THE GRAND JUNCTION CANAL
LAID WITH WATER.
An account of the Grand Junction Canal, 1792 -
1928, with a postscript.
Ian Petticrew and Wendy Austin.
We describe the following narrative as an ‘account’ rather than a
‘history’ to distinguish between a work based mainly on secondary sources such
as books, periodicals and newspapers ― albeit contemporary with the
period or event being described ― from one that draws mainly on primary sources,
which in this case would be the Grand Junction Canal Company’s
accounts and supporting records, minutes of meetings, circulars,
correspondence and legal documents. Readers in search of such a history may wish to refer to
The Grand Junction Canal by Alan H. Faulkner (David & Charles, 1972) and to
The Canals of the East Midlands by Charles Hadfield (David & Charles, 1966).
William Jessop, Engineer by Charles Hadfield and A. W. Skempton (David &
Charles, 1979) provides a biography of the Grand Junction Canal’s Chief Engineer
at the time of its construction.
Our account began life as a local history project relating to the
market town of Tring in north-west Hertfordshire. Our aim was to document
the history of the Grand Junction Canal in the locality, with
particular emphasis on its wharves, their wharfingers and traders, the
types and volumes of goods passing over them, significant dates and, most
importantly, the impact that the Canal had on the development of the town and its
surrounding area. We set our boundary as the main line between Marsworth Junction
and Northchurch, the branch canals to Aylesbury and Wendover and, for good
measure, the Tring
Reservoirs. That, we felt, was sufficient for our purpose; it was at any
rate as much as time and budget would permit, for expeditions to the the
National, County and British Waterways archives, not to mention libraries and
museums, soon consume available
resources under both headings.
Local historians share with magpies the habit of collecting, not shiny objects,
as a rule, but documents, images and artefacts relating to their locality.
Among the collection we had amassed over the years was a fair amount of material
relating to the Grand Junction Canal (since 1929, the southern section of the
Grand Union Canal), most of it concerning the Canal’s construction and the
problems associated with ensuring a sufficient supply of water to the Tring
summit. We believed that more focussed digging would unearth material
relating to the Canal’s commercial life in our locality, but dig as we could we
found very little. It was almost as if our canal wharf was regarded during its
commercial heyday as commonplace and unworthy of comment, in much the same way
that we might today view a local filling station or supermarket. And so it
looked as if the product of our endeavours would be much thinner than we had
hoped, containing conclusions based more on conjecture than on fact.
However, in the course of our research we uncovered much information about
aspects of the Canal that lay beyond our boundary and although mostly of a
secondary nature it seemed a pity to waste it. It had also occurred to us
by then that anyone having read our planned ‘fragment’ might reasonably ask,
“Well, what about the rest of it? ― Where does the Canal start and finish?
When was it built? Why was it built? Who built it? What sort
of goods did it carry? What became of it?” etc. And so,
having realised that our original plan was not going to deliver what we had
hoped,* we redefined our objectives and sat down to attempt answers to those
Our account is divided into five sections: Part I. comprises
background material; Part II. gives an account of the Canal’s construction; Part III. provides a brief historical survey of
route, from Braunston to Brentford including the important Paddington Arm; Part IV. deals
with the coming of the railways and the Canal’s commercial decline; and, as a postscript,
Part V. provides an account of the waterway following the amalgamations and
acquisitions that took effect in 1929, 1932 and 1948.
We hope that you find our account interesting and informative.
I.P. & W.A.
* . .
. . what
little local information we did unearth we published separately under the titles
‘The Wendover Arm’, ‘The
Aylesbury Arm’ and ‘The
Waterway comes to Tring’ (hard copy only). We have added our
conclusions on the
Canal’s impact on the
Tring in the Addenda.