It is now just over 200 years since the decision was taken to build a canal linking the coalworks in the North Somerset Coalfield to the proposed Kennet & Avon Canal at the Dundas Aqueduct in Limpley Stoke. Known as the Somersetshire Coal Canal, this project was to have important consequences for the parish of Timsbury.
The route of the main line of the canal was surveyed by John Rennie and assisted by William Smith, who later became famous for being the ‘Father of English Geology’. It was authorised to start “From or near a Place called Goosehard, otherwise Gooseyard Bridge, in the Parish of High Littleton”, but it was eventually decided to locate the terminus in the meadows downstream of Goosard Bridge (opposite Paulton Engine coalwork), just over the boundary in Timsbury Parish. A similar terminus at Radstock was also decided, to form the head of a subsidiary branch which joined the canal at Midford.
It was the Timsbury section of the canal which was first built. Tenders were put out in May 1795 for “..any person willing to contract to cutting, embanking, puddling, and compleating (sic) that part of the canal from Paulton engine to or near a place called Hopyard, in the Parish of Camerton, being in length about two miles… and also for framing and laying out the proposed railroads from the different collieries to the canal”. Although the contractor Houghton & Son (whose bid was accepted the following month) was a Shropshire firm, it is now thought likely that most of the unskilled labour was obtained from the Timsbury and Paulton district. Work seems to have progressed well, and despite holdups elsewhere on the canal (caused by the failure of the famous Caisson Lock at Combe Hay), this section was complete by Monday 1st October 1798 when the first load of coal along the canal was delivered, via Dunkerton to Bath.
From hereon the cost of coal in the city was to fall dramatically. At that time, there were about seven coalworks in Timsbury, ranging along side of the hill below Hayeswood, with a similar number to the south in Paulton Parish. All of these were linked to the canal terminus by tramways. It was also intended that lines should be laid to the pits in High Littleton and Clutton Hill, but this was never carried out. At first these tramways did not seem to have been very successful, and Benjamin Outram was brought in to review them. His suggestion, that they should he replaced with his plateway system seems, from archaeological evidence, to have been adopted in modified form. Individual wagons were run down the steep slopes of Prior’s Hill under gravity, being controlled by a brakesman on foot. After tipping their load into the awaiting canal boats, the empties were linked into trams and hauled back up the hill by horses.
The plateway from the Timsbury pits terminated at a wharf at the extreme end of the canal which was therefore known as “Timsbury Basin“.
Later on this wharf came to include various storage sheds, stables, a wharfinger’s cottage and a milestone indicating “10 1/2 miles” from Dundas Aqueduct. About a hundred yards “downstream” of this was another wharf which served the several plateways arriving from the Paulton coalworks, and therefore known as “Paulton Basin”. Both wharves however lay in Timsbury Parish, and three bridges were built to bring the Paulton lines over the Cam Brook to the canal. Further along the canal another bridge was built where it crossed the lane to Dunford and where similar tramway connections were made to Withy Mills colliery in Timsbury and Radford coalworks in Paulton.
Various deviations had to be made in the Cam Brook at certain points to safeguard the banks of the canal, particularly at the Paulton Basin where a dry dock and entrance bridge to the wharves were built, and at Radford Mill, where several trackways to Timsbury had to be diverted and a bridge (originally a swivel bridge) provided. At Radford itself a bridge was also needed to carry the main road over the canal at the boundary with Camerton Parish.
After the whole canal came into full operation in 1805, it proved financially to be one of the most successful canals in the country. Although it was originally intended merely to meet the threat of imported Welsh coal into Bath, its connection with the Kennet & Avon canal gave it access to the coal-starved regions of Wiltshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. For this reason it survived the initial development of the railways in the mid – 19th century. However, patterns of coal extraction were changing, and by the 1870s most of the old coalworks in Timsbury and Paulton were replaced by larger workings operating from the Conygre collieries in Timsbury, New Pit in Camerton and the large works at Radstock. By 1880 the wharves at the terminus in Timsbury were already disused when a branch of the Bristol & North Somerset Railway (the Camerton Branch) was constructed parallel with the canal.
The rest of the main line remained in operation, but even that was abandoned in 1898, and the whole canal was eventually sold (in 1904) to the G. W. R. Since that time much of the canal through Timsbury has been altered or destroyed, but it still contains some of the best remains of the whole line. Despite some infilling, sections of the canal bed remain open and in their original state, particularly between Dunford and Timsbury Mill. Over most of its course the towpath serves as a public footpath, as do the routes of the tramway around Timsbury Bottom.
It is unfortunate that the wharf areas of the terminal basins have been well bulldozed, and only one of the three tramway bridges has survived, but the basins and the retaining walls still remain, together with fragments of the dry dock and its towpath bridge. Even the feeder leat and water gauge which supplied water to the canal from the Cam Brook can be traced, and the sluice below the footings of the entrance bridge still drains the basins. At Dunford the abutments of the trestle bridge from Radford Pit and the platform wharf have survived in remarkable condition, and the chamber of the bridge at Timsbury Mill remains in good condition under the turf. Many alterations have been made at Radford, but even here the wings of the canal bridge can be seen in the roadside wall, and the culvert which ran under the canal still carries water away at the back of the old brewery buildings.
Article by Mike Chapman B A AIFA.
Reproduced from the ‘Timsbury Book’.
Read more about William Smith and the Bicentenary of his Geological map here.