Leominster is a small market town some 12 miles north of Hereford. The Leominster and Stourport Canal was intended to provide an export route for agricultural produce from this rural area into the Severn and thence the industrial Midlands, opening up Herefordshire to bigger commercial markets. By the return route industrial goods from Birmingham and the area would be brought into the county. There was also the possibility of bringing cheaper coal from Newent and the Mamble into Leominster. In fact as soon as the canal opened the price of coal per ton dropped by 50% from 30 shillings (£1.50) to 15 shillings (75p) (information from I. Grant and G. Fisher in Canal & Riverboat Magazine, February 2002).
In 1789 the engineer Thomas Dadford Jr. was employed to survey the proposed route of the canal. He planned to put in four tunnels, three aqueducts and a great number of locks along the route, but only one quarter of the proposed locks were ever built. The construction was, in the main, to be a locally-sponsored project.
On 16th September 1789 it was announced that an application was to be made for a Parliamentary Bill for a canal from Leominster through the parishes of Kimbolton, Kingsland, Eyton, Eye, Yarpole, Richards Castle, Brimfield and Little Hereford in Herefordshire; Ashford Carbonell, Burford, Boraston and Neen Sollars in Shropshire; and Knighton, Lindridge, Mamble, Bayton, Pensax, Rock, Abberley, Lower Arch and Ribbesford in Worcestershire.
In December 1789 Dadford reported back to the prospective shareholders, having chosen a route of 31 miles along the Teme Valley. This route would need three tunnels - at Pensax, Southnet and Putnall Hill -at an estimated cost of £83,000. Other proposals for the canal being put forward at this time included a branch line from Leominster linking it to the Hereford and Gloucester Canal near the Lugg Bridge in Hereford, but this suggestion came too late as the sponsors had already decided to go with the Leominster to Stourport route.
On 14th March 1790 canal mania reached Kington, another small market town to the west of Leominster. A public meeting was organised to request a survey on the possibility of a canal from Leominster into the town, which would then link Kington to Stourport and the Midlands.
Thomas Dadford Jr. carried out the survey and as a result revised his plans to include an extension of the canal as far as Kington, which would increase the total distance of the route to 46 miles and was estimated to cost £150,000. These plans were approved on 27th January 1791. The first subscriptions by sponsors of the canal were recorded in July of the same year. Robert Whitworth (a former colleague of Dadford's father) had suggested a westerly route for the canal, which would have made good use of the Lugg feed-water and would have served more villages such as Eye, Luston and Orleton. One reason why Dadford chose the final route may have been because Thomas Harley, the largest shareholder, wanted the canal to serve his own estates on the Berrington side of the valley.
The route of the canal was to begin in Kington, near the site of the later railway station, and follow a line almost parallel with the River Arrow. The course would then shift eastwards to Milton falling 152 feet through a number of locks. A 3½ mile stretch would then bring the canal as far the Great West field, near Kingsland. Within a mile of this site the canal was to cross the River Lugg via an aqueduct. From the Great West field to Leominster was a distance of 4½ miles but only a short length at Kingsland was ever dug.
The route proposed by Dadford followed a relatively direct route from Leominster to Woofferton. However, this route was not without problems. The feed-water provision was quite inadequate to supply the "double lockage" when fed from a small stream like Stretford Brook near Wyson. From the east of Leominster the canal curved round to the north for 1½ miles to a pair of locks about half a mile west of Stockton Cross. The canal then led round the western edge of Berrington Park and under the road from Moreton to Eye.
Keeping due north it went through a tunnel under Putnall Hill and then alongside the present railway line until it reached a set of locks opposite the site of the Wireless Transmitting Station at Woofferton, a distance of 5½ miles and level all the way. The next section of 4½ miles dropped 36 feet; the line passed beneath the later railway line past the Salwey Arms and for a mile or so after headed eastwards (the later railway used the canal route at this point). Near Gosford Bridge the canal again curves northwards on an embankment and crosses the River Teme via a stone aqueduct, maintaining an easterly route past Little Hereford to Ledwich Bridge.
The canal then ran parallel to the River Teme past Burford and Tenbury to Newnham Bridge and north-east to the aqueduct over the River Rea. From here it is another mile to the tunnel at Southnet, 250 yards long. The tunnel was dug but only a short length of the canal near Dumbleton Farm was excavated on the east side. The intended canal in this area was to follow a U-shape to the proposed Pensax Tunnel and then the final three miles to Areley near Stourport on the River Severn.
The descent from Wyson via the two locks to Woofferton could have been better located, avoiding the difficult crossing of the Gosford Brook. The Leominster descent via three locks near Little Bury was also inappropriate. Two consulting engineers were employed to try and work out a solution to these problems. Rennie suggested the slight re-routing of the canal between Leominster and Kington, which would have alleviated the water shortage and calmed public fears about the increased risk of flooding in Leominster by the River Lugg.
