Grand Union Canal (Grand Junction Canal)

The Grand Union Canal was born out of frustration over the length and time taken to travel between the fast growing city of Birmingham and the country's capital, London. It was also an attempt to convert the whole canal system to a new broad waterway network, which would have replaced dozens of ageing narrow canals. This was not the first waterway route to link Birmingham to London....

The first link between Birmingham and London became possible when the Thames & Severn Canal opened in Gloucestershire. However, it was a very roundabout route indeed. It started by travelling north for over 10 miles from Birmingham to Wolverhampton on the Birmingham Canal.

Boats then joined the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal and travelled south west to Stourport where they joined the River Severn. At Framilode (south of Gloucester) the route joined the Stroudwater Canal and then the Thames & Severn Canal to Lechlade on the Upper Thames. However, the river between Lechlade and Oxford was very difficult and often impossible to navigate. From Oxford the route stayed on the Thames to London. The total length of the journey was 280 miles and it was impossible for one boat to do the whole journey. Transhipment was needed to travel down the Thames and probably also needed at Stourport and on Thames & Severn Canal.

The above route used parts of Brindley's original "Grand Cross" route which he intended to create to link the rivers Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames. However, Brindley had died in 1772 and the link to the Thames had fallen well short when both the Oxford and Coventry canals had run out of money. In the early 1780's new attempts were made to finish the line and include a link into Birmingham. The Coventry, Oxford and Thames Route

After a lot of arguing and persuading, the Coventry and Oxford canals completed their routes and the Birmingham Canal Company built the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. This new route to London opened just a few months after the first (described above), it left Birmingham in a more direct way though still heading north!

The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal ran to Tamworth (north east of Birmingham) and then the Coventry Canal headed east and then south east to a junction with the Oxford Canal.

The Oxford Canal was designed by Brindley and being one of the first to be built it was an incredibly long meandering route, following the contours of the land, winding around in every direction before finally heading south (at Napton) towards the Thames.

The route joined the Thames in Oxford and the total length from Birmingham to London was now 228 miles but transhipment from narrow boat to Thames lighter was still necessary at Oxford.

The new route was undoubtedly a vast improvement but it should be noted that the length of the journey today, as the M40 flies, is just 111 miles! The traders of the day didn't know this but they did know a shorter route of some description was desperately needed. It soon became apparent that the meandering and narrow Oxford Canal was never going to cope with the ever increasing loads attempting to travel on it.

The first proposals were put together for a much shorter and more direct route between London and Birmingham. The plan was put forward for what was initially to be called the Braunston Canal, it would knock the total length of the journey down to 170 miles. Of course the new canal wouldn't just link Birmingham to London, it would also link the whole of the northern canal network to the capital. The Trent & Mersey could be reached via the Oxford and Coventry canals and that meant the Potteries, Manchester, Liverpool and Yorkshire would all be linked to London. However, there would still be the need for a short section (about 12 miles) of the Thames to be used from Brentford to the city.

The enthusiasm for the new route was huge. Dozens of other proposals were put forward to connect towns and cities to the new canal via arms and branches. However, while most companies and individuals were excited about the new canal, one company who can not be blamed for being 100% against it was the Oxford Canal Company. They had the monopoly on traffic from the north to London and knew only too well that the new route would virtually wipe out their southern section which had been so difficult and costly to build. To fight back they promoted a London route of their own which was named the London & Western Canal. The proposed route would have linked the (southern) Oxford Canal at Hampton Gay to Isleworth via Thame, Wendover, Amersham and Uxbridge. For a while the scheme generated great support but people soon realised the southern parts of the Oxford Canal had to be by-passed and thus the Braunston Canal regained its number one position.

The first survey for the new canal, which was now to be called the Grand Junction Canal, was made by James Barnes who ironically was the man who'd built the Oxford Canal following James Brindley's death. Six months later William Jessop was also asked to survey a route and his plan was similar to Barnes' apart from the final portion in north west London where Barnes had planned on going through Harrow but Jessop decided to go through Uxbridge.

