Cotswold Canals in Pictures

Thames & Severn Canal Construction

This page contains a reprint of an article first published in the Gloucester Journal on Saturday 17 June 1882 which discusses the construction of the Thames & Severn Canal.



The advantages of water communication between the Thames and Severn had always been so apparent that long ago as the reign of Charles II. A Bill was introduced into Parliament for making the connection means of the Avon.

This scheme was, however, never carried out, and it was not until the year 1782 that Robert Whitworth first projected the present Thames and Severn Canal. This was after the formation of the Stroudwater Navigation - work which was carried out after much opposition and difficulty, under Act obtained in 1775.

This was early in the period of the canal mania, which appears to have culminated in the years 1790 to 1794, during which period no less than 81 canal and navigation Acts were obtained. In his report to the promoters the Thames and Severn Canal, Whitworth estimated the cost of tunnelling from Sapperton to Hayley Wood, which he considered "an uncertain piece of business in point of expense, upon account of the different strata of matter through which it must be made," at £36,575, which, together with the cost of extra cutting to the mouth of the tunnel (£2,442), would make the total £39,017.

At the time Whitworth made his report, two schemes for connecting the Severn with the Thames were before the public. One was from Tewkesbury, via Cheltenham, joining the Thames at Lechlade; the other, less expensive, but involving the longest tunnelling, was by the Stroud Valley, and in communication with the Stroud water Navigation.

The tunnel to allow the passage of Thames boats, which are twelve feet wide, and accordingly was much wider, and at the same time much longer than anything that had then been done. Whitworth was opinion that the tunnel was quite practicable. It was a bold project for that age, but the promoters went to Parliament for powers, which were granted in 1783.

In October, 1783, an arrangement was come to with one Charles Jones, mason and miner, of Manchester, to perform the work of tunnelling at the low sum of seven guineas per yard forward, and under an agreement made on the 8th of that month the tunnel was to be completed by the 1st January, 1788. Jones did not get on well, and seems to have been unequal to the execution of the work he had undertaken.

On the 5th of April, 1784, the contractor signed an agreement at Stroud to make the excavations wider and deeper by 2.5 feet each way, and recognised this addition as an "incident to the contract," and not extra work.

This became a chief point in some Chancery proceedings which were subsequently instituted against the company, Jones alleging that the committee made him drunk, an allegation which of course had no real foundation.

He was constantly in custody for debt at Bisley, Minchinhampton, or Gloucester, and in the spring of 1788 he was detained at the latter place for ten weeks.

In a letter in 1785, written just after his coming out of gaol, and addressed to Mr. Smith, the company's manager, he said he hoped Mr. Smith would make known to the company that he had bills to pay and wanted money in a short time —as he might not be "hald and mald in this manor," which was enough to make a man go mad and out of his senses. He also remarked that he was determined never to go into any public house at Sapperton or Hayley Wood, while he was at work at the tunnel, for a reason of his own.

A son of the contractor threatened the life of Mr. Smith and was obliged to enter into an undertaking not to come within 20 miles of any part of the canal for five years and not to molest any of the company's servants.

In the end the company found to their cost that low tenders are not always the cheapest. They had to take some of the work into their own hands and get rid of Charles Jones and engage other contractors to finish the tunnel, which ultimately cost a very much larger sum of money than was anticipated, and was not completed until April, 1789.

The Gloucester Journal of May 4th, 1789, in a paragraph on the completion the tunnel, says:— "By a letter from Cirencester, dated the 19th ult., we learn that a great undertaking of conveying a tunnel sixteen feet high and sixteen feet wide, under Sapperton-hill and Hayley-wood (very high ground) for two miles and a quarter in length, through a very hard rock, lined and arched with brick, is entirely completed, and boats were to pass through it on the 21st ult.

By this opening communication is made between the river Severn, at Framiload, and the Thames near Lechlade, and will be continued over the Thames below St. John's Bridge, and so to Oxford, etc., and London, for conveyance of coals, goods, etc.

It is now navigable from the Severn to Themsford by way of Stroud, Cirencester, Cricklade, being filled with water for the purpose near forty miles."

At the time of its execution the tunnel was considered a great undertaking; old King George III visited and expressed himself astonished with it, and that part of the canal at the east end of the tunnel is called "The King's Reach," probably in consequence of the visit.

The opening of the canal did not take place until the month of December, 1789, and the Journal of Monday, the 30th of that month, gives the following description of the event: —" On Thursday last was effected the greatest object of internal navigation in this kingdom. The Severn was united the Thames by intermediate canal, ascending by Stroud, through the Vale of Chalford, to the height of 343 feet, by locks there entering a tunnel through the hill of Sapperton, for the length two miles and three furlongs, and descending 22 [sic 16] locks, it joined the Thames near Lechlade.

A boat, with an union flag on her mast-head, passed laden for the first time to St John's Bridge, below Lechlade, in the presence of great numbers of people who were assembled on the occasion, and who answered a salute of 12 pieces of cannon from Buscot Park by loud huzzas.

A dinner was given at five of the principal inns at Lechlade, and the day ended with the ringing of bells, a bonfire, and a ball. With respect to the internal commerce of the kingdom, and the security of communication in time of war, this junction of the Thames and Severn must be attended with the most beneficial consequences. Among other advantages, stone for building, with which the hills near Bisley abound, and for paving in the Forest of Dean, may now reach London at an easy rate.

All the heavy articles from the mines and foundries in the heart of Wales, and the counties contiguous to the Severn, may find a secure and certain conveyance to the capital. In short, this undertaking is worthy of a great commercial nation, and does credit to the exertions of the individuals who have promoted and completed a work of such magnitude, at an expense of nearly £200,000.

The arched tunnel carried through the bowels of a mountain, near two miles and half long, and 15 feet wide, at a level of 250 feet below its summit, is a work worthy of admiration, and the locks ascending from Stroud are executed in a manner deserving commendation." The tunnel is 3,817 yards, or over two miles in length, and the ordinary water level of the canal in it is 363 feet above the sea. It is of sufficient breadth to allow of the passage of vessels with 12 feet beam, and in some places two boats 7ft wide could easily pass one another.

The tunnel is arched, and for nearly two thirds of its length is lined with brickwork or stonework, the remainder being in rocking. The rocking, however, there are very few places where the rook is so homogeneous, and free from fissures and faults, as to hold the water without clay side lining and walls supporting the same, which are carried above the water level.

Where fissures in the rook were met with, oak doors were fixed across the side walling to block the flow of any side leakage. These doors answered for a time, but in consequence of the decay of the timber, cavities have been formed and the leakage has been aggravated by them. Every expedient was resorted to in order to prevent leakage, and the engineering seems to have been of a perfect character.

The height to which the canal is carried necessitates the use of a considerable number of locks; and as a further means of maintaining a navigable depth of water in the "summit" there is a powerful pump at Thames Head, draining the surrounding springs. including that what is by some supposed to be the head of the Thames itself.

Since the spread of railways has robbed the navigation of a large portion of the traffic which it formerly had, the canal has gradually got into inefficient state, and now there is comparatively little traffic beyond Brimsoomb, partly because of the " starved" condition of the canal itself, and partly because of the upper part of the Thames not being in a navigable condition.




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