What do you do while you are watching paint dry? Well, as the colours harden on my roof box, we've had a day off to pay one of our occasional visits to the National Archives at Kew. While Kath has been digging ever deeper into the dubious past of her dastardly ancestors, I have been wandering round the rather quirky TNA library and came upon a book about the Royal Military Canal.
Aah, a chance to get the story straight about this peculiar waterway isolating the Dungeness peninsula from the rest of our fair land. You won't find another canal like it, what with it having a sharp bend every 500 yards. On the map it looks like someone tried to draw a straight diagonal line on a low resolution screen creating mini zig zags. Take a look on Google maps to see it. Not very good for boating of course but ideal for firing a gun at anyone trying to cross the canal.
The "anyone" in question of course was old Boney himself, itching to complete his domination of Europe by crushing us Brits. It was 1804 and young Willie Pitt was having kittens at the idea of the 160,000 or more men standing on the beaches at Boulogne and polishing their muskets or whatever it was they had. A sizeable fleet of boats lay ready to carry them on the short trip over to Dungeness where a nice expanse of flat sands and shingle would make an easy peasy landing over a thirty mile front.
Over here, bricklayers were hastily building a series of defensive Martello towers along the shore but in reality they wouldn't do much to stop an army that size. One idea was to flood Romney Marsh by letting the sea in through the sea wall, but that had problems. Either you couldn't do it fast enough once the French left port and headed over here, or you did it beforehand "just in case" and ruined a lot of perfectly good farm land with salt and then stumped up a fortune in settling compensation claims from dispossessed farmers. Worse still, imagine a false alarm!
So some bright spark thought of the canal idea. Dig a trench sixty feet wide and nine feet deep and fill it with fresh water. Build a parapet on the inland side of the canal from the earth dug out on the canal and then put a military supply road behind that and you had a pretty good defensive line. Not only that, the canal would collect water running off the hills in wet weather and save the marshes from getting so wet, and in dry weather it would provide a fresh water source for agricultural use. And of course with some boats, it would provide a transport route for moving men and military gear and farm produce about. Simples. It would need a few bridges of course like any canal does, but these would have to be dismantled pretty dam quick if the Frenchies turned up so they opted for easily destroyable wooden jobbies.
Pitt was persuaded and got personally involved in persuading the local farmers and the idea was given the go ahead. Next, they looked around for somebody who knew a bit about building canals and hired in John Rennie who as we all know had a bit of form in that department having done stuff on the Kennet and Avon and the Rochdale canal and in Ireland. I think he might have been inventing indigestion remedies too, but I'd have to check on that.
Anyhow, old John rolled up and quickly found all sorts of problems they hadn't thought of including the issue of ground water filling the trench while they were trying to dig it because of the sandy soil and the fact that it was below sea level. He persuaded the powers that be to put in an order for a Boulton and Watt steam pump at great expense and recommended a maximum depth of seven feet for the canal. They could compensate by having it wider if they liked. Such was the panic over old Boney at this time that Pitt would agree to practically anything in spite of several critics claiiming that the whole idea was daft.
Well, things proceeded just like every other civil (or private) building contract. The steam engine was months late, the builders kept getting called off to other jobs, there was a shortage of bricks etc. Money was thrown at it. 1500 navvies were drafted in at a few pence a day to do the digging while the army built the rampart and the road. Compare that with the Wey and Arun canal not far away which at a similar length needed a mere 200 navvies. The place was swarming with soldiers and rough manual labour without enough local accommodation. It was like Millwall on a Saturday night. According to the local paper, one navvy decided to sell his wife in Hythe market because he couldn't afford to keep her on his pay. He yoked her to a post and got sixpence for her from a delighted squaddie. The lady herself wasn't so pleased and was said to have two black eyes and a nasty temper.
Progress was slow and everyone was blaming everyone else just like they still do today. Rennie was especially fed up. He was even more fed up though when they gave him the sack, not least because they thought his fee, at seven guineas a day, was extortionate.
Meanwhile over in Boulogne, Boney was itching to pull the trigger on the starter pistol. Our spies reported they were practically ready to invade, but then came the news that the cavalry, in the shape of Nelson and his ships were coming back to our waters after a foreign excursion. Boney didn't fancy his fleet's chances of getting across with our Horatio in the way so be decided to bugger off for a bit and beat up the Austrians instead at Austerlitz.
Still the canal work struggled on under new management based on the theory that the French would be back sooner or later and to cut a long story short, they got the job done, eventually reaching the sea at both ends, thus making it possible to flood the marshes twice as fast should they ever need to.
Boney did come back and have another look, but what with his battle fleet having been crippled by Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805 and his allies the Danes having their fleet nobbled by an English bombardment of Copenhagen harbour he went off in a sulk and ended up dying of wallpaper poisoning.
Back on Romney Marsh, the canal was actually proving useful, even to the military who were using it to move boats and troops about. Then in 1807 and act was passed allowing the possibility of boats being licenced for pleasure purposes. Is this the first mention of pleasure boating on our canals? It took a while to get going though. The first recorded pleasure excursion on the Royal Military Canal actually took place in 1841. Hoseasons I expect.
The canal is still very much there today and used for boating, fishing, and picnics and for all I know, farm water supply. I must go and have a proper look next time I go down that way.