An Act of Parliament authorised the construction of the new route which was planned to leave the Thames at Brentford (11 miles west of London) and travel as straight as possible to Braunston where it would join the Oxford Canal well past the main bulk of that canal's bends and loops. Even then, the northern part of the Oxford Canal still had its long drawn-out moments but the new Grand Junction line would cut down the time of the journey from London to Birmingham by several days.

£600,000 was raised to build the canal and the company had some very prestigious members on its board. These included Earl Spencer, the Earl of Essex, Earl of Clarendon and the Duke of Grafton. The Marquis of Buckingham was also a strong supporter. It always helped to have as many peers as possible behind your venture in those days as it was still the House of Lords who granted and refused Bills in Parliament.In the early 1800's the House of Commons began to make more of the decisions and suddenly companies were backed by MP's rather than Lords.The amount of dignitaries on the committee gave the Grand Junction Canal substantial political dominance and made life a whole lot easier for it than would normally have been the case.

The Grand Junction Canal was to be 93 miles long from its link into the Thames to its junction with the Oxford Canal. It was to be a broad canal and would have 2 long tunnels. William Jessop was employed as chief engineer though he was already working on other projects including the Ellesmere Canal and would soon do some of the early work on the Caledonian Canal. James Barnes was appointed resident engineer. Work began at both ends of the route and it was reported that over 3,000 navvies were employed on the canal by the end of the year. The two tunnels, at Braunston and Blisworth, were given top priority as they would take longer than the rest of the canal and would undoubtedly have problems during digging.

The first section of the route was open within 18 months. This was the 10 mile stretch, from the River Thames to Uxbridge, of which the first couple of miles (through Brentford to Hanwell) used the River Brent.

A new Act of Parliament was passed allowing several arms and branches to be connected to the main line. Many of the branches were begun immediately (like the Wendover Arm), others were not started for many years (like the Northampton Arm), while others never saw the light of day at all (including an arm to Daventry and another into Watford).

Problems arose at Braunston Tunnel when the navvies encountered quick sand. The problem was overcome and work continued.Meanwhile, another Act was passed and permission was granted to start building a branch from the main line near Brentford to Paddington in the heart of London.

The first northern section was completed from Braunston Junction, through the completed Braunston Tunnel, to Weedon - a distance of 10 miles.

The Grand Junction Company built their waterway to wide dimensions because, obviously, a wide barge can carry more than a narrow boat. Of course there was no problem with narrow boats from adjoining waterways using the broad canal but wide barges from the Grand Junction Canal were well and truly stuck on the broad waterway. All the adjoining canals into Birmingham were narrow and the Oxford Canal (for one) steadfastly refused to widen any of its route which of course included narrow locks and tunnels.

The Grand Junction Company tried very hard to convince all canal companies to convert to wide beam but few listened.This included two new canals which had just started construction, the Warwick & Birmingham and Warwick & Napton canals.

These two canals, which linked to each other, would connect Birmingham to the Oxford Canal just 5 miles away from Braunston. While this was great news for the Grand Junction Canal it still left any wide barges stranded at Braunston with the narrow Oxford Canal offering the only way forward - either north to the Coventry Canal or west to the new Warwick canals.Furthermore, the Oxford Company made it clear it wanted compensation for loss of its through-route to London and it warned it would charge very high tolls to boats joining it from the Grand Junction Canal.

Another fright came to the Grand Junction Canal when a nation-wide canal scheme began to grow massive support. The idea was much like Brindley's Grand Cross though this time the canal (which would be called the Commercial Canal)would be broad throughout and would connect the rivers Dee, Mersey, Trent and Thames. If successful, this canal would put the Grand Junction out of business before it even opened.

