Somerset Coal Canal

Somerset Coal Canal

The Somerset Coal Canal (originally known as the Somersetshire Coal Canal) was a narrow canal in England, built around 1800 from basins at Paulton and Timsbury via Camerton, an aqueduct at Dunkerton, Combe Hay, Midford and Monkton Combe to Limpley Stoke where it joined the Kennet and Avon Canal. This gave access from the Somerset coalfield, which at its peak contained 80 collieries, to London. The longest arm was 18 miles (29 km) long with 23 locks. From Midford an arm also ran via Writhlington to Radstock, with a tunnel at Wellow.

A feature of the canal was the varying methods used at Combe Hay to overcome height differences between the upper and lower reaches of the canal, initially by the use of Caisson locks and when this failed an inclined plane and then a flight of 22 locks.

The Radstock arm was never commercially successful and was replaced firstly with a tramway in 1815 [cite book |last=Dunning |first=Robert |title=A History of Somerset |year=1983 |publisher=Phillimore & Co |location=Chichester |id=ISBN 0-85033-461-6 ] and later incorporated into the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway. The Paulton route flourished for some years until the coming of the railway and closed in 1898. Much of the course of the canal has since been used for a railway. In October 2006 a grant was obtained from the Heritage Lottery Fund to carry out a technical study on one of the locks and associated structures at Combe Hay.


In 1763 coal was discovered in Radstock and mining began in the area, however transport was a major problem because of the poor state of the roads. This cost and the potential for cheaper delivery of coal from south Wales via the Monmouthshire Canalcite book |last=Halse |first=Roger |coauthors=Castens, Simon | title=The Somersetshire Coal Canal: A Pictorial Journey | year=2000 | publisher=Millstream Books | location=Bath |id=ISBN 0-948975-58-X ] led to the proposal for a canal which could transport the coal to Bath and Wiltshire. [cite book |last=Clew |first=Kenneth R. |title=The Somersetshire Coal Canal and Railways |year=1970 |publisher=David and Charles |location=Newton Abbot |id=ISBN 0-7153-4792-6 ] Initial surveys were conducted during 1793 by William Jessop and William Smith under the direction of John Rennie who presented the report on 14 October 1793 estimating the cost of construction of the canal at £80,000. Smith who also worked at the Mearns Pit at High Littleton observed the rock layers, or strata, at the pit he realised that they were arranged in a predictable pattern, and that the various strata could always be found in the same relative positions. Additionally, each particular stratum could be identified by the fossils it contained, and the same succession of fossil groups from older to younger rocks could be found in many parts of England. Furthermore, he noticed an easterly dip of the beds of rock – small near the surface (about three degrees) then bigger after the Triassic rocks. This gave Smith a testable hypothesis, which he termed The Principle of Faunal Succession, and he began his search to determine if the relationships between the strata and their characteristics were consistent throughout the country. This would earn him the name "Strata Smith" and recognition as the "Father of English Geology". [ [ Memoirs of William Smith] " (1844, republished with additional material by Hugh Torrens, 2003 ISBN 0-9544941-0-5)] [Simon Winchester, "", (2001), New York: HarperCollins, ISBN 0-14-028039-1] The canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament entitled "An Act for making and maintaining a navigable Canal, with certain Railways and Stone Roads, from several Collieries in the county of Somerset, to communicate with the intended Kennet and Avon Canal, in the parish of Bradford, in the county of Wilts" of 1794, and further detailed surveys were carried out by Robert Whitworth and John Sutcliffe, who was then appointed as chief engineer. In 1799 William Whitmore and his partner, Norton, offered to build a balance (or geometrical) lift without payment, on condition that if successful they were to have £17,300 and a royalty of 4 pence per ton of goods passed.cite web | title=History by Waterway from St Nicholas Bay Harbour & Caterbury Canal | work=Jim Shead's Waterways Information | url= | accessdate=2006-10-09]

