Vale, about 1921.

Harmsworth's former barge yard and boathouse at Ash Vale, c1921 (29K)

The campaign to save the Basingstoke Canal

Semi-derelict locks on the canal near Pirbright, Surrey (25K)

On November 1st, 1973 Hampshire County Council took possession of the 15-mile western end of the Basingstoke Canal. The take-over was announced at a public enquiry, held at Farnborough Town Hall, to hear objections raised against Surrey and Hampshire County Councils' joint bid to buy the canal by compulsory purchase.

The future of the eastern section in Surrey remains uncertain. But with plans to restore the Hampshire end officially approved, The Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society has achieved at least part of their campaign for public ownership and restoration of the 178-year old derelict navigation.

The Society is formed
Prior to 1966, when the Society was formed, interest in the canal's future was limited to official ponderings and confidential reports. At that time the lock-free pounds were still navigable and small boats could be hired at Ash Vale and Crookham.

But neglect was causing the canal to deteriorate rapidly. Almost the first step the Society took was to seek the owner's permission for volunteers to halt the decay, but without success. The offer was rejected.

The reason was revealed in July 1967 when the New Basingstoke Canal Co. Ltd. published their plan for the future of the waterway. In a memorandum to the county councils, the Company claimed that the canal was a barrier to development and suggested that urban sections should be culverted and filled in. In recognition of its amenity value, the plan included piecemeal restoration of the canal's rural areas for recreational use, at the expense of local authorities.

In a short reply, the Society set out an alternative plan for full restoration of the 32-mile waterway.

It was now clear that the Society would achieve their plan only under public ownership. To this end a conference of local and county councillors was held at Brookwood Memorial Hall, in October 1967. The Society successfully put their case for restoring the canal and made many valuable contacts.

This was the start of a vigorous campaign to recruit new members and make the Public aware of the canal and the Society's aims. During the Easter holiday, in 1968, a small armada of boats cruised up the canal to the first lock. The event was well covered by the local Press. Regular membership recruitment drives were organised with public meetings and stands at shows and fetes. By July, 1968, the Society had 600 members; the 1000th member was enrolled in October, 1969 and by February, 1973, the number had doubled. To-day the Society has over 15,000 members including those of affiliated organisations.

The case for restoration
In September, 1968, the campaign was given another big boost with the launch of the Society's publication 'Basingstoke Canal: the Case for Restoration'. It explained how the canal could be fully restored with the use of voluntary labour. A solution which was not only considered to be the least expensive, but also the most attractive. By re-opening the waterway, it would serve as a visually pleasant and functional amenity with facilities for a wide range of leisure activities, such as boat cruising, angling, canoeing, towpath walking and the conservation of its varied natural history. What is more, the income derived from some of these pursuits, particularly boating, would make a major contribution towards annual maintenance costs.

The publications attracted widespread publicity and support for the Society's campaign; almost the only dissenting view was expressed by the Canal Company. But support through the Society's membership was not enough. A petition, calling for the two county councils to take action, was organised and resulted in 10,000 signatures being presented to the Councils' representatives at Ash Lock on June 14th, 1969. A further 5,000 names were subsequently added to the list.

Like most groups of canal enthusiasts, the Society started with practical aims. But because of the owner's refusal to allow voluntary working parties, another way had to be found of showing that the Society was not just a pressure group. An ambitous project to build a pair of lock gates was started and successfully completed in July 1969. At a ceremony at Ash Vale barge-yard, Paul Vine, author of 'London's Lost Route to Basingstoke', secured the final plank with a gold-plated nail. In 1973 work started on a second pair of much larger lower gates which were completed in July of the same year. Both pairs of gates cost the Society £418 in materials against a commercial value of £3,000.

Purchase negotiations
Despite the Society's apparent progress, news of purchase negotiations between the canal owner and the councils was less encouraging. As early as March, 1967, purchase discussions had been reported. Again in 1968, a joint meeting between the relevant county council committees was reported to have taken place but no statement was issued. Then, in January 1969, Surrey County Council said they were considering purchase, and that the authorities in Hampshire had commissioned an engineer's survey on the condition of their section of the canal. A situation report in August did not reveal any further progress: Surrey were definitely interested - subject to price - and agreement by Hampshire to buy their end. But Hampshire's survey had not proved satisfactory and a further report was expected to be ready in March, 1970.

