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Case Study; The Thames and Severn Canal

KS3 History; KS2 Citizenship

Brief history
The Thames and Severn Canal is one of two canals built in the eighteenth century to link the River Severn with the River Thames The Daneway Inn today IoE number: 132589  ©E. Currier providing a direct route to London from the West. The Stroudwater Canal went from Framilode on the Severn to Wallbridge near Stroud and the Thames and Severn canal from Wallbridge to Inglesham in Oxfordshire where it connected with the River Thames.

After the opening of the Stroudwater Canal in 1779 and the Thames and Severn in 1789 the two canals carried both goods, mainly cloth, and passengers. However, the section known as the Summit, where the canal climbed high onto and tunneled under the Cotswold plateau, was always very difficult and expensive to maintain. The problem was that water continually leaked out making it impossible to ensure a sufficient depth of water to enable boats to pass through without delay.

The number of boats using the canals fell in the mid nineteenth century and the Thames and Severn was partially closed in 1899. It was restored and reopened between 1900 and 1904 but still had problems with water levels and was closed section by section until it was finally abandoned in 1933.The Daneway Inn photographed by Henry Taunt in 1904, ©  Reproduced by permission of English Heritage.NMR

The Stroudwater Canal continued to carry boats until 1941 and was officially abandoned in 1954.

The two canals together are now known as the Cotswold Canals and are the subject of an ambitious project to restore and make them navigable once again; no easy task considering that one section now lies beneath the M5 motorway

.Reconstruction of the canal at Siddington, photographed by Henry Taunt in 1904, ©  Reproduced by permission of English Heritage.NMR


We have a very good record of how the canal looked in the late nineteenth century as it was photographed by an Oxford photographer called Henry Taunt. He also recorded scenes during the reconstruction of the canal which show in some detail the same techniques that would have been used by the navvies who originally built the canal between 1784 and 1789; long before photography was invented.



Learning Activity - Key Stage 3

Focus: The town of Stroud developed into an important industrial centre because of the building of the Thames and Severn canal.

  • Use the information on this page, and in the resource pages, to gather evidence to help you decide if the statement is correct.
  • Click on the titles to view the resource pages; Extracts from the Victoria County History of Gloucestershire, Maps of Stroud, Trade Directories, Documents from Gloucestershire Record Office, or visit the following web sites Stroud site, Digital Stroud, Stroudwater Textile Trust, Gloucestershire Population Tables
  • Find the dates of the following events and put them on a timeline [1750 - 1900]; opening of the Stroudwater canal; opening of the Thames and Severn canal; opening of the Midland railway; opening of the Great Western Railway, opening of new roads to Bath; Cheltenham; Cirencester and London; Gloucester; first stagecoach service to London; date Daniel Ballard was running stage wagons to Bristol and Gloucester.
  • Make a chart to show information about Stroud under the following 4 headings; population, size, industries, transport links. Divide it into 3 time periods; Before 1789; 1789 - 1851; 1851 - 1901;
  • Decide when you think Stroud became an important industrial centre. Was the opening of the Thames and Severn canal the most important reason for this? Use evidence from the chart, timeline and sources to support your decision.
  • Present your work as a word document/web page/powerpoint presentation and illustrate it with relevant photographs from the Images of England website.

Supplementary Questions

  • Why were the canals and railway built, who financed them and why? sources, Victoria County History, papers of the canal and railway companies at Gloucestershire Record Office, Digital Stroud website.
  • How did what happened in Stroud compare with what you know about the Industrial Revolution in other areas?

Learning Activity - Key stage 2

Compare the Cotswold Canals today using photographs from Images of England with the Thames and Severn Canal in the Victorian period using Henry Taunt's photographs from Viewfinder. How would pupils like it to be in another 100 years time?

More informationSapperton Canal Tunnel, Coates entrance today, IoE number: 129293 © Lorna Freeman

  • Search the Images of England web site for more images of the canal as it is today. [Go to Advanced Search, type Thames and Severn Canal into the 'Keyword' search box, click exact and then go to submit].Sapperton Tunnel Coates entrance photographed by Henry Taunt in 1904, ©  Reproduced by permission of English Heritage.NMR
  • If you want to find images of your local canal then either type the name into the 'Keyword' search box or type the word 'canal' in the 'Building Type' search box, select the relevant county from the All Counties list in the place name search section and go to submit.
  • Visit the Viewfinder website to find Henry Taunt's photographs of the Thames and Severn or read the story about it.
  • Visit one of these websites to find out more about the plans for the Cotswold Canals plus more photographs, maps, stories and information about their history. Cotswold Canals Trust ; The Waterways Trust ; British Waterways; Private website on the Thames & Severn Canal
  • Read one of these books; H Household, The Thames and Severn Canal 1983 (Alan Sutton), M.A. Handford and D.J. Viner, Stroudwater and Thames and Severn Canals Towpath Guide, 1984
  • Search the A2A [Access to archives] website for archive sources [Type Thames and Severn Canal into the Keyword search box and you will find a list of documentary sources relating to the history of the canal. They are somewhat scattered but Gloucester Record Office is clearly the best place to start. Teachers may wish to contact the education officer, James Turtle, for advice on sources; .
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