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Proprietors of the Grand Western Canal


Records of the Proprietors of the Grand Western Canal: sales of shares 1832, description of perpendicular lift 1838, rules, orders and notices 1838 and 1840.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

Robert Whitworth, John Longbotham, Robert Mylne, John Rennie, William Jessop and Hugh Henshall were all involved in the surveying of the Grand Western Canal and its branches between 1792 and 1794. Eventually the committee settled on a 36 1/2 mile-long canal with branches to Tiverton and Cullompton, and two reservoirs. Although the Act was passed in 1796, it took a further 14 years before work began due to the war. Several of the proprietors of the Kennet & Avon Canal agreed to assist the Grand Western Canal, as many of the original shareholders had died or withdrawn, leaving almost half the shares unappropriated. John Rennie was appointed engineer. Eleven miles of the main line from Lowdwells to Tiverton was completed in August 1814 and opened to traffic, but there was no money left to continue construction. The work already done had been more difficult and cost more than anticipated. The committee realised as early as 1812 that finishing the whole canal was impossible. Occasionally, difficulties in paying workmen had arisen and on one occasion the labourers had gone on a drunken riot that resulted in at least one fatality. Plans to extend the canal were considered in 1818, but the committee could not raise even the minimum estimate of costs. Tolls were far below those initially predicted. It was only in 1830 that Exeter Canal engineer James Green began extending the canal to Taunton, with the intention of linking to the Bridgewater & Taunton Canal. His plans involved using 7 vertical lifts suitable for boats 26 feet by 6 feet 6 inches instead of locks, which were novel technology, and an inclined plane. The construction was a trying time for both the committee and James Green. The Taunton to Bradford length opened in 1835 after much delay, blamed variously on turnpike trustees, an accumulation of small difficulties and James Green himself, although the committee stopped short of accusing him of incompetence. James Green had agreed to build the lifts for a fixed price and so he had to pay for any alterations. In 1836, over a year after the canal was supposed to have been finished, the inclined plane failed to work and there was damage caused by subsidence elsewhere. The committee replaced James Green with Captain John Twisden as superintendent and W A Provis as engineer. It was finally opened to traffic in June 1838. Tolls were much better in the first few years after the extension opened, especially once it began carrying material for the railway construction. The Grand Western Canal did well until 1844 when the Bristol & Exeter Railway opened, although their revenue was still greater than it had ever been before the extension. Toll agreements with the various railway and canal companies did much to stabilise the Grand Western Canal's income throughout the late 1840s, but in 1852 the canals were again co-operating in reducing tolls in an attempt to undercut the railways. However, the Grand Western Canal was eventually put in a position where the surest way to avoid bankruptcy lay with the railways. The Bristol & Exeter Railway leased the struggling canal in 1854, paying the Great Western's superintendent H J Smith to run and repair the canal, and giving the railway an option to purchase the canal within 21 years. The railway company bought it in 1864 and authority was formally transferred to them in April 1865. Part of the canal was closed in 1867 and the rest followed suit in 1924. Devon County Council was given the canal in 1971 to restore it for pleasure craft. Motorised craft have only been allowed to use the canal from 1996. The canal is well-maintained and is a popular recreational area. For further information on the Grand Western Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of South West England'.

System of arrangement

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.