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Company of Proprietors of the Somersetshire Coal Canal Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Somersetshire Coal Canal Navigation: plans of the canal 1794 and mid 19th century, statements of accounts 1870-1871, sale particulars 1894.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

Local colliery owners decided to commission a survey for the Somersetshire Coal Canal in 1792. The canal was to provide the collieries with a route to Bath. This was carried out by William Smith under John Rennie's direction in 1793. William Jessop was also called in to advise. It was John Rennie's plans that were submitted and the Act was obtained in April 1794. It authorised a narrow canal from the Kennet & Avon Canal at Limpley Stoke to Paulton of 10 1/2 miles, with a 7 1/4 mile branch to Radstock. Tunnels were to be built at Combe Hay and Wellow. As soon as one section of the canal was completed, it would be opened. Work started in 1795 and another Act was sought in 1796 to make alterations to the main line. John Sutcliffe was replaced by William Bennet as engineer shortly after the Act was passed. William Smith remained as surveyor until 1799. Work began on what would later be known as a caisson lock on the Combe Hay branch in 1796. Robert Weldon had first proposed his idea in 1794. Part of the reason for the delay was because such a thing had never been used before and people were cautious. During a test run in February 1798 part of the lock was damaged. Towards the end of that year it became clear that the caisson lock was extremely unreliable, but the faults were consistently blamed on the inexperience of the people using it. Elsewhere on the canal, inclined planes and three locks were built at Combe Hay to the Lower Midford level. The canal was completed from Paulton to the Kennet & Avon Canal in 1801. It also had two aqueducts and a tunnel. Almost as soon as it opened, complaints were made about the excessive breakages and delays the inclined planes caused. The company wisely abandoned plans for similar planes on the Radstock branch and instead decided to build 19 locks. In an Act of 1802 the Lock Fund was set up to pay for them, with the subscribers recouping their money from tolls charged on the locks. There was still not enough money to complete the locks and so the Radstock line was connected to Midford by a mile-long tramline. So inefficient was this combined boat-tram transportation that it was not long before it was decided to replace the whole branch with a 7-mile tramroad, opened in 1815. The canal was busy and most of the traffic was coal. The canal network that included the Somersetshire Coal Canal fostered competition between the various collieries and, of course, the canals themselves. Tolls constantly fluctuated and drawbacks frequently given, withdrawn and altered. In 1850 the company gave serious thought to converting their canal into a railway. There were already pit tramroads equally almost 6 miles on the two branches. There was little direct railway competition, so therefore their revenue did not suffer to the extent of that of other canals. Even the opening of the Wilts, Somerset & Weymouth Railway and the Great Western Railway's purchase of the Kennet & Avon Canal did not have a greatly detrimental impact on the canal. The Radstock tramway was sold in 1871 to the Somerset & Dorset Railway. Within a few years railways connected Radstock to Bath and Somerset. The tonnage carried on the canal dropped until 1893 when the company went into liquidation. A 1902 Board of Trade enquiry concluded that the canal was derelict and, as many of the collieries in the area had also closed, there was little possibility of it ever reopening. After the abandonment Act was passed in 1904, the Great Western Railway took the opportunity to buy the canal and build a railway to Limpley Stoke, which opened in 1910. For further information on the Somersetshire Coal Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of South & South East 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.