At last, in June, 1970, Hampshire announced their plan to enter into purchase negotiations following a satisfactory report from Col. Bowen, a retired Thames Conservancy engineer. In spite of years of neglect, the Hampshire section of the canal was found to be in reasonable condition. The following statement was issued by Hampshire: 'That the Countryside Committee be authorised, in co-operation with Surrey County Council, to open negotiations with the canal owners to ascertain the terms under which they would be willing to convey the canal to the two county councils'.

steam operated dredger at Colt Hill Bridge, Odiham (17K) The Society's 70-ton steam operated dredger at Colt Hill Bridge, Odiham.

Joint purchase negotiations were opened in July, 1970. But it soon became clear that this was little more than a formality. The Canal Company's annual report in 1969 had valued the canal at £100,000 and so it came as no surprise to learn in September, 1970, that both parties were seeking independant valuations.

Twelve months elapsed before any further news was released. Talks between the authorities and the owner had reached a 'delicate situation' and a report would be made by the end of 1971. It was not until February, 1972, that an official announce­ment revealed that negotiations hadbroken down. Surrey County Council stated their intention to apply for compulsory purchase orders under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949. Hampshire followed suit in December and by July, 1973, both the authorities had published official notice of their applications.

In February 1975, the Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment finally confirmed the compulsory purchase orders for the canal by Hampshire and Surrey County Councils. To the Hampshire authorities, this was little more than a formality. But in Surrey, although the announcement came as an

volunteers clearing Ash lock (28K) volunteers building lock gates (15K)
Top: Volunteers clearing Ash Lock with the aid of an excavator. Bottom: Volunteers building lock gates at Ash Vale in 1973.
important step forward, public ownership may still be some way off.

The canal owners are seeking a Certificate of Appropriate Alternative Development. Their application was rejected by the regional planning authority, and so the Company has appealed to the Secretary of State. Unless Surrey County Council can reach a voluntary settlement before the hearing, the outcome may not be known until! 976. To what end? Public ownership is inevitable, and restoration - although not a foregone conclusion - has become an increasingly attractive and even a pressing need.

Official report recommends restoration of whole canal

Volunteers digging silt (33K)
Volunteers digging silt out of Barley Mow bridge-hole, Winchfield

In May 1973 an official Working Party, set up by Surrey and Hampshire County Councils, published a report on their investigation into restoration and management of the Basingstoke Canal.

The report made two principal recommendations: the canal should be fully restored from Greywell Tunnel to the River Wey Navigation, and a charitable trust should be established to restore, develop and manage the whole canal.

The Working Party examined three different levels of restoration: partial repair, involving the replacement of locks by weirs; full restoration of the Hampshire section but only minimum renovation of the Surrey end, and thirdly, complete restoration of the whole canal to a fully navigable condition.

The report recommended full restoration on the grounds that, despite a higher initial cost, the cost of annual maintenance would be lower than either of the two alternative schemes. More importantly, it would provide far greater scope for developing the potential facilities for recreation and attract more public interest and support. As the report aptly put it: 'This scheme would reinstate the canal from the Greywell Tunnel to the River Wey and would bring back to life a heritage which goes back nearly 200 years. Then it served a commercial purpose for a few; but now the restored canal would fill a new role by providing recreation for an enormous number of people. The movement of boats and the use of locks would add colour and interest to a scene which will be enjoyed by millions'.

The total cost of full restoration was estimated at £346,000. But the report estimated that the value of voluntary labour would reduce the total expenditure by £98,000.

Volunteers start work
Upon taking possession of the 15-mile western end of the canal, Hampshire County Council set up a joint planning committee, including representatives from the Society and the Army, to co-ordinate restoration work. The Council also appointed a canal manager and a staff of six full-time wardens.

The Society has established a close working relationship with the Council. In the first year under public ownership, volunteers from the Society; the Inland Waterways Association; the Waterway Recovery Group; the Army and local youth and amenity organisations, contributed work to an estimated value of at least £10,000. The entire Hampshire towpath, which was densely overgrown in places, was cleared within the first six months. A new footbridge was installed over Fleet Weir; Ash Lock was cleared and the old lock gates removed, and bridge-holes are being cleared in readiness for full scale dredging.

The Society has also made another major contribution with the purchase of a 70-ton steam operated dredger. The vessel was completely stripped, re-tubed and expertly reconditioned entirely by volunteers. The dredger was finally moved overland at a cost of £1,000, sponsored by Watney Mann, to Colt Hill Bridge, Odiham and launched in July, 1974.