The design of the caisson lock was not a success, and the plan for the caissons had been abandoned by mid-1800. They were replaced by three locks and an inclined plane, but the plane was not successful either, and the company proposed to raise more money to finance the building of a flight of 19 locks to replace it, the use of which would incur an additional toll of one shilling per ton on all traffic. This was vigorously opposed by the owners of the Kennet and Avon Canal and the Wilts and Berks Canal, on the grounds that the price of coal to their customers would be too high. After negotiation, the company obtained a new Act of Parliament on 30 April 1802, which authorized the formation of a separate body called "The Lock Fund of the Somerset Coal Canal Company", with powers to raise the sum of £45,000. The money was raised by the Kennet and Avon, the Wilts and Berks and the Somerset Coal Canal each contributing £15,000, and the one shilling surcharge was to be levied until the capital had been repaid, after which it would cease.L. J. Dalby (2000) "The Wilts and Berks Canal", Oakwood Press, ISBN 0-85361-562-4] The act set the tonnage rates to be charged:

Fractions of a Mile to pay for Half a Mile, and of a Ton as a Quarter of a Ton; Rates for Wharfage to be determined by the Company. In addition to the above Rates, One Shilling per Ton is paid on all Goods to the Lock Fund, which also receives Three Farthings per Ton from the Coal Canal company. The boats were weighed at Midford where a Weigh house was constructed in 1831. The boats would be floated into a one-ended lock, the gate closed and the water drained. This left the boat resting on a cradle suspended by angled rods attached to a beam which took the weight of the boat. One-pound weights were then added to a pan with one pound being equivalent to one hundredweight until the system was in equilibrium and the weight was recorded. The weigh house at Midford was one of only four known to have been built in England and Wales.

The canal opened in 1805 and was used for passenger traffic as well as coal. In 1814 the Benedictine monks who came to Downside Abbey are said to have used the canal for the last stage of their journey. [cite book |last=Coysh |first=A.W. |coauthors= Mason, E.J.; Waite, V. |title=The Mendips |year=1977 |publisher=Robert Hale Ltd |location=London |isbn=0709164262 ] Another cargo carried by the canal was limestone from Combe Down. [cite book |title=The Last Fighting Tommy |last=Patch |first=Harry |authorlink= Harry Patch |coauthors=Van Emden, Richard |year=2007|publisher=Bloomsbury Publishing Plc |isbn=9780747591153 |pages=15 ] .The peak level of cargo carried was in 1838 at 138,403 tonscite book|last=Collier|first=Peter|title=Colliers Way: The Somerset Coalfield|publisher=Ex Libris Press|date=1986|isbn=978-0948578052] resulting in over £17,000 of tolls being paid. Cargoes of over 100,000 tons were common until the 1870s when competition from railways reduced the amount carried. The canal went into liquidation in 1893; it closed in 1898 and was finally abandoned in 1904 when it was sold to the Great Western Railway for £2,000, [cite book |last=Russell |first=Ronald |title=The Country Canal |year=1991 |publisher=David & Charles |id= ISBN 0-7153-9169-0] and used as a branch of the Bristol and North Somerset Railway. The closure caused problems across the Somerset coalfield especially to the pits in the northern area, which had relied on the canal for transportation. [cite book |last=Down |first=C.G. |coauthors=Warrington, A. J. |title=The history of the Somerset coalfield |year=2005 |publisher=Radstock Museum |location=Radstock |id=ISBN 0-9551684-0-6 ]

The Radstock branch

When the Radstock branch was constructed, it was intended to link it to the main line of the Paulton branch at Midford, which was at a lower level at this point. The Lock Fund created in 1802 was to have paid for the construction of the locks, but because there was little regular traffic on the branch, the company built one lock, an aqueduct over the Midford Brook, and a short tramway to bridge the gap. This contributed to the economic failure of the branch, and its replacement by a tramway in 1815. [cite book |last=Priestley |first=Joseph |title=Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, of Great Britain P580 |year=1831 | url= | accessdate=2007-12-09 ] The tramway was laid along the former canal's towpath. It was single-line with passing places every convert|600|yd|m|0, and was originally laid using cast iron plates on stone block sleepers, but was relaid using wrought iron plates.

