Waterways that were Never Built

Created on 31/01/2017

We talk about the waterways that are in use, or no longer in use, but we're unlikely to stop and reflect on all the waterways that were envisaged but never became a reality. IWA’s David Struckett gives us an overview of some of the key ones.  

Among the many proposals for canals or new cuts to navigate to a dock or industrial destination in Britain are many instances which were not completed as intended or not started at all.   Some of these reached Act of Parliament stage, and therefore much debated in those locations or nationally, and therefore are memorable in that nothing happened.  

It is interesting to consider some of these, both as lessons as to why they didn't get off the drawing board, and to wonder if there might be other routes to those which were built, which in the light of history, might yet make a project worth considering - such as the current projects as Bedford to Milton Keynes, the proposed Stratford to Warwick link, the Fens Waterways links or well, can you think of any others?   

Charles Hadfield listed most of the canal (and some river improvement) proposals that made it to the 'Act of Parliament' stage and got no further, in his 'Canals of the British Isles' series appendices;  but there were some others worthy of inclusion in our list of 'canals never built'.   Here then, is a list of examples, with short descriptions to indicate the intended purpose, where known.  For the full story of most of these, see references at end.   

England, South East 

Grand Southern Canal

In 1810 John Rennie proposed a canal large enough for Thames barges, from the Medway across the Sussex weald to the Arun, Chichester and to Portsmouth.  Branches were proposed to join the Croydon canal, the rivers Ouse, Rother, Adur and Arun, and to the (assumed) Weald of Kent canal, then proposed.  A wide range of industries and goods could have been captured with these connections, but it was not pursued - and one cannot avoid a conclusion that as so many proposals for such works were being considered at the same time, investment capacity in the South East of England was being overloaded! 

St Nicholas Bay Harbour & Canterbury Canal

The Chislet marshes west of St Nicholas at Wade may well have been navigable by small craft in Roman times - linking with Reculver, and cutting off the land known as the Isle of Thanet.  A modern canal was proposed in 1811, but came to nothing.  The many ditches in the area remain, including the River Wantsum.  

Weald of Kent Canal  

In 1812 was a proposal to link the river Medway with the Royal Military Canal - thus linking north and south coasts of Kent.  This was only one of several ideas to link the Thames, Medway and even the Canterbury Stour across the Weald to Rye on the south coast.

Medway & Thames Canal

In 1902 a better route around the Isle of Grain than the former Thames & Medway canal was proposed - to include larger capacity and electric traction.  This form of towing had been experimentally used on the River Wey - and was the subject of another Thames to the south coast link proposal - the Southampton Canal.   This would have linked the Wey and the Itchen, but like the Grain route, nothing was started.  (Electric traction had been used in France, and was also used for a short time near Kidderminster on the Staffs & Worcs., and elsewhere in Britain such as in tunnels).  

England, central southern

London Canal

Although the Thames has always been navigable in the traditional manner, there had been some modernisation in the early 17th century with some of the first true pound locks in the country.  Trade was clearly growing during the 18th C., when James Brindley was called in to advise on possible improvements in 1770.  He proposed a canal from Monkey Island (near Bray) to Isleworth (across the low-lying land of Hounslow Heath - of Dick Turpin fame) for 200-ton barges, thus by-passing the southerly meander of the Thames between Windsor and Richmond.  This got as far as a petition for an Act, but got no further.  The proposals were somewhat complicated by several other canal ideas being pursued at the same time (e.g. Thames and Severn, Basingstoke and Sonning).  Both new canal proposals and improvements to the lower Thames were subjects of Acts of Parliament, and the latter won in terms of success and work actually carried out.  The Thames was navigable, but suffered from the usual problems on rivers - either high or low flow conditions at times, millers controlling any use of flash-locks, and many different owners and interests of structures, wharves etc., in spite of the early form of the Thames Commissioners being in place from 1751.  However, the proposals for a London canal continued, and extended to continue west to Reading.  Robert Whitworth surveyed this route, and envisaged 120-ton barges - which were the size in use on the lower river to London (upstream to Oxford and above was generally limited to 75 ton barges).  Because of the success of the first three pound locks, more were built, and gradually navigation on the Thames became more reliable, and the London Canal, in both parts, was left on the shelf.  Although some later proposals for Thames improvements and the Regents canal - also used this name, and proposals for a link at Slough in modern times also came to nothing. 