The southern section of the Grand Junction Canal was extended to Hemel Hempstead. On the way there the company had to make the canal look like an ornamental garden as it passed right through the prestigious Cassiobury and Grove parks near Watford. Eleven miles north of Hemel Hempstead the Wendover Arm was "opened" though as yet it was a branch without a trunk! It travelled west for 6 miles from Bulbourne Junction to Wendover. It was primarily built as a vital water feeder for the main line as it entered the Grand Junction at the summit level.However, it also played a large part in the industrial growth of Wendover.

The Bill for the Commercial Canal went to Parliament and to the Grand Junction Company's great relief the Act was refused. Why this happened is not clear but I guess the proposed route would have put far too many successful canals out of business. Also at this time there was the ever growing worry of war with France or even a civil war if British people decided to follow the French into a revolution of their own. Money became scarce and the Commercial Canal would have been very costly.

The financial state of the country also put an end to the Grand Junction Company's attempts to get other canals to widen their routes.On the positive side the Grand Junction soon realised the advantage of their broad tunnels and locks. Narrow boats could pass each other in the tunnels and share the locks. With the ever increasing likelihood of war with France or even invasion of England by Napoleon's forces, the employees of the Grand Junction Canal sent a letter to the committee and to the Marquis of Buckingham (the Lord Lieutenant of the county). The letter pledged their loyalty to the company, their country and their King. It said they would defend all three until their last drop of blood was spilt!

For the 3rd time since the original Act was passed the company had to seek a new Act from Parliament to allow it to raise more money.The northern section was finished to Blisworth where work was still going on within the long tunnel. Meanwhile, the government and military were at last beginning to see the usefulness of canals. In June notices were posted on the canal instructing that all locks should be kept clear as troops on route for Liverpool would use the Grand Junction Canal from Blisworth (although the canal was not officially opened for another 2 years).

The southern end was completed to Tring on the summit level. To the north, some 7 miles south of Stoke Bruerne, there were great problems for the resident engineer James Barnes. An embankment and aqueduct were needed to cross the valley of the River Great Ouse. The first embankment crumbled badly and it took years to build and secure a new one. In the meantime, locks were used to take the canal down to the River Great Ouse allowing boats to cross on the level. However, this was always unsatisfactory due to the danger of floods.

While work was still going on along the Grand Junction Canal, the Warwick & Napton Canal and the Warwick & Birmingham Canal both opened for business. They connected with each other in Warwick and made a continuous line from the centre of Birmingham to the Oxford Canal at Napton On The Hill just a few miles west of Braunston. This meant the final route from Birmingham to London would now avoid the northern Oxford Canal as well as the southern section although a 5 mile portion between Napton and Braunston would still be used. This new route to London (once the Grand Junction was complete) would knock the distance between the cities down to just 150 miles.

As you may well guess, the Oxford Canal Company was more than just a little upset. From being the main route to London just 10 years earlier it was reduced to just a 5 mile link between 2 canals which both wished it wasn't there at all! Financially the Oxford Canal was lucky, not only was it compensated for its lost traffic but it would also be able to charge whatever it felt like for use of the 5 mile link. In May the southern end of the Grand Junction Canal reached Fenny Stratford and by September it reached Stoke Bruerne on the south side of Blisworth Tunnel.

The canal opened to traffic though it was not quite complete. Wolverton Embankment was still being worked on and Blisworth Tunnel was still far from ready for use. The first attempt to dig through the hill had completely failed with numerous collapses.Jessop suggested taking the canal over the top via 29 locks but Robert Whitworth and John Rennie were called in as consultants and they supported James Barnes' idea to start a brand new tunnel on a different line (just 130 yards to the west). Due to financial problems work on the new tunnel could not begin so a toll road was built across the top of the hill.

Resident engineer James Barnes was faced with a strike by the men working on Wolverton embankment. The men wanted higher wages to counter the rise in inflation due to the wars in Europe. Barnes informed the committee who then instructed him to enforce the companies laws and rules and bring all strikers "to justice"! They told him to call on the Magistrates and Yeomen of the county if any man be guilty of outrage, violence, illegal conspiracy or any combination of these in order to increase his wages.