Engineers and surveyors

* William Bennet
* John Hodgkinson
* Benjamin Outram (1764–1805)
* John Rennie (1761–1821)
* William Smith (1769–1839)
* John Sutcliffe
* Robert Weldon (?1754–1810)
* Robert Whitworth (d. 1799)Data from Jim Shead's Waterways Information.

Combe Hay

The fall over the route is 135 ft (41.1 m), which meant problems with supplying adequate water. The Cam brook was an inadequate source of water above Camerton, and the mills along it had water rights. Each narrow boat travelling through the series of locks (22 of them each 6 ft (1.8 m) deep) with a 25-ton load of coal caused 85 tons of water to be discharged into the brook below the locks. As a result the canal was designed with all 22 locks in one flight near Combe Hay and a pumping engine to raise water from the Cam – the first canal to entirely depend on pumping. A potential solution to the water supply problem was the use of Caisson Locks as proposed by Robert Weldon, three of which could replace the 22 conventional locks, because it wasted no water, however the technology had only been tried in a one-third scale prototype. Each lock was convert|80|ft|m|abbr=on long and convert|60|ft|m|abbr=on deep and contained a closed wooden box which could take a barge. This box moved up and down in the 60 ft (18 m) deep pool of water, which never left the lock. The box was demonstrated to the Prince Regent (later George IV), but had engineering problems and was never successful commercially or built elsewhere.

It was temporarily replaced with an inclined plane whilst 22 locks and a Boulton & Watt Steam Pumping Station, capable of lifting 5,000 tons of water in 12 hours, were built to the latest design with metal plate clad wooden gates. [cite web | title=The Somerset Coal Canal | publisher=Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution | url= | accessdate=2006-10-06] [cite web | title=History of the Caisson Lock On the Somersetshire Coal Canal | work=The Somersetshire Coal Canal (Society) | url= | accessdate=2006-10-06] [cite web | title=Canals and Canal projects | work=Aspects of Somerset History | url= | accessdate=2006-10-09]

Paulton basin

Paulton was the terminus of the northern branch of the Somerset Coal Canal and was a central point for at least 15 collieries around Paulton, Timsbury and High Littleton, which were connected to the canal by tramroads.

On the northern side of Paulton basin was the terminus for the tramroad which served Old Grove, Prior's, Tyning and Hayeswood pits, with a branch line to Amesbury and Mearns pits. Parts of this line were still in use in 1873, probably all carrying horse drawn wagons of coal. The southern side of the basin served Brittens, Littleborrok, Paulton Ham, Paulton Hill, Simons Hill terminating at Salisbury Colliery. In addition the Paulton Foundry used this line. The entire line was disused by 1871 as were the collieries it served. [cite book |last=Down |first=C.G. |coauthors=Warrington, A. J. |title=The history of the Somerset coalfield |year=2005 |publisher=Radstock Museum |location=Radstock |id=ISBN 0-9551684-0-6 ]

The area has been designated as an ‘area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which itis desirable to preserve or enhance’ under section 69 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. [cite web | title=Paulton conservation area character appraisal | work=Bath and North East Somerset Planning | url= |format=PDF| accessdate=2006-12-10]