The crossing of Hounslow Heath however, was not without further watery interest.  Both the Duke of Northumberland's River, built in the time of Henry II to the corn mill at Syon Abbey and the 17th C. Longford River, built to supply the ponds and fountains at Hampton Court, were water supply channels from near Longford on the river Colne, and crossed south Middlesex.   Neither of these were navigable except for a short length and dock on the former at Isleworth. Both passed close to a row of cottages on the Heath called 'Heath Row' - which name is now famous as the airport, through which both channels pass.   Lastly of course the Grand Junction canal came across south Middlesex, and the Slough Arm - one of the last canals to be built, actually gave us the route rather similar to Brindley's original idea of a 'London Canal' - although it was never joined to the Thames except at Brentford.  Whilst Brindley saw such a route as helping navigation, by the time it was built, competition and single-mindedness ruled the day. 

Bristol and Salisbury Canal

There were many individual proposals for canal links in the Hampshire area - but only the Andover canal linking Southampton with that town was started, and that didn't last long.  The other proposals which didn't make an Act of Parliament, or even definite proposals were to variously link to Basingstoke (and it's canal), Andover and Salisbury, with Southampton. There were also alternative routes proposed from either Basingstoke or the Wey to Southampton using the Itchen and Winchester).  The most ambitious of these also included a main route to Bristol, which of course utilised at least the western end of the Kennet & Avon canal, although one was to a nearer point at Pewsey.  This last was perhaps the most unwise, reaching near to the summit level.  Although the River Avon to Salisbury had been navigable since early times, and improved in the 17th century, it was not always easy, and an alternative route for a canal from Lymington to Salisbury was proposed in 1821, but it was not pursued. 

Western Junction Canal

Meanwhile, north of the Thames, the branch off the main Grand Junction canal line at Marsworth, reaching Aylesbury was not always thought of as just a dead end.  A map of Charles Smith's dated 1810 - four years before it reached Aylesbury, shows it as the Western Junction Canal continuing by way of Thame to the Thames near Abingdon.  The reason for this was stated in the promotion that it could be a route (i.e. from the west) to London 'avoiding much of the Thames' (which was clearly not as advanced as it later became under the Thames Conservancy after 1866, the year in which it took over the river above Staines).  What looks like a rather wide diversion would probably not have been much further in miles due to the meandering Thames, but would have climbed considerably, requiring many locks.  However, it is another example of ideas being pursued to avoid the Thames, rather than to improve it.  Whilst late in coming, many river navigations had been improved - so the technology was not unavailable;  but one wonders if the eventual developments, pride and status of the Thames was in large part to put right these shortcomings - as much as because of London and the regions influence on it's principal river.   

South West 

Polbrock Canal

In 1793-7 a canal to link the north and south coasts of Cornwall was proposed - via the River Camel and River Fowey.  John Rennie was called for advice, who recommended only narrow beam craft, to be used in pairs (though short), as opposed to the river barges already used (an interesting thought on length-beam ratio where river and canal craft are concerned).  Clearly Bodmin would have benefitted from cheaper coal from the north, but Rennie saw little through traffic likely, as a tunnel would probably have to be included in the route to reduce the two flights of locks required.   Later, in 1825 Marc Isambard Brunel investigated a similar Camel-Fowey route for a ship canal - but likewise saw little return for the proposed costs. 

Bristol & Taunton Canal

Among the many waterway proposals of Somerset, a recurring idea was to link the Kennet & Avon canal with the waterways west of the R. Parrett.   A part of this line would be a canal from the top of the Bath flight in a S-W direction to by-pass Bristol.  There had also been a Bath-Bristol Canal proposed, also involving John Rennie - as Hadfield says 'Rennie was building a bit of an empire!  But nothing came of this overall plan, leaving the Somerset waterways still isolated. 

