By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
Lord Hardinge, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, had no doubt of the importance of the Basingstoke Canal for the new Camp at Aldershot. “The Ordnance Solicitor will have to enter into communications with the owners of the Basingstoke Canal”, he wrote in a memorandum of 26 February 1855, “We shall probably require wharfs for oats, forage, and various other articles”. One of the few features which pre-dated the Army, the Basingstoke Canal would play a significant role in the development of Aldershot Camp.
The idea for a canal to link Basingstoke to the Thames, and so to London, was first proposed in 1769, and by 1776 a route was planned from Basingstoke to the River Wey navigation at Woodham, from where boats could continue to the Thames. Parliament passed the Basingstoke Canal Act in 1778, authorising the formation of the Basingstoke Canal Navigation Company, but the financial crisis caused by the American Revolution meant that it was ten years before the required capital could be raised.
Construction work began in 1788. The Surveyor and Consultant Engineer was William Jessop, an experienced engineer who had worked on a number of canals, while construction work was contracted to John Pinkerton, who in turn let out jobs to numerous sub-contractors. The canal was completed in 1794, it was 37 miles in length and fell 195 feet through 29 locks. Lock number 29 was Ash Lock, by the junction of the modern day Government Road and Camp Farm Road. This is the only canal lock in Hampshire, as those to the east were in Surrey and on the western side there were no further locks to Basingstoke. Around Frimley a series of 14 locks lifted the canal almost 100 feet in less than 2 miles and led to a cutting in places 70 feet deep, from which Deepcut takes its name. The completion of the canal in only six years, with its bridges, aqueducts, earthworks, cuttings, embankments, and other essential structures, was a great engineering achievement.
The canal ran east to west across the open land of Aldershot Heath. Just west of where the canal crossed the Winchester Turnpike Road (now the A325 Farnborough Road) a wharf was built, originally called Farnham Wharf but re-named Aldershot Wharf shortly after the building of the Army Camp. Around 1793 the Wharf Bridge was built to carry the road over the canal. This single brick arch bridge has remained in constant use, and was strengthened in 1914 to take the increase in traffic caused by the First World War. In 1969-1970, because of the conversion of the A325 into a dual carriageway, a new concrete bridge was built next to the Wharf Bridge to carry the southbound carriageway, while the northbound used the old bridge. Inevitably, the increasing amount of modern traffic meant that the old Wharf Bridge needed further upgrading and strengthening, which was done in 2004.
Just to the south of the Wharf, the Row Barge Inn was built, which conducted a steady trade catering to the bargees on the canal and travellers on the turnpike. When the Army came to Aldershot the Row Barge was one of the very few solid buildings in the area, so it was briefly used as accommodation for the first General Officer Commanding while he was waiting for his regular quarters to be completed. The arrival of thousands of troops brought a boom in trade for the inn, such that the landlady claimed she drew a new barrel of beer every 50 minutes and kept up this rate all day. By 1859 the Army authorities wanted the Row Barge closed, as it had become notorious for drunkenness and undesirable behaviour. The landlord was given six months’ notice to quit, which he ignored, and so a detachment of Sappers removed the roof, bringing to an end the days of the Row Barge.
Even in its early years the Basingstoke Canal struggled to make any money, and trade on the canal slumped in the 1830s when the London and Southampton Railway opened. Most of the remaining trade through Ash Wharf was lost when the Guildford-Farnham railway opened a branch to Farnborough in 1849. However, the building of Aldershot Army Camp brought a surprising late boost to the canal’s fortunes.
As the building of the Camp’s wooden huts got underway in early 1855, barges began bringing timber and deal boarding, bricks for the foundations, slates for the roofs, paving-stones, and iron pipes for guttering. In May 1855, 152 tons of iron bedsteads were delivered. During 1856, when the first permanent barracks began to be built, over 7,500 tons of bricks were transported up the canal, plus 25 tons of glass in July and 23 tons of door-frames in August, along with over 1,000 tons of oats for horses and 8,500 tons of coal. The trade continued at similar levels until 1859, and it is estimated that in three years some 20,000 tons of building materials and other commodities were brought by canal to Aldershot.
