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The story behind a Wolverton landmark

The Iron Trunk
With the arrival of the New City came the need for an additional 'Iron Trunk.'
The Iron Trunk

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, as an alternative to the rough and potholed roads of the time, which were frequently impassable in bad weather, canals were seen as a smooth and efficient means of transport for conveying raw materials, as well as the increasing quantities of manufactured goods, around the country.

The Grand Junction Canal (later known as the Grand Union Canal) is perhaps one of the best known of such waterways and, after Parliamentary approval of the relevant Act, in 1795, the original intention was to cross the River Ouse at the level near Wolverton.

However, to carry the canal into and out of the river valley would have required four locks on either side of the river. So the resident engineer, James Barnes, who had made the initial canal survey, submitted a report to the canal company proposing an aqueduct.

The canal company, mindful of the potential chaos that could be caused by the not infrequent flooding of the river, authorised an immediate start and, after consultations with the various landowners, plans were agreed in principle. The cost was estimated at £25,000 and the principal engineer, William Jessop, reported that the construction should not take more than two years.

So as to permit the passage of canal traffic, it was proposed for the interim that a temporary canal, using unelaborate locks, should be dug as originally planned, and when the aqueduct was complete the redundant locks could then be transferred to the proposed flight at Stoke Bruerne. By September 1800 the river had been crossed by this makeshift series of locks, but it would not be until May 1802 that Jessop was instructed to prepare the plans and estimate for the aqueduct.

In June his report was duly approved, and the scheme was submitted to tender. By the end of November a bid from Major Mansel Thomas Harrison, of Wolverton, and Thomas and Joseph Kitchen, from Casflethorpe, had been accepted.

Work began in early 1803 and Harrison, as chief of the syndicate, pledged to complete the project within two years.

By June, two thirds of the embankment and one half of the aqueduct had been completed, and it seems that the structure consisted of three semicircular arches, being built on dry land, with the river diverted to flow beneath it. By mid-August 1805, so advanced were the proceedings that a partial channel along the course opened on the 26th of that month.

However, progress came to a halt in January 1806 when a section of the embankment, near Cosgrove, collapsed. The canal company alleged poor workmanship, but in retaliation Harrison said that the work had been carried out as per the contract.

But this paled into insignificance when, on the night of February 18 1808, the aqueduct collapsed, causing panic in Stony Stratford which would have been flooded to a depth of several feet had the rubble dammed the river. Fortunately, the northern arch still remained, allowing the water to escape, albeit slowly.

Since the old line of the canal and the makeshift locks were still in situ, to a certain extent canal traffic could continue, though only at a loss of revenue of £400 a month.

In the aftermath, Harrison offered to make an out-of-court settlement, but on July 18 1808 the case came before the Court of King's Bench and the company was awarded £9,262, plus costs, mainly to finance the construction of a temporary wooden trough, and the manufacture of bricks for a new aqueduct.

In retrospect, however, it seemed that much of the trouble had been due to the malpractice of some of those engaged in the project. Nevertheless, when Harrison died in March 1809, his instalments were taken over and settled by his son.

As a temporary solution, at a cost of £2,500, a wooden trough, made by an experienced carpenter, allowed the canal section to re-open in June 1808, and plans for a more permanent remedy could now be made.

Of the two ironwork firms that were approached the bid of Reynolds and Co, of Ketley Iron Works, proved successful, and for a total sum of £3,667 they provided an 'iron trunk' 101ft in length, centrally supported by a pier of stone, brought from the Hornton quarries in Warwickshire. The work was guaranteed for two years.

The 'Iron Trunk' - wide enough for two boats to pass - was officially opened on January 21 1811. Even today it remains little altered from the original appearance, apart from a rebuilding of the abutments between 1919 and 1921.

A repainting took place in 1931, and in a more recent revamp some 700 litres of paint were used, at a cost of £15,000.

Originally, the British Waterways Board had considered applying black paint on the grounds of cost. But fortunately, a donation of an extra £1,000 by the Milton Keynes branch of the Inland Waterways Association allowed a more decorative grey, red, and white scheme to be applied.