The Somersetshire Coal Canal (S.C.C.) was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1794. It was promoted by the mine owners of the North Somerset coalfields as a cheaper means of transporting coal to their markets in Bath and Wiltshire. The promoters each contributed towards a share of the costs and expected a share of the profits. they formed “The Company of Proprietors” and had legal status as shareholders.
PLANNING (1792 – 1794)
In the Somerset area, before canals were built, the only transport was by pack-horse or horse and cart, which could only cope with limited quantities and resulted in high prices.
John Rennie of Kennet & Avon Canal fame surveyed the route of the canal with the assistance of William Smith, who was known as “The father of English Geology”
The canal had two branches with connecting tramways to the mines. The northern branch ran from Paulton and Timsbury Basins through Camerton, Dunkerton and Combe Hay to Midford. The southern branch was constructed from Radstock through Wellow towards a junction at Midford.
From Midford the main line passed by Tucking Mill, through Monkton Combe to join the K & A at Dundas Aqueduct.
CONSTRUCTION (1794 – 1805)
The 135 ft drop in level from Paulton to Dundas was concentrated at Combe Hay where it could be overcome by three ‘Caisson Locks’. Each Caisson Lock consisted of a large water-filled masonry chamber, in which was submerged along watertight box – the ‘Caisson’. A boat could be floated into the box which was then sealed and, being neutrally buoyant, was easily moved to a new level before letting the boat out. For geological, rather than engineering reasons, this failed and was replaced with a gravity-operated railway, the Inclined Plane. This temporary expedient caused transhipment delays which were eventually overcome when a flight of twenty-two conventional locks was opened in 1805.
A more detailed description of the Caisson Lock can be found here.
On the southern branch, meanwhile, the canal had only been built from Radstock as far as Twinhoe; from there to Midford a tramway was constructed to avoid the expense of a further flight of locks.
Once again, transhipment proved inefficient. The canal was also losing water due to geological problems so it ceased operation and, instead, the towpath was used as a track bed for extending the tramway. This now ran all the way from Radstock to the only remaining transhipment point at its junction with the northern line at Midford.
OPERATION (1805 – 1898)
The canal now became one of the most successful in the country and, by the 1820s was carrying over 100,000 tons of coal per year. This prosperity was soon to be halted by the coming of the railways.
The southern branch was the first to feel the effects, when the G.W.R. opened a line from Frome to Radstock. The coal trade on the tramway declined and by 1871 it was sold to the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway Company who built their Bath to Evercreech line over much of its course. The northern branch lost a large part of its trade in 1881 when the Bristol and North Somerset Railway opened a line to Camerton.
Railway competition was also hitting the Kennet and Avon Canal on which the S.C.C. depended for its markets; furthermore, some of the coal seams in the Paulton area were worked-out. Income fell and the company was placed in the hands of the Official Liquidator in 1894. After he failed to sell the canal as a going concern, closure became inevitable and followed in 1898.
DERELICTION (1898 – 1992)
In 1904 the abandoned canal was sold to the Great Western Railway, who, in 1907-10, built the Camerton to Limpley Stoke railway line over much of its course. Even these railways have now closed; the G.W.R. branch in 1951 and the S.& D. in 1966. Many of the canal structures remain today: aqueducts, bridges, locks and much of the course of the canal itself. At its junction with the Kennet & Avon canal at Dundas, the first 500 yards of the canal has been restored and is in use as moorings.