English & Bristol Channel Ship Canal

The first cross west-country canal was proposed in 1769 when Brindley was called to survey a route from the Exe to the Tone at Taunton.  Later the survey was completed by Robert Whitworth, who continued the route further north-east towards Weston-super-Mare.  Joseph Easton then surveyed the route from Axmouth to collieries near Nailsea for a ship canal, with branches to Wellington, Chard, Crewkerne, and others.  It was a complicated re-alignment of earlier proposals, with much bargaining of rights and ideas.  Much opposition was raised, mainly from landowners, although there were influential supporters. Eventually Thomas Telford was brought in for a new survey, who reported in 1824, leading to an Act of Parliament the following year.  There was much more opposition, and the canal was never started.  The only canal built was on the northern side, the Chard canal, using inclines and was only for small barges.  It is interesting to conjecture though, that had the larger canal been built it would have been of great significance, coping with the 200 ton coasting ships of that time through 30 locks.   One wonders however about the water supply - would a summit level near to Chard have had enough catchment to supply it?  The idea was maintained even until the 1870's when a new 'Proposed Great Western Maritime Ship Canal' was aired by  F.A Owen, inspired by the success of the Suez canal of the Frenchman de Lesseps.  Based on Telford's details, it also came to nothing.  The specification however called for a width at the bottom of 31 feet, and 120 feet wide at the surface, and 21 feet deep!   Some considerable amount of land would have been required - more than in Telford's designs.  

West Midlands

The opportunity must be taken to mention the original intentions of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal prior to 1815 to be of broad dimensions... if it had been completed to that gauge, there would undoubtedly have been a broad link across central England - because of the (almost) adjoining Grand Junction at Birmingham.  As it turned out, the top level at Birmingham was built wide enough for broad-beam barges on that level - to Alvechurch if the tunnels had been controlled - and of course at the Worcester end the first two locks to Diglis Basin were barge-sized.  The '58' locks, including the Tardebigge flight however, were eventually built as narrow. 

Birmingham and Liverpool Ship Canal

The completion of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 inspired other large scale canal projects - even at this late stage in canal building.  One was for a ship canal to Birmingham from the Mersey - but using a lot of the Trent & Mersey Canal route.  Instead of the 35 locks to Stoke would be 21 larger ones 135 x 15 x 6 feet deep.  Harecastle Tunnel would have to be cleared of towpath and enlarged, for 40 to 60 ton barges.   The enlargement was not carried out except on a few bridges towards Anderton and Middlewich, some dredging, and to duplicate the top lock at Kidsgrove. 

The (upper) River Severn

Proposals to build weirs and locks to improve the Severn above Stourport (below which was made navigable by navigation works from about 1843) never really gained support, throughout history.  Of course, up until the late 19th century it had been navigable 'by traditional means' - meaning that when there was enough water, by sail, hauling, current and  oars, boats could be brought up and down the river from the limit of 'official' navigation at Pool Quay near Welshpool, through Shrewsbury, Ironbridge and Bridgnorth to Bewdley - then the 'inland port' of some significance.   At various times, the sixty-odd islands in the river had 'barge gutters' cut in one side, and 'fish weirs' set on the other, which enabled navigation of barges with a draft of about two feet, with some considerable 'manual' assistance.  Much is made locally of teams of bow-hauliers objecting to the building of tow-paths as they saw the use of horses likely to put them out of work.  Thomas Telford proposed navigation works on this 'difficult' river, along the lines of Jessop's earlier survey in 1786, and summed up the challenges and opportunities succinctly enough for modern consideration.

Severn Navigation Restoration Trust

From 1982 a group formed to promote proper navigation works to be built upstream at least as far as the Ironbridge Gorge, with David Hutchings as consultant engineer (of Stratford canal and Avon fame).  Many studies were carried out, and some support from local authorities and individuals ensued.  After finding insurmountable obstacles however, in the form of circular discussions, lack of finance and falling support, the campaign closed in 2012.  Their papers and records are now with IWA.   As a matter of interest, the final findings of these studies prefered the compatible applications of flood control with moveable weirs, protection from low-flow, navigation, hydro-power and water supply aspects, suggesting that any future application to this or any other river should seek to engage or improve all aspects rather than just one or another 'single issue' project individually.  

