The Grand Junction Canal History


Visiting or living in Cosgrove today, it is almost impossible to imagine the village without the canal. It is “A Highway laid in Water” bisecting the village – had it been a road, the village might have disappeared long ago. As a canal, it lends a tranquil layer of residents, history and possibilities to the village: we shall see from the history below that it helped to preserve the village into the 21st century.

Like the rest of Britain, Cosgrove in the middle of the 18th century had been reshaped by the Agricultural Revolution and Inclosure. The Industrial Revolution was gathering pace around the country and transport to move food and other goods to expanding cities was urgently needed. The roads of Britain had been neglected for centuries and despite the setting up of Turnpike Trusts (which also impacted on Cosgrove) costs of road transport were prohibitive.

The success of the Bridgewater Canal to Manchester demonstrated that water transport could be the answer. The great challenge was to plan a waterway that would serve Britain’s capital, London, linking it to the industrial cities of the North and West. Routes were first tried through Oxford, but the distances involved from Birmingham using this route were long, and the lure of a straight line from Braunston to London was identified.

Proposals for the direct route Grand Junction Scheme first became public in April 1792 and were reviewed in the Northampton Mercury on 14th April. The survey work was commissioned and paid for by the Marquis of Buckingham and the work had been carried out by James Barnes of Banbury, an engineer who had previously worked on the Oxford Canal.

George Nugent-Temple Grenville (1753–1813), 1st Marquis of Buckingham, was the second son of George Grenville and Elizabeth Wyndham.  Educated at Eton and Oxford (which he left without a degree), Grenville entered Parliament in 1774 where he was a sharp critic of the American War of Independence.  In 1782 he served a short term as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, returning to English politics the following year.  For his services to George III, Grenville was created Marquis of Buckingham in December 1784 (although he desired and was peeved at not having received a dukedom).  Between 1787 and 1789 he served a second term as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, proving effective but unpopular in the role.  Following his return to England, he played little active part in politics although his views on Irish affairs, in which he was an early advocate of Catholic emancipation, continued to be respected.

Buckingham was a man of considerable industry and some financial ability, but he did not shun expense in what he considered good or useful causes.  He commissioned and paid for James Barnes to make an initial survey for a route for the Grand Junction Canal, became a major shareholder in the Grand Junction Canal Company, and was one of the principal sponsors of the 1793 Grand Junction Canal Act.  His help was recognised by the proprietors at the first ‘General Assembly’, held on 1st June, 1793 at the Crown & Anchor Tavern in the Strand . . . .

“Another vote of thanks went to the Marquis of Buckingham, who had given very strong support to the project and who was described at the meeting as ‘Projector and Patron of the undertaking’.  Indeed, the Marquis’s coat-of-arms was incorporated into the Company’s official seal.”

The Grand Junction Canal, Alan H. Faulkner, David and Charles (1972)

The Marquis also helped the economy of the area around his family seat at Stowe by lending the Company the cost of constructing the Buckingham branch of the Grand Junction Canal.  The branch was to prove of considerable benefit to the town and its locality until the 1850s, when its trade was taken by the railways. 

A meeting was announced which was to be held on Friday 20th July 1792 at 11 am at the Bull Inn, Stony Stratford, but in the event so many people turned up that it had to be convened at the Parish Church, opposite, so that everyone could be accommodated. Barnes’ plans were displayed and they were accepted enthusiastically. It was decided to apply for an Act of Parliament to carry out the project as soon as possible.

Chester Chronicle Friday 3rd August 1792

Grand Junction Canal

The meeting held at Stoney-Stratford a few days ago was the most numerous and respectable ever remembered on such an occasion. No room in the town being capable of holding one tenth part of the company, the church was appropriated for the purpose; which, tho’ large, was much crowded.

The business was opened by the Marquis of Buckingham, who, in a speech of considerable length, stated the part he had taken in bringing forward the measure, and fully explained the utility, as well as practicability of the scheme; which met with warm approbation. Several other gentlemen spoke on the occasion; and after a few objections had been started by some, which were fully answered by others, the plan was unanimously adopted.

The sum wanted to complete the business was estimated at 350,000l, towards which the company present were allowed to subscribe 250,000l, and the remaining 100,000l was left open to accommodate the owners of the estates through which the canal is intended to pass, So very anxious was everyone to have concern in a measure, which seemed to unite public utility with private advantage, that before nine in the evening the enormous sum of 361,900l was subscribed, (in shares of not more than 100l each) which is more than will be wanted to complete the whole scheme; and it is generally believed, had a million of money been required, the company present would have engaged for it.