During the same year the branch line from Bulls Bridge (north of Brentford) to Paddington in London was opened. This meant the route from Birmingham to London was now completely man-made as the final river stretch (11 miles of the Thames) had now been by-passed. Goods could now be carried right into the city rather than just to the river's edge. Warehouses and other buildings were built around a basin and the terminus soon became very busy.

With no sign of the new Blisworth Tunnel even being started, Benjamin Outram was called in to build a double-railed tramway to connect the canal at each end and replace the toll road currently being used.

After yet another trip to Parliament the company was allowed to raise more cash and work on Blisworth Tunnel began. In the same year a reservoir was built on the summit level near Tring and Marsworth.This was Wilstone Reservoir which was built on former marsh land. It fed water up (via a pump) into the Wendover Arm which joined the Grand Junction at the top of the Marsworth lock flight.

Blisworth Tunnel opened and the new route between London and Birmingham could be used in its entirety. Blisworth Tunnel had taken 12 years to complete at the huge cost of £90,000. The final canal was 93½ miles long with 101 locks. Branches and Arms put the total up to 136 miles with 137 locks. The cost so far had exceeded Jessop's estimate of £600,000 by a mere(?) £1,046,000, probably the worst estimate of all time!

The canal was an instant success. Coal was its biggest earner, so much so that the government had to charge duty per ton because cheap canal coal from the north was putting local London coal companies out of business. Even with the duty charge the carriage of coal was still the canal's largest single income.

Because the canal was such a long route, passing more different areas and industries than any other waterway, it carried an astonishing amount of different goods. As well as coal, cargoes for London included pig iron, pipe work, bricks, timber, lime, agricultural produce, hay, straw, vegetables, salt, glass, pottery, stone and other manufactured goods.

Cargoes out of London included groceries, raw materials, ashes, cinders, manure and many items from overseas. Where most British Canals were built to serve one or two industries in their area, the Grand Junction was a grand highway - the M1 of its day. But of course it was also a simple country canal to local people and industries along it. It enjoyed all the same local cargoes as any ordinary local canals - especially on its many arms and branches.

Once the canal was open it became apparent that water supplies to the summit level at Tring were not adequate. A second reservoir was built to supplement Wilstone Reservoir. This was Marsworth Reservoir, built right along side the canal next to the lower locks on the Marsworth flight.

During 1806 another example was reported of how useful a canal could be to the military when troops travelled via the Grand Junction Canal from Paddington to Liverpool - on route for Dublin. The journey took just 7 days and left the men fully fit. The usual alternative was a 14 day march which left them tired (not to mention sore of foot)!

The lock flight near Wolverton, which took boats down to and across the River Great Ouse on the level, were at long last replaced by a brick aqueduct and a stable embankment.

A canal was proposed which would have joined the Grand Junction Canal at Marsworth and headed west via Aylesbury and Thame to Abingdon on the River Thames, south of Oxford. The Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal were the main promoters behind this as their canal also joined the River Thames at Abingdon. If the plan had gone ahead it would have created a through route from the Grand Junction to Bristol. In fact, it had been granted an Act of Parliament and would have been called the Western Junction Canal but it was the Grand Junction Canal's reluctance to support the plan that made its promoters give up the whole idea.

The Grand Junction Company felt the route would not be used enough to justify its cost of building and maintenance. Another canal heading west had already failed to gain an Act of Parliament when the Thames Commissioners (among others) strongly objected. It had been designed to join the Grand Junction much further south than the Western Junction proposal, at Cowley. From there it would head west to link with the Kennet & Avon Canal via the Thames at Maidenhead or Marlow. There is no mention in my reference book as to whether or not the Grand Junction supported this route but it certainly never saw the light of day.

