The Melksham, Calne and Chippenham Branch

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Robert and William Whitworth Surveyors & Engineers 1794/5 - 1810 

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.

In 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 Severn Canal.

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 in Swindon).

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.

The 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 Abingdon.

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 1835.

William himself died in 1857 and was also buried at Bremhill.



Click here for Wikepedia entry for Robert Whitworth
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