Somersetshire Coal Canal History

The Somersetshire Coal Canal (SCC) was authorised by an Act of Parliament in April 1794.
The canal was promoted by the mine owners of the North Somerset coalfields as a cheaper means of transporting their coal to the markets in Bath and the surrounding area. (At that time the only transport was by pack-horse or horse and cart, over rough terrain. These animals could only cope with limited quantities, which resulted in high prices ).
The mine owners were also worried over the possible effect the flood of good Welsh coal might have on their market for there had been plans to import such coal into Bristol
Surveyed by John Rennie (of Kennet & Avon Canal fame), with help from William Smith (1769-1839) - (the "Father of English Geology", whose writings influenced Charles Darwin); the canal was to have two arms, with connecting tramroads, to the many coal pits in the Radstock and Timsbury areas.
The original plan was for there to be a 3/4 mile tunnel at Combe Hay but this was later rejected becasue of cost and thus the canal became a "summit"canal. One problem with both of these arms was the climb/fall of 135feet.

Starting at Dundas Aqueduct, on the Kennet & Avon at Limpley Stoke, the main arm would pass to the west through Monkton Combe, Midford, Combe Hay, Dunkerton and Camerton to the basins at Paulton and Timsbury. At Midford the other arm would head towards Radstock via Wellow and Writhlington. The Paulton arm (or sometimes called the Dunkerton line) was constructed at two levels, the upper level from Paulton to Combe Hay, and the lower level from Combe Hay to Limpley Stoke. In later years, at the top of the Combe Hay part was a steam pumping engine (see later). However, at first, to "bridge" the daunting difference in altitude between these two parts, there were to be the three Caisson Locks (pic) at Combe Hay.
These were experimental locks consisting of a large masonry chamber or 'cistern' in which a watertight box - the Caisson - was suspended. This box was large enough to take a full length boat, which was floated into it and then, with the doors closed, was raised or lowered to the desired level.
Adrian of the SCC has now completed an excellent series of diagrams to show how it works.
See Adrian's Caisson "how it works"

Although the maker - one R. Weldon was able to demonstrate the whole mechanism in working order, it was not a success. It is thought that this was because of the Fullers' earth rock stratum in this area. It, (like Cat Litter) swells when in contact with water; the masonary walls must have buckled and trapped the caisson. History & further details. It was replaced by an inclined plane (Nov.1801).
This appears to have been the normal double acting type where coal was craned from the barges in wooden containers capable of transporting about 1 ton of coal each. Three of these were placed in each wagon. This wagon descended by gravity, the 300 yards in 5 mins, pulling up empty waggons from below by means of a continuous pulley system with the heavy chains passing around two equal sized wheels at the top and bottom.

Excvation of a possible site for the caisson is now taking place. This lock was one of the "wonders of the waterway world"; its exact construction and mechanism is unknown. No matter how excited you may feel over its potential discovery please note that the site is on private land!
The inclined plane at Combe Hay was also unsuccessful, mainly due to the time consuming and inefficient trans-shipment of goods, and was eventually replaced, in April 1805, by a flight of twenty two locks, ( 3 had already been built near the bottom of the inclined plain).
One part of this new and costly venture was shaped like a bull's nose - still to be seen today. (See map). The large loss of water necessitated the building of a Boulton & Watt Steam Pumping Station capable of lifting 5 000 tons of water in 12 hours. It needed a water supply -probably from lock 19. From here it is proposed that an underground adit (with a fall of 1:40) took the water up the 'middle' of the bullnose to the engine.
This pump was later dismantled and moved to Dunnkerton to join a near-identical partner. If you click on Dunkerton pump you will see it (to the left). (Len Bampfylde collection)
Nearby was Dunkerton Wharf c1900. The cut from the coal filed to here was the first part to be opened and within 6 months 2 wagons per day were hauling coal from the wharf inro Bath at a cost of 2 shillings per ton, much less than previously.
If only the SCC had waited until late 1800 they might have been very impressed by a "balance lock" invented by James Fussell IV (of Fussell's Ironworks fame) and built at Barrow Hill near to Mells on the Dorset & Somerset Canal . This was similar to the il l-fated Weldon design but had two caissons, in counterbalance, separated by a masonry wall.The inclined plane and extra locks might never have been! One site at BarrowHill has been excavated (July 2004)

(Caissons were also built on the not-too-distant Great Western Canal)

However, another, untapped (?) source has been found. This suggests that the first caisson was soon modified and that it and the "second lock" were much more like the design of Rowland and Pickering! Hard to believe I know! For more detail see: History & further details.

