Southampton & Salisbury Canal: History

Part 2:   Problems   1795 - 1799

Construction Begins

At the first general meeting of the new company in May 1795, Thomas Ridding was elected clerk, two joint treasurers were appointed, and Joseph Hill became resident engineer. Thomas Ridding was granted a salary of £75pa and Hill was to receive a salary of £400pa for the exclusive use of his services. Edward Gee of Lockerley was engaged as general contractor.

Bridge at East GrimsteadThe sole remaining canal bridge at East Grimstead.
Image date: 1 Jun 2012. © 2012 David Mant.

The first contracts were signed on 15 October 1795 for much of the work and by the end of 1796 contracts for the whole line as far as Alderbury Common (ten miles in all) had been signed.

The whole of the Southampton arm, including the tunnel, was contracted to Thomas Jinkins (or Jenkins), a stonemason from Romsey who came with a recommendation from the Leominster Canal company. The committee must have been unaware that the Herefordshire company was having great difficulties with its own tunnels upon which Jinkins had been employed previously.

Edward Gee was awarded the main contract for the Salisbury arm as far as West Grimstead but the more technical work on this section, such as building locks, aqueducts and drawbridges, was carried out by other contractors. Workmen were recruited from other canal projects, some from Combe Hay on the Somersetshire Coal Canal.

Work began very quickly on both the Southampton and Salisbury sections.

To pay for this, the company had made an initial call of £4 15s per £100 share but some were reluctant to pay up. In October, a second call of £5 was made, but 12 shareholders were still in default from the first call.

Work on the Southampton and Salisbury Canal revived interest in the scheme to join the Itchen Navigation and the Basingstoke Canal near Aldershot. As this was potentially of benefit to their own scheme, the committee allowed Joseph Hill to survey the route for them in March 1796 and Thomas Ridding to become their solicitor. The lack of water at the summit would be a major problem and Hill suggested the use of a pumping engine from Boulton and Watt of Birmingham. The canal would cost £127,000 to build and £2,540 a year to run. George Smith, surveyor of the Basingstoke Canal, estimated the canal would cost £157,566. With the support of the two companies, the London and Southampton Ports Junction Canal was actively promoted.

Problems with the Tunnel

Site of west end of Southampton tunnelThe site of the west end of Southampton Tunnel.
Image date: May 2018. © 2018 Google.

Meanwhile there were already problems with the tunnel. After quarrels with two of his assistants Thomas Jinkins reported on 3 November 1796 that there were problems with bad ground and water in the tunnel. Whilst three shafts had been sunk, only at the ends of the tunnel was there any excavation and water seepage was causing falls of the roof and sides.

In March 1797, it was decided to dig most of the tunnel by cut and cover and reduce its length to about 580yds. A plan dated 29 June 1797 shows 175 yards had been completed out of a total length of 584 yards. A later document, though, shows the length as 560 yards.

By 26 December 1797, the tunnel and its cost were causing the committee such concern that they decided to ask the prominent engineer, John Rennie to report. He was asked to inspect after about 200yds had been dug. Rennie was working on the Kennet & Avon and a number of other projects. However, he also acted as consultant engineer for the Southampton and Salisbury. In his report of March 1798, he stated:

“In respect of the work already done, it is by no means completed, those parts that are likely to stand are ill framed and seem to have been done with little care or Judgement. . . . In joining the different lengths of Arching together they do not in many places agree, i.e. sometimes one length is sunk more than another. . . . At the West end of the tunnel a part of the sheeting for about 16 or 17 yards in length has entirely risen up and the tunnel has sunk about a foot. The whole of this length must be taken out and done anew. . . . The Bricks I have examined are unsound, there is too much sand in the clay. . . . The sand that has been used for the mortar is perfectly unfit for the purpose, being little better than clay. . . . An agent or superintendent skilled in works of this sort should be procured, with an adequate salary, and his whole attention directed to it, not only to see the works are properly executed, but that no improper materials be used  . . .”

At the end of March, despite Joseph Hill’s explanations, the committee commented:

“It appears  . . . by Mr. Rennie’s Report in his Survey of the Tunnel that the work has been injudiciously done and the Materials not of that Quality for such Work and that the Contractor has not gone on with the work in the way the Committee had a right to expect.”

The committee acted upon Rennie’s recommendations. Jinkins would have to correct the defective work at his own cost and he was told that he would be dismissed in the case of any further negligence. All money due to him would be withheld until he had completed the repairs. As a result, Jinkins was unable to pay his men or for materials and soon writs were being served upon him.