East Midlands and East Anglia

It is largely forgotten that the canal to Market Harborough was originally part of a Leicester & Northampton canal scheme of 1793 - but only reached Market Harborough (in 1809).  Likewise, the Ashby-de-la-Zouch canal was originally to reach the Trent  - the Coventry to Marston canal - but only reached the Moira mines as built.  

London & Cambridge Junction canal

The major proposal to link Bishops Stortford with Cambridge, with even an extension to Brandon Creek, came in 1821, but no building started. 

Alford canal

In Lincolnshire a canal proposed from Alford to the sea reached Act of Parliament in 1826, but was not pursued.  

The North-east

Stockton & Darlington canal

The famous railway built here had been originally the subject of a proposed canal route - only later converted to become a railway.   In 1767 (the year that the Ripon Canal nearby achieved an Act of Parliament) discussions took place in Darlington for a canal to link the coal mines at Winston, through Darlington to Stockton-on-Tees. There had already been a 'New Cut' of over two miles built which eased navigation on the Tees near Stockton. 1768 saw Robert Whitworth (at that time one of Brindley's assistants) survey a route of 33 miles for the proposed canal.   In subsequent years the possibility that railways would offer better communication than a canal was realised, but it was not until 1818 that the decision against a canal (and for a railway) was taken.  In Darlington there is said to be an area where the canal wharves where to be built called  'Cockerton Docks' - a term thence used to allude to any proposition which has never been realised in practice.    (such as the other subjects of this article perhaps!)

North to the Tees

Looking at the map it is an obvious question, whether some link from the Ripon Canal (from 1767) might have been proposed to the River Tees, via perhaps the northern headwaters of the Swale, which need not have reached 100 feet in height.   North of the same river saw the proposed canal above, to Stockton.   These connections would have been interesting now as the present tidal barrage has enabled a vast length of the Tees to be useable to a range of water related interests (including both boating and conservation).  In recent years a study has suggested that ancient (even Roman) works on the Tees at Piercebridge - could be a primitive form of 'pound lock', or at least interesting historical river works.   It was also suggested in 1992 after serious water shortages for four years, that such a link could be used as part of water transfer routes.  No navigable link to this river was ever built however.  

The North-west

River Dane

Proposals to improve the route to brine workings near Middlewich reached an Act of Parliament in 1721, but not carried out. 

Intimately connected with the development of the early railways (see also Stockton above), there had been proposals for canals between Liverpool and the Dee (i.e. across the Wirral peninsular).  James Lock, MP, promoted a ship canal from Dalpool on the Dee to Walazee Pool opposite Liverpool, with branches to the Duke of Bridgwater's canal  and also to Chester, in 1829.   But the railway opened the following year, with tragic consequences for William Huskisson, the man to whom Lock had earlier appealed for help for a canal proposal rather than a 'rail-road', meeting the famous 'Rocket' locomotive in a terminal manner for his leg, and eventually his life. 

On the Bridgwater canal, a Stockport Branch had also been proposed, but not built.

Haslington canal

From the Manchester Bolton & Bury canal at Bury, a canal was proposed to Accrington, but not pursued.  


The majority of canals in Wales are links to a port or to the sea.  The Kilgetty canal in Pembrokeshire was never opened, although partly built, intending to serve Lord Milford's colliery there.  In the north of the principality, the Llangollen canal was the eventual conclusion of previous plans for a major canal route to Ellesmere Port, which together with the Montgomery canal exploits the watershed between the Dee and the Severn.  A number of possible alternatives could have been pursued here, but whether ever considered is now of little consequence.  In the event, only parts of the routes (e.g. the Ellesmere canal) were completed.  (see 'the Box', later). 

Flint Coal canal 

The many coal and other mineral mines in north-east Wales are evidenced by a number of schemes to link to ports by canal - among them a canal near to Flint from Greenfield and Holywell, with a branch to Pentre, by people connected to the famous Parys mine, and others, in 1784.  William Jessop surveyed the route in 1785, but nothing was built except a toll bridge over the Wepre brook. 