This plan, when executed, will unite all other canals in the kingdom with the metropolis; and cannot fail being the source of great wealth and convenience, both to the present and future generations.

Worth in today’s money

350,000l  =  £27,000,000

250,000l  =  £20,000,000

100,000l  =  £7,000,000

361,900l  =  £27,779,842

From the initial plan we can see that the mill was important enough at this stage to divert the planned route – this would also have left the Priory unaffected, as well as Cosgrove’s Main Street. In fact the Canal was built without this diversion in the end – presumably for technical and financial reasons which further research may reveal.

A Committee was formed, the chairman being William Praed, MP for St Ives, Cornwall, who lived at Tyringham Hall in Newport Pagnell. A select committee of five was elected and Edward Oakley Grey of Buckingham and Acton Chaplin of Aylesbury were appointed solicitors and clerks. Philip Box of Buckingham was appointed Treasurer.

A subscribers’ list was opened and it was decided that the initial capital should be £350,000 in £100 shares. No one person was allowed to subscribe for more than ten shares. An immediate call of £1 per sharer was to be made to the Treasurer by 1st September to help pay for further surveying, meetings and applying for the Act. To encourage landowners whose property would be crossed by the canal to support the scheme they were given the option to apply for shares in the proportion of one share for every one-eighth of a mile used, up to the maximum of ten shares.

As an essential first step before applying for an Act, Barnes was told to draw up a detailed plan and section of the proposed line, and the committee was asked to approach William Jessop, one of the leading civil engineers of the day, or if he declined, some other competent engineer, to examine and verify Barnes’ plans.

Jessop, of Devonport, was little recognised by contemporaries except thus:

“Mr. Jessop was among the most eminent engineers of his day.  His father was engaged under Smeaton in the building of the Eddystone Lighthouse; and, dying in 1761, he left the guardianship of his family to Mr. Smeaton, who adopted William as his pupil, and carefully brought him up to the same profession.  Jessop continued with Smeaton for about ten years; and, after leaving him, he was engaged successively on the Aire and Calder, the Calder and Hebble, and the Trent Navigations.  He also executed the Cromford and the Nottingham Canals; the Loughborough and Leicester, and the Horncastle Navigations; but the most extensive and important of his works of this kind was the Grand Junction Canal, by which the whole of the north-western inland navigation of the kingdom was brought into direct connection with the metropolis.  He was also employed as engineer for the Caledonian Canal, in which he was succeeded by Telford, who carried out the work.  Mr. Jessop was the engineer of the West India Docks (1800-2), and of the Bristol Docks (1803-8), both works of great importance.  He was the first engineer employed to lay out and construct railroads, as a branch of his profession; the Croydon and Merstham Railroad, worked by donkeys and mules, having been constructed by him as early as 1803.  He also laid down short railways in connection with his canals in Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Nottinghamshire.  During the later years of his life he was much afflicted by paralysis, and died in 1814.”

Samuel Smiles – Lives of the Engineers (1862)

At the beginning of September 1792 the statutory notices were published in the principal papers covering places on the proposed route.

Various alternatives and proposals for branches were included. At a meeting at Northampton on November 25th Jessop reported his re-survey findings and made recommendations for variations to Barnes’ original proposal. Jessop estimated that the cost of the main canal, with a top width of 42 feet, a bottom width of 28 feet and a depth of 4½ feet, with locks 14½ feet wide and 80 feet long, to take Thames or Trent barges, would be £372,175.

Competitor companies with an interest in promoting the Oxford Canal and the Hampton Gay project over the Grand Junction Canal had likewise drawn up plans. But powerful landowners such as the Duke of Grafton and Earl Spencer supported the Grand Junction, whose committee agreed to a £10,000 per year guarantee of income. After that there was little further opposition and the Act had its third reading in March 1793, was passed by the committee of the House of Lords at the end of April and received the Royal Assent on April 30th 1793.

Under the Act the shareholders were incorporated as “The Company of Proprietors of the Grand Junction Canal” with the power to raise £500,000 in £100 shares, with a further £100,000 should it be needed. Various tonnage rates were authorised – lime and limestone could be charged at ¼d per ton mile; livestock, bricks and certain other building materials, manure, pig-iron, pig lead and iron stone ½d per ton mile, coal and coke 3/4d per ton mile and all other goods 1d per ton mile on the Cosgrove stretch. Sand and gravel and other materials for making and repairing public roads, and manure for the land, could be carried free of toll provided they did not pass through any locks.

