History of the Dorset and Somerset Canal

This slightly more detailed history than on the HomePage, is based on Kenneth R. Clew's book "The Dorset & Somerset Canal"(1971) David & Charles; (now sadly out of print).

Canal fever hit the south-west of England in the 1790's; In the early part of 1793 no fewer than 20 advertisments occurred in the Bristol Gazette, one of which was for the D&S canal. The first meeting for prospective shareholders and other interested parties took place at the Bear Inn Wincanton, in January 1793. The idea was to build a canal linking Bristol and Poole (thus avoiding the dangerous sea passage around Land's end).

Profits were to come principally from the movement of Coal (from the Mendip fields as well as the North of England) and, in the other direction Potter's Clay. Grains such as barley etc would also yield a useful profit, as would be serving the cloth-making towns such as Frome. Later of course the Iron Works at Mells would come into play. Lime, manure, ashes, timber, cattle, flour, pulses, bricks, tiles, and limestone were, it was felt, also likely cargoes.

Needless to say, the exact route of the canal went through many different versions even before the 'final' route was professionally surveyed, with various small industrial complexes vying for favour whilst many of the rich landowners did not approve of it being cut through their land (or at least too close to their mansions).

In the mean time, the Somersetshire Coal Canal plans were progressing well, and the well-respected John Rennie was surveying the local area. This canal too was hoping to tap the Radstock area coal-mines, however, the committee for the D&S noticed that the mines at Kilmersdon and Holcombe were to be missed by the SCC, Mr Whitworth, the D&S surveyor thus included these 2 areas in at least one of his plans. In September 1793 he reported that which ever route was chosen there should be sufficient water. At the end of his report he gave notice that he was too busy to undertake any more work for the D&S but recommended his assistant one William Bennett - a man with considerable experience.

It was Bennett who suggested that Bristol should be substituted for a junction with the Kennet and Avon canal (from Bristol/Bath to London). The committee agreed with this sensible suggestion but wished for the junction to be to the east of Bradford-on-Avon. The entire route was finalised at a meeting at the Crown Inn, Blandford Forum on the 13th of August 1795. The canal was not just to be a North-South route - for at Frome a spur was to travel west along the Nettlebridge valley where there were the coal mines at Stratton, Holcombe, Edford, Vobster and Coleford as well as the flourishing iron trade at Mells owned by one James Fussell (also a major shareholder of the D&S!). His money and ingenuity come into play a little later…

The original parliamentary plan was not only for the canal cut but also for “… Rail or Carriage Ways or Stone Roads” to enable connections between the canal and the pit-heads. Again, this becomes important towards the end of this abridged history…

The canal was to have a depth of 9 feet and a width of 15 feet, but all was not quite finished in the planning stages as, owing to some local opposition from landowners, on 1st of February 1796 2 small sub-branches ( Ham to Hamworthy and Lytchett Manor to Wareham (a minor port)) were axed, but perhaps even more surprisingly, the extreme southern arm south of Shillingsone to Poole was also axed. No longer would the canal be ‘port-to-port’. In retrospect this may have been one of the reasons why the canal eventually failed. Other reasons include:

1. The coming of the Railways (see later).

2. The Napoleonic Wars. Confidence in the Stock market would have been lower; invasion by the French was a real fear; many landowners and shareholders saw their patriotic duty in funding militia rather than in building canals; able-bodied men were being drawn towards the Army.

3. ‘Ludditism” in the cloth factories in Frome (30% of the population being involved), Shepton, and Bradford-on-Avon (approx. 1791) meant that it was feared that with the riots in these towns and villages, the cloth factories (mainly wool) would have to shut down as they would not be able to compete with the more efficient factories of the North of England which had, eventually, embraced the ‘benefits’ of the Industrial revolution. Thus one of the ‘raison d’etres’ of the canal was about to vanish…

4. Possible shady dealing in the shares of the D&S.

5. Bennett the surveyor originally estimated the revised total cost of the canal to be £146 018 (to include all masonry work and a 1 009 yard long tunnel at Brewham under the Earl of Ilchester’s coach road.) This was a severe underestimate and the money eventually dried-up.