Vale of Clwyd canal  

A more interesting possibility had been proposed in the 1770s for the valley where a medieval canal to Rhuddlan Castle still exists today.  The proposed route would have connected Ruthin with the sea near Rhyl, and the plan was raised again in 1807, but no work was carried out.  


Several 'canal proposals not pursued' in the lowlands of Scotland are recorded:  Even before 1800 there was a canal proposed from Bo'ness to Pitfour, but never opened.  Also the Glasgow Paisley & Johnstone canal was to reach Ardrossan - but never did, and the Glenkens canal of 1802 was to link Dalry (St John's Town of) with Kirkudbright (along the valley of the Scottish river Dee).  Finally, the Campsie canal of 1837 was to have been a branch off the Forth and Clyde from Kirkintillock to Campsie.   

National schemes

The two Roman canal undertakings in Lincolnshire suggest that they may have had intentions for further links such as the Fenland links under discussion in recent years.  In Hereward the Wake's days, the fens were a mass of linking sea-level waterways which upon draining in the 17th and 18th centuries required new routes - leading to the 'Middle Level' and the changed courses of the rivers Nene and Ouse.  Looking at the map it is tempting to suggest that the Lee, Ouse, Nene and Welland might have made a really useful route for canal pioneers!  It would also have changed history of course, as this area including Cambridge, Peterborough and Lincoln would then have been linked up with both the Capital and the North East coast!  

James Brindley's fame for the principal cross-England routes later referred to as the 'grand cross' narrow canals tends to mask his reputation for surveying for many other concerns, several mentioned here.  From the Thames, the west country, to the north of England - Brindley surveyed for many river and canal schemes around the country, travelling on horseback with poles and level (theodolite).  This is reminiscent of William Smith, who's surveying for the Somerset Coal canal led to him travelling the length and breadth of the country in developing the first geological map.  These two men, pioneers in their fields, in days before Ordnance Survey maps with contours etc, must have become so intimate with the 'lie of the land', and must have thought about many of these possibilities long before later industrialists proposed specific solutions to their transport problems.  With these thoughts in mind, we must now consider a more 'national' scale canal for England and Wales, proposed in the 20th century. 

J.F.Pownall and the Grand Contour Canal  

The most significant proposals for a national scheme other than that developed from Brindley's famous narrow canals, was the idea developed by J. F. Pownall from 1935 of following the 300 feet contour across England from the NE to the SW, with links to the main rivers and larger canals.  Great emphasis was put on the dual-use of this modern canal system - water supply and navigation by larger craft.  The title suggests that the whole canal would be on this level - but it was quickly realised that in order to constantly supply water to the SE it would have to have a gradient.  Much discussion and further studies were carried out by Pownall, who was convinced of its possibility to both solve water supply problems and to provide large scale barge transport across the main English river basins.  Although the principal shape of the system as proposed was for a north and west to SE line with many connections, there was also proposed a significant route to the west near to Bristol, and south to Southampton, but the text of Pownall's main paper does not match up exactly with the limited maps prepared (see references).

Map of Grand Contour Canal proposal

Personal observations

The concept of finding a single contour 'around England' - is of course purely empirical - it could be set at almost any height - lower would mean a longer route, higher would require more locks to descend to the rivers - but Pownall found the 310 foot level (say 100m) to be optimum to link to  London from the NW, via Rugby, and Hertford on the Lee, and quoted many examples of watersheds at this height.   As examples, that between the Dee/Weaver area and the Severn is at about that height, so also is the Oxford Canal/Grand Union crossing, and many other points on our present remaining system, so it would also have had many potential links to existing canals. 

The need for a gradient however, is because there is a constant need for water in the South East of England, and the plentiful water in the North West (Pennines and N. Wales) was the reason for this rather simplified route to be proposed in the first place.  Pownall suggested putting pumps in the bed of the canal to 'push the water along' at one stage, but energy calculations were disputed by engineers and it was difficult to refine the proposals into an actual plan. 

Links to the main rivers would have been the principal access points for a modern barge system - which would have to be of a large or even international scale to be future-proof  (i.e. like the continental canal locks and lifts of today).  

