Reprinted from Newsletter 99, dated 2001 May–June

Book tells colourful story of our 19th-century canal

John Brunsdon

A book cover. Its background is plain dark green, and the text is in white. The title is “The Glastonbury Canal”, and the authors are Geoffrey Body and Roy Gallop. Between the title and authors is a large black-and-white drawing with a white border. The drawing depicts a canal running towards the town and tor. The canal has many boats and people are both on the boats and alongside the canal.

The Glastonbury Canal: from Glastonbury to the sea, by Geoffrey Body and Roy Gallop (48pp, Fiducia Press, £5, ISBN 0 946217 08 4)

In its 30-year existence the Glastonbury Canal inspired a group of entrepreneurs in a historic town, but it led them from rejoicing to ruin. This is the story of the events along the way, from the imagination and energy of its promoters, through the opening celebrations and trading years to later difficulties and the eventual sell-off to the growing railway network.

Glastonbury had fallen into hard times by the late 18th century, having lost not only its Abbey but then also its wool and cloth trade to the north of England. The land was rife with canal mania, and two brothers named Prat — Richard the solicitor and Samuel — saw the town regaining its prosperity through easier transport of slate, hides, timber, bricks and cheese. Coal would especially benefit: by water from Wales instead of painfully with tolls over the Mendips. They sold shares at £50.

During construction, finance became tight and various corners were cut to save costs. For instance, it seems that on one stretch near Burtle, no bottoming (clay lining to stop leakage) was done at all. This was said to be due to “an unfortunate event which occurred during the performance of the work”. The quote was dug up by Dr Malin Boyd, our founding chairman, who was a great authority on the canal and wrote an authoritative paper about it for the Antiquarian Society in 1963.

With detailed research and careful fieldwork, the authors bring to life the events of the canal’s colourful history and provide illustrations to portray its former route and surviving traces. The front cover is a contemporary drawing of festivities to open the canal in 1833, on August 15. The town turned out to watch the triumphant cavalcade — including a band on a barge — returning from an inaugural trip to Highbridge along the canal.

Conservation Society members can buy the book at the special rate of £4 post-free, direct from Fiducia Press, 4 Woodspring Ave, Weston-super-Mare, BS22 9RJ.