An Act of Parliament for the Basingstoke Canal was obtained in 1778, but construction did not begin until late 1788 owing to the financial crisis caused by the American War of Independence.
Work began on the canal at Woodham where the canal was to join the Wey Navigation and on the Greywell Tunnel which was 1,200 yards in length. The canal opened to Horsell in 1791, Pirbright in 1792 and Basingstoke in 1794. The completed canal was 37 miles long with 29 locks, 28 in Surrey and only 1 in Hampshire. It had 52 bridges.
Trade flucuations in the canal’s business was linked to contemporary events, such as the Napoleonic wars, competition from the waggon road trade from the 1820s, the establishment of the London to Southampton railway line in 1840, and building of the Aldershot army camp between 1854 and 1859.
Competition from road and rail transport were faced by the whole waterways system and the original canal company went into liquidation in 1866. From this time until 1923 the canal was owned by a series of speculative companies, who bought the canal in the hope of making a profit. Up to 1900, there was trade over the full length of the canal with cargoes of coal, corn, maize, flour, potatoes, and phosphates (soil fertilisers) from London to Basingstoke, and return traffic in timber, wheat, coal, and chalk (from Odiham). The last barge to reach Basingstoke was recorded in 1910 and the barge Basingstoke reached Basing Wharf in 1914.
During World War I canal traffic increased again with military cargoes from Woolwich to Aldershot. It is also said that soldiers were sent for training in boat handling on the canal so that they could make use of the extensive waterways systems of France and Belgium.
In 1923 the canal was purchased by Alexander John Harmsworth (1869-1947), bargeman and builder. Harmsworth ran a successful family haulage business with a fleet of over 20 barges and narrow boats. Traffic increased significantly on the canal under the ownership of Harmsworth, rising to over 31,500 tons in 1935, from 18,200 in 1923.
Did you know?
In October 1788, John Pinkerton was appointed as the main contractor to build the Basingstoke Canal.
The company had difficulty obtaining sufficient quantities of coinage to pay their employees so Pinkertons overcame this problem by producing their own trade token, which could be changed locally, to pay their labourers.
The Basingstoke Canal Shilling depicts a spade and mattock in a wheelbarrow on one side, and a tree trunk in a sailing barge on the reverse. The coin was issued in 1789 and 1790.
When the railway was being built alongside the Basingstoke Canal the railway company was required to build a high wall in between to avoid the roar of the passing trains frightening the horses that were towing the boats.
Rebuilding a lock involves laying at least 40,000 bricks.
When the canal was put up for auction in 1949, one of the potential buyers wanted to make the canal into a motor cycle track.
The canal rises a height of 199 feet by its 29 locks to Ash Lock, a greater height than Nelson’s Column in London!
It would take about 34,990 people of average height to cover the entire length of the canal if you were to lay them head-to-toe.