English and Bristol Channels Ship Canal
Robert Whitworth, under James Brindley’s supervision, surveyed two separate routes with the aim of linking the English Channel to the Bristol Channel. One of his proposals was to have started on the south coast at Seaton, east of Exeter, and run north to the River Parrett at Langport. The Parrett would have taken the route to Bridgwater and then into the Bristol Channel. The second route would have run a little further to the west via Taunton and Exeter. However, at this point nothing was done and some 15 years later it was Whitworth’s second route via Taunton and Exeter which saw some light of day. The Bridgwater to Seaton route was not completely forgotten however.
John Rennie was asked to survey a line to link Bridgwater to the Devon coast near Seaton on the River Axe. This was just one of a number of channel to channel projects during this period. Rennie’s Grand Western Canal (just to the west) was struggling to “make ends meet” and the Dorset & Somerset Canal (to the east) had already run out of money with only a few miles of unnavigable canal constructed. Although Rennie completed his survey, at this time nothing was done on the route between Bridgwater and Seaton.
Another survey was made with the hope of connecting the English Channel to the Bristol Channel at Bridgwater and Seaton, this time by the highly successful Thomas Telford who had recently engineered the huge Caledonian Canal in Scotland. He proposed a route similar to Rennie’s original survey but his proposal called for a much wider and straighter route as canal construction methods had much improved since Rennie’s survey. Although nothing was done at this stage it was Telford’s ideas which made up the bulk of the final proposed route a few years later.
James Green, a West Country engineer who had built a number of narrow canals in the area, was asked to make a final survey.His report echoed Telford’s earlier survey.
A Bill was passed in Parliament allowing the building of a broad and deep waterway which would cut right across the West Country and would be named the English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal.
The new canal was proposed to run from Stolford on the Bristol Channel within Bridgwater Bay to Beer near Seaton on the south coast.
It was to be 44 miles long with 60 locks, it was to carry ships up to 200 tons and there was to be harbours at both ends.
However, before the company could start building it needed to raise £1,750,000. Gone were the days when any old ditch would be over subscribed by canal hungry businessmen, the English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal struggled to raise any cash at all.
After trying to raise money for three years the company announced with great sadness that it now looked impossible that such a hefty sum of money could be raised. The country was going through something of a lull in speculative activity, people were now much less willing to simply gamble their money away.
Meanwhile all other attempts at building a channel to channel link had ended. The Grand Western and Bridgwater & Taunton route had fell well short while the Dorset & Somerset Canal never saw a boat. Steam power was well on the way by now and new steam ships did not have the worries or problems that sailing ships had while travelling around the fierce and rocky Cornwall coast. A canal short cut would have been a welcome haven for sailing boats but, with its many locks and high tolls, it was far from attractive to powerful steam ships. And so, the idea of a channel to channel canal was dropped… but not quite forever…
A Mr. Hern of Cardiff began to promote a canal across the West Country. His idea was to have a massive ship canal rivalling any other ever built. It would carry 15,000 ton ships but, he said, would also be attractive to pleasure seekers and holiday makers who could use the canal on route to places such as Torquay and the Isle of Wight. Sadly for Mr. Hern, nobody else who mattered seemed to agree with him and the English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal was never built.