A link was proposed (by a company not associated with the Grand Junction Canal) to connect the city of Leicester to the Grand Junction. The Act was passed and work began with Benjamin Bevan as the engineer. The link would leave the Grand Junction Canal near Buckby and travel north east to join the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal at Foxton, south of Leicester. This would give the Grand Junction Canal access to Leicester and Market Harborough which were relatively close by and it would also give them access to places much further afield. These included Nottingham, Derby and even Hull, Sheffield, Leeds and York.

Still in desperate need for more water on the summit level, the Grand Junction Company expanded Wilstone Reservoir.Unfortunately they soon found this still wasn't good enough. Meanwhile, not long after opening, the Great Ouse aqueduct near Wolverton had collapsed during bad weather. A completely new structure, with stone pillars and an iron trough,was built to replace the old brick one.

In London a new canal was proposed which would connect the Paddington Arm in west London to the River Thames on the east side of the city. The Act was granted and work began.

Meanwhile, the people of Northampton wanted their town connected to the Grand Junction Canal. The Grand Junction Company had been waiting to see if the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal Company kept up its proposal to connect Leicester to the River Nene in Northampton but the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal had fallen well short of Northampton. Now that the new link was being built from Buckby to Leicester the Grand Junction Company were left with the job of building a branch into Northampton themselves. At first they constructed a tramway but later, grudgingly, began to build a 5 mile branch line from Gayton Junction.

The link to Leicester opened and was named the Grand Union Canal (not to be confused with the later canal route of the same name). However, the owners of this new route had built it to narrow canal dimensions. This greatly annoyed the Grand Junction Company who had once again pushed for a broad canal. All the same, it meant they had now established access to Leicester and the north without it having cost them a penny.

The Northampton Arm was opened from Gayton Junction into Northampton. Immediately after leaving the main line the new arm dropped down through 13 locks which were, surprisingly, built to narrow dimensions - going against the companies own standards. This probably reflected their reluctance to build the arm in the first place.

They had been reluctant to build the Northampton Arm and were even more reluctant to build the Aylesbury Arm. They did so however, on the insistence of the Marquess of Buckingham. This arm was also completed in 1815.

Despite expanding Wilstone Reservoir 5 years earlier, the company desperately needed more water. Two more reservoirs (to make 4 in all) were begun. The first to be completed was Tringford Reservoir to the west of the Grand Junction Canal, close to Wilstone and Marsworth reservoirs.

The 4th and final reservoir was completed at Tring. This was Startopsend Reservoir, built just north of Marsworth Reservoir alongside the bottom lock of the Marsworth flight. All 4 reservoirs (all within a ½ mile radius of each other) were interconnected by culverts which fed the Wendover Arm near its junction with the main line. Rain water was not enough to replenish the thirsty canal, water was fed into the 4 reservoirs from every nearby stream, from run-offs and even from the local sewage works. But even this was not enough in dry weather.

A pumping station at Tringford opened to improve the feed from the 4 Tring reservoirs. It used a Boulton & Watt engine and began pumping water into the Wendover Arm in August of 1818. For a short period the reservoirs just about coped with the heavy lock usage, but not for long.

The Regents Canal (owned by a separate company) opened in the heart of London. It connected to the Paddington Branch on the west of the city and ran to Limehouse on the east side. On route it passed many large trading areas such as Camden and Islington and many more were soon established along the line.

Threats of things to come arrived early to the Grand Junction Canal when John Rennie was asked to survey a line for a railway between London and Birmingham. Being a much stronger company than most other canals the Grand Junction was able to look at this with less panic than most. In November it was decided to take a detailed study looking into the future of railways and how the canal could be improved to compete.However, where the company were strong, the shareholders were not and the mere threat of a railway caused share values to plummet. Luckily there was (yet another) financial slump in England and this put the railway scheme on hold. It gave the Grand Junction time to look into the whole problem. It gave them time to rationalise their tolls and investigate the potential of using steam to power their boats.

