Origin and Use of the Stroudwater Canal

How did it all begin?

There were many ideas for providing a waterways link from the River Severn to the River Thames and more specifically Bristol to London, from the early 1600’s. The River Frome (sometimes referred to as the Stroudwater) underwent a number of schemes to provide a link from the River Severn to Stroud, hence the name of the final canal company that built the canal that we know today – The Company of Proprietors of the Stroudwater Navigation.

There were three Acts that went before Parliament -

  • 1730 – This Act to make the River Frome navigable using locks was opposed by mill owners and the Act was never implemented.
  • 1759 – An Act passed to allow a navigation without any locks to appease the mill owners. Cargo was transferred from one boat to another known as transshipment. This occurred at each mill where there was a change in water level. Work was started but the scheme failed, resulting in financial ruin.
  • 1776 – This was the Act that approved the present Stroudwater Canal. It was a conventional canal with locks, largely independent of the river. This was opened in 1779 at the same time as the American War of Independence was being fought. The need for cheap coal in large quantities, finally drove the company to build an independent canal to allow the clothiers of Stroud to continue their lucrative craft.

 Why was an improved waterway necessary?

  • The woollen industry was well established by the mid 16th century with many mills situated at the foot of the scarp slope of the Cotswold hills, where mill owners could take advantage of water to power the huge hammers that pounded the cloth from the loom to shrink it and felt it.
  • The woollen industry grew here because of the huge flocks of sheep that had grazed the Cotswolds since medieval times. In the Middle Ages merchants came from as far away as Italy to buy the local wool. This was a rich agricultural area, but depended on livestock not arable.
  • Most of the woollen cloth was transported by packhorses or wagons – one of the advantages of the canal, was the huge saving in animal and transport costs. A packhorse could carry about 1/8th ton – a barge on the Stroudwater could move 50 tons with a single horse.
  • Early factories were all water powered when the canal was built. The early mills were all fulling mills but by the end of the 18th century mills began to include spinning and weaving. Handloom spinners and weavers who usually worked from home, were eventually forced out of their homes to work in the mills. Hence the handloom weaver riots.
  • The Stroudwater was soon followed by the Thames & Severn Canal which completed the link between the River Severn and the Thames and thence to London.
  • Roads were impassable in winter because all goods were moved by pack animals and wagons, which easily became bogged down in mud.
  • Water transport was able to carry heavier loads, faster and more efficiently.
  • The clothiers needed to cut costs as the Yorkshire textile industry was gaining strength.
  • Cloth making in the Stroud area increased as the quality of the cloth was highly sought after across the World.

What factors influenced the choice of route?

  • The Stroudwater Canal, along with the Thames & Severn Canal links the River Severn and the River Thames, thus providing a link from the Port of Bristol through to London.
  • More coal was needed for growing towns. 
  • Puddling clay could be obtained from the River Frome and then mixed with water to ensure that the bed of the canal was watertight. Thus a very important material used in the building of the canal could be found close to the route of the canal.
  • There were no major problems connected with construction on the Stroudwater, because few locks were needed or substantial cuttings and embankments as the route mostly followed or used the River Frome.
  • Framilode was chosen as the lock out on to the River Severn, because there was trading in coal already established on the Severn and because the River Frome entered the River Severn at that point.
  • The River Frome had already been improved for navigation.
  • The route of the canal did not cut through any established settlements. Most of the land used was pasture and orchard.
  •  The lock-out site was chosen as the water was deep enough for boats to pass on to the canal except at low tide. Also the Purnell family owned a tin mill at the mouth of the River Frome and so the Company was unwilling to be in dispute with them over water rights.

How was the canal built?

  • As with all canals, the Stroudwater was designed to ensure that water did not flow in the canal, and so was designed to follow the contours of the landscape within the valley of the River Frome.
  • Locks were built where the land levels changed and a flight at Eastington took five locks to cope with the change of level.
  • Some locks were built of local brick and some of the clay for the bricks was obtained from the bed of the canal and the River Frome. The lock walls had stone foundations and were capped with stone to counter weathering and erosion from the grit in ropes used by the boats.
  • Stone was brought from Hanham in Bristol, Chepstow and Tintern.
  • Timber was brought from Blakeney and Upton-on-Severn. This was used for lock gates, built by carpenters.
  • All the digging was accomplished by local workers, digging by hand. Later on, canal companies employed professional ‘navvies’ from the term ‘navigators’.
  • To ensure that water did not seep through the bed of the canal, the navvies trod the blue clay mixed with water, found in the Frome valley to ‘puddle’ it (to make it malleable enough to work). They then lined the canal bed with the clay to ensure the bed did not leak.
  • The sides of the Stroudwater are not piled and so often the slopes on the canal banks needed to be rampered i.e trodden in so that they didn’t move. 
  • To keep the canal supplied with water, the Stroudwater Company were allowed to take water from the Frome, provided that this did not leave the mill owners without water. 
  • The Company used bricks to build bridges, aqueducts, warehouses, lock chambers, lock houses, and to line the bottom of locks. 
  • The master of each cutting team was paid a set amount for each cubic yard of canal dug.
  • The canal was dug to a depth of six feet.
  • Streams crossing the canal were either redirected or culverted under the canal bed.

How was the canal used?

  • The canal was specifically built for use by barges and ‘trows’ (rhymes with ‘crows’) In the early days, these vessels were hauled by men. It would take a day to haul a boat from the River Severn to Stroud.
  • Barges and Trows had sails, which were used on the River Severn. The sails could be used along the canal until the boat had to pass through locks or bridges.
  • In 1825, because of pressure from the Thames & Severn Canal Co and because the Gloucester, Berkeley canal was under construction, the Company agreed to adapt the tow path for use by horses.
  • Withies were another source of income for the company. They were grown in small fields and sold to itinerant basket makers. Before the use of plastic, baskets were used on farms and in the textiles industry. Indeed, even coal was delivered in baskets.
  • The canal was used for boat building in Framilode, Saul Junction, Cainscross, Dudbridge, Eastington, Stonehouse, Whitminster, and Stroud.
  • Timber would be taken to the Midlands, with coal carried on the return journey.
  • When a town gas works was built in Stroud, the pipes were dug under the towpath and the by-products of the works, coke and tar, taken back down the canal.

The Second World War

  • As preparations for war, a ‘Stopline’ of defences was built from Highbridge to Stroud, along natural and man-made waterways. These defences were built to defend Bristol but the idea was abandoned in 1940.
  • The RAF had a maintenance unit in Wycliffe College boathouse at Saul Junction. This was to maintain air-sea rescue launches, which were moored along the Stroudwater arm at Saul Junction. Walk Bridge was also used to replace engines in the boats when necessary.