The decision to cut and cover was soon afterwards reversed.

Problems with Money

In mid 1798, the last call of £10 was made, making the full £100 per share. Already the capital had been spent and the many defaulters did not help the position.

Site of east end of Southampton tunnelThe site of the east end of Southampton Tunnel.
Image date: 12 May 2005. © 2009 Peter Oates.

The contractors were asked to finish off what they could. The bed of the canal was to be puddled with clay to make it watertight. The canal from the western tunnel mouth to Redbridge was nearly ready though there was trouble with the embankment between the canal and the estuary which was to be raised two feet to keep out the tide. Attempts were made to complete the locks between Kimbridge and Alderbury Common and the Andover Canal company was asked to allow their water to fill the bottom pound at Kimbridge. Much work had been done on the sea-lock at God’s House Tower and the cut to Northam. But no part of the canal was yet in use.

In June 1798, Rennie inspected the whole canal and he found that improvements had been made. A few relatively minor alterations were required with the locks and drawbridges, but the tunnel was much improved and the works “are generally proceeding in a workmanlike manner”. But this was too little too late.

In August, a general meeting was called by a number of shareholders. This meeting heard that “the men have now nearly a month’s wages due.” But there was no money to pay them.

It was thought that another £10,000 would be enough to finish the tunnel and the committee appealed unsuccessfully to shareholders for an advance of a further 20 per cent. The company slipped into bankruptcy.

Exorbitant Charges

Almost all of the workers had been dismissed by the end of 1798 and only a little maintenance was being undertaken. Joseph Hill refused to do any more until paid for work already done on both the Southampton and Salisbury and the Ports Junction Canals. Hill was given 6 months notice to expire in August 1799. Rennie was asked to make a further report on the canal.

The weather then dealt a blow. On 10 February 1799, the River Dun flooded, sweeping away the bridge at West Dean, badly damaging a lock and other canal works down the valley.

Rennie sent an assistant, James Hollingsworth, over from the Bursledon Bridge Company although the canal company had problems getting together the £21 for his expenses. Hollingsworth measured up the work actually done in comparison with the money paid out. When Rennie reported on 17 May 1799 he was devastating both about Hill and the contractors. Apologizing for not having done the work more thoroughly, he said that

“The extra demands of the Contractors over or above their regular Contracts, which they could not be prevailed on to deliver till the 30th ult, are such that it is out of my power to ascertain them with any degree of accuracy, and your Engineer Mr Hill is unable to satisfy me on many of the Points, where charges beyond all reason and decency are made. I should have examined the different Charges on the Spot, when I went over the work in April last.”

He continued,

“But this was impossible, the Contractors being confined to their Houses to avoid the Sheriff’s Officers who were in search of them.”

Despite this, he commented that

“charges for extras along the old Town Ditch and the new Pond is exorbitant in the extreme, these charges amount to at least three times the worth of the actual work performed  . . . the extras on the Lock under the Gaol and at Northam pumping water there, etc., are equally extraordinary, this must either have arisen from the most gross inattention on the part of the Contractor or deficiency in the plans pursued. . . . There seems to have been a fatality in every proceeding about the Tunnel.”

Site of canal at Gover RoadThe canal ran along the wide verge of Gover Road, Redbridge.
Image date: 10 May 2005. © 2009 Peter Oates.

For the Southampton to Redbridge section there was

“the Largest extra Bill I ever beheld on so small a contract - and where so few difficulties existed.”

On the Salisbury arm the disputes were mainly about the amount of earth excavated by the contractor Gee. Rennie considered that Hill’s calculations of this were no better than Gee’s.

And of the whole business he observed:

“I must say  . . . that I never had through my hands a work where less attention seems to have been paid to the Proprietors’ interest than has been here.”

Another special meeting considered this report and decided to seek counsel’s opinion on suing Hill and to ask shareholders to put up another 35 per cent. A committee was set up to investigate the accounts. The resulting dispute led to arbitration with Rennie and William Jessop for the company and Thomas Dadford for the contractors. Counsel advised against suing Hill unless negligence could be proved and even against not paying him. Hill retired to Wolverhampton an embittered man believing there was a conspiracy against him.

It seems that Joseph Hill never received his salary from either the Southampton and Salisbury or the Ports Junction companies. By March 1800 he was threatening legal proceedings through an attorney. In December he was in King’s Bench prison as a debtor. He appealed for money in March 1801 as his wife was ill and his children were “stroling about the Country barefooted endeavouring to get a little Bread”. By November 1802 he was bankrupt.

In the meantime, the shareholders were not forthcoming with any more funds.