Just examining the route however, does serve a very good purpose for students of hydraulics and hydrology - it will familiarise the student with the river geography of the country, and reference all other long distance water supply routes such as the Elan Valley pipeline, and other factors such as fuel resources, centres of industry and population, and reservoirs.

1992:  A serious shortage of water over four years led to both the National Rivers Authority (precursor to the EA) and British Waterways (now Canal & River Trust) examining the options for water transfer by river and canal - reviving in part Pownall's principle ideas.  Conferences and press releases were made, but no great plans ensued.  

The alternative proposal:  a 'Box' 

In the spirit of suggesting a system to raise discussion and sharpen arguments, one cannot help looking at an 'opposite' proposition to that of both the Grand Cross of Brindley's and the contour canal of Pownall.  For example, as the principal rivers in the four corners of England remain the same as the last 300 years and more, imagine a 'box' instead of an 'X'.   Thus the east-west routes could be the actually built canals across the country (Kennet & Avon etc in the south, Trent & Mersey in the Midlands, cross-Pennine routes in the north).  The north-south links however are the subject of this suggestion, for the obvious low level opportunities offered by geography have not been followed.  Because of the historical (i.e. geological) focus on Birmingham and the Black Country, all routes presently built tend to veer to the centre - at whatever cost to elevation. 

To complete our 'natural box', we would look perhaps to that old idea mentioned earlier, of a 'Fens' route - from the Lee and Stort to the north via perhaps the Cam, Peterborough and Lincoln.  This would 'sort' the east side, from the Capital to the north of England (even to the Tees), without having go very high (not much more than 200 feet in the southern part, less than 100 feet further north). 

On the west side of England it's just as interesting.  As mentioned earlier, several canal routes were built around Shropshire, but things perhaps got out of hand due to thinking parochially.  The great opportunity missed was the watershed between the Severn and the north in the vicinity of the Shropshire plain.  A 'Dee-Severn Canal' could have shaved off a few feet from a 300 feet summit level, and it could have been built to a much larger capacity than those that were built.  Nearly a hundred feet lower than Tring on the Grand Junction for example, and with a plentiful water supply!  And this of course could easily be continued to the Mersey, etc, at a low level.

A 'box' (or 'more box-like system') of course would not solve water supply issues such as the Grand Contour was designed for - but because of the needs of the east and south this does suggest that supporting routes for water supply should also be included - e.g. smaller canals, feeders  or even pipelines aimed towards all the summit levels, from the west or from the north, where the water is more plentiful. 

But that's all wishful thinking.  The water supply needs of the present are not going to be solved by shifting large quantities around when it's needed, because the whole country is short at times of emergency.  Because our current and future problems include extra rainfall at times (not to mention the flooding that ensues) and drought at others, there's nothing for it but to build more reservoirs.  The funny thing is, that if the need is seen to be there, this should be quite compatible with maintaining and improving navigation on our rivers as well as aiding flood control - and possibly serving more important functions in the future such as hydro-power and conservation. 

I know that such routes and combined problems have been discussed elsewhere - but looking at a waterways map of Britain puts into perspective all the waterway projects that were built, and we can discuss at least some of the reasons why some proposals were not.  


Hadfield, Charles:  'The Canals of the British Isles' series.  ('The Canals of......') South and South-East England, South West England, East Midlands, West Midlands, Scotland, South Wales and the Border, Waterways to Stratford,  North East, North West and Eastern England.   
Green, Colin:  'Severn Traders',  1999.  (for the most authoritative summary of navigation works proposals on the Severn and neighbouring rivers including Somerset).  
Semmens, PWB:   'Stockton and Darlington'   (see north-east)
Garfield, Simon:   'The last journey of William Huskinson'  (see north-west).  
Waterways World:  
    Sept. 1975;   Mark Baldwin, article on Grand Contour Canal
    Oct. 1975;   Mark Baldwin, critique Grand contour canal.
    Jan. 1976;   Letter to Ed. regarding above.
    Oct. 2011;   another article on Grand Contour Canal.  
Waterways (IWA):   August 1992,   articles on water transfer proposals by NRA and BW.