Past Talks

The Oxford Canal

Date: 18th April 2005
Speaker: Mark Davies

The Meeting took place at The Pop-In Centre, Crown Walk, Bicester. Thirty three members and one dog attended.

Bob introduced the speaker. Mark Davies explained that he lived on a narrow boat moored adjacent to Isis Lock. He had developed an interest in the local history of the area when he found that there was a lack of relevant information concerning the Oxford Canal.

Mark outlined some basic facts about the Oxford Canal. It follows a north – south axis and was developed to form part of a national network that linked the ports of London, Liverpool, Bristol and the North East coast ports with the Midlands industrial base, a kind of motorway of its day transporting goods throughout the country. Port Meadow had served as the flood plain for the Thames flowing through the area and protected Oxford in times of flood. Navigation of the river proved difficult in times of flood or drought. There was a conflict of usage relating to the river between mills situated on its course and the requirements for river craft navigation hence the development of the Canal did much to solve this problem.

The Canal was completed in 1790 having taken almost 20 years to build. The northern route was ninety miles in length originally linking Coventry with the Oxford Terminus. The route was subsequently shortened to eighty three miles with enhanced engineering developments. The Duke of Marlborough was one of the original backers for the project.


The present Worcester Street Car Park, in the centre of Oxford, was the site of the original Canal Basin. An adjoining secondary wharf linked with this Basin and occupied the site of the present Nuffield College. Daniel Harris, the Governor of Oxford Goal, did much to support the early development of this area of the City. He was able to provide a plentiful supply of labour from the Prison!!! Wyaston Hall in New Inn Street was the original Headquarters for the Oxford Canal Company who subsequently moved to the more imposing Canal House, adjacent to Bulwarks Lane, and close to the Canal Basin. Coal imports were very important to area as they provided the first regular fuel supplies. Coal merchants operated from Hayfield Wharf. A unique way of life was associated with the people who lived and worked on the Canal. Henry Ward’s Floating Chapel was moored on Castle Mill Stream.

There were always tensions between a City that believed itself to be an academic haven and the industrial developments that the Canal serviced. Smoking industrial chimneys were an unpopular addition to the landscape for some! The coming of the railway in 1844 posed the greatest threat to the Canal and its decline followed the railways development.

Mark answered questions following his talk. Bob thanked the speaker for an interesting and informative talk. The Meeting closed at 9:03 pm.