The Act required the appointment of Commissioners, drawn from landowners and other responsible people along the route, who were to settle all differences and assess damages and compensations on account of the canal works. Wharfage dues were set out, regulations governing the taking of water form streams and rivers were specified, the placement of the towing path, opening hours and rules for operation of the locks were all laid down.

The Iron Trunk Aqueduct

Initially, nine locks were used in a temporary arrangement to lower and raise the canal for the crossing of the River Great Ouse at Wolverton at the river's water level. In 1799 William Jessop designed a three arch masonry aqueduct and embankment to cross the river and replace the locks.

The original plan had been to take the canal across the Ouse at river level, using two four lock flights to descend into and ascend out of the Ouse Valley.  This scheme would have slowed canal traffic and wasted water, besides leaving the canal vulnerable to river flooding.  In 1800 Barnes suggested, as an alternative, carrying the canal cross the Ouse Valley on a high embankment using an aqueduct to bridge the river. 

This proposal was accepted, but as the embankment and aqueduct were expected to take two years to complete, a temporary locking system was installed to permit traffic to cross the Great Ouse valley while the embankment and aqueduct were being built. 

All was not well with the Navigators’ workforce. During construction of the Wolverton Embankment on the Grand Junction Canal, a demand for higher wages met with this directive from the Board to the site engineer . . . .

“ . . . . to discharge at all risqué these offenders, and to use his utmost endeavours to bring them to Justice, and to call on the Magistracy and Yeomanry of this County to repress and punish all acts of Outrage and Violence and an illegal conspiracy or combination for increase of wages.”

GJCC Minute Book, 5 May, 1801

The work was put out to tender, and in December 1802, a contract was let to a consortium headed by Thomas Harrison of Wolverton.  Work on the embankment and on the three-arched brick and stone aqueduct, to Jessop’s design, commenced in August 1803 and was opened to traffic on 25th August, 1805.  However, in January 1806, a section of the embankment failed; this was repaired, the failure being attributed to poor workmanship by the contractor, who disputed this claim and submitted an account of additions of his own.  In 1807, Benjamin Bevan, of Leighton Buzzard and Henry Provis were assigned to examine the contractor’s claims.  By this time Jessop’s aqueduct was showing signs of failure and in February 1808 it collapsed, severing the canal.  Fortunately the locking system across the Great Ouse valley was still in place and was used to bypass the failed aqueduct. 

As a temporary solution, Provis designed a wooden trough to bridge the Great Ouse, Bevan being given the task of designing a permanent replacement.  Telford’s cast iron trough aqueduct at Pontcysyllte had by now proved itself, and Bevan adopted this construction for his structure, although the Ouse aqueduct troughs had to be substantially larger and stronger than at Pontcysyllte due the Grand Junction Canal’s greater width.  The iron units were cast at the Ketley foundry at Coalbrookdale, transported to Cosgrove by canal and assembled and erected on site.  During its long life, Bevan’s iron aqueduct has experienced only two stoppages for maintenance, in 1921 and in 1986.

An artist’s impression of the Cosgrove Embankment under construction, showing Jessop’s aqueduct and the original scheme for crossing the valley.

Contemporary sources tell the story below:

“GRAND JUNCTION CANAL.―We are happy to announce the completion of nearly all the great works which are going on upon this important and extensive line of navigation. On Monday morning last, the stupendous embankment between Wolverton and Cosgrove, near Stony-Stratford, was opened for the use of the trade. By this great work nine locks by its side, four down and five up, are avoided, and one level sheet of water is now formed, from Stoke Bruerne to some miles south of Fenny Stratford (this overlooks the lock at Cosgrove), as well as on the Buckingham branch, extending to within a mile of that town. The embankment seems to possess great stability.

The branch and iron railway, that is to connect the Grand Junction Canal with the New River at the town of Northampton, as also with the Leicestershire and Northampton Union Canal, are proceeding rapidly, and their completion may be expected about the end of next month.”

The Morning Post, 30 August 1805

Others were not quite so confident:

“All the works of that extensive and complicated undertaking, the Grand Junction Canal, are now completed.  The stupendous embankment that had been raised between the villages of Wolverton and Cosgrove, near the market town of Stony Stratford, has been lately opened for the use of trade and internal navigation. . . . The arches erected under this embankment, to create a passage for the river Ouse, which arches were believed and reported to be in a sinking state soon after the central arches were struck, are at present considered as sufficiently firm, and the embankment is thought to possess all imaginable strength and durability.”