Little is heard of the canal building project until May 1793, when a boat named the "Royal George" was launched at Tenbury. The British Chronicle of 22nd May 1793 said that numerous people attended and "the launch took place amid the firing of cannon, flags, music playing and other demonstrations of joy".
It was not until 1794 that the first section of the canal was opened, from Leominster to Marlbrook, Marlbrook being the closest point of the canal to Sir Walter Blount's collieries at Mamble.
By the end of 1795 the canal had been completed up to the north end of the Putnall Tunnel, from Marlbrook and through Woofferton. The Southnet Tunnel at the Stourport end had been finished and a small cutting dug on the Stourport side, as well as a little work done on the proposed section at Kingsland.
However, disaster struck in 1795 when the Southnet Tunnel collapsed. It was never repaired, and according to local legend two workmen and their boat lie within and haunt the area (information taken from I. Grant and G. Fisher in Canal & Riverboat Magazine, February 2002).
One of the biggest setbacks in the construction of the canal was the Putnall Tunnel near Orleton. The land here was made up of glacial deposits, a mixture of thick clay and fine dry sand; it took several years to overcome this difficulty.
The engineer Mr. Rennie was called in to make a report on the construction of the two tunnels. His verdict was that the collapse of the Southnet Tunnel was due to poor design, and that the Putnall Tunnel problems were due to mismanagement. He also considered the Teme and Rea aqueducts to have insufficient foundations. (It is interesting to note here that both the Rea and Teme aqueducts are still standing and appear secure, the present damage to the Teme aqueduct having been done deliberately during World War II.)
To solve the problem of insufficient water in the Putnall pond the engineer John Hodgkinson suggested turning the Orleton and Lady Meadow Brooks into it. Even though work had already started on the canal, by the time these improvements were suggested in 1795 it was still possible to implement them with little trouble.
In July 1796 an Act of Parliament was obtained authorising the canal company to raise further money and in the same month it was announced that the Putnall Tunnel was complete. This was followed in December by the opening of the entire section of the canal from Leominster to Marlbrook. Fourteen barges of coal arrived in Leominster on the first day that it was open.
In 1797 a ceremonial sod of earth was cut near Stourport at the point where the canal was due to enter the Severn, but by 1800 financial difficulties prevented any further development of the canal to Stourport and the existing line of 18½ miles was limited to transporting coal from the Mamble pits to Leominster.
Again, there were money troubles and by 1801 the funds had been exhausted and work had to stop. Over £68,000 had been raised by subscriptions and the debts totalled £25,000. By now the canal was only really being used for the transport of coal from the Mamble, with little hope of anything else unless the canal could be completed at the eastern end.
John Hodgkinson the engineer was consulted. He proposed to build a tramroad from Stourport to the Southnet Tunnel as tramroads were cheaper than canals, but this would still cost £35,000 to build with another £50,000 at least to pay off the debts. Hodgkinson also suggested that the canal should be completed westwards as far as Kingsland, with further work west at a later date. His proposals were accepted and an Act was obtained authorising the raising of £50,000, with up to £40,000 on mortgage.
In the end the tramroad scheme did not develop past the planning stage and the company was still in financial difficulty. In 1833 there was another call for a rail road between the River Rea and Stourport, and a tram road between Leominster and Eardisley was also suggested. A Mr. Raistrick was brought in to do a survey on the feasibility of the rail road. Raistrick suggested four different lines, the best one being 12¾ miles long and costing £69,714.
In 1837 Stephen Ballard (the engineer for the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal) carried out a survey into the possibility of connecting the two canals but this never came to fruition.
In 1845 a meeting was held to discuss the possibility of the sale of the canal and the price desired. £40,000 was hoped for but in the end a price of £20,000 was agreed for the canal to form part of the West Midland Railway, but there was no sale at this time. The following year a company was formed that hoped to build a railway between Shrewsbury and Hereford, and at the same time a rival company was formed with the same intention. The Leominster and Stourport Canal Company had several meetings with the Shrewsbury and Herefordshire Railway Company, which resulted in the Railway Company offering to purchase the canal for £12,000.
Delays followed with the canal company having to obtain an Act of Parliament authorising the sale and closure of the canal, but in 1848 notices were put in the Hereford Times advertising the conveyance of the canal to the Railway Company and then the closure of the canal. In the end each shareholder only received 15% of the money that they had put into the project.
In May 1859 arrangements were made for the letting off of the canal water, and some of the canal bed was re-used for a railway that was to run from Woofferton to Tenbury.
(Based on information taken from I. Cohen, "The Leominster-Stourport Canal", in Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, Volume XXXV Part III (1957), pp. 267-286.)
[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]