The canal is familiar as the half-forgotten waterway beneath the steep bridges at the top of Clemens Street, at the northern end of Tachbrook Road and on the approach to The Shires. The canal arrived in town just as Leamington was about to become a popular spa town but there was no connection between the two events. The canal was built as a commercial enterprise to replace horse-drawn transport of goods with much more efficient use of horse-power. The aim was not to make life easier for horses but to generate profit for shareholders.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century there was money available and a mood to invest because the American War of Independence ended in 1783 and there had been a run of good harvests. Businessmen had seen the potential of transport on artificial waterways following the success of the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal in the north-west of England. There was a period of frantic interest in canal-building in the early 1790s now known as the Canal Mania. It may seem hard to believe but the canal through Leamington was built as part of a Mania.There was much planning, plotting and debate about which routes the new canals should follow. There was no national Plan. Opinions differed over which were the most profitable commodities to set sights on. However a main aim was to provide a route from Birmingham and the Black Country to London. The earliest route by water was down the Coventry and Oxford canals and then along the Thames but this was over 200 miles. The canal through Leamington was planned to be part of a more direct route. It was initially planned as a route from the Warwick and Birmingham Canal at Warwick, at what is now known as the Saltisford Arm, to the Oxford Canal at Braunston and then onto the new Grand Junction Canal to London.
The initial Act for the canal was granted in 1794 for the Warwick and Braunston Canal. However two years later another Act authorised a different route from the west of the Fosse Way at Offchurch to Napton and it was renamed the Warwick and Napton Canal. The plans at Leamington were also altered so that a cutting was planned alongside Old Warwick Road instead of a 800 yard tunnel. Work soon began and there were celebrations of completion on 19 December 1799. However the canal did not open for business until March 1800.From the start the canal was busy and profitable. Traffic was from a wide range from coal to corn. In 1816 Pickford’s advertised collection of goods at Hiorne’s wharf in the town. In 1835 the gas works was built alongside the canal to receive coal. The boats were narrow boats about 70 feet long and 7 feet wide. Those passing through Leamington usually had living cabins aboard.
The Warwick and Napton canal company worked very closely with the Warwick and Birmingham canal and administration was merged to a great extent although the companies remained legally separated.The canal thrived for forty years or so but the arrival of the railways promised quicker transport and customer loyalty waned quickly. By 1845 the canal was struggling and did not pay a dividend for some years after 1853. Fees for carriage were drastically reduced. At this time a receiver was appointed but restructuring of the company enabled it to continue.
After 1870 there were a number of discussions of mergers with other companies but the company struggledon alone until it became a part of a consortium briefly owned by the Regents Canal Company based in London in 1927. This group was relaunched under the now-familiar name of the Grand Union Canal (GUC) in 1929.
The GUC stretched from Regents Dock in London to Birmingham with an important branch through Leicester. So confident was the company that it soon built new wide locks alongside the old locks on the Warwick and Napton route which were 83 ft 6 in long and 15 ft wide. These were completed in 1934. The aim was to encourage 12 ft 6 in wide boats but with little success. Trade dwindled to almost nothing after the war. Despite the work of a number
of government sponsored committees little trade now takes place on our canal. The boats today are mainly those of holiday makers, either hire boats or privately owned, with the occasional live-aboards. The boats usually provide a welcome splash of colour against the backdrop of Flavel’s factory and bring tourist money to the town.
The footbridge by Flavel’s is known as the “Ladder Bridge” and carries the footpath from Whitnash which is shown on a map in the 1760s and was renovated in 1998. There were as many as ten wharves along the canal starting in the west at a major wharf at the end of Clapham Terrace dating from about 1889. Others were at Flavel’s, several backing on to Ranelagh Street, the Gas Works and Wise Street. A guide book showed that in 1904 there were at least five wharves in town which, working from the Warwick direction, were named Leamington Stone Wharf, Nutter’s Wharf, Watkin’s Oil Mill Wharf, Flavel’s Foundry Wharf and Frost’s Wharf. Coal arrived at the gas works in boats from the time it opened in 1819 and the special tanker boats of Thomas Clayton frequently took away coal tar.
There have been about four canal festivals around Clemens Street bridge in the last ten years which were lively and popular events. Two or three pubs and restaurants make a feature of the backdrop of the canal. In 2012 the canal joined most of the similar waterways in England by being vested in a charity called the Canal and River Trust. The main aim of the Trust is to encourage local people to use the canal for fishing or boating and the towpath for walking, running and cycling. It takes little effort to walk from Clemens Street into the countryside towards Radford Semele. It is hoped that these groups of users can co-exist happily for the future.
Mick Jeffs and Barry Franklin 2013