Southampton & Salisbury Canal: History

Part 1:   Preparations   1768 - 1795

Early Proposals

In 1665, the Earl of Clarendon had obtained an Act of Parliament to make the River Avon navigable from Salisbury to the sea at Christchurch. Whilst it seems the river was navigable after a fashion from about 1685 to the early 1700s, it was never a commercial success. Salisbury’s desire for a reliable transport link with the outside world was not satisfied.

In late 1768, James Brindley, the renowned canal engineer, was reported to have made a general survey from Salisbury to Redbridge on the tidal section of the River Test. It was through Redbridge that goods were imported by sea to the city with, it was thought, around 12,000 tons passing between the two places each year. Brindley estimated that a 24 mile long canal would cost £38,230.

On 21 August 1770, a meeting about the construction of a canal to Salisbury was held in the Council Chamber in the city. Interests in Andover had engaged Robert Whitworth to survey the route for a canal from that town down the Test Valley to the estuary at Redbridge near Southampton. This led to the investigation of various routes from Salisbury:

As James Brindley was too busy to carry out the surveys himself, he sent an assistant. In September 1771, a committee considered plans and estimates and the route to Kimbridge Mill was decided upon. However, the scheme was abandoned when a bill for the Andover Canal failed to reach Parliament in 1772.

A promoter from Tavistock, Christopher Gullet, appeared in 1774 with proposals for an independent canal from Salisbury to Eling including plans, estimates and a draft Parliamentary Bill but matters seem not to have been proceeded with.

Promotion and Speculation

War with the American colonies in 1775 and with France and Spain in 1778 caused attention to be diverted from canal promotion. It was 1789 before the scheme saw the light of day again, as the bill for the Andover Canal came to Parliament. A meeting in Salisbury agreed on a canal from the city to Kimbridge, but felt further surveys for a route from the Redbridge area to Southampton were required.

Gods House Tower, SouthamptonGod’s House Tower from the seaward side.
Image date: 12 May 2005. © 2009 Peter Oates.

It was agreed by many that a connection was required with the wharves at Northam, on the north east side of Southampton, where much of the town’s sea-going trade was conducted without payment of Southampton’s port dues. However, this would mean transhipment at Redbridge as the canal boats it was intended to use would not be suitable for use on a tideway.

The Salisbury interests decided upon the construction of a “collateral branch” from Redbridge along the north shore of the Test estuary to Northam. This would involve digging a tunnel to the north of Southampton under the ridge upon which the town stands. A map of this branch appeared in 1791 and early 1792 saw the entire scheme resurveyed and remapped. The 1792 map also shows the canal extended north from Salisbury up the Avon valley to Pewsey on the proposed Western Canal (renamed the Kennet & Avon Canal in 1793).

Discussions were held with the committee of the Basingstoke Canal (then under construction) on the establishment of a London to Southampton and Salisbury canal route. John Rennie undertook the survey of a wide (14 ft beam) canal from Basingstoke to Kitcomb Bridge at Fullerton on the Andover Canal and from Kimbridge to Salisbury including 1210 yards of tunnelling. His cheapest estimate of £135,770 was too much for the Basingstoke Canal interests.

A meeting at Southampton Guildhall in September 1792 saw a subscription list opened with nearly half of the 89 who put their names down coming from the Bristol area. Sub-committees were set up at Bristol, Southampton and Salisbury to promote the project and raise money. The clerk to the main committee was a Southampton solicitor and the town clerk, Thomas Ridding.

Pencil sketch of Southampton from near Four Posts.Pencil sketch of Southampton from near Four Posts.
Image date: c1810.

At a time of poor communication, the use of local committees was widely used. It enabled more subscriptions to be raised and, once construction had started, allowed closer supervision of the contractors’ work. But it had the side effect of encouraging local rivalries.

In the second part of 1792, Bristol had became enthused by the wave of speculation that gripped the nation and we now know as the ’Canal Mania’. The promotion of a number of canals in the Bristol area led to many rumours. A group seems to have tried to monopolize shares in the Kennet & Avon Canal. Fearing an outcry from potential subscribers deprived of the chance of a profit, the group seems to have put an anonymous advertisement in a Salisbury newspaper announcing a meeting in Devizes on 12 December to consider a canal from Bristol to “the interior parts of Wiltshire.” This phrase was taken by many to refer to the Kennet & Avon Canal as they were unaware that the subscription was already filled.

The half-secret way in which the meeting was called caused the infamous “Ride to Devizes”. Many rode from Bristol and Bath to Devizes through the wintry lanes. There was a scramble for beds and in the morning the town was scoured for the meeting. The local magistrates nearly read the Riot Act. The town clerk was eventually persuaded to chair a meeting and, at length, the meeting agreed to accept a project for a canal from Bristol to Salisbury.

