A colourful Ridgeway anecdote recounts  its use for the delivery of coal. The source is Highways and Byways of Berkshire  (1919). “There are men living in the Vale of White Horse now who remember the days when coal came from South Wales along the Ridgeway by waggon and the residents in the Vale sent their teams up to the Ridgeway to fetch it. . . . It will hardly be credited, but it is true.”.

That coal came over the Ridgeway I could credit, that it came from South Wales I doubted. Also, I wondered why.

Doubt arose from the needless cost and difficulty of transport. The coal reserves of Wales began to be exploited late in the 18thC, but there was no easy way to move a heavy and bulky commodity from Glamorgan to Wiltshire until the Severn Tunnel opened in 1886. Before that, one alternative was by land via Gloucester – thirty odd miles in the wrong direction and back again passing close by two other coalfields, the Forest of Dean and the Bristol & Gloucestershire. The alternative, by water, entailed  the cost of loading for a short trip across the  Severn Estuary and up the lower Bristol Avon, both tricky navigations, and unloading for road haulage. From Bristol, coal might  even go by rail direct to stations along the  VWH. Carting it across the vale and up a hill  to be fetched back down again seemed perverse. (The Sharpness railway bridge 1879 was a Midland Railway venture serving Forest of Dean rather than Welsh collieries. There is no obvious rail link to Berkshire.)

Welsh coal was a high quality anthracite much prized by the Navy, Merchant Marine and railway  companies. For domestic and coarse industrial use, there were more convenient sources than Wales and a reasonable transport link: the Bristol and Somerset coal fields served by canals.

The Kennet & Avon was fully open in 1810. From the South Gloucestershire pits, it was fed by a dramway with a wharf on the navigable Avon at Keynsham above Bristol. From Somerset, the K&A  was fed by the Somerset Coal Canal, opened in 1805 to the Dundas Basin on the canal itself.

The K&A followed the Vale of Pewsey not the Vale of White Horse. At Semington, however, the Wilts & Berks canal branched off to Swindon, connecting with Wantage and Abingdon. It did not go very near the Ridgeway. Like the Great Western Railway link mentioned above, the route of the Wilts & Berks invites the question “why bother to haul coal across the Vale and up a hill to have it fetched back down again when it could be delivered directly from the nearest wharf?”

The K&A, busy but never very profitable because of the construction costs, was badly hit when  the parallel Great Western Railway opened to Bristol in 1841. Because of coal, tonnage did not fall much, but revenue fell drastically. The 19thC was not cursed with Just In Time Delivery: moving a heavy, bulky commodity slowly and cheaply by water made sense. It didn’t make profits. The company paid its last dividend in 1849-50. The GWR itself took over maintenance in 1851, promising a fixed income to the company but it bought the waterway outright in 1852. A canal company not only maintained the infrastructure: it was also a common carrier. Till 1873, the GWR accepted this role on the K&A. The significance of this date is that the railways, both GWR and the Somerset & Dorset reached the Somerset coalfield early in the 1870s. The Somerset Coal Canal, which needed the K&A as an outlet, prospered no longer. Commercial traffic from the coal canal did continue both westward and to the Wilts & Berks, but it was in serious decline. Dealers on the Wilts & Berks had found  other sources of coal, delivered over the N Wilts canal, or the River Thames..  (Historians of the Wilts & Berks are wrong  to believe the Somerset field was exhausted in the 1890s. Despite famously difficult geology, the mines were still  worked after World War II. Probably the output was elsewhere diverted  by rail.)

Road tolls are another factor.  In early 19th century England, the best roads were maintained by turnpike trusts  which charged the user. Evading tolls was a national sport, but there was a particular history of resistance to turnpikes in the coal industry. The army had to be used to protect the tollhouses around 18thC Bristol from colliers. Nor was this just the traditional anarchism of a savage populace untamed by Methodism or Hannah More. The account books of a country-gentleman coal-owner record a payment of £10 for cutting down turnpikes.

The scale of charges on turnpikes  is instructive. On one Mendip system, each  horse drawing a cart  was charged between 3d and 6d, depending on the width of the wheels.  Narrow wheels did more damage. A 50% surcharge was sometimes levied from November to April. Some trusts did have special rates for coal carts.

The turnpikes had their advantages: on an unimproved road, seven or eight horses could draw two tons for twenty miles in a day. On the pike, the same number of horses could draw five tons for thirty or forty miles. The Ridgeway was an unimproved road. (On a broad gauge canal such as the K&A one barge could carry as much as 60 tons. A one-horse narrow boat, as used on the SCC, carried up to thirty tons.)

The familiar generalisation that the turnpike system came to an end when the railways arrived, is  true enough to be misleading. Some toll roads  actually prospered as feeders to the railway. Neither did the trusts fold up at once: they had debts to clear. In the Mendips, the piecemeal dismantling of the system began in 1867 with the Bristol Trust and lasted till 1883 with the Wells Trust. Doubtless the process was similar elsewhere. (Perhaps one of our readers knows the exact dates for Wiltshire  Berkshire and Oxfordshire?)

One obvious reason for transporting coal along the Ridgeway is that coal  was needed up on the Downs, rather than down in the Vales. Two centuries of Jerusalem and half a century of zonal planning predispose us to underestimate the industrial use of the “traditional countryside”. (Wayland’s smithying was done by magic.)  Like oil in the 20thC, coal was the precious bane of 19thC civilisation, but lime was a staple commodity for agriculture and construction, not to mention hygiene  and criminal justice. (Later in 19thC in Reading Gaol, you could tell what the warders had been doing  by the quicklime on their boots.)

When lime burning, it was apparently cheaper to take the fuel to the kiln and then transport the fairly light product to the market.  (On the Pembrokeshire coast, boats brought coal in to a beachside kiln and floated lime away.) Certainly near Farnborough, perhaps elsewhere, there were kilns close to The Ridgeway.

The plausible horizon of memory in 1919 is a problem. We need to consider not simply how far back a few people might recall events, but how far back their  recollections would, hypothetically, challenge the credence of guide-book readers and also, crucially, the date after which anecdotes would be commonplace. No one could have remembered the times before the canals. The last years of their economic primacy and  their decline in the railway age would have been a feat of recollection, but not an impossible feat. Commercial cynicism and traditional  regard for the biblical three-score-and-ten both suggest a date soon after 1852 when the GWR took complete control of the canal. (1873, another commercially significant date, really wasn’t so long ago in 1919.).

In conclusion: people living in the second decade of the last century  remembered the last independent years of the K&A when Somerset or even Gloucestershire coal  was carted to lime kilns using a route that was historically toll free. As a spin-off, some coal was collected by other users. Welshmen did use the Ridgeway, but they were drovers taking cattle to the London market and this, helped by the firm association of coal and Wales when Cardiff was the world’s largest coal exporting docks confused memories.

Oral history has its dangers. So does historical conjecture like this article. I keenly invite documented refutation.

John Latimer Annals of Bristol
Robin Atthill Old Mendip
Angus Buchanan & Neil Cossons Industrial Archaeology of the Bristol Region
Wilts & Berks Canal website