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A Short History of the Caen Hill Locks

It wasn't long after I started writing these blogs that I had the idea to write up a short history of the Caen Hill Locks and possibly even the farm. It actually wasn't long after I found CCC and read the very brief history that Chris had written on the website that I became interested. I haven't found much use for my history training since graduating in spring 2017, especially since my area of interest is the Second World War, so it's nice to find a topic I find interesting and might be interesting to others. I will be making this into a multipart series, but for the sake of my hand, my sanity and your patience I won't be writing a thesis. I've had that fun once already.

If you were to come to Caenhill Countryside Center for a visit or even for a day of volunteering, you may hear about the Caen Hill Locks. If you are unfamiliar as to how far they are from the farm, it's just a 4 minute walk North across the A361 and onto a road called Marsh Lane. The locks at Caen Hill are a section of the Kennet and Avon canal, Caen Hill being within the section that stretches from Bath to Newbury and is manmade.

The reasoning behind building a manmade section on the Avon River from Bath to Newbury was ultimately meant connect Bristol to Newbury. It then switches to the Kennet canal which goes to Reading and meets up with the Thames River just outside London. In the 18th and 19th century, due to Atlantic storms and more pressingly the conflicts with France and its allies, a new route from Bristol to London was needed for the safe passage of British cargo ships. It was also not an option to transport goods by land as a journey from Bath to Newbury took about three and a half days, with an expensive toll of £6 3s 7d per ton compared to a barge going from London to Bath only paying £2 9s 6d for the entire journey in 1810. So, travel by canal was cheaper, faster and safer than travel by road and much more so than by sea.

In 1788 a proposal for a "western canal" was set forth in order to improve trade and communication. In 1789 a rout for the canal was proposed by the engineers Barnes, Simcock and Weston, but there were doubts about the water supply. It wasn't until another survey was conducted by the engineer John Rennie in 1793 that the rout for the canal was to travel further south through Devizes. The rout was accepted by chair of the "Kennet and Avon Canal company", Charles Dundas and on 17th of April 1794 construction began when the Kennet and Avon Canal Act received the Royal Assent. In 1810 the canal opened after 16 years of construction, with the Caen Hill locks being the first engineering task completed. In 1801, trading began on the canal where goods had to be unloaded at the bottom of the locks, taken up the hill by horse drawn railway and then reloaded into barges at the top. By 1818 there were seventy 60 ton barges working on the canal mostly shipping stone and coal.

In the first 30 years that the canal was open, traffic grew and from 1824 to 1839 the annual receipts were in over £42,000 with a dividend of 3%. The traffic however didn't last as the Great Western Railway opened in 1841, removing much of the canal traffic. In 1852 the railway company took over operations and raised tolls, in 1857 ice-breaking on the canal stopped. In 1861 traffic wasn't allowed at night and in 1865 to reduce water loss, boats had to go through the locks in pairs. In a bit of irony the canal company made much of its profits in the 1830s transporting the materials that were used to build the railway.

Part two will be coming next week. See you then! 

For The Love of Loons

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