The Story of our Canal by Trevor Lewis 

George O’Brien Wyndham, the regency third Earl of Egremont, of Petworth House, Sussex, decided that his estate would benefit from a better navigable connection to the recently improved Arun Navigation. He employed the survey and design services of the engineer Jessop, an Act of Parliament was obtained and the waterway was built. This was NOT our northsouth Wey & Arun Canal which was twenty years away, but the west-east 1791-4 Rother Navigation from Midhurst down to the Arun at Stopham, near Pulborough – and the engineer was William Jessop, father of ‘our’ Josias Jessop. Wyndham, born 1751, had inherited the earldom aged 11. In his younger days, his immense inherited wealth supported a palatial townhouse in London and the social life to go with it - and two ‘grand tours’ of Europe accelerated his lifelong passion for acquiring art. He had little active involvement in politics and increasingly the focus of his attention moved from London to Petworth House and his estates. While he may have become tired of London, the Earl was certainly not tired of life. He supported the painters Turner and Constable, amongst many others. Egremont seems to have been universally popular. He was a respected employer. P.A.L. Vine (London’s Lost Route to the Sea) speaks of his hospitality, kindness and extreme modesty. His horses won the Derby five times and the Oaks five times. He stamped out bear-baiting in the area. The Earl was a fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). He was a generous benefactor to local causes and to needy individuals. With rural unemployment increasing because of the Inclosure Acts and the intensification of farming, he sponsored emigration to Canada via a scheme largely funded by him and managed by the Reverend Thomas Sockett, his Petworth rector: 1,800 people benefited between 1832 and 1837.

Domestic Matters

His personal life was unusual, even for his era. He fathered many children – at least forty, some say - with women to whom he was not married. Some were already married to others, but most of his offspring were with unmarried mistresses who lived with him at Petworth House, often at the same time. 

The arrangements appear to have been consensual rather than exploitative. The Reverend Sockett tutored the children. The National Trust, the custodian now of  Petworth House, records Elizabeth Ilive, mother of eight of his children, as ‘…principal mistress of [the Earl] and the unofficial chatelaine of Petworth. Mrs Wyndham, as she was known before her marriage, “took great delight in painting’”

An artist herself, she commissioned two paintings by William Blake (both in the North Gallery), and was also an amateur scientist, who set up a private laboratory at Petworth. She was an engineer in her own right, being awarded a silver medal by the Royal Society of Arts for designing a stone-moving device. Egremont’s children prospered, the females by good marriages and the males often as Army officers. At the age of 50, Egremont married Elizabeth and the new Countess bore their last (and first legitimate) child – but she died in infancy, the marriage collapsed (possibly because Egremont would not give up his polyamorous ways) and the Countess left him.




Lord Egremont builds a waterway 

Egremont developed the farming of his estates at Petworth and elsewhere with vigour, applying the new crop-rotation techniques of the Agricultural Revolution to improve productivity. Land no longer needed to be left fallow between crops and fertility was maintained with lime – which was a driving force behind the Rother Navigation. Lime is the product of chalk and heat. At Petworth, chalk had to be brought in by road and land had to be set aside to grow the wood to burn the chalk. The Rother Navigation changed this. South Downs chalk now came to near Petworth by the bargeload from the Earl’s quarry at Houghton on the Arun. Coal, a far more effective energy source, could now be shipped up from the coast, freeing more land for cultivation. One of the new crops was the opium poppy for the production of laudanum. Taming eleven miles of the Rother required eight locks and two miles of cut, under Jessop Snr. No company needed to be set up to build and run it, since Lord Egremont was its sole funder and owner – indeed, it was constructed by his own employees. The whole catchment of the lower Rother benefited, with a ready supply of coal for domestic heating and cheaper transport costs for exporting corn, timber and marble. A mill wheel raised and lowered three beams that in turn powered the pumping of non-potable river water from Coultershaw north into Petworth to supplement the town’s spring-fed drinking water. (The beam pump, albeit a later replacement, is still in working order and a visitor attraction.) By 1794 the Rother Navigation had given Egremont a connection by water to the South Coast. The Earl now considered whether he could connect it north into the Thames and to London

