The Southern Oxford Canal: A Story of Survival


Over the 230 years since it first opened to Oxford in 1790, the relationship between the Southern Oxford Canal and the village of Adderbury has never been either close or straightforward (see the paper. “Adderbury and the Oxford Canal over 200 years” elsewhere on this website). But the canal, which traverses the parish from north to south, is in 2020 still in rude health as a waterway and retains the great majority of its historical artefacts, all of which now have Grade II listed status. This stretch of canal is also among the busiest on the whole of today’s canal network, with 3956 lock movements recorded at Nell Bridge Lock in 2018, for example.

This situation has not come about by chance. This paper looks at the broader historical factors well beyond the village that have led to the canal’s survival. Not surprisingly, the key issues turn out to have changed over time.

The Oxford Canal in the 18th Century

The initial problems of the Southern Oxford Canal are well known, with construction delayed at Banbury for twelve years because the company ran out of money. But this should not blind us to the fact that the enterprise was extremely well-founded, and it was this which, more than any other factor, contributed to the company’s success in the following century.

There’s no doubt that Sir Roger Newdigate was the one man who gave the canal its original character and caused the Oxford Canal to get off the ground so early in the day. His energy was prodigious, and once he had lobbied and encouraged all the necessary groups to come together to seek a parliamentary act, he was no less assiduous in guiding the act through its various stages. He was then for many years Chairman of the Oxford Canal Company. Newdigate’s motivation was threefold. First, perhaps as a result of seeing large-scale canal schemes on his two grand tours in Europe, he undoubtedly believed in James Brindley’s original vision: the construction of a “silver cross” of canals to link the main river systems of England. Secondly, he wished to bring economic benefits to Oxford, where he was a long-serving MP for the university. But perhaps most significant was his wish to open the collieries on his Arbury estate and find markets for their output on the model of the Duke of Bridgewater’s phenomenally successful canal into Manchester.

So the main features of what we can call the business plan of the Southern Oxford were in place from the outset: it had national rather than purely local strategic importance, and it “had coal behind it” and was intended to convey this commodity to London via Oxford and any number of canalside markets large and small, all of which were ready to purchase large amounts of coal for domestic and business purposes.

The Nineteenth Century: Competition with the Railways and other canal routes

In addition to the factors mentioned above, the Oxford Canal had two further advantages to enable it to combat competition from the railways and from other canals during the nineteenth century. First, it was to the canal’s long-term advantage that it was built early, before the large cost increases associated with the era of the Napoleonic Wars. Second, the company was conceived as providing only the infrastructure over which others could travel, trade and do business, with its income hence deriving from tolls alone. These two factors together meant that the company was able to earn substantial revenues from the outset and had paid the debts associated with its construction by the middle of the century. It was then able to take action in the face of dissatisfaction on the part of canal carriers and the threat of a rival, more direct route to London, to shorten and straighten the part of the canal between Hawkesbury and Braunston. Work started in 1829 and the new line was opened on 13th February 1834 at a cost of £167,172. The route was shortened by almost eleven miles.

Reliance on tolls is sometimes said to encourage a largely passive management style, but in the case of the Oxford Canal it was something which repeatedly proved its effectiveness in negotiations with other canals (where passage over the Southern Oxford’s waterway could be allowed providing there was ongoing recompense for lost tolls) and in providing an easy way of coping with competition (whereby tolls could be lowered, for example, quickly and with the minimum of administrative complexity).

A measure of its success was the fact that, after a century of competition from railways and from the alternative canal route to London provided by the Grand Union, the volume of traffic passing over the Oxford canal as a whole remained much what it had been a hundred years before. What had dropped as a result of competition were the toll receipts and the fact that the more profitable long haulage business had been lost to competitors.

The Twentieth Century Survival: War, Decline and State Intervention

The threats to the canal’s continued survival in the 20th century were greater in number and variety and even more severe in their effects than had been experienced hitherto.  Two world wars robbed the canals of the manpower they relied upon, competition from the fledgling road haulage industry robbed canals of short haul traffic, falling demand for coal led to much reduced activity, while a huge backlog of maintenance issues built up, well beyond the ability of an individual company to manage. Together these problems meant that only government intervention could solve the canal’s problems.

The first round of government intervention came when it was clear that conscription in the First World War had robbed the Southern Oxford Canal together with the other canals of the men needed to keep the canal trade going. As a result, a scheme was agreed which compensated the canal companies for the business they had lost.

The second government intervention was much more far-reaching in its effect and came with the nationalisation of transport by the incoming Labour Administration after the Second World War, in 1948. It has sometimes been claimed that the government of the time was initially unaware that it had nationalised the canal system: many of the canal companies had come to be the property of railway companies, the real focus of the nationalisation movement, with the canals entering the process by default. Whatever the truth of this, it appears that the government had no plan for the nation’s waterways at the time of nationalisation. In the event, it took twenty years until the Transport Act of 1968 for a clear picture to emerge. In this Act, Minister of Transport, Barbara Castle, proposed a tripartite division of the waterways into commercial waterways, that were believed to have a viable future, leisure waterways, which would receive government funding for their maintenance, and remainder waterways, for which there would be no public support.