The Oxford Canal completed a major improvement scheme - long overdue - which, among other things, straightened out many miles of Brindley loops. Some of these indirectly effected the Grand Junction Canal by way of any traffic which travelled on the northern Oxford Canal but more importantly it directly effected the main line route to Birmingham. Part of the 5 mile stretch between Braunston and Napton consisted of a 2¾ mile loop, this was re-routed via a short, straight embankment which cut a whole 2 miles out of the journey. It also meant that Braunston Junction (or Braunston Turn as it was known) moved ½ a mile further north and therefore, the Grand Junction Canal also now terminated slightly further north.

Over the new junction and across the old junction, cast iron footbridges (made at Horseley) were installed to carry the new towpath. The old loop was left to dry up and disappear in the fields though the first few yards became a short arm and are now part of a very popular boat yard and marina. Water - or the lack of it - was a constant problem for the company. It had become so bad that restrictions were imposed so that boats were only allowed to pass through the locks in pairs. The penalty (or "forfeit") was to pay a double toll.

The Grand Junction Company had come up with many ways of fighting off the railways but they received little or no support from other canal companies - some of which were already run by railways - so the London & Birmingham Railway was granted an Act and Robert Stephenson began constructing the line.

Before the railway opened the Grand Junction Company went full steam ahead with improvements. This included the building of duplicated locks in many places - such as Stoke Bruerne and Marsworth. Most of these new locks were built narrow to save on water and ease the restrictions being imposed on lock usage. The new locks meant boats no longer had to wait until they could be paired up, a system which had not helped the canal's efforts to hold on to its declining trade.

Despite the canal improvements, the proposed railway competition forced the company into reducing its tolls in an attempt to keep trade from leaving the water for the rails.

In November the London & Birmingham Railway opened and so began the steady decline for the Grand Junction Canal.

Tolls were reduced again as more businesses chose to use the faster railways. More reductions followed over the next few years and it is this era which saw the start of what we think of as "traditional" boating life. Because of the railways, the tolls were lowered, the profits reduced and the wages of the boatmen were cut. The majority of them could not afford to work on a boat and keep his wife and children at home somewhere along the line. So, the families left their homes and lived on the boats. An almost impoverished existence ensued and a gypsy lifestyle was created. There were close communities, (maybe closer than any normal community on land) but it was a community which never knew who its next door neighbour would be from day to the next.

Despite the narrow lock scheme of 1835 the water shortage problem kept coming back to haunt the company. Wilstone Reservoir was expanded for a second time and at Tringford pumping station a new engine, the York, was installed to aid the 21 year old Boulton & Watt engine. (These two engines continued to pump water into the Wendover Arm until 1913 when electric power took over).

Four years after the railway opened, the canal was actually carrying more cargo tonnage than it had in the years preceding the railway. However, because of reduced tolls the canal's income was 43% down on 1836.

In an attempt to revive business the company decided to start its own carrying company. They raised £114,000 in preference shares and began to carry goods, not just on their own canal, but all over the waterways network. The company began to use steam powered boats, usually with a butty in tow, but these were very unpopular on other canals where the companies complained that they were driven too fast and recklessly.

The first mention of things to come for the Grand Junction Canal (and any other surviving waterways) came from a Mr. Robins who wrote "the cheap trips into the country offered by the canal during summer are beginning to be highly appreciated". Using canals for holidays is clearly not a totally new idea!

The Grand Junction Company managed to settle an agreement designed to maintain differentials with London & North West Railway (who now owned the Birmingham line) and Great Western Railway. The agreement soon made a great improvement in the canal's income.

Following the agreement with the railways things improved enough to allow the company to raise the tolls slightly. However, the canal's original biggest earner, coal, had now been completely lost to the railways.

A new scheme was tried at Braunston and Blisworth tunnels to speed up travel and save the boatmen from having to leg. The system used wire ropes which pulled boats through the long tunnels, powered by steam. It sounds like a jolly good idea but was, apparently, fairly unsuccessful.

Although income had dropped over the years, tonnage carried had stayed pretty steady. However, from 1870 onwards a steady decline began.

