A Short History of the Oxford Canal

This is a history of the Oxford Canal, one of the earliest canals to be built in England. In 1766 the great Trent & Mersey (or Grand Trunk Canal) was authorised to join those two rivers by way of the Potteries, and James Brindley, builder of the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal, was appointed engineer. While he was building it two other canals were projected, the Coventry and the Oxford, both to be engineered by Brindley, which together would join it to the Thames and London.

The Importance of Banbury

The Oxford Canal from Hawkesbury (near Coventry) to Oxford was authorised in 1769 and the first meeting of the proprietors was held at the Three Tuns Inn, where the Whately Hall Hotel now stands, in Banbury.

Building began at the Hawkesbury end. About 16 miles had been cut when Brindley died, and his assistant Samuel Simcock took over. The canal reached Napton in 1775 and Banbury on 30th March 1778, and there waited while farther north the Coventry Canal Company struggled to complete its own line to join the Trent & Mersey.

As the canal extended towards Banbury, the canal company advertised for someone to make boats to carry goods over its length. Several companies in Banbury bid for this work. One company started the same year the canal arrived, 1778, on the site of present day Tooley’s Boatyard.

Completion of the Canal

At last on 2 January, 1790, the first canal boat arrived at Oxford, and in the same year the Coventry Canal connection to the Trent & Mersey was made at Fradley Junction. The rivers Trent, Mersey and Thames were joined.

For 15 years a great deal of traffic passed over the canal. Then, in 1805, a shorter route from Braunston to Brentford by way of the Grand Junction was opened, which in turn connected with a new short cut to Birmingham via Napton and the Warwick canals. The southern section below Napton therefore lost much of its traffic — how much is indicated by the £250,000 paid at Napton alone to the canal company in compensation tolls during 20 years.


The heavily used northern section from Hawkesbury to Napton was straightened and shortened by 13.5 miles between 1829 and 1834, but the southern remained the original contour canal which Brindley had planned. No doubt this gives the canal its river-like character, and most of its charm for the modern pleasure-craft user.

The old tunnel at Fenny Compton, 1,188 yards long, was opened out in 1868 to save rebuilding, and this tunnel stretch probably forms the longest piece of straight waterway on the canal.

The completion of the Oxford Railway in 1844, and of other competing lines, led to a steady loss of traffic, though in 1868 the canal still carried 482,000 tons.

On Christmas Eve, 1874, the railway bridge over the South Oxford Canal at Hampton Gay was the scene of a railway accident which resulted in the death of 34 people. Two children, whose bodies were never claimed, are buried in Hampton Gay churchyard. The railway bridge is still called ‘Accident Bridge’ locally.


In 1937 the basin and wharf at Oxford were sold to Lord Nuffield, and the Nuffield College has since been erected on the filled-in site. The canal now terminates abruptly against a brick-built dam immediately above Hythe Bridge next to Pocket Park.

The Isis Lock, just a short walk from Pocket Park is one of 2 links to the Thames. The other is Duke’s Cut. In present day most canal traffic passes through Isis Lock to or from Sheepwash Channel which links directly into the River Thames. A unique Swing Railway Bridge (currently disused) was built to carry the railway across the channel. In 1956 the instructions read “… a swing bridge under the railway must be opened by the staff of the nearby railway station. Opening the bridge is a laborious and time consuming task. It is better to use Duke’s Cut …”