History Corner: Who built the Canal and why?

The initial proposed route for the Basingstoke Canal, dated 1777. Notice the loop around Greywell Hill to the west, which was later superseded by the Greywell Tunnel

Walking or boating down the Canal today it is hard to envisage a more bucolic, pastoral environment. With its overhanging green canopy of trees, lush vegetation along its banks and its meandering route through rural parklands, woods and fields the Basingstoke canal seems to be the epitome of rural isolation and charm. Far from the madding crowd, and as distant from the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution as anywhere in Great Britain how did a canal, once a byword for industrial decline and decay, end up wending its way through some of the south’s loveliest countryside? 

The first thoughts about a canal to connect north Hampshire to London were aired in the seventeenth century. The River Wey had been ‘canalised’ 1651, much to the advantage of the environs of Guildford, and the reliability, speed and economy of transporting goods from the agricultural area to London resulted in a boost to the local economy. The extension of the Wey navigation to Godalming in 1763 boosted traffic, as did the American war of independence in 1775 as the government shipped munitions and supplies to Portsmouth.  The largest market town on North Hampshire, Basingstoke could only watch as the areas around Guildford thrived, while the local abundant supplies of high quality timber could not be exploited and local agriculture was stymied by a lack of access to large markets.

Overland transport of goods to the markets in London, or even to the terminus of the Wey Nevigation at Guildford or the Thames at Reading for onwards transport on water to London was too expensive, and so the idea of a waterway connecting North Hampshire to the waterways network soon gained traction. A new waterway could enable the existing abundant timber resources to be exploited, lead to the supply of good quality coal at a reasonable cost, enable the importation of fertiliser to boost the local agriculture – North Hampshire had (and still has) many unproductive heathlands – and allow for agricultural produce to be transported economically and quickly to the London markets.

In those days, the construction of a canal needed to be approved not only by the landowners, but also by Parliament. In 1770 the Corporation of Reading put forward a Bill for consideration of Parliament for a canal centred on the Thames. The objective was to cut straight from Reading to Maidenhead at Monkey Island, which would bypass a torturous and convoluted run of the Thames itself. This Bill also included a proposal from Basingstoke to build a 29 mile long canal running from Basingstoke to the Monkey Island end of Reading’s proposed canal.  These proposals were turned down by Parliament in 1771, but in 1776 Basingstoke revised its proposal for their own canal.This was to build a slightly longer 31 mile canal to link the town to the Wey navigation near Guildford.

The financial basis for the canal was discussed at a meeting held at the Whyte Lyon Hotel at Hartford Bridge in 1777 (now the White Lion Antiques centre just outside Hartley Wintney on the A30). Minutes of the meeting show that it was estimated that a barge carrying up to 35 tons of goods would take eleven hours to reach the Wey Navigation, and trade would be taken from businesses from a 12 mile radius of Basingstoke comprising some 51 malt houses, 24 mills, 11 tan-yards and 6 brewhouses, along with more trade from the farming and timber business and trans-shipping of goods from carts to and from the West Country. In a pamphlet, ‘The Utility of the Intended Basingstoke Canal Navigation’ published in 1778 the economic case for the canal was expanded, and explained how the canal would cut road carriage distances of goods by some 50 miles, and that there were a further 16 mills close to the line of the canal which could use the canal to send flour to London. Another benefit would be to exploit the huge chalk pit at Odiham. This produced lime by burning the chalk, which could be used to improve the acidic heathlands of Hampshire and Surrey by being distributed by barge on the canal.

Announcement of the opening of the Canal

Leave was granted to bring a Bill before Parliament and the Bills first reading was given in March 1778. Approval for the new bill was opposed by a number of petitions, many of whom had vested interests in other means of transport, but approval was given for the construction by act of Parliament in 15th May 1778. One objection was raised by Earl Tilney, as the initial route skirted his estate around Tilney Hall, and he had concerns that the canal would deplete the estate’s water supplies. However, while this objection was withdrawn, the canal company decided to build the Greywell Tunnel to shorten the route, which would and did add considerably to their building and maintenance costs. However from 1783 there was a severe recession caused in part by the loss of the American colonies, and in part by the massive volcanic eruption in Iceland that caused a mini nuclear winter in Europe it was only after further feasibility studies looking at the economics of the canal’s operation that that money to construct the canal would be raised. This was done by the issue of £100 shares in the summer of 1787, some ten years after the Bill was passed, and by March 1788 the authorised capital of £86,000 had been raised.

The contract for construction was awarded to the John Pinkerton company, a famous canal builder, in 1788, with the stipulation that works were finished in four years. Work on the canal started at the Wey Navigation, and resulted in traffic running between the Wey and Horsell in 1791, in 1792 construction reached Pirbright, 1793 saw traffic able to carry goods to Odiham and the canal was eventually finished and fully opened for traffic to Basingstoke on the 4th September 1794. After a long and problematical gestation marred by demands for more funds from shareholders, a second Act of Parliament to raise yet more capital and mismanagement of the construction by the canal company, the canal was at last carrying goods between London and Basingstoke. 

So the reason the Basingstoke Canal was built was, like all the other canals in the UK, financial. It seemed to made economic sense to create a fast and economical way to facilitate the the two way passage of goods between Basingstoke and London, and canals were the motorways of the time. The Basingstoke Canal was designed to boost a mainly rural economy, giving the goods produced in the area around Basingstoke access to London markets and providing economical transport of goods from London down to Basingstoke. The main difference in the nature of the canal was the goods it carried – these were mainly agricultural, and was in contrast to most of the other canals which transported coal, ore and other raw materials into manufacturing towns and cities and distributed the goods manufactured in the industrial centres to their markets. The fundamental problem with the canal was that the size of the market for London’s goods in Basingstoke and the amount of goods the Basingstoke area could produce for London were marginal. Some years the canal carried enough traffic to cover its costs and pay back its capital, some years it didn’t. But thats another story, and the legacy is the unspoiled and picturesque canal that we now know and love.  

Matthew Vale