Coming of the railway

The first railway to affect the canal was the Bristol and North Somerset Railway's Frome to Radstock line completed in 1854 which took traffic away from the tramway. It finally closed in 1874 with the Somerset and Dorset Railway's extension to Bath , built along its route from Radstock to Midford. Another branch line was constructed in 1882 from Hallatrow to Camerton, running alongside the canal for the last convert|1.5|mi|km|0 of its route. The Great Western Railway built a railway line (the Bristol and North Somerset Railway) over much of the canal route from Limpley Stoke to Camerton, where it joined the existing 1882 branch line from Hallatrow to Camerton. This opened in 1910 for passenger and goods traffic, closed for the First World War, reopened after the war but ran for passengers only for two more years in the mid-1920s and finally closed to all traffic in the 1950s. The line was used in the 1950s Ealing comedy film "The Titfield Thunderbolt". [cite book | last = Castens | first = Simon | title = On the Trail of The Titfield Thunderbolt | date = 2002
publisher = Thunderbolt Books | id = ISBN 0-9538771-0-8
] [cite book | last = Mitchell | first = Vic | coauthors = Smith, Keith | title = Frome to Bristol including the Camerton Branch and the "Titfield Thunderbolt" | year = 1996 | month = June | publisher = Middleton Press | id = ISBN 1-873793-77-4]

Canal today

The route of the canal lies in a largely agricultural area dotted with small villages and minor roads. [cite web | title=Area 12 Cam and Wellow Brook Valleys | work=BANES Rural Landscapes | url= | accessdate=2006-10-09]

Despite the building of railways along both arms, there are traces of the Paulton arm of the canal and of the Radstock arm. A short stretch of the canal where it joins the Kennet and Avon at the Dundas Aqueduct was restored during the 1980s, and is used for moorings. Excavations of the old stop lock showed that this had originally been a broad (convert|14|ft|m|0) lock that at some point was narrowed to convert|7|ft|m|0 by moving the lock wall. While some canal features are on private land, the towpath may survive in places as a right of way, while the later railway between Midford to Wellow is being surfaced to form part of National Cycle Route 24. It has been proposed that a statue, commissioned by Sustrans, of William Smith, the father of English Geology, will be sited next to the path on the line of the canal commemorating his work as surveyor on the canal and his recognition of the significance of rock strata. [cite web | title=Bristol and Somerset | work=SUSTRANS | url= | accessdate=2006-10-09]

Grant to study history of the canal

The canal has been studied for many years with exploration and restoration work being undertaken in Wellow and elsewhere. Particular effort, so far unsuccessful, has been put into trying to find the site of the Caisson lock at Combe Hay. In October 2006 a grant of £20,000 was obtained from the Heritage Lottery Fund, by the Somersetshire Coal Canal Society in association with Bath & North East Somerset Council and the Avon Industrial Buildings Trust to carry out a technical study on one of the locks and associated structures at Combe Hay. [cite web | title=Grant unlocks Canal's secret history | work=BANES News Inform 32 | url= | accessdate=2006-10-06] [cite web | title=Canal lock restoration under way | work=BBC News, Somerset | url= | accessdate=2006-10-09] Many of the locks and associated workings are listed buildings. [cite web | title=Flight of 10 locks | work=Images of England | url= | accessdate=2006-10-06] [cite web | title=Remains of the Basin at the bottom of the Inclined Plane | work=Images of England | url= | accessdate=2006-10-06]

ee also

*Canals of Great Britain
*History of the British canal system
*Caisson lock



*cite book |last=Allsop |first=Niall |title=The Somersetshire Coal Canal Rediscovered: A Walker's Guide |year=1993 |publisher=Millstream Books | location=Bath |id=ISBN 0-948975-35-0
*cite book |last=Clew |first=Kenneth R |title=The Somersetshire Coal Canal and Railways |year=1970 |publisher=Bran's Head Books |id=ISBN 0-905220-67-6
*cite book |last=Cornwell |first=John |title=Collieries of Somerset and Bristol |year=2005 |publisher=Landmark Publishing Ltd |id=ISBN 1-84306-170-8
*cite book |last=Halse |first=Roger |coauthors=Castens, Simon | title=The Somersetshire Coal Canal: A Pictorial Journey | year=2000 | publisher=Millstream Books | location=Bath |id=ISBN 0-948975-58-X
*cite book|last=Handley|first=Chris|title=Transport & Industrial Development in the Somerset Coalfield|publisher=Radstock, Midsomer Norton and District Museum Society|location=Radstock|date=2006

External links

* [ Somersetshire Coal Canal Society website]
* [ Richard Stevens site about the canal]

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