Steam tugs were put into service to replace the steam engines at the 2 tunnels on the canal.

Steam boats may have been accused of being reckless but there is no doubt that carrying explosives on an open boat through heavily built up areas is definitely reckless. However, this is exactly what the Grand Junction Canal Carrying Company did. One fatal night on the Regents Canal one such cargo exploded killing the crew of the boat and causing damage for yards around.

It happened under Macclesfield Road bridge near Regents Park, windows in the nearby expensive residencies were blown out, the bridge itself was completely demolished and the explosion was heard over 6 miles away. Macclesfield Road bridge was soon rebuilt but the reputation of the Grand Junction Carrying Company was not.

Claims from the explosion cost the company £80,000 - more than it could afford. The carrying business was closed down.

The Grand Junction Canal Company made what appears in theory to have been a strange decision. They built a 5 mile branch from the main line at West Drayton (south of Uxbridge) into Slough. The decision is strange not only because the company was annually facing reduced profits but also because the town was already very well served by Great Western Railway. However, the branch was opened and proved to be a good success.

During the 1880's the Grand Junction Company attempted to amalgamate all the canals in the general vicinity (between London and the South Midlands). One of my reference books called this a brave attempt at unity but generally when a big company wants smaller ones to join it the word "amalgamate" can sound a whole lot like "take over bid". The other companies didn't want to know.

Mr. Fellows of Fellows, Morton & Clayton (who were the main carriers on the Grand Junction Canal and the Grand Union Canal which ran to Leicester) pushed the Grand Union Company to convert their canal to wide beam. When they refused, Fellows tried to encourage the Grand Junction Company to buy the Grand Union Canal.

The book "Two Girls On A Barge" was published describing how the young ladies in question converted a narrow boat into a "holiday home" and set off along the Grand Junction. They are said to have astonished passing working boats but as far as can be seen, this is the first mention of a "traditional" narrow pleasure boat as we know them today.

The Grand Union and the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union canals were purchased by the Grand Junction Canal Company. By now though even the Grand Junction Company wasn't whole-heartedly in favour of following Mr. Fellows' suggestion to widen its new purchase. The Grand Union Canal had been built on incredibly hilly terrain necessitating a long winding course with two large lock flights at either end and there were two tunnels in the middle of the route. So, rather than widening the whole route, the Grand Junction Company looked into methods of making the lock flights more efficient.

Meanwhile, the company met with the people who ran the navigations on the River Soar and Erewash Canal which linked with the Derby, Cromford and Nottingham canals. An agreement was struck where all these canals decided to lower their toll charges. This was essential as the canals were now not only competing against themselves and the railways but also with road traffic which was increasing at a great pace.

Exactly 100 years after its opening, the Wendover Arm was closed because its middle section was leaking badly. In fact it was discovered that the arm, originally only built as a feeder to the main line's summit level, was leaking more water than it was adding!

The decision was made to build an inclined plane at the side of the Foxton locks on the newly acquired Grand Union Canal. It was to have two caissons, each able to carry two boats, with steam engines used to lift the caissons up and down the hillside. The Grand Junction's own engineer, G.C. Thomas was given the job of designing the plane.

The plane took two years to complete and cost £39,000. It cut nearly 80 minutes off the time normally taken to use the narrow locks. However, rails under the caissons collapsed under their own weight several times and it was very costly to run. Because of these problems the plan to construct a second plane on the Watford flight was dropped. For more details on Foxton Inclined Plane see the file on the Leicester & Soar Navigations.

There had been water shortages on the Grand Junction summit level since the day it opened. First only the Wendover Arm was thought to be needed as a feeder but soon after opening, Wilstone Reservoir was built. Over the following decade 3 more reservoirs and a pumping station had been built and over the next decades Wilstone Reservoir was extended twice. Restrictions on lock usage had been imposed many times but 1902 was a particularly dry year. In a normal week around 130 boats would pass through any one lock but in 1902 restrictions were so severe that as few as 80 boats were getting through. Reports said queues stretched for miles and the canal banks were littered with boat families and horses sometimes waiting days to pass through a lock flight.

