Imagined canals

A plan to connect London to the sea and to bring sea-going ships straight into Birmingham: explore stories of ambitious waterways that never got built


The heyday of canal building left the UK with a rich legacy of waterworks to enjoy but some planned waterways never got off the ground at all. Many of these unbuilt canals were mapped and surveyed and some were even debated in the Houses of Parliament. Here we look at some of those canals that failed to make the cut.

The one that was rejected twice by Parliament: Berks & Hants Canal

This link between the Basingstoke and Kennet & Avon Canal was propsosed three times between 1793 and 1810, and was even surveyed by John Rennie in 1824, but was eventually rejected by Parliament in 1824 and 1826 following opposition from landowners. Various routes were suggested – Rennie’s would have gone from Enborne to Old Basing via a 1,500-yard (1,370-metre) tunnel at Tadley.

The one that would have connected London to the sea: Grand Southern Canal

A bold Rennie concept from 1810, this canal was intended to cross from Tonbridge on the Medway across Sussex to Chichester and Portsmouth. The canal would have been large enough to allow Thames barges to make the journey and various connections were planned to local waterways such as the Croydon Canal and River Arun. The canal also had a military purpose – it would have provided a direct link for two Royal Navy strongholds without boats having to venture into the channel.

A 20th-century use for England’s spine: Grand Contour Canal

JF Pownall’s ambitious cross-country Grand Contour Canal called for an European-style canal that linked almost every major city in the UK between Newcastle and Southampton. This grand revival of a declining system was first proposed in the 1930s and regularly look at thereafter. The system was to be used for water supply as well as transportation. It was named after a natural ridge down the spine of England that was around 310ft above sea level.

Cornwall’s missing link: Polbrock Canal

Although it was approved by Parliament in the 1790s, this link between the north and south coasts of Cornwall never got underway. It would have joined the River Camel with the Fowey at Bodmin. Rennie was once again roped in to survey the route. A similar route was later surveyed by Marc Isambard Brunel in the 1820s.

The canal that inspired a railway: Stockton & Darlington Canal

Coal merchants in the north-east asked James Brindley to survey a canal that would have linked the mines of Darlington to the Tees at Stockton. The canal was deemed uneconomical but was reappraised by John Rennie in 1815, again without success. The route later provided the basis for Stephenson’s Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world’s first public railway.

The plan to bring ships to the West Midlands: Birmingham & Liverpool Ship Canal

Not so much a new canal but a massive expansion of the existing Trent & Mersey Canal, this would have allowed the canal to be used for larger ships. A dramatic facelift was proposed that included the reconstruction of the Harecastle Tunnel to make it suitable for seafaring craft (as you imagine, that would be quite an undertaking!). Some work was carried out on bridges in Anderton and Middlewich, before the idea was quietly shelved.

The Richmond bypass that never was: London Canal

As trade increased, surveyors began to explore ways of getting larger ships further up the Thames. James Brindley’s suggestion was to construct the London Canal from Monkey Island at Bray in Berkshire across Hounslow Heath to Isleworth. This would be suitable for 200-ton barges and also avoid some of the Thames’s lazier curves around Richmond. This proposal went to Parliament and was followed by a further plan to take the canal all the way to Reading, but the authorities decided instead to improve navigation on the Thames by constructing pound locks.