Robert Whitworth was a land surveyor and engineer who became involved in the
surveying of the River Calder at a time when John Smeaton was working on the
Calder and Hebble Navigation. Smeaton was replaced by James Brindley, the
notable canal engineer, and by 1767, Robert Whitworth was the chief surveyor
and draughtsman in Brindley’s company.
Robert was involved with many canal projects, including the Thames and
Severn Canal, and acted as Chief Engineer for the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
1793 Robert and his son William published a plan for the Wilts & Berks
Canal, and an Act of Parliament approving the construction received Royal
Assent in April 1795.
Robert had worked on narrow canals with Brindley, and this was the design
proposed for the Wilts & Berks. A narrow canal would be considerably
cheaper: less digging out, narrower locks, smaller bridges and less water
needed. Also the proposed Somerset Coalfield Canal would be similarly
narrow, thus avoiding any need for transference of cargo from wide to narrow
boats. This would later be necessary at places like Latton Basin near
Cricklade, the junction between the Wilts & Berks and the wider Thames and
Unfortunately, the decision to construct a narrow canal had implications for
the future profitability of the Wilts & Berks which was never a serious
rival to the wider, more profitable, Kennet and Avon Canal. Also Robert’s
calculation that there would be sufficient water supply was flawed, and
later, more money had to be found to construct a reservoir (now Coate Water
Robert died in 1798, aged 64, when the canal had reached Pewsham, with the
bridge under the A4 at Derry Hill completed, and the three Pewsham Locks
well under way.
William Whitworth took on the sole responsibility of overseeing the
completion of the Wilts & Berks Canal on the death of his father. This was
not an easy task as there were various problems and issues: there was
considerable land slippage along the canal banks at Pewsham, but more
seriously, William reported the problems with water supply. Also, Chippenham
Borough was unhappy about the amount of land ‘spoiled’ during the
construction, the illegal use of access land at Borough Lands, and, even
worse, there was a protracted dispute about the correct location of the
terminus in Chippenham.
Chippenham Arm had been constructed as far as ‘The Common Meadow called
Englands’ but this was a considerable distance from the town centre. After
much investigation and adjudication, it was decided that the canal should be
extended a further 630 yards (576m) to Timber Street. Unfortunately for
William Whitworth and the Canal Company, this had to include a 90 yard (82m)
long tunnel to traverse a ridge of high ground.
Eventually, the Chippenham Arm was completed, with a new wharf at Timber
Street, in 1805, William Whitworth reported to the Canal Company that the
canal was navigable as far as Swindon, and in 1810 it was completed to
William later surveyed and estimated the cost of the North Wilts Canal to
join the Wilts & Berks Canal to the Thames & Severn Canal.
Whilst involved with the Wilts & Berks, William lived in a house at Stanley.
He married Rebecca Court and had three children. Rebecca had a very
unfortunate accident in 1835 (reported in the local press), when she and her
daughter were thrown out of a pony carriage whilst travelling down Derry
Hill on their way to Chippenham. The daughter survived unhurt, but Rebecca
Whitworth later died and was buried at Bremhill on April 4th
William himself died in 1857 and was also buried at Bremhill.