Company of Proprietors of the Wilts and Berks Canal Navigation
Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Wilts and Berks Canal Navigation: share certificates 1795 and 1803, share transfer 1806.
These records are available immediately for research
The initial proposal in 1784 was for a canal between the Thames & Severn Canal at Lechlade to the River Thames at Abingdon. A decade later this was changed to link the Kennet & Avon Canal at Semington to Abingdon. The Act was passed in 1796 allowing for a narrow canal to be built along this route, despite objections from the city of Oxford. It also called for a committee of fifteen to be appointed. William Whitworth was appointed engineer, assisted by Robert Whitworth. Financial difficulties meant that work progressed slowly. In 1801 the company had been forced to go to Parliament, as they could not borrow money until the original subscription was filled. The line from Semington to the Calne branch was opened the following year and began carrying coal from Somerset. The line reached Swindon by 1804 and it became clear that the estimated completion date of 1805 was unrealistic. The company made the unusual decision to offer shares at a lower value as a means of raising funds, to attract shareholders from a lower social class. It took until September 1810 for the canal to be completed, about the same time as the Kennet & Avon Canal. It was 51 miles long with 42 locks. There were four branches; Calne Branch over 3 miles long; a 2 mile Chippenham Branch; a 3/4 mile Wantage Branch and, in 1807, a 1/2 mile Longcot Branch. Insufficient water supplies from a well near Swindon necessitated the building of Coate Reservoir in 1822. Various canal schemes were proposed in the early nineteenth century, often by or with the support of the Wilts & Berks Canal, some even before the main line fully opened. Proposals included an Aylesbury to Abingdon navigation and a Bristol Junction Canal, from the Wilts & Berks to Bristol. Several made it to the Bill stage but none were passed. In 1813 the Act was passed which authorised a link, the North Wilts Canal, to the Thames & Severn Canal. It was nearly 9 miles long and had 12 locks. Such a link had been considered when the authorising Act for the Wilts & Berks Canal was being sought. Although left out of the final Act, the idea had not been forgotten. Negotiations had been ongoing ever since the Wilts & Berks had opened as the Thames & Severn were initially not in favour of the plan. There was heavy opposition to the line. Petitions against came from the Kennet & Avon Canal company, the City of London and various other companies and towns, compared to fourteen towns petitioning in favour of the Bill. Even its promoters did not organise a grand opening ceremony for the 1819 opening. The canal made a profit every year and could pay dividends to shareholders; but traffic was modest and so was the income. The company was on cordial terms with its neighbouring canals. Eighty per cent of traffic came from the west and returned eastwards empty. The rather minor issue of the Kennet & Avon Canl company's policy of charging these empty boats despite an unspoken agreement not to do so was perhaps one of the biggest disputes the canal company was involved in. When the Kennet & Avon approached the Wilts & Berks in 1835 asking for assistance in opposing a proposed railway from Abingdon to Chippenham, the response they received indicates that the Wilts & Berks did not appreciate the threat railways posed. Great Western Railway's line ran alongside the canal and materials for its construction were carried on it; however once it opened in 1841 canal traffic dropped. Trade decreased further with the opening of the Wilts, Somerset & Weymouth Railway in 1848. Reduced traffic meant less money invested in maintenance, which encouraged traders to seek alternative transport routes. From the end of the 1860s, the coal trade from Somerset that formed two-thirds of trade on the canal was tailing off. The company which had once been dismissive of railway competition was forced to reduce staff numbers. Unsuccessful attempts were made to sell the canal to a railway, so a Bill was promoted to close the canal in 1874. Instead, a group of traders and some of the original shareholders calling themselves the New Wilts & Berks Canal Company purchased it in 1875. Actual control passed to them in early 1877. For further information on the Wilts and Berks 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'.
It has not been possible to ascertain any original structure of record-keeping from the small number of records held for this company. The fonds has therefore been arranged in chronological order.
[See also BW28 for records of the Wilts and Berks Canal during other periods of ownership]