The recognition of the leisure uses of canals owed a lot to the work of Tom Rolt, whose popular 1944 book, Narrow Boat with its descriptions of the unchanged way of life on canals, proved attractive to many with increasing amounts of leisure time, and to the activities of the campaigning group, the Inland Waterways Association, but also, it appears, to the views of Castle herself. She wrote in her 1993 autobiography, Fighting all the Way, that:

“A source of satisfaction was what I was able to do for the canals. I had always been fascinated by inland water­ways. I had been on a couple of canal holidays with Jimmie and had been struck by how quickly one could escape from drab industrial surroundings as one slipped between the hedges lining the towpath in a flat-bottomed boat. I believed that messing about in boats was a leisure activity which should be increasingly available to everyone.”

There remained a problem for the Southern Oxford Canal. The canal was by this time in bad shape physically and the question was whether it would make it into the category of leisure waterway, or would it be consigned to be a remainder waterway with no financial support and no protection by legislation? In the event, it seems that an amount of subterfuge was required. The story has been told a number of times. Here is one version (Robinson, 2008):

“The death of the veteran canal boatman Jack Skinner, at the age of 88, severs a link going back more than 200 years in the tradition of the coal and freight-carrying trade on Britain’s canals … in 1967, he helped to save the Oxford canal from closure …. Treasury officials had recommended filling in the waterway, arguing that it was no longer commercially viable. Jack was asked to take Barbara Castle, then minister of transport, on a fact-finding trip from Thrupp to Lower Heyford. He took the precaution of going out the night before and getting the cooperation of the lock keepers en route to make sure there would be enough water in the pounds to give the impression that there was more water in the near-derelict canal than there actually was. “She never knew the difference – and it done the trick,” he recalled. Castle decided to save the canal, ultimately securing enough subsidy to keep open 1,400 miles of commercially non-viable canals for pleasure cruising. Everyone who now enjoys fishing in the Oxford canal, or cruising on it, or walking along the towpath should remember with gratitude the trick that Jack played.”

Twenty-first Century Survival: The canal as “heritage asset”

The survival of the canal forward from the late twentieth and into the early twenty-first century looks rather more certain than at any previous time its 230-year life. The reason for this is that the canal, and indeed canals in general, have come to be seen as part of the national heritage, with, as we have seen, local canal assets enjoying Grade II listed building status.

It is difficult to provide a chronological history of the growth in importance of “heritage”. Even the word itself is difficult to define. But it is undeniable that public interest in the past is at an all-time high, as witness the unprecedented membership levels for the National Trust and English Heritage, together with the coverage of historical and heritage topics in television programmes and popular magazines. The beneficial role that canals can have in urban regeneration projects has been shown, particularly in Brindley Place and Gas Street Basin in Birmingham and in Gloucester Docks, and the National Waterways Museums at Ellesmere Port, Gloucester and Stoke Bruerne have provided a focus for historical interest.

But the event that had perhaps the greatest influence was remote from canals. During the August Bank Holiday in 1980, developers demolished the Firestone Tyre Factory on the Great West Road in London. It was widely believed that the demolition was carried out in anticipation of the building becoming listed in the near future. There was a public outcry, and, as a result, the relevant government minister, Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine, took a series of measures which had the effect of shaking up the old-fashioned and slow-moving protection system described by Thurley (2013). He speeded up the listing process, enlarging its scope to include nineteenth and twentieth century buildings, and in 1984 created a new quango, English Heritage, to become the government’s principal statutory adviser as well as take on responsibility for the sites previously managed by the Ministry of Works. Ten years later, the creation of the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 1994 provided another confirmation of the importance that heritage had assumed.

Certainly, the latest body to have responsibility for the canals, the Canal and River Trust created in 2012, appears to have little doubt that heritage Is a key part of its role, as the following extract from the Trust’s 2018 Annual Report shows:

“The canals and river navigations cared for by the Trust were created for industry and serve very different purposes today. They are free to access and use. They contribute to the physical and mental wellbeing of communities, visitors and volunteers; adding to the quality of life of those who participate and engage with them. They run through towns and cities and across rural areas and permit a range of leisure activities and enjoyment of nature and heritage in a way that few other attractions do. The Trust’s historic waterways deserve to be cherished and passed on to future generations, so that they too may benefit from and enjoy them. The Canal & River Trust is the custodian of a rich and diverse waterways heritage in England and Wales, much of it over 200 years old. Many of the Trust’s heritage assets are designated as scheduled monuments, listed buildings and conservation areas.”

Phil Mansell


Castle, B (1993): Fighting all the Way. Macmillan.
Compton, H.J. (1976): The Oxford Canal. David & Charles.
Cowell, B. (2008): The Heritage Obsession. Tempus.
Robinson, C. (2008): Obituary of Jack Skinner. Guardian, 16th June.
Rolt, L.T.C. (1944): Narrow Boat. Eyre & Spottiswood.
Thurley, S. (2013): Men from the Ministry. How Britain Saved Its Heritage. Yale University

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