The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, July-Dec, 1805

Reference to the “arches were believed and reported to be in a sinking state” refers to the three arches of a brick-built aqueduct, designed by Jessop, which carried the embankment over the Great Ouse.  When the timber shoring was removed the aqueduct began to show signs of failure . . . .

“After its erection Mr. Bevan, the engineer, of Leighton Buzzard, being called upon, gave it as his opinion, it would not stand twelve months; his prediction was verified, for in less than six months after its construction, the materials were so indifferent, that a continued leak of the aqueduct was observable.”

A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal in 1819, John Hassell (1819)

The embankment had experienced slippage in 1806, shortly after its opening.  This was repaired, to be followed in February 1808 by failure of the aqueduct:

“On Friday morning last the inhabitants of this town were thrown into the utmost consternation, by information which arrived from Wolverton, that the large embankment for carrying the new line of the Grand Junction Canal across our valley, about a mile below this town, had fallen in; and that the river Ouse was so dammed up thereby, that this town must shortly be intirely inundated to a great depth.  I hastened to the spot, where my fears were very much allayed, by finding that one of these arches, which had been propped up underneath with timber, soon after the centres were removed, was still standing; and that this one arch, owing to there being no flood in the river, was able to carry off the water of the river as fast as it came down.  On examining the other two arches, I found that about 22 yards in length of the middle part of each had fallen in, and blocked up the arches, laying the canal above in complete ruins, emptying it as far as the nearest stop-gate on each side, and exposing the remains of 500 quarters of coke and cinders which the contractors had lain in the arches.  The ends of each of the broken arches were found standing in a crippled state.  Most fortunately for the Public, as well as the Company, the old line of the canal and locks across the valley are still remaining, and in sufficient repair, immediately to convey the barges, and prevent interruption to trade: but the loss of £400 per month, which I am told has of late been the amount of extra tonnage received by the Company for goods passing over this embankment, will be lost to them during the period of re-building the arches and repairing the canal over them.”

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 27th February, 1808

With the locks in place the canal opened for traffic in the autumn of 1800. Work started on the aqueduct two years later. The contractor, interestingly enough, was Thomas Harrison himself. Harrison was not without previous experience in canal ventures although he had nor been involved in any completed projects. He was not an entirely disinterested party in the coming of the canal to Wolverton . Harrison was inclined to spread his investments widely but he was not an investor (as far as we know) in the Grand Junction Canal, but it was as a building contractor that he won the contract for the construction of the aqueduct over the River Ouse. Today we might detect a whiff of conflict of interest, but the Trustees did not seem to notice, or at least not record any objections and had full confidence in Harrison in such matters. The Canal Company must have been of like mind because they did award him the contract. The aqueduct was built with three arches to support a wooden trunk which was lined with clay to prevent leaks - which it failed to do. The design was flawed. Boats began to use it in August 1805 but it was probably a perilous structure from the start. A few months later part of the embankment slipped. Repairs were effected but the Company Architect was not satisfied. Arguments about who was at fault went back and forth between Harrison and the Canal Company until February 1808 when the aqueduct spectacularly crashed overnight.

The lockkeeper at Cosgrove, a Mr Cherry, was the first to notice the disaster at 1 1 pm that night and had the presence of mind to close the gates at his end and send out the alarm. Most Wolverton houses were high enough above the valley to be unaffected, but there was great consternation at the mills and at Stony Stratford about the prospect of flooding. Farmers also became anxious about their livestock in the meadows. That this happened in the middle of the night only aggravated the anxiety, but when daylight came, although the valley was in flood, it was no worse than a normal winter’s flood and apparently livestock losses were minimal. In three days the water level subsided and even though an enormous quantity of earth had slipped into the river there was still an unblocked channel for the river course..

from "Manno's Manor "- Bryan Dunleavy

A subsequent investigation attributed the aqueduct’s failure, not to deficiency in Jessop’s design, but to poor workmanship on the part of the contractor.  The legal dispute with the contractor that followed was settled in the Company’s favour, with damages being awarded for loss of trade and the cost of the replacement. 

Today, the Great Ouse is bridged by Benjamin Bevan’s iron trunk aqueduct of 1811:

“The new aqueduct bridge of the Grand Junction Canal, over the Ouse River, below the town of Stoney Stratford at Wolverton, which has been for some time in preparation, of cast iron, in lieu of that of brick, which fell down in 1808, was on 22nd January, at one o’clock, opened for the passage of boats, the “Empress”, belonging to Mr. Pickford, and his “Queen Charlotte”, being the first of 30 which passed this first metal aqueduct that has been constructed anywhere in the South of England. ― The whole length of the iron-work is 101 feet; it is wide enough for two boats to pass each other, and has a towing path of iron attached to it; it is firm and tight in every part.  Mr. Benjamin Bevan, the Engineer who designed it, and about twenty persons only besides the boatmen were present, no announcement having been made of its completion.  The opening of this Aqueduct and the passage of trade over the embankment, will, it is expected, add full £500 per month to the revenues of the Company.”

