The Ship Canal: Bridgewater Bay to Beer

The Ship Canal: Bridgewater Bay to Beer

The Copper Bolt fixed in the wall of Axmouth church is still there, inside the Tower of the Church itself, a reminder of an age gone by.  And so we come to probably the most ambitious scheme of them all, the plan for making a Ship Canal between the Bristol and the English Channel, in order to avoid the dangerous navigation round Lands End, especially in the winter.

Axmouth Church, East Devon

Axmouth Church, East Devon

Thomas Telford was commissioned to make the survey, helped by Captain Nicholls and James Green.  They used the levels of Green’s earlier scheme, but even then they must have moved quickly, for their preliminary report was published in mid-August, after a meeting on the 9th June 1824 in London.

A subscription list was immediately opened.  The full report followed in December and was adopted at a meeting at the London coffee-house on the 16th.  The engineers chose a line to the west of the 1809 route, and proposed a Ship Canal of 15 feet deep, 90 feet wide and capable of being navigated by ships of two hundred tons register.  There would be 30 locks from Stolford in Bridgewater Bay, to Beer.  The cost, including two harbours, was estimated at £1,712,844; the revenue at £210,847 p.a. and the expenses at £22,000 p.a.

The parliamentary line of this intended Ship Canal, commences in the English Channel at Beer Roads, Seaton Bay, whence it takes a north – eastwardly course skirting the shore to the village of Seaton; thence running parallel with the Axe River, to Colyford, where it crosses the River Coly, a mile south of the town of Colyton thence continuing in the vale of the Axe, by Whitford, to the River Yarty, which it crossed by an aqueduct; thence half a mile west of the town of Axminster, and across the little river Kilbridge to Hurtham, where it quits the valley and proceeds north ways a mile east of Chard, to its summit level. Hence its course is over a flat and uninteresting country for the space of twelve miles and a half, without a lock; thence it passes Thornfalcon, and across the navigable River Tone by an aqueduct, about five miles east of Taunton.  The line from the Tone runs parallel, for some miles, with the intended Bridgewater, which it passes on its west side, and thence north – westwardly Wembdon, to the River Parrett, along the shore of which it continues to Combwich where it leaves the river, and running direct to Stolford locks down into Bridgewater Bay, in the Bristol Channel.

The Canal will be forty four miles and five furlongs in length; in the first eleven miles and three quarters, from Seaton Bay, it rises 245 feet, by twenty-nine locks, to low water in the Bristol Channel.  By the section here described, it would seem as though the levels had been mis-stated by us, or that an error had been committed in taking them; but the apparent discrepancy is to be accounted for by the different rise of the tides in the two channels.  At Bridgwater Bay in the Bristol Channel, the ordinary spring tides are 36 feet 6 inches, and the high spring tides rise 40 feet; while in Seaton Bay, in the English Channel, the ordinary Spring tides are but 12 feet, and the high spring tides seldom exceed 15 feet 6 inches, so that the latter in the Bristol Channel are higher by 2 feet than in the English channel whilst the low water line is 22 Feet 7 inches below it.

At the same time as he has surveyed the Exeter & Uphill line in 1769, Whitworth had studied another route across Somerset from the Parrett near Langport to Seaton, which did not however, enter the sea.  During the Canal mania of the early 1790s,  Whitworth himself was called back to re-survey this old line to the Parrett, which he again found practicable.

In august 1793, the idea was revived as the Chard Canal, not to be confused with the Chard Canal authorised in 1834 and later built.

Another survey was then made by Josiah Easton, and a rather different and more expensive route was worked out.  This was proposed as a line from the English Channel at Axmouth near Seaton, via Axminster, Chard, Ilminster, Creech St Michael, Bridgewater, Huntspill and Congresbury to the collieries at Backwell near Nailsea, where it would join another from Backwell via Yatton, to Uphill, near Weston-Super-Mare, which has also been suggested, perhaps by a different set of promoters.  There would be a branch from the main line near Chard to Crewkerne, and another form West Hatch to Ruggin near West Buckland, Wellington.

These plans were brought before a meeting on 29th August 1794, and approved; a Committee was appointed, and a decision taken to apply for an Act.  Because the proposed line covered part of the same course as the Bristol – Taunton project, many meetings and much bargaining ensued between the promoters of the Chard, the Bristol and Western, (now called the Bristol and Taunton) and the Grand Western.  A year later the Chard agreed to join the Bristol and Taunton near Taunton, still with the Crewkerne and Ruggin branches, the canals to be of the same depth of 5ft, and width of 30ft at top.

The Chard promoters evidently thought that this agreement for a through English-Bristol Channels line might eliminate the Grand Western scheme, for they reported in August 1795 that they “might be further extended to Wellington, and to near the town of Tiverton”.  The Western committee obtained an Act, and the other two plans lay dormant.

Between 1809, and 1821, several more attempts were made to revive the English and Bristol Channels Canal, and it was even suggested at one stage to reject the barge Canal, and go for a small ship canal for vessels of 120 tons, a figure which would cover most of the coasting craft at that time.  This would start, not in the Parrett, but from a wet-dock at Combwich, which is above Bridgewater, and would be the mouth, and run by Bridgewater and Langport, up the Parett Vale to a summit near Chard, and down the Axe Valley past Axminster to Seaton, where there would be another dock, with a resort harbour at Beer.  Except for the northern section, this line south of Langport closely followed Whitworth’s of 1769.  The estimate was £1,330,084 of which £150,000 was for the resort harbour at Beer.

The next thing of local interest is a small piece, which reads as follows; Axmouth is a station of the survey made in 1837 to ascertain the difference of level between the Bristol and English Channels, and to establish marks by which any future movement of the land may be detected.

For this purpose a Copper Bolt has been fixed in the wall of Axmouth Church, and another in a Granite block on the ground.

by Ted Gosling

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Ted's written over 40 books on local history and is a walking encyclopedia on all things Devon. He's also Curator of the Axe Valley Heritage Centre at Seaton and was recently made a Free Man of Seaton.