A newspaper reported in February 1794 that John Chamberlain had surveyed two routes from the Kennet & Avon Canal, the first from Wilcot near Pewsey to Salisbury, the other from Wootton Rivers to the Andover Canal.

Which Route?

The canal near Lockerley MillView of the canal looking west from the bridge near Lockerley Mill.
Image date: 12 Jan 2005 © 2017 Peter Oates.

There was intense argument about the route that the canal should take. Most were agreed on the section from Salisbury to the Andover Canal at Kimbridge, although a few sought a direct connection between Salisbury and Andover whence the canal should proceed to Basingstoke.

Much more contentious was the proposal for the section of canal from the Andover Canal at Redbridge to Southampton and Northam. One alternative put forward was for a canal from Kimbridge, through Chandler’s Ford to the Itchen Navigation at Otterbourne.

But many questioned the need for a link which would run along the shore of an estuary which was already used by barges navigating between Redbridge, Southampton and Northam. There was a similar depth of water at Redbridge to Southampton so that ships could easily make Redbridge to bring goods for Salisbury. The following verse appeared about this time (attributed to Henry James Pye, Poet Laureate):

Southampton’s wise sons found their river so large,
Tho’ ’Twould carry a Ship, ’twould not carry a barge.
But soon this defect their sage noddles supply’d,
For they cut a snug ditch to run close by its side.
Like the man who, contriving a hole through his wall
To admit his two cats, the one great, t’other small,
Where a great hole was made for great puss to pass through,
Had a little hole cut for his little cat, too.

Despite a tradition of condemnation of this canal line, there were good reasons for building it:

In November 1793, the Andover Canal company offered favourable tolls for through traffic, settling the arguments and the Redbridge to Southampton line was finally adopted. Joseph Hill of Romsey, resident engineer of the Andover Canal, had carried out a survey, estimating the cost at £47,208 17s 10d.

Various difficulties led to delay in bringing the Bill before Parliament, application for leave to introduce it was not made until 10 September 1794. The subscription lists had reopened and support was now mainly from Southampton and Salisbury, with Bristol losing interest. By November, Hill had revised his estimate to £48,929 16s 6d.

Yet further delays meant that it was not until April 1795 that the Bill came before Parliament. Drafted by Thomas Ridding, it passed all its stages and received the royal assent by May 4. The Southampton to New Sarum Canal Act (35 Geo III, authorised a capital of £56,000 in shares and an additional £30,000 if necessary, half in shares and half on mortgage. There were 358 subscribers, very many of them for only one £100 share.

Authorised Route

The canal was to have a surface width of 27ft (8.2m) reducing to 15ft (4.6m) at a depth of 4ft (1.2m) to take boats 60ft by 8ft (18.3m by 2.4m). There was to be a towing path 9ft (2.75m) wide with a gravel path of just 2ft (0.6m) in width.

The canal / river at West DeanThe canal / river at West Dean.
Image date: 12 Jan 2005. © 2017 Peter Oates

From Salisbury, the canal was to climb by 4 or 5 locks to the summit at Alderbury. There were to be two reservoirs feeding the summit level near Alderbury and West Grimstead. A short tunnel was to be built by cut and cover near Alderbury Church and a longer tunnel of about 100yds under the main Southampton to Salisbury road at Whaddon.

A series of locks were to take the canal down the Dun valley. The route taken followed the southern bank of the River Dun so as not to interfere with the existing uses of its water such as mills and water meadows. Near Kimbridge, the waterway was to cross the River Dun and River Test on two aqueducts, the latter with 4 arches, to join the Andover Canal at Kimbridge. This section would be 13⅜ miles (21.5km) long.

From Kimbridge, the route followed the Andover Canal for 9 miles (14.5km) to Redbridge.

Just north of the southern terminus of the Andover Canal at Redbridge, the 4½ miles (7.25km) long second section of the canal would run east to Southampton. It followed the north shore of the tidal Test until near the old town. Here, instead of continuing south beside the estuary, the canal would enter an 880yd (805m) tunnel passing very near the present Civic Centre, running diagonally across the line of the present railway tunnel.

Near the eastern portal of the tunnel, the canal was to turn south to run along the Town Ditches to reach a lock giving access to the sea at God’s House Tower (which served as a gaol at the time). Also, there was to be a branch of about a mile from near the tunnel at Houndwell to another lock into the River Itchen at Northam for access to the Itchen Navigation and to the coal imported there.