The Tradesman Vol. VI., Jan - June, 1811

The Navigators

Digging cuttings, forming embankments and excavating tunnels ― not to mention the construction of bridges, locks, aqueducts and viaducts ― required substantial numbers of men with a wide range of skills.  Collectively, these men became known as ‘navvies’ and they moved with their families to work on engineering projects wherever there was a demand for their labour.  Although many were escaping poverty (and later the famine) in Ireland, contrary to the oft-held belief that the navvies were Irish, they came from all parts of the British Isles and even from Europe.  Out of their harsh working conditions and communal living there gradually evolved a lifestyle, culture and even a language. They also acquired a reputation for hard living, hard drinking (alcohol probably providing a temporary release from the toil and privation of their daily lives) and fighting, which often led the local communities within which they worked to regard them as degenerate and a threat to the social order.

Despite their way of life, it was the navvies who carried the gruelling physical burden of construction work, usually in appalling conditions, with a life spent at other times (when not on the ‘tramp’ between jobs) living in rough timber and turf huts alongside the bridges, tunnels and cuttings on which they worked.  It was inevitable that such conditions would foster disease, and outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and typhus were not uncommon.  Sometimes navvies were able to lodge in nearby towns and villages, but even where suitable accommodation lay nearby, their reputation for thieving and not paying the rent made them undesirable tenants.

Of this community, the ‘skilled’ element comprised the masons, bricklayers and blacksmiths.  The products of the masons’ and bricklayers’ crafts are well preserved in their many surviving stone and brick bridges, viaducts, etc., alas, now sometimes abandoned.  As for the blacksmiths, they sharpened the picks and chisels, and hammered out new tools from wrought-iron.  They also shod the horses, fettled the wagons and ― as the nearest to a mechanic on site ― kept the pumps in working order.

It is, perhaps, inaccurate to refer to the other element as ‘unskilled’, for it took up to a year to turn a common labourer into a navvy capable of excavating 20 tons of earth in a day.  It was they who dug the thousands of miles of our canals and railways using the standard tools of their trade, the pick, the shovel and the wheelbarrow, helped along by horse and cart.  When not digging, other tasks that formed part of a navvy’s typical day were rock blasting (using black powder), spoil tipping, puddling, ballasting and laying railway track.  For this they were comparatively well paid, a good navvy earning up to 30 shillings a week, three times the wage of an agricultural labourer.  But it was dangerous work and the risk of accidents was an accepted part of the job, especially when blasting rock or building tunnels (by candlelight), which were vulnerable to collapses and to gas explosions.  The contractors cared little for the wellbeing of their men, who were poorly trained and often poorly supervised; driven by the principle that ‘time costs money’, speed rather than safety was their main concern. 

The coming of the railway

Robert Stephenson, the son of George Stephenson, who designed the first locomotive, was employed to drive the railway through Wolverton in the 1830s. At Wolverton in December 1834 Robert Stephenson ran into trouble. To construct the long embankment across the Ouse Valley north of Wolverton station he intended to use the spoil from the deep cuttings at Blue Bridge and Loughton to the south, but to do this meant building a temporary timber bridge over the Grand Junction Canal. The canal company, who, for obvious reasons were not inclined to co-operate, disputed his right to build a bridge involving driving piles into their canal banks.

Robert Stephenson decided to surprise the canal company, so on the night of 23rd December 1834 he assembled a strong force of artisans and navvies at Wolverton and began building the bridge by torchlight. All through Christmas Eve the work went on, until at noon on Christmas Day the bridge was finished.

 The infuriated canal company did not take this affront quietly. On 30 December their engineer, Lake, advanced on Wolverton with a stronger detachment of workers, who proceeded to demolish the piles and completely demolish the bridge.

The last act in this drama was fought out in January 1835 in the Court of Chancery, where the railway company sought [and gained] an injunction from putting down, taking up or destroying any of their works.


“George & Robert Stephenson: The Railway Revolution” By LTC Rolt


“The Grand Junction Canal” Alan H Faulkner 1972

The Old Mail  Ian Petticrew and Wendy Austin