The water itself was a resource which, at one stage, looked like a possible source of revenue. One of the reasons for the Army’s choice of Aldershot was the promise of a good water supply from the hills at Bourley, but in the early years of the Camp this was inadequate. As a result, around 1863 the government began negotiations to buy the Basingstoke Canal for use as a water supply for the Camp. The proposal was considered by the Canal Company’s Board of Directors in December 1865 but it came to nothing, especially as the engineer of the Thames Navigation issued a report commenting unfavourably on the effect this would have on the viability of the canal for navigation.
The Army built two camps, North Camp and South Camp, and needed a crossing of the Basingstoke Canal to link them. In September 1855 the barge “Industry” carried an 8-ton pontoon bridge to Aldershot, which was set up by the Royal Engineers on the site where today Queen’s Avenue crosses over the canal. During the day, soldiers would open the pontoons when barges needed to pass through, but at night the bridge was left open to river traffic, meaning that anyone on foot could not cross the canal without a long walk to Wharf Bridge. Soldiers caught out by this were said the have “missed the last boat”. Mrs Young, an officer’s wife writing in 1857, remembered meeting a woman on the banks of the canal who “grumbled sadly at the payment of a penny at the ferry, and the inaction of the pontoon-bridge on a Sunday, which bridge connects the North and South camps”.
The pontoon bridge was only a temporary solution, and it was soon replaced by a fixed wooden bridge. In 1898 the Army authorities decided a replacement bridge was needed to carry the increasing weight of Army transport, so the wooden bridge was replaced by the Iron Bridge. This had seven steel girders to hold the decking, cast iron parapets, railings, and four lamp standards. The lamp standards were removed in the Second World War, and by the 1990s the bridge itself was in need of major upgrading to meet modern loading standards. The original girders were replaced by twelve new rolled sections, the original iron railings were restored where possible and new pieces cast as necessary, and new lamp standards made to the original plans. In the restoration there was painstaking attention to detail, for example 6,000 imitation rivet heads were welded under new decking to recreate the original plated appearance, and decorative iron rosettes for the bridge’s side panels were made to match the originals.
Although the building of the Camp had brought some useful business for the canal, this sharply declined after 1859, and in 1866 the original canal company went into liquidation. The canal passed through numerous owners and largely became derelict. It was last used by the Army for transport in the First World War, when stores and munitions were carried between Aldershot and Woolwich. The last commercial traffic on the canal was in 1919, when 22 barge loads of aircraft spares from the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough were taken to the Woolwich Arsenal.
The canal played a major role in the Camp’s recreational activities. Pleasure boats appeared as early as May 1856 and were much in demand. Two boat-houses were built by the wharf, which hired out skiffs, punts and canoes, and the popularity of boating on the canal led to summer regattas being organised. Before the building of the swimming baths, parts of the canal were designated as bathing areas. It was also used for fishing, and an angling club was formed.
The canal also proved a useful training aid for the Royal Engineers. It was no coincidence that the RE’s Gibraltar Barracks (on the site of what became Browning Barracks) was next to the canal, as it was ideal for the Sappers to use when practicing the essential skill of bridge building.
In the Second World War Britain feared invasion after Nazi Germany had conquered Western Europe. To block a possible invasion force, a number of ‘stop lines’ were planned across the country. As a natural barrier, the Basingstoke Canal formed part of the GHQ Stop Line to protect London from an attack from the south or south-west. Between June 1940 and March 1941 many defensive pillboxes were built in the Aldershot area along the north of the Basingstoke Canal and east of the Blackwater River. Some of these remained in place until the 1980s, but few exist today. However, a rare example of a square pillbox stands by the Basingstoke Canal just west of Aldershot Wharf, which serves as a reminder of the dark days of 1940.
After the war, the canal was in a very poor condition, and the owners proposed filling in the urban section for redevelopment. In 1966 the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society was founded.to oppose these plans, and instead campaigned for the restoration of the canal. In 1973 Hampshire County Council bought the section of the canal in their county, followed by Surrey County Council in 1976. For the next decade the volunteers from the Canal Society worked tirelessly to make the canal navigable once more, and in 1991 the Basingstoke Canal was officially re-opened by the Duke of Kent. Today the Basingstoke Canal Society continues to manage the canal, and it is a much valued amenity for recreational boating and angling, while many more enjoy walking along the towpaths.
This historic waterway not only provides us with recreation and enjoyment of the natural countryside which surrounds it, but also reminds of how important the Basingstoke Canal has been in the long history of Aldershot.
Article originally published in the The Garrison, Autumn 2019
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.