As electrification of the railway comes on line, and with two motorway junctions on our doorstep, it’s easy to forget that two centuries ago our main form of freight transport was the canal.

The Wilts & Berks Canal (which was never referred to as the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal) was first planned in 1793, by accomplished engineer Robert Whitworth, but as with all the best laid plans, it wasn’t completed on time, and didn’t open until September 1810. The Napoleonic wars, and the fact that the essential link to the Somerset Coal Canal wasn’t completed until 1799, were the cause of the delay, and the delay meant the project ran badly over budget, rising from an initial cost of £111,900 to around £262,000.

Linking the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington with the River Thames at Abingdon, the 52-mile long canal should have been a triumph in British transport. And at first it was. Cut to take narrowboats 72 feet long and seven feet wide, with 42 locks on its main line three tunnels, it distributed coal and stone to the Upper Avon valley and the Vale of the White Horse. In 1837, 43,642 tons of coal were transported via the Wilts & Berks Canal from the Somerset coalfield to these areas. When water supply began to literally dry up, a reservoir was constructed to service it (if you’re enjoying Coate Water this glorious weekend, you’re actually standing on its site).

But what was to put Swindon on the national map proved to be the demise of the canal.

From the 1840s onwards the Great Western Railway was proving to be a far more effective way of transporting coal and other goods (there are no records of anything other than horses or donkeys powering the the trading boats), and though the Wilts & Berks Canal hung on doggedly, by 1901 canal traffic had all but ceased.

When in that year the Stanley Aqueduct over the River Marden, between Calne and Chippenham, collapsed, the canal’s working days were over. In 1914 Swindon Corporation, faced with miles of derelict canal, obtained a Private Act to close it.

Today’s object was donated to the museum and art gallery by canal enthusiast Ted Alsworth in 2002.

Ted, who had worked for British Telecom in Swindon for 33 years before retiring, had developed a passion for canals after a family holiday on the River Avon at Tewkesbury. Once he retired, he not only loved exploring the canals of England, but also made models of the old narrow boats that used to navigate them. This model is of the Dragonfly – the last boat to go through Swindon on the Wilts & Berks Canal.

Ted was clearly a very resourceful model maker. While the model he presented to the museum was built from a plastic kit, his other models were made from various scrap materials, including odd bits of wood, and even clothes pegs.

If this has whetted your appetite for canals, the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust is a charitable organisation working to preserve, conserve and improve the route of the Wilts & Berks canal, and it has a Swindon branch.

To get a taste of life on the canal, you can take a trip on their own Dragonfly from the bottom of Kingshill to Waitrose at certain times during the summer. Go to to find out more details of how to book.

  • You can find out more about Swindon’s story at the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. It is open today from 10am to 5pm and then onwards from Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 4.30pm

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