The Earl of Egremont Needs a Canal

The end of the 18th century saw the rapid growth of canals and river navigations that provided the new factories of the industrial revolution with raw materials and took their products to market. The canals also served the growing population with food and fuel. Thousands of miles of canals were being built, piecemeal and largely at the initiative of private investors and speculators, there being no national strategy. The most southerly arm of this ad-hoc network was the river Wey, comprising the Godalming Navigation from that town to Guildford and the Wey Navigation thence to the Thames at Weybridge, both long-established. For George Wyndham, the third Earl of Egremont, the Wey was tantalisingly close to his Petworth estates, which would benefit from connection to the river Thames and the canals. He researched the building of a 32-mile canal from a Petworth branch of his Rother Navigation north to the Wey, but the benefits were outweighed by a cost that would be too strong even for one of the richest aristocrats in the Kingdom. 

Grand schemes come – and go 

Others had their eyes on linking the Thames with the south coast, in particular from London to Portsmouth. There was strategic sense in avoiding the hazards of the sea route, those hazards for sailing ships in pre-steam days including the tortuous river from London to the Nore, the Goodwin Sands - and the French, this being a time of war. Egremont watched while several extravagant schemes, some of them potentially beneficial to him by using the Arun which he controlled, were proposed but never matured. If he were ever to get a waterway link north, the Earl was on his own. Could he succeed where others had failed? 

Better prospects for the Earl 

The simplest solution – and the one soon to be adopted – was a relatively short ‘broad’ canal from Newbridge on the Arun Navigation to the Wey’s Godalming Navigation at Shalford, for onward connection with the Thames. Unlike the tamed Wey, there were as yet no locks on the Thames downstream of Windsor, and the Thames was tidal past Weybridge as far upstream as Staines. Hitherto, any extensive reliance on the Thames had been an unattractive prospect. However, plans were now in hand for a series of locks from Teddington (which opened in 1811) to Windsor, as well as a towpath. Using the Wey and then the Thames now looked more inviting.

The Thames was also an increasingly useful link to the rapidly growing canal network of England and Wales. At Reading, the Thames met the Kennet & Avon Canal (completed 1810) giving access to and from Bristol and the Somersetshire Coal Canal (1805). The now hugely profitable Oxford Canal (1790) led north from that city to the Midlands, whilst the Thames and Severn Canal had been open from 1789. Down the Thames from Weybridge, via the river locks to be completed by 1815, there was not only London itself but also the Grand Junction Canal (1805: later to become the Grand Union Canal) from Brentford to the Midlands. In theory, an Arun - Wey link would enable a suitably-sized boat to get from Littlehampton to Ripon in Yorkshire. If joining the Arun to the Wey could be made attractive to investors and potential users in general, it would be even more beneficial for investment by his Lordship. It would simplify the carriage of his estate’s imports and exports. It would also give him a share of the expected operating profits. With such apparently favourable auspices, in 1810 Lord Egremont began the process that would result in the building of the Wey & Arun Junction Canal from Shalford to Newbridge. 

How to get a canal built 

There was neither a national strategy nor government finance for the canal network. Instead, each canal was a separate private venture, whose promoters would provide the capital cost of construction. An Act of Parliament was essential, to set up and empower a Company to acquire the necessary land, build the canal and charge tolls on the resulting traffic. Investors naturally expected a good dividend from the canal’s profits

The first stages were to win public support for the project (via public meetings on the line of route) and to find subscribers, who would ultimately be some of the company shareholders and who, in the meantime, would:- 

  • Engage an engineer to survey the route, 
  • Design and cost the canal and its structures, and 
  • Fund the costs of the legislation, all this under the supervision of a committee made up from their numbers. 

Lord Egremont was always destined to head the project, putting up £20,000, 22% of the projected cost of £90,000. Egremont had no landholdings on the line of route, and he took care to engage the support of the Earl of Onslow who also held the title of Baron Cranley (today’s Cranleigh). Onslow subscribed £2,000. The full £90,000 was pledged very quickly, and the preliminaries were started. We next meet the chosen engineer – Josias Jessop. 



(To be continued)

Picture of Elizabeth Hive courtesy of the National Trust. To learn more about the Earl of Egremont, why not visit the National Trust’s Petworth House?

Photo of Lord Egremont, is a memorial in the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Petworth