For their part, Hampshire County Council has repaired a number of culverts; rebuilt the Whitewater Aqueduct and undertaken the repair of certain bridges, scheduled for demolition, which the Society recommendec should be retained as features of the canal.

Apart from extensive dredging, particular at Broad Oak, the breach in Ash Embankment must be repaired and new lock gates installed at Ash Lock.

In Surrey, the biggest task will be to repair the 28 locks. The Society has already built two pairs of lock gates and ordered timber, at a cost of £1,000, for a further four sets of gates.

How long will it take to restore the canal to a fully navigable state? Assuming that Surrey County Council take possession and agree to restore their section, the work could be completed by 1980. But much depends on how urgently the community wants the canal for use as an amenity.

 (26K) Volunteers fitting stop planks.

The Basingstoke Canal

The canal at Ash Vale, 1969.
The original length of the canal was 37 miles from New Haw, near Weybridge, where it joins the River Wey Navigation, to Basingstoke.

The canal rises 195ft. through 29 locks. Its main source of water comes from springs in the bed of the canal at Greywell, near Odiham, in Hampshire.

It was built to serve Hampshire's agricultural trade: for transporting coal and fertilisers to Basingstoke, and timber and produce to London.

The waterway lacks the grand engineering features and industrial buildings associated with the canals of the Midlands, but it is not without character. From the junction with the Wey, a progression of 14 locks takes the canal along a tree lined route through the residential outskirts of Woking and Brookwood. A further 14 locks, over a distance of two miles, takes it onto the pine clad heathland close to Pirbright Camp and the Bisley ranges. At Frimley top lock, the canal goes into a mile long cutting, appropriately named Deepcut, concealed by mature beech and chestnut tree. At the end of the cutting, the waterway turns sharply to across the main London to Southampton railway by an aqueduct. Shortly afterwards the canal enters Mytchett Lake; passes the former barge building yard at Ash Vale and opens out again into Great Bottom Flash. Within a mile, a substantial embankment, breached during the 1968 floods, marks the Surrey and Hampshire county boundary. Across the embankment is Ash Lock, followed by a long 15-mile summit pound to Greywell.

Recent re-building and landscaping have made the canal's surroundings through Aldershot garrison more attractive; it then passes the end of the runway at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough before reaching Fleet. Leaving the town, the heathlands give way to agricultural land, country estates and dense woodlands all the way to Odiham, noted for some fine Georgian buildings. The canal skirts round north of the town to the village of North Warnborough where the Norman remains of Odiham Castle, used by King John as a hunting lodge, stand close to the towpath, adjacent to the White water trout stream. An aqueduct takes the canal over the Whitewater and into a short cutting before entering the 1,200-yard Greywell Tunnel: a distance of 32 miles from the Wey junction. A fall in the roof of the tunnel's western end has made it impassable since 1933. The final five miles of the waterway to Basingstoke were subsequently abandoned and partially filled in. Today, the channel is still intact as far as Up Nately to the site of Penny Bridge. Beyond is Little Tunnel Bridge.

The Society wants a long distance footpath established along the route of the canal west of Greywell. Furthermore, the remains of the navigation should be retained since, although restoration presents greater problems than the rest on the canal, the prospect of re-opening Greywell Tunnel and constructing a terminating basin in the vicinity of Little Tunnel Bridge may, one day, be an attractive proposition.


London's Lost Route to Basingstoke by Paul Vine; published by David & Charles, 1968.

The Canals of South and South East England by Charles Hadfield; published by Phoenix House, 1969.

Booklets published by the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society:

Waterside Inns of the Basingstoke Canal
by Jon Talbot.

Towpath Walks by the Basingstoke Canal
by David Gerry.

Boats from the Basingstoke's Past
by Tony Harmsworth.

The National History of the Basingstoke Canal
by Jutta Manser.

The History of the Basingstoke Canal
by Glenys Crocker.

*Basingstoke Canal: the Case for Restoration
published by the S&HCS and the IWA, 1968.

Basingstoke Canal.
Report by Joint Working Party on Restoration and Management, 1973.

* Out of Print.





Photographs and other material supplied by: Clive Durley, Robert Harris, Dieter Jebens, David Robinson, Dick Snell and Michael Ware.

Printed by Presshouse Publications Ltd.

Published by the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society 1975


Last updated April 2006