CCS Snapshots of a Local History: Cirencester’s Canal Branch Feb 22

Sapperton’s canal tunnel.

We all know that Cirencester was at the centre of the network of roads which the Romans built across England, and this has subsequently provided transport links throughout the centuries -from horseback to horse-drawn coaches, and wagons to motorised vehicles, but how many people know that in the 19th century Cirencester was also served by a canal?

It all started with the plan to connect England’s two largest rivers, The Thames and The Severn between Framilode and Lechlade. The work commenced in 1775, reaching Stroud by 1779, Chalford by 1785 and Sapperton by 1789 where it passed through the longest tunnel in the country (still the third longest) and on to Siddington and finally to Lechlade in 1790. A branch was also built between Siddington and Cirencester in 1790.

The canal was used to transport coal from Wales and the West Midlands, stone, timber, wool, cloth and agricultural produce. However, the topography required a total of 57 locks over the 36 miles of the canal meant that it was slow and required vast quantities of water to keep it running.

Once the faster railways started to be built in the 1840s, canal transport was no longer profitable, and the canal traffic ceased in 1907 and the canal was abandoned in 1927.

The Cirencester branch ended at a wharf in Querns Road and was supplied with water through a culvert which ran from Barton Mill under Cecily Hill and Cirencester Park. The wharf was infilled and used as a Council depot for many years but is now an industrial park. The Civic Society erected a plaque to mark the site in 2018. It is still possible to walk along the disused canal from Love Lane to Siddington from where the canal is mainly in water towards Cricklade.

The impressive portals of the Sapperton Tunnel can still be seen near the Daneway and Tunnel House public houses. The tunnel was the wonder of the age and visited by King George 3rd.

The River Frome was the principal source of water for the Western locks (but only on Sundays when the Stroud Mills were closed) and the River Churn supplied water for some of the eastern locks, although there were several Mills around Cirencester which also needed the river water.  This is why Earl Bathurst cut off the supply to the canal in 1785, forcing the canal company to sink a well at Coates in 1789. This was powered by a windmill which was replaced by a steam pump in 1792, and a Cornish beam engine in 1854, which delivered some 3 million gallons a day at its peak capacity.

The Engine house and the pump were scrapped in 1941 as part of the war effort!

A map of the canals.

Goods were transported by sail boats between Framilode and Brimscombe Port where they were transferred to narrower barges pulled by horses (and on foot through the Sapperton Tunnel) as far as Lechlade and then on to London. It took an average of 10 days to get from Brimscombe to London.

The Cotswold Canal Trust was formed in 1972 and has worked tirelessly to restore sections of the canal with impressive progress between Stroud and Framilode thanks to the support from Gloucestershire County Council, Stroud District Council, large grants from The National Lottery and vast numbers of volunteers. There are plans to complete the canal restoration between Framilode and Brimscombe in the foreseeable future, but it will be a long time before the remainder of the canal can be restored to connect to Lechlade.

John Tiffney

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