Back in the eighteenth century, canals were the fastest way of getting goods from one place to another quickly. Today they are enjoyed by millions of boaters, walkers, cyclists and anglers across the country. Except in Southampton.
That’s not to say nobody from Southampton enjoys the canal network - there is a Southampton Canal Society for those who love the waterways of Britain. Usually these societies are there to restore the canals and it is often only down to these societies that most of the canals still exist. But Southampton’s society has no canal to restore, even though one used to run through the centre of the city. Lasting only a decade, it is a victim of history that has been forgotten by many and exists mostly as an echo in the records.
Why was it built and why did it fail?
The Salisbury and Southampton Canal seemed like a good idea. It would connect the navigable River Itchen to Andover, Salisbury and the River Avon located there, without the boat having to navigate Southampton Water’s then-perilous mud flats. It would allow the loading of goods onto larger seaworthy ships for international shipment. So it was little surprise that the parliamentary act needed to set up the canal was passed in May 1795, right at the height of ‘canal mania’. It consisted of two sections to Southampton and Salisbury coming off an existing canal, the Andover canal, the ended at Redbridge on the western edge of the city. The new canal company wouldn’t even have to dig much of the canal. The canal was mostly navigable by 1803 but unfortunately traffic had ceased just four years later. Why?
As it turns out, it was for a variety of reasons. The original board had overestimated how many people would use the canal. They had also mismanaged the building of the canal and they had timed it quite badly. Put simply, it was a financial disaster. The funds originally set aside dried up so quickly that another act of parliament was needed to raise more money for the project. As a result, the rest of the work was done cheaply, which would cause its own headaches when maintenance became quickly unaffordable.
While some of this is down to human error, it was mostly bad luck. It was not unusual for it to take a long time for the money needed to build the canal to be recouped. However they had managed to time it just at the point when canal traffic started to decline and it wasn’t long after before the railway took all of the traffic the canal had served.
Where did it go and what’s left?
In Southampton, the canal ran from the north of Redbridge to where Redbridge station is now and from there followed what was then the coastline, and what is now the railway, to where Southampton Central station is today. It then went through a tunnel where it divided, with one part continuing east to the River Itchen at St. Mary’s, while the other section headed south using the medieval town ditches and the sluice that filled them under God’s House Tower to get out into the sea.
Unfortunately, there is very little left. And I really mean nothing. The section from north Redbridge to Redbridge station is only noticeable thanks to a slight dip alongside the road and a line of trees planted in the canal bed while the section between Redbridge and Southampton Central train stations is buried beneath the railway itself and the Western Docks, reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s.
The tunnel is mostly still there and runs underneath the current railway tunnel, the Civic Centre car park and Above Bar Street, but both ends are completely buried: one is located behind the BBC and the other exit is in Palmerston Park. It reappeared recently when engineers wanted to lower the railway tunnel floor so bigger freight trains could pass through, necessitating them slicing through the top of the canal tunnel.
As for the sections on the other side, they were never completely navigable. The section out to the River Itchen is now under the railway and a gas works, while the section south is buried underneath Houndwell Park and the buildings on the west sides of the helpfully named Canal Walk and Lower Canal Walk. It is fitting that this brief look finishes with these two streets, the only indication to the average Sotonian that Southampton ever had a canal.
For more information about the Canal and it’s exact route, check out the web pages written by the Southampton Canal Society or look in the Hartley Library’s Cope Collection or Southampton City Library’s local interest sections.