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Canals: Grand Junction Canal

The first plan for a direct line from the middle of the Oxford Canal to London was in 1791. At that time loads for London travelled along the Oxford Canal to Oxford and were then transhipped into barges for the River Thames. The river was not kept up to the standard of the new canals and problems with shallows, lack of water and locks meant that progress was slow. A new route could avoid the Thames and cut up to 60 miles from the journey.

There were soon several competing plans for canals to London and two Bills were put to Parliament. After considerable lobbying, the Grand Junction Canal Act was passed on 30 April 1793. The 90 mile route from Brentford to Braunston had been surveyed twice, by Jame Barnes and by William Jessop. Work started almost immediately at both ends, over 30,000 labourers being employed. At the north end Braunston and Blisworth Tunnels were to cause problems. At Blisworth, there were difficulties with quicksand and the contractor made errors in alignment that left a wiggle in the tunnel. Despite this the route was open through the tunnel to Weedon in June 1796. Blisworth tunnel collapsed in January 1796 and it was decided to start again. A road and then a tramway were built over the hill to carry goods from boats at either end, so that the canal could be used. Blisworth Tunnel was the last section of the canal to be opened and took until March 1805 to finish. The rest of the line had been open in 1800, though the crossing of the River Ouse at Wolverton caused problems until 1811.

The canal was planned to meet the Thames at Brentford. Soon after construction was started, it was decided to build a branch into more central area of the City. The Paddington Branch was open in 1801, a basin and warehouses built at the terminus. The canal was to eventually extend further into London, eventually connecting up with the docks via the Regents Canal.

The Grand Junction was in a strong position. nearly all traffic for London from the Midlands used it.

Once the Grand Junction was open it linked to the two Warwick Canals to provide a route from London to the Midlands. It wasn't the only way, goods from Birmingham could use two routes.

Leave the city north-eastwards along the, then join the Coventry and then the Oxford Canals to reach the Grand Junction at Braunston

Leave the City south-eastwards along the Warwick and Birmingham and Warwick and Napton Canals. At Napton a short section of the Oxford Canal is needed to reach the Grand Junction at Braunston

Either way the boats followed the Grand Junction to London.

The journey through Warwick was certainly shorter, but there were more locks and it was possibly no quicker as a result. The tolls charged ought to have been less (tolls were charged per mile), but the Warwick and Napton had to pay the Oxford Canal compensation tolls on each boat. The charges were similar enough for the two routes to cut the tolls to gain the traffic from the other route. In 1810 the Coventry and Warwick companies agreed toll rates to stop the price-cutting.

The Grand Junction company thrived, in 1810 it carried 343,560 tons of goods through London, about equal amounts into and out of the capital. It had so much water at the London end that it set up its own public water supply company. The summit level at Tring suffered from a considerable shortage of water, not helped by the amount of traffic passing. it wasn't until 1838 that a new reservoir and pump at Tring solved the situation. In the same year work started on a parallel set of locks at Stoke Bruerne. The canal had become heavily congested in that section

The London and Birmingham Railway was completed in 1838. The canal companies tended to work together to reduce tolls in competition with the railway. Only the Oxford Canal seemed reluctant to cut tolls. The reductions actually saw an increase in traffic on most of the canals. Unfortunately the companies made rather less profit and some losses.

Trading figures for 1838 and 1858 for the Grand Junction show:
/td> 1838
Tolls collected 52,657 7,634
Tonnage carried 48,481 ,142,450

The expansion of trade was not likely to continue indefinitely and in the subsequent years the tonnage began to fall. The Grand Junction suggested amalgamations to help solve the problems, but the other canal companies were not willing. 1857 to 1859 saw agreements with the main railway companies to maintain the price differentials between rail and canal transport. The tolls were kept constant from then on

In 1847 Pickfords stopped trading on the Grand Junction. The company set up its own organisation to carry cargoes, but with only limited success. They were one of the first companies to run steamers and they traded all over the canal system.

By 1871 the tunnels at Braunston and Blisworth were becoming bottlenecks and steam tunnel tugs were provided to tow strings of waiting boats through.

The Grand Junction company had a disaster in 1874 when one of their boats, laden with gunpowder, exploded under a bridge on the Regent's Canal. This and the lack of profit being made as a carrier led to the company selling its boats and warehouses in 1876. Fellows Clayton and Morton, already a large canal carrier, bought some of the boats and facilities. From now on FMC had considerable influence on the Grand Junction, even negotiating its own toll rates.

Under that company's encouragement, the Grand Junction bought the canals that ran into Leicestershire and negotiated with linking waterways with a view to improving the routes and obtain more traffic to London. Despite the efforts, started in 1894, there was not enough improvement to justify the money spent.

More and more coal came to London by rail and though new cargoes were being found the canal was steadily becoming less and less profitable. The Grand Junction tolls were low to encourage users, but provided a dwindling income. The company had made efforts to unite the various canal owning companies and to persuade some of them to maintain their waterways better.

In 1925 the Grand Junction asked for a report on the cost of putting the Warwick Canals in order. This was important as the Grand Junction depended on the Warwick link on the important route to Birmingham. Discussions also took place with the Regent's Canal in London.

Eventually the Regent's Canal bought the Grand Junction, Warwick and Napton and Warwick and Birmingham Canals and formed a new company to run them. The Grand Union Canal Co. started business in 1929

Plans were made to widen and dredge the whole route to Birmingham so that 14ft wide barges could use it. Government grants were obtained and money borrowed to carry out the works. The company obtained an act of Parliament in 1931 to allow them to raise even more capital. The Act also gave the company permission to improve the section of the route that they did not own, the Oxford Canal between Napton and Braunston

From then on a programme of widening, dredging, concrete walling and the replacement of narrow locks with wide ones took place. Though improvements were carried out all over the system, the really major work was on the Warwick Canals. At Knowle 5 wide locks replaced 6 narrow ones. The 21 narrow locks at Hatton had the wide ones built alongside. Much of the bank was improved with concrete walling which can still be seen with the date and the dredging depth cast into the cement. The improvements were finished in 1937 but the widening didn't go all the way into Birmingham, stopping at the top of Camp Hill locks. As a result barges were never able to deliver direct to the factory wharves in the same way that narrow boats did.

At the same time, the Grand Union set up its own carrying company to try to encourage use of the canals. There was enough business for over 100 boats to be in use in the 1930's, but there were problems finding crews to man them. Canal boatmen's pay was no longer enough to attract new workers. The carrying side of the business did not make a profit for all but two years of its life.

The Grand Union made a small overall profit, though not usually enough to pay dividends on its shares. The company had subsidiaries that ran canal and dockside warehouses and wharves and ships trading to Europe and the promotion of trading routes and a change of management meant that by 1945 and 1946 all parts of the company were profitable.

In 1948, the major canal companies were nationalised. The Grand Union became part of the British Transport Commission. Though the canal system had survived the competition from the railways, it did not seem able to cope with an increase in the use of lorries or nationalisation. Trade declined and by the mid 1960s very little commercial traffic was using the Grand Union.