SHCS logo (3K) book front cover (3K) The History of the Basingstoke Canal
by Glenys Crocker
(First published by The Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society Ltd in 1973. Second Edition published 1977)

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Chapter 1: Hampshire in the Canal Age
Chapter 2: The Building of the Canal
Chapter 3: The Canal's Fortunes
Chapter 4: Why the Canal Failed
Chapter 5: Speculation, 1866-1923
Chapter 6: Success and Decline, 1923-1947
Chapter 7: Recent History

4: Why the Canal Failed

The problems of competition from road and rail transport were faced by the whole waterways system. Eventually, the entire system was eclipsed, but it held out longer in the industrial North and Midlands. The industries of the South were declining in the Canal Age, and so was the importance of agriculture in the area. London and Bristol, the only large centres of population in southern England, had traditionally been supplied with produce from the neighbouring counties, but during the 19th century they were increasingly supplied from other parts of England and from abroad.


Underlying the failure of the Basingstoke Canal there was a crippling financial burden dating from its earliest years. Labour shortages and price increases during the American War of Independence had led to inflation, and the Canal cost about half as much again as the original estimate of 73,918.


Also, the Act had authorised the payment of interest during the construction of the Canal. Such clauses were common in Canal Acts to encourage subscribers to part with money which would otherwise be earning interest elsewhere. They were a frequent cause of undoing. In the case of the Basingstoke Canal, the authorised capital had been spent by 1793, and with the work uncompleted and debts outstanding, the Company had to obtain a second Act which allowed a further 60,000 to be raised.

The Act of 1793 stipulated that no further interest should be paid until the objects of the original Act had been carried out. However, George Stubbs, Chairman of the Committee of Accounts, continued to pay the interest by issuing bonds, part of the value of which represented arrears of interest on the original capital. In addition, in order to pay interest on the bonds, he had by 1797 run up a debt of 7,500.

Stubbs was dismissed in 1797, and Dr Robert Bland, the Chairman took over the task of running the Company, and contrived to salvage its finances. The Company struggled first to pay its debts and then to pay interest on the bonds for the rest of its days, and the shareholders never received a dividend.


Another reason for the Canal's failure was that none of the plans to continue it to the coast was ever carried out. There were plans for a link with Southampton via both the Andover and Itchen Navigation, but although a canal linking London with the south coast would have been useful in wartime, it was not until after the Napoleonic Wars that one was made, and then it was by the Wey & Arun Canal opened in 1816.

It was rising prices and the problems of supplying water to the summit pounds that caused the plans to be abandoned. The scheme for the Portsmouth, Southampton and London Junction Canal included either a railway or tunnel at the summit to solve the problem of water supply.

In 1825 it was planned to build the Berks & Hants Canal, linking the Basingstoke with the Kennet & Avon, which had opened in 1810. Both committees and the Somersetshire Coal Canal Committee were in favour, but when the Bill had its first reading it was defeated by opposition from landowners and parties with interests in the Thames. By this time, interest was returning towards railways.


The cut to Turgis Green had been one of the objects of the Act, and in the early plan to take the Canal round Lord Tylney's estates, it had involved an extension of only 1 1/4 miles. With the Greywell Tunnel route adopted, it involved 6 miles. In the financial crises of the early years, the plan was never fulfilled. The last attempt to build it in 1799 failed through inability to raise the necessary funds.

There followed a scheme for a cut to Bagshot, 4 1/2 miles in length, which would capture some of the waggon trade from Staines, and improve the water supply of the Canal. Prince William of Gloucester, who lived at Bagshot Park, was one of the subscribers. The plan fell through when a second survey produced a greatly increased estimate of cost, from 5,500 to 8,125.

The scheme is of particular interest however because relatively recently a collection of letters has been found, written by Robert Bland in 1801, to Henry Halsey, a landowner who lived at Henley Park. The proposed cut would have passed through Mr Halsey's land, and the letters are concerned with obtaining his consent. Whether or not he gave it the letters do not tell, but he expressed the view that "the failure of the Basingstoke Company affords sufficient warning of the necessity of having correct and accurate statements of the expense of the works under distinct heads", with which opinion Robert Bland agreed.

A postscript of one of the letters reads: "I should have said, it was proposed the canal should be 34 feet water surface, 18 feet wide at the bottom and 5 feet deep. The length four miles and a half. The expense of cutting, with banking benching and making the whole watertight, 4,150. One lock, 750. Four road bridges 400, the weirs, tunnels, stop gates, wharf walls etc. about 300, together 5,500. The meeting proposed raising 6,000, yet it was thought probable that by advertising persons might be found who might engage to perform the whole for 5,500".

5: Speculation, 1866-1923


Last updated April 2000