The Somerset coalfields provided the impetus for construction of the Wilts and Berks canal, 52 miles of waterway from Semington Junction on the Kennet and Avon to the River Thames at Abingdon, begun in 1795 and completed fifteen years later. The shorter North Wilts Canal opened in 1819, linking the Wilts and Berks at Swindon to the Thames and Severn canal at Latton.
The Wilts and Berks canal neatly bypassed the market town on the hill, but once development began north of Old Swindon, rows of terraced housing were built along its length with back gardens reaching down to the towpath.
Dating back to Saxon times, the ancient Drove Road remained a tree lined lane throughout the 19th century and was the site of one of the earliest bridges over the two Swindon canals. The narrow stone built construction was demolished between the two wars and is now the site of the Magic Roundabout. In the same locality and built in about 1810 over the North Wilts canal, the Marsh Farm or Shrivenham Road bridge was declared a Grade II listed building in 1986.
By the middle of the 19th century several of the Somerset coalfields were worked out and closed and with the rest of the haulage trade taking to the railways, the Wilts & Berk Canal Company struggled to survive. Shareholders proposed closing the company and in 1874 an application was made to the High Court of Chancery to sell and dispose of the canal. Provision for closure was urged should there be no interested buyer.
The last twenty-five years of the 19th century saw a second programme of bridge building in Swindon. Cambria Road Bridge was built in 1877 and Queenstown Bridge in 1885 with the landmark Whale Bridge, commemorated today by yet another roundabout, built in 1893
In 1907 the York Road Bridge was built to link housing developments on either side of the, by then, derelict canal. This bridge was demolished in the 1960s during the construction of Fleming Way.
The canal was eventually closed by an Act of Parliament in 1914. A slightly misplaced early 19th century milestone declaring ‘Semington 26 miles’ stands outside 2-6 Canal Walk, marking the canal route through the modern town centre. The Golden Lion statue, a 1970s replacement for an older version, stands near the site of the former Golden Lion Bridge, an iron lift bridge built in the GWR Works in 1870.
Images - William Hooper views of Drove Road Bridge top; Marlborough Street Bridge middle and York Road Bridge bottom are published courtesy of P.A. Williams. For more old views of Swindon visit the Swindon Local Studies Collection on www.flickr.com/photos/swindonlocal