The Wendover Arm, which had been closed due to bad leakage since 1897, was officially abandoned. However, the arm still exists today - though in a much shorter form - and is still a vital feeder for the main line as it runs along the southern edge of the Tring Reservoirs immediately before joining the main line.

Foxton Plane was closed due to high running costs and all traffic reverted to the lock flight once more.

The Grand Junction formed an alliance with the Regents Canal in London. A joint committee was set up and the companies worked closely together.

After 15 years of collaboration, the Grand Junction and Regents canal companies decided that a merger would be the best way forward to secure the future of both canals. So, the Regents Canal bought the Grand Junction Canal and all of its arms and branches for £801,442. The whole network was reformed as the Grand Union Canal.Later that year the new company bought both of the Warwick Canals (which formed part of the main line to Birmingham) for £136,003.

The Grand Union Canal announced its commitment to expanding the existing waterways network. It planned to convert the whole of the London to Birmingham main line into a route suitable for barges. They even proposed a new design of barge which would use the route. The budget for the scheme amounted to one million pounds which they were given in the form of a government guarantee (a grant).

The main areas targeted for improvement were those on the old Warwick canals which had been built narrow. This included the mighty Hatton Flight, 21 locks, on the former Warwick & Birmingham Canal. The whole flight, stretching over 2 miles was broadened to accommodate barges (or two narrow boats at once). In total 52 locks between Braunston and Birmingham were scheduled for improvement but the grant ran out before the work was complete.

Thus ended the companies 125 year effort to convert all of Britain's canals to wide beam. If they had succeeded, the canal system of today would be very different, the whole system may still have been alive with working boats - like waterways on the continent - and railways may not have wiped out many smaller canal companies.

On the other hand, this may well have effected the speed of growth in this country and the industrial world. Railways may have taken longer to take hold and the beautiful narrow canals (such as the once unpopular Oxford Canal) would not now be available to the thousands of holiday makers who travel on them every year.

Expansion continued when the Grand Union Canal bought the Leicester and Loughborough (River Soar) Navigations and the Erewash Canal for a total of £75,423. This meant that main line routes from London to Birmingham and to the River Trent were all owned by one company for the first time - except for the 5 mile stretch of the Oxford Canal between Braunston and Napton. The new Grand Union Company attempted to buy the whole of the Oxford Canal but the agreement fell through due to a number of technical reasons.

The new company also (re)started carrying goods itself. They bought up Associated Canal Carriers Ltd. and became the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company Ltd, or GUCCCo.

After 60 years, the use of steam powered tug boats in the Grand Junction Canal's tunnels came to an end.

WW2 caused great harm to the canal and its hopes of regaining past glories. All through the war the company made a loss and no dividends were paid to shareholders from 1933 onwards.

The whole Grand Union Canal network was nationalised along with most of the rest of the inland waterways system.

In the BTC's survey of 1955 the canal was listed in the "first division", that is, it was listed as a "waterway to be developed", though no major development was ever carried out.

In the Transport Act the Grand Union Canal was relegated to "division 2", a "Cruising waterway" which meant it was no longer listed for development but would be kept open as a leisure amenity and that is how it has stayed ever since.

200 years after Blisworth Tunnel had given William Jessop the headache of his life it was once again causing the canal owners (British Waterways) many problems. It had suffered for many years from subsidence and winter closures for repairs were frequent. Eventually there was no alternative but to close the tunnel down in order to do a complete repair job. The work took four years and although the tunnel still closes in winter for maintenance, it is still used by thousands of boats every year.

For details on other waterways which were part of the Grand Union Canal network see the individual files on the Leicester and Soar Navigations and Erewash Canal. For details on other routes connected with the Grand Union Canal see the files on the Coventry Canal, Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and Birmingham Canal Navigations

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