History of the Canal


President & Kildare at the Cape

A Short History of the Canal

The Saltisford Arm has a long and important role in the development of canal transport in the Midlands.

It was originally constructed in the 1790’s as the terminus of the Warwick and Birmingham Canal- the arm continued to a basin complex beside the Antelope Pub- behind what is now Sainsbury’s.

The Warwick and Birmingham Canal carried freight to Warwick Bar in central Birmingham- then the heart of the Industrial Revolution in the “city of a thousand trades”, constructed by the Surveyor Samuel Bull and the Engineer William Felkin, following an Act of Parliament passed in 1793.

Technically the canal had to overcomethe difficulties of descending form the plateau that Birmingham is built on down to the Leam-Avon valley containing Warwick. The main source of water was Olton reservoir, but in 1796 a Boulton and Watt steam engine started work in Bowyer Street, Bordesley to pump water from the bottom to the top of Camp Hill Locks. Major features on its 22 mile length included lock flights at Camp Hill and Knowle, a 433-yard tunnel through sandstone at Shrewley and a major lock flight of 21 locks at Hatton, until terminating at the important garrison county town of Warwick serviced by the Saltisford wharf.

Early supporters of the new canal included the Earl of Warwick and the Birmingham Canal Navigations Company- for whom it provided a route to the south

The canal officially opened in 1799 and joined with another new canal the Warwick and Napton. This opened a direct route to London and was part of the grand cross strategy to link the four major ports of England- London, Liverpool, Bristol and Hull. 

Inland Waterways were at the time revolutionary in lowering transportation costs and speeding up freight which previously had to go by pack horse. Raw materials such as iron, lime, timber and coal could be carried straight to the new factories wharves, and finished goods be returned direct to the new cities and exported from the ports. The wealth they created powered the growth of the British Empire, and was the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution, decades before the development of railways.

The canal was an initial success and joined with the Birmingham And Warwick Junction Canal in 1844, a short navigation built to relieve congestion at the Birmingham end. However competition from new technology in the form of steam railways lead to a 2/3 in revenues and the two canals agreed to be sold to the London and Birmingham Railway for closure and conversion into railway lines for the large sum of over ½ £ million. The deal however fell through and the navigations stayed open.

Much of the trade along the arm was coal to service the gas works and factories at Saltisford.

In 1895 the Warwick and Birmingham and the Warwick and Napton merged to form the Grand Junction Canal Company. Falling freight volumes lead in 1917 for merging with the Warwick and Birmingham Junction canal under one management. In 1929 the companies were sold and formed part of the Grand Union Canal Company, who in the 1930’s tried major modernisations including building Hatton Locks. The Saltisford Arm had a major new role during the works as a depot and site for casting concrete piles.

Today, this stretch of waterway is part of the Grand Union Canal, but when it opened in December 1799 this was the Warwick & Birmingham Canal, built to carry locally mined coal to the power stations and factories of the Black Country. It was also a vital trade link in a chain of waterways connecting London with the Midlands.

Commercial canal carrying under threat

This chain was formed of eight different canals, each owned by a different Canal Company. However, in 1929, when commercial canal carrying was under serious threat from road and rail transport, one company, the Grand Union Canal Company, took over the entire route and re-named it the Grand Union Canal.

Making the canal pay

The Company immediately embarked on a major modernisation programme in a bid to make the canal pay. Locks on narrow sections of the route, like the ones at Hatton, were widened to accommodate 14-foot wide boats, or two narrowboats side by side. Twice as much cargo could pass through each lock - a welcome improvement for the boaters who had to work their heavy boats laden with coal, sugar, tea and spices through what they called the 'Stairway to Heaven'. It is believed that this name refers to the relief felt by boaters on reaching the top of the steep Hatton lock flight, after which it was easier going to Camphill where their wages were waiting at the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company offices.

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At Hatton, this widening work started in 1932 and involved the use of concrete, a revolutionary new material in canal building. 

After two years, with over 1,000 men working on the project, the new concrete locks and bridges were officially opened by HRH the Duke of Kent. You can still see some of the old brick-built narrow lock chambers beside some of the 'new' wide locks. 

In 1947 the Canals were nationalised and in the 1970’s British Waterways were formed.

Saltisford Gas Works

This gas works, one of the oldest and best preserved in the world, was built in 1822 next to the Saltisford Canal Basin and reinvigorated the local economy after a set back following the end of the Napoleonic wars when many local clothing & uniform manufacturers around Saltisford closed down. 

Presumably the canal played a vital role in both Warwick’s mini industrial booms

This elegant building has octagonal towers at either end, in which the gasholders were contained, and a central office area. 

The stuccoed frontage is complemented by rounded leaded windows, with Gothic glazing bars, those windows in the gas holders being false. In 2015 it is due to be converted into flats.

Gas was 'exported' to Leamington Spa to light the town and in 1823 the Warwick Gas Company erected 18 lamps along Union Parade, supplied from their Saltisford works by a three-mile main along the Myton and Old Warwick roads, and in 1830 the oil lamps in Leamington's parish church, were replaced by 19 gas -lamps.

A 2003 archeology survey found :

“ WARWICK, Saltisford Gasworks (SP 278 653)

A survey was carried out on the street frontage buildings of the former Gasworks in September- October 2003 on behalf of Jayson Hollier, prior to their proposed conversion to flats (Fig 8). The gasworks is a Grade II Listed Building and includes a pair of octagonal gas holders dating from 1822, possibly the oldest surviving examples in the world and therefore of international importance. Six major phases of building work were identified. 

The initial phase includes the two octagonal gasometer buildings and what may be elements of the original central gateway.

Thegasometer buildings were constructed of hand-made bricks, while all subsequent work used machine-made bricks. Wings running on either side of the central gateway were developed by at least 1851. By 1905 the central gateway had been blocked by a single-storied structure and the two gasometer buildings were thus linked by a continuous structure. 

Little further major development took place until the central single-storied structure was” raised to two stories in the 1970s and the whole of the frontage re-fenestrated to give a unified appearance.”

The buildings to the rear of the works are now gone but the frontage remains, opposite Sainsbury’s

Saltisford Name predates the canal by hundreds of years:

Saltisford is also the name of the  road that runs Northeast from the edge of Warwick's town centre.


Given it's name and location it is likely to be the terminus of a Roman salt way. 

Rous claimed in the 15th century that a salt well lay one mile beyond the decent into Saltisford from the town.


The spelling of Saltisford has changed over time. 

In 1586 it was Saltsford, in 1610 Saltesford and by 1823 its current spelling

Links to more Information and local waterway history:

The history of the Birmingham and Warwick Canal 1793 to 1972, by John Morris Jones gives more information on the junction canal.

Warwick Economic and Social History in the 19th Century 

From 'The borough of Warwick: Economic and social history, 1545-1835', A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8: The City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick (1969), By Stevens

The dereliction of the Canal Arm in the 1970’s lead to the formation of the Saltisford Canal Trust who started restoration in 1982 leading to its renaissance. 

See the restoration page for more recent history.

© Saltisford Canal Trust : Charity Number  514613