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Gloucester and Berkeley Canal Company


Records of the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal Company: Financial and engineering records 1815-1897, Acts collected by W and W B Clegram 1793-1864, Gloucester Docks - plans of the docks and surrounding lands, warehouses, railways and roads 1825-1870, Gloucester and Berkeley Canal - plans and sections of the canal, plans showing land ownership in relation to the line of the canal, Moreton Valence, Fretherne and Saul inclosure awards, bridges, buildings and docks alongside the canal, cottages and railways nd c1815-c1910, Sharpness Docks - entrance and basin, railways 1826-1873, Gloucester and Berkeley Canal Extension: Works at Sharpness - new entrance and dock specification and plans, entrance, tidal basin and docks, Holly Hazel Pill, quay wall, details of caisson for graving dock and lock gates, sluices 1869-1874, Gloucester and Berkeley Basin and Railway 1857.



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Administrative /​ Biographical history

After an unsuccessful proposal in 1783, in 1792 an Act was passed authorising a ship canal to allow vessels to get from Gloucester to Berkeley Pill without having to navigate the difficult stretch of the River Severn. It would also eliminate the long wait for the tides as well as cutting the journey from 35 miles to 16 miles. Josiah Clowes and Richard Hall carried out some preliminary surveying before Robert Mylne took over the work. He was engaged so late that he probably did not have time to prepare properly, in order to have it completed before the Bill went before Parliament. The Act for the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal passed in March 1793. Enquiries were made about commissioning William Jessop or Robert Whitworth to make second surveys, but neither was available and so Robert Mylne was retained as chief engineer and Dennis Edson as resident engineer. Dennis Edson did not remain long; he was dismissed in 1795 and replaced, at Robert Mylne's suggestion, with James Dadford. Work began the following year at Gloucester and involved experimenting with a variety of cutting machines, all of which proved unsatisfactory. Difficulties were caused by the relative inexperience of the engineers; Robert Mylne had little construction experience and most of James Dadford's experience was with tramroads. He, Robert Mylne, had significantly underestimated the costs. Even at this early stage, the company was anxious. Robert Mylne was not giving as much time to the undertaking as his employers felt he ought. Changes to the line were suggested and progress was slow compared to the money being spent. The company's solicitors began proceeding against shareholders who had defaulted. Robert Mylne was dismissed in 1797. For the next three years, James Dadford carried on. When he left, barely 5 ½ miles had been built and the company had run out of money. He was not replaced, but from 1813 the clerk, John Upton, assumed the responsibilities. There was a small volume of traffic on the completed navigation, but the revenue from it was insignificant compared to the amount needed by the company. Various means of raising or saving cash were put forward, including a lottery and shortening the canal to end at Frampton-on-Severn. As built, it does not reach Berkeley, but terminates at Sharpness. Even when a scheme was agreed upon, it was a condition that all money must be subscribed before work began, and this proved to be the stumbling block. John Hodgkinson, William Jessop, John Rennie and Benjamin Bevan were all drafted in between 1810 and about 1815 to look at the existing and proposed lines. The canal lingered until 1819 when the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners loaned the Gloucester and Berkeley company money. Inspired, the shareholders raised the remainder of the money and the company even appointed an engineer. Thomas Telford was called in to advise. In February 1820, the junction was made with the Stroudwater Navgation and immediately attracted traffic. The money lasted a year, forcing the company to sell off land and property to make loan repayments to the Commissioners, who were threatening to repossess the canal. More money had to be borrowed in 1823. Thirty-five years after the Act was authorised, the 16 3/8 mile long canal was finished. It was the biggest canal in England. Capable of taking 600-ton vessels, it was over 86 feet wide and 18 feet deep and was spanned by 15 swing bridges. There was a short, navigable feeder to Cambridge. Water was supplied from the rivers Cam, Stroudwater and pumped from the Severn, but often there were shortages. It was not until 1834 that the company was allowed to take water from the River Frome, thereby easing the problem. Trade developed slowly, but it did come. In 1828, the very first ship sailed direct from London to Gloucester. Shortly afterwards the warehousing and wharfage facilities were expanded. Rival companies ran market passenger and goods boats and the company found it necessary to regulate them because their races or deliberate obstruction were hazardous to the market boats and other vessels. By 1832 the company could pay off its interest and arrears, but not the actual loans themselves. Shareholders could not expect a dividend for many years. As the Commissioners had taken part-control of the company, because it was so heavily indebted, they refused to allow money to be spent on improvements until the debt was paid. That did not happen for some twenty years after the canal opened. Understandably, the company was not keen for the River Severn to be improved or for Worcester to grow as a dockyard. It was not so much that the River Severn would become their rival, but that up until then it had no controlling authority; the navigable parts were free. Tolls would discourage trade from using the waterways, including the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal. Despite their opposition, the Severn Commissioners were created in 1842. In 1852, a very small dividend was paid. Annual tonnages reached about half a million tons, but remained fairly static between 1842 and 1867. Unusually, the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal encouraged railways to Gloucester, as they increased the dock's trading catchment area. Gloucester Docks was expanded several times to cope with the amount of goods transhipped there, including a new graving dock. The Birmingham and Gloucester Railway laid tracks there in 1844. A steam boat had been introduced in 1833 but after trials their engineer William Clegram advised against their widespread or regular use because of damage to the banks. Now, steam tugs were a necessity for the canal to remain competitive and operate smoothly. A telegraph line was established between Sharpness and Gloucester. Sharpness had not developed as much as Gloucester, and the company decided that a railway line to it would solve the problem. William Clegram surveyed in 1865 for one to open up coalfields in the Forest of Dean, and the results were favourable. Even without the railway, Sharpness was in need of expansion and modernization. Although built for ships, the advent of steam-powered craft meant that ships had become larger, and only the smaller vessels could use the facilities at Sharpness. The ships that could be admitted were generally delayed for 12 days or more. The final payment of the company's last debt was due in 1871, and revenue had risen since 1852, so the company was prepared to undertake large-scale and costly works. Between 1869 and November 1874, a new tidal basin, entrance lock and 2000 feet by 320 feet wet dock were constructed. In 1872 the company supported the Act that authorised a railway from Sharpness to South Wales and the Forest of Dean. Several of the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal staff were also involved in the new company, including W B Clegram and the chairman W C Lucy. The company agreed a purchase with the Worcester and Birmingham Canal in 1873. From 1874, it was known as the Sharpness New Docks & Gloucester & Birmingham Navigation Company. For further information on the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of South and South East England'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain the complete original structure of record-keeping from the records held for this company. The fonds has therefore been arranged into series by subject. Financial and engineering records have been placed first, followed by Acts collected by W and W B Clegram. These are followed by plans of Gloucester Docks and its associated warehouses, railways and roads and surrounding land. These progress through plans of Gloucester and Berkeley Canal, its associated bridges, buildings and railways to plans of Sharpness Docks and its associated railways. Plans of Gloucester and Berkeley Canal extension works at Sharpness follow this. At the end of the collection are plans relating to Gloucester and Berkeley Basin and Railway.

Associated material

[See also: BW120 for records of the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal during other periods of ownership]