Reflections derived from a reading on the train of The Thames and Severn Canal History and Guide by David Viner
Richard Musto earned four guineas on payday in March 1795, for his previous year’s assiduous mole catching along the canal length; welcome money in that year of notoriously high bread prices (‘Them moles was worth their weight in quarter loaves, sir.’) Simon Hamer earned four times that in 1784 for ‘day work’ and walling at Griffin’s Lock (‘Much better pay than being on the farm, sir.’).
The first Earl Bathurst was an early supporter of the canal idea, imagining the union of the two great rivers on his estate; Cirencester Park would see a ‘Marriage … which would be the Admiration of Posterity’, wrote Alexander Pope. (The Bathursts, btw, did very well out of slavery; Benjamin Bathurst had been Deputy-Governor of the Leeward Islands, and most prominent within the Royal African Company.)
‘The prosperity of the Stroud woollen industry between 1690 and 1760’ also stimulated proposals for the canal. (This also coincided with the Bristol boom-time for slaving profits with the triangular trade – how much of that cloth that was bartered for slaves in Sierra Leone and beyond came from Stroudwater, I wonder.)
The placid waters of the Stroudwater Navigation and the Thames and Severn Canal, the rustic banks of the Severn, and the meads by the Thames, all deceive the senses. Our senses should be alarmed, like Scrooge with Marley, with apparitions of coats of arms, purses, chains, links, cash boxes, keys, ledgers, deeds and padlocks. And spectral sharks might appear to leap from the bloodied inland waters. Think of that at Bathurst Meadow Lock.
When the closure of the canal was announced in 1893, employees were given a summary ‘fortnight’s notice’.
Some of us have walked the Frome from springs-source to Severn confluence, and Jim Pentney has paddled and carried his kayak from Severn to Thames, but I didn’t know about the Gloucester water poet’s 1641 trip with boat and ‘hatchett’ up the Thames, overland to the Frome, and thence to the Severn …
He reached ‘Lechlad’ and ‘Creeklad’: ‘This town of Creeklad is five miles distant by land from Ciciter, but it is easier to row sixtie miles by water on the River of Thames, then it is to passe betweene those two townes, for there are so many milles, fords and shallowes with stops, and other impediments … to Ciciter … I hired a Waine, wherein I put my Boate … this Waine did in lesse than five houres draw me from the River Isis neere Ciciter, to a brooke called Stroud, which brooke hath it’s head or Spring in Bessley Hundred neere Misserden …
I being uncarted (with my boate) at a place called Stonehouse, in the Afforesaid brooke called Stroud, with passing and wading, with haling over high bankes at fulling Milles (where there are many) with plucking over sunke trees, over and under strange Bridges, of wood and stone, and in some places the brooke was scarce as broad as my Boate, I being oftentimes impeached with the boughs and branches of willows and Alder Trees, which grew so thicke, hanging over and into the brooke, so that the day light or Sunne could scarce peepe through the branches, that in many places all passages were stop’d; so that I was sometimes forced to cut and hew out my way with a hatchet; with this miserable toyle all the day I gat at night to a Mill called Froombridge Mill …’
The rain beats down, the wind howls, branches creak and drip; the pub has long gone and disappeared from the map and landscape: no more smoke from a chimney to cheer the approaching crew; no more fire to warm wet limbs; no more shouts and cheers and laughter; no more clinking of glasses and tankards; no more solitary pipes in the corner; no more sing songs on festive winter nights; just an elegy of memory drifting on the wind.
A 1786 ‘Account of the Great Tunnel’:
‘At the Saperton end they have penetrated about 400 yards, at the other half a mile; but there are pits dug the whole length … where are … eight gangs working … The labourers work by the yard, an rent it of the grand contractor at the rate of £4 14s 6d to £5 10s a yard; out of which they find candles, gunpowder, and labour, both for arching and clearing the passage. The bricks are burnt on the spot, and the brick-work carried on as they go …
The soil is a blue marle, very hard, and worked with gunpowder …
As they pass the pits they have a funnel in each to admit air. The number of men who can work at the same time are:
2 fillers of waggons
2 drivers, and
1 person to empty the waggon …
The damp is such that it must subject the people to agues …
The different gangs working in the tunnel have sometimes two and sometimes three reliefs, and they work eight hours at a time, day and night, Sunday not excepted … ‘
A legacy of slavery?
‘In deference to the wishes (implied if not expressed) of the landowner Earl Bathurst, the canal proprietors arranged for these spoil heaps to be planted with beech trees and they now form a very distinct and attractive feature of the local landscape. This was and remains a sensitive landscape; the Broad Ride which is a principal feature of the grade-one listed Cirencester Park crosses just here. This straight tree-lined avenue extends some five miles through the Park from Sapperton Common all the way to Cirencester … ‘
A legacy of Slavery?
The cult of the sublime, the profits of slavery, the interest in commerce, the cult of the Spa, and the consequent rise of Cheltenham Spa, all conspired to make the tunnel construction a point of interest for the upper classes inn Cheltenham. The climax being, of course, the visit of King George the Third in 1788. The year in which he first lost his mind, and started talking to the trees.