For more than two centuries, the Stroudwater Canal was one of Eastington’s most important features. Opened in 1779, its arrival cut through the village, creating an important trade route to the ‘outside’ world. At the time, its impact must have been significant, perhaps as great as when the M5 sliced through the parish during the 1970s. In its earlier days, it not only acted as a conduit for goods and commodities, but also as a provider of news and information, carried by passing boats.
As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, woollen cloth production was the most important local industrial enterprise, providing employment for many people. The village’s three mills were originally powered by water wheels, but as the industry became more mechanised, steam engines began to play an increasingly important role. These required a reliable supply of coal throughout the year, but the often poor state of local roads frequently made this difficult. It was not until the long-awaited Stroudwater Canal eventually arrived that this problem was finally overcome. Although the canal carried many things over its lifetime, coal was always the biggest and most important cargo.
As the 19th century progressed, coal grew in importance for the mills and factories in the area. It was used to heat buildings, warm dye vats but perhaps most importantly, raise steam for the growing number of steam engines being installed. Eastington’s mills were some of the first in the area to benefit from the introduction of steam power. This was a result of their ownership and subsequent expansion by the wealthy local clothier family headed by Henry Hicks, Lord of the Manor.
The amount of coal carried along the canal grew steadily, driven by its availability and much reduced price. It powered much of the industry packed into the Five Valleys, but was also increasingly used for heating homes throughout the village.
Immediately below Pike Bridge, the village coal wharf was established.
The wharf house was built by the canal company for Samuel Smith in 1779. From here, for much of the 19th and into the 20th centuries, coal was distributed to the village and surrounding area. Much of the coal not destined for the mills was bought by the village ‘coal club’ at preferential rates, a great benefit to the many workers on meagre wages. The wharf house also later managed to achieve a degree of notoriety, as for part of its life, it apparently doubled as a cider house, much frequented by passing boatmen.
The coal wharf itself was a simple affair, consisting of a cottage, stacking yard, and a few sheds.
During its lifetime, the coal supply business was operated by several families. For example, in 1876, the owner was recorded as the wonderfully-named Zaccheus Whiting, formerly of Chalford. He ran two boats on the canal, Jane, and Nellie (Figure 3). Zaccheus had been born in Frampton Mansell in 1834, but later (with his wife Emma) moved to Chalford then finally, Chipmans Platt. He was followed by a Mr Beard who continued to operate canal boats up to the 1930s.
by the coal wharf around 1915.
A closer look at the extreme right hand side of this photo shows several wooden structures lying on the ground…..
…..These were essentially wheelbarrows minus the wheel, and used to manually unload coal from boats – this must have been an arduous job, but just one of many similar ones to be found on the canal.
Coal continued to be transported along the canal almost until its end, although cargoes slowly dwindled in the face of competition from railways, then road transport. The canal was finally formally abandoned by an Act of Parliament granted in 1954. However, the coal business continued at the wharf for some time, and although now long gone, some of the original wharf cottage survives, subsumed into the newer house built on site, something of a reminder of the days when ‘King Coal’ reigned supreme!