Why are there no pictures from this era? Because the world's first photograph by the Frenchman Niepce was not taken until 1827. Even then long-term fixing of the image was impossible. This had to wait until Daguerre's work in Paris 1839. Sorry!

The Society has actively conserved most of these locks. Although all wooden structures have long since gone, all the walls etc are intact. Regular working parties are held at the site. See later for details.

As to the other "arm", there are conflicting records as to its (economic) success. Engineering features include the tunnel near to St Julian's Church, recently excavated, and the sharp turn near to St Julian's Well. During this time (1805), the length of canal from Radstock to Twinhoe was built and to avoid the expense of further locks to take the canal downhill to Midford, a tramway was built.
Again, because of the trans-shipment of goods at Twinhoe and the low level of traffic on this branch, it was eventually decided to extend the tramway all the way into Radstock, using the towpath as the bed of the track.
Pics of Twinhoe basin ...now (&then?)This was 7 1/4 miles long, single track, with passing loops every 600yards. Teams of 3 horses would haul 8 or 9 wagons of about 11cwt each.

This would leave the only trans-shipment point at Midford Basin where this Radstock tramway and the Paulton canal arm met, converging over an aqueduct.
The canal was one of the most successful in the country,
500 yard section of the former SCC at Dundas Aqueduct has been restored for use as private moorings for the Kennet & Avon Canal.

At the junction of the K&A and the SCC the accommodation bridge has gone (replaced with a metal swing bridge), and the SCC decreased the width of the lock from Broad Guage to Narrow. and in the 1820's was carrying over 100,000 tons of coal per year. However this prosperity was soon to be halted by the coming of the railways.
The opening of the railway line between Radstock and Frome started the decline in the canal's fortunes, by taking away the tramway's coal trade and eventually, in 1871, the tramway was sold to the Somerset and Dorset Railway who built their Bath to Evercreech line over much of its course. (Picture to show. The tramway was to the right of the S&D rails. Twinhoe. The Bristol and North Somerset Railway's Hallatrow to Camerton branch of 1881 further eroded the canal's trade on the Paulton arm.
With trade increasingly being taken by the railways and, the working out of the coal seams, combined with fall in trade from the Kennet & Avon (itself suffering from railway competition), it was not surprising when the canal company decided to close the canal. The official liquidator tried to sell the canal as a going concern in 1894 but to no avail, and the canal eventually closed in 1898. In 1904 the abandoned canal was sold to the Great Western Railway, who in 1907-10 built the Camerton to Limpley Stoke Railway over much of the northern, Paulton, course. The tunnel at Combe Hay was drained and used as a railway tunnel instead.

By 1951 the GWR branch line had closed and in 1966 the S & D closed too (both losing out to road transport).

Today, there are few canal bridges that survive and of the twenty two locks at Combe Hay, eighteen are still there (although only seven are accessible to the public). The Midford aqueduct that used to lead to the trans-shipment basin is still there (and has been renovated, or see above), and the outline of the Paulton basin is still recognisable.
In 1985 restoration began on the first quarter mile section of the Somerset Coal Canal from its junction with the Kennet and Avon at Dundas Aqueduct. This stretch had not been touched by the railway and was still reasonably intact. Two entrepreneurs, Mr. Hedley Smith and Mr.Tim Wheeldon, seeing the potential it presented for a marina and boat business, formed the new Somerset Coal Canal Company. They acquired the land and dug out and relined the old canal bed. The only part, which had been deliberately filled, was the stop lock in the garden of the lock keepers cottage at the entrance. As this lock only had a rise of 7 inches from the Kennet and Avon, the arm was able to be reconnected without having to reinstate the lock, and is now at the same level as the main canal. By 1988 the restoration had reached the end of the arm which disappeared into a short tunnel under the A36/Warminster Road. This tunnel was excavated and turned into a dry dock. To enable boats up to 60ft in length to turn at the end a winding hole was excavated. As the basin is at the end of Brassknocker Hill it was named Brassknocker Basin.

After several years of boat operations, without permanent premises, European funding was obtained to help construct a purpose built canal side Visitor Centre. This steel, wood and glass structure opened in 1988 and is curved to match the bend of the canal around the hillside.

Within this building all the activities of the boatyard and Visitor Centre are carried out with the exception of Bath & Dundas Enterprise, which occupies the dry dock and workshop in the tunnel. A number of small shops occupy the centre providing information about the canal, books and guides and various boat and canal memorabilia. The longest part of the building is occupied by the Angelfish Cafe/restaurant, which caters for boaters and walkers. The bustle and activity of this eastern end of the parish is in marked contrast to the peace and tranquillity of Tucking Mill Lake at its western limit.

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