Tuesday, December 28, 2010

200th anniversary of the opening of the K&A Canal

On the evening of Friday 28th December 1810 a single barge carrying stone for the Earl of Ailesbury ascended the Caen Hill Flight of locks without ceremony and marked the completion of a continuous inland water route from Bristol to Reading.  

Horse drawn boats on the Caen Hill Flight in Devizes
With the possibility of delays in completing the locks traders had been informed by the canal superintendent, John Thomas, that the canal would be open for business from the following Monday, December 31st.

On that day two boats passed through the Caen Hill Flight carrying coal but a third boat was stopped by the frosty conditions.

Canal Engineer, John Rennie
It had taken 16 years from the passing of the Enabling Act of Parliament to finally complete the through route, although sections of the navigation had been in use for some time. 

The waterway between Reading and Newbury had opened for navigation in 1723 and in 1727 a river link had been completed between Bristol and Bath. The report to shareholders in 1803 said that the canal was open from Bath to Foxhangers near Devizes with goods being taken on to the town on horse drawn wagons on an iron railway.

In 1810 the French Revolution had finished and the Napoleonic Wars were in progress. Britain had celebrated the success of the Battle of Trafalgar five years earlier, although there would be another five years to wait until the Battle of Waterloo.

The world had heard none of Chopin’s music nor Robert Schumann’s because both composers were born in 1810 — and there was still three years to wait for the publication of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, though Beethoven’s Fur Elise was composed in that year.

The British slave trade had been totally abolished only three years before, King George III was finally declared ‘mad’ in 1810 and gaslights had only recently been introduced to illuminate the streets of London.

The Wharf charges for Devizes issued on December 28th 1810
Businesses were prospering along the K&A, but still the working man didn’t have a vote and poverty was commonplace. The population along the more industrial stretches of the K&A took their part in national food riots.

The Factory Act that would ban the employment of children under the age of 10 was still 70 years away and it was common for young children to have to work very long hours, sometimes doing extremely dangerous jobs in factories.

The opening of the K&A Canal was inexorably linked with the industrial revolution it fuelled — without one there could not have been the other.

The K&A brought the industrial revolution to the rural towns along its length where advantage was taken of the waterway access to the Somerset Coal Fields and many factories were being built to be powered by steam.

But the industrial revolution and mechanism had a huge impact on the lives of working people and discontent and direct action followed in its wake.

At Bradford on Avon and Trowbridge, in the heart of the west country woollen district, both men and women assembled to protest. Civil protest against the introduction of mechanisation into the workplace had already led to the hanging of Thomas Helliker from Trowbridge in 1803 — wrongly convicted for masterminding the burning down of a mill at Semington. 

The later Swing Riots and Chartist activity would erupt in towns and villages alongside the K&A. The canal clearly played its part as an artery of civil unrest. For the Canal's shareholders,  however, it brought prosperity until the coming of the railways undermined its profitability.

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