This is a hilly area of the country with some severe geological disturbance (most coal seams were bent and twisted) and another cost was going to be to overcome the 366 feet rise/drop in the main canal and the 264 feet rise/drop in the much shorter branch. Locks were expensive, time-consuming to build, slowed-up the progress of the boats, and wasted a considerable amount of valuable water. For this reason, caissons were originally planned. Nearby, at Combe Hay on the SCC, Robert Weldon was soon to build his caisson lock, and the D&S committee wisely waited for the outcome of the trials. Although some trials were successful, in early 1798, the surrounding Fuller’s earth clay swelled with water thus causing the sides of the well to buckle. The trials of this ingenious device were halted and a temporary inclined plane substituted before 20-odd locks were built. Chastened by this experience, the D&S eventually settled on a trial of their own - Fussell’s even more ingenious ‘balance-lock’.

Construction eventually started in 1796, with the short West-East branch to Frome being the first (and alas only) part to be cut as this part would serve the Coal mines and Iron Works at Mells. The Murtry aqueduct was built in 1798.

Fussel’s Balance(d) Lock was trialled near Barrow Hill (see my Google Map) in September 1800. The fall was a mere 20 feet (half of that planned for the ‘real’ ones). It was a success and thus plans for 5 to the east of the trial area were made and work started, but, the money was drying up… The 1796 Act gave powers for the committee to raise £150 00 - but only £85 000 was ever paid up. More shares were needed and non-payers were to be chased-up.

However, these plans were not realised and it was evident by 1803 that the money HAD run out. This was despite the fact that in the previous year, peace had been made with France – but within 12 months war had broken out again. Only 8 miles had been cut at an expense of £56 479 - and with a debt of £1 100. One balance lock had been completed along with one tunnel (but only 90 yards), and bridges etc. A further Act was passed in July 1803 to raise more capital, but fear of invasion meant that further work was suspended. A further 1.75 miles were needed to complete this part of the canal to Frome. It is thought that only a few barges ever made use of the cut. William Bennet left to supervise the completion of the locks at Combe Hay on the nearby SCC; he again severely underestimated the costs.

Nevertheless confidence was high in many quarters that the whole canal (even the branch to Poole) would be completed, until, paradoxically, the French war was over after Waterloo in 1815, as a depression followed – to include the coal trade. This led to a 10% cut in miners’ wages with the inevitable strikes and riots. However, of even more importance was the work of George Stephenson – and the world’s first public railway in 1850. In the same year a ‘rail-road’ was proposed in the very same area in the West Country that the SCC and DSC were hoping to capitalise. Again, as with the various canal plans, there were numerous schemes mooted. The one that appeared to directly challenge the DCC was the proposed Bristol Channel to Basingstoke Railway (via Ilminster and Chard). However, it will be recalled that the DCC had also the powers to build a rail-carriageway or stone-ways over the land that they owned. Thus a merger between the DSC and the rail Company was suggested. (Basically the North-South planned canal to be scrapped and replaced with a railway. In the end the deal was temporarily placed on ice (perhaps because many of the people involved were shareholders for both companies).

Thus new shares were issued to raise capital to complete the West-East arm to Frome (£18 000) and to extend this to link with the Kennet and Avon canal to the east of Bradford-on-Avon (£35 000). Then another bombshell – another railway was mooted (1825). Radstocke (sic) (where the coal mines were situated) to Poole, a much more severe competitor! However, eventually a compromise was reached (of sorts) as the D&S was to be completed and to link with the new railway near Vobster. Eventually even this plan foundered and both schemes (canal and railway) collapsed. The canal land gradually reverted back to its former owners… and nature.

In 1854 A Frome-to-Radstock railway opened and that was the death-knell of any plans to re-open the D&S. This passed through parts of the land earmarked for the canal and gave the railway constructors powers to use any bed of the canal to dump their spoil. The West-East or Nettlebridge branch was also earmarked to be taken over by the Nettlebridge Railway to serve the very mines that the D&S had earmarked. This plan was dropped in 1878.