Napoleon’s canal

The start of the Thames and Medway Canal at Gravesend

Napoleon never invaded Britain, but he left his mark on the country nonetheless. Britain had feared a French invasion for much of the eighteenth century, but those fears grew hugely when up-and-coming General Bonaparte was made head of France’s Armée d’Angleterre (Army of England) in 1797, with a brief to organise what had proven to be too logistically complicated for previous generals to put into action. Bonaparte was likewise to assess the task as being too great (the difficulty was getting sufficient troop ships across the Channel before the British navy could intervene) and turned his eye to Egypt instead. But in Britain the fear was real, and persisted after Bonaparte became the Emperor Napoleon in 1804. And so they built.

Swing bridge over the Thames and Medway Canal, near Gravesend

Where I live, in the Medway towns, you can see the results all over the place. Chatham, location of the naval dockyards, was an obvious focal point. Two huge forts were constructed or reinforced: Fort Amherst (first built 1756, enlarged during Napoleonic wars) guarding the Medway from the north, the ruins of which survive today with their grand views over the river, and Fort Pitt (built between 1805 and 1819) overlooking river and towns from the south (almost nothing of which survives today – the land is now filled with housing, a school and an art college). One was built in anticipation of invasion via the river; the other was intended to defend against an army marching from the south. A third, smaller fort, Fort Clarence (built 1808-1812), at the back of Rochester, still stands, now converted into flats.

Trees leaning over the canal waters, near Higham

But not all of the building was military. There was a great fear of French privateers preying on trade from the Medway towns to London down the Thames (into which the Medway flows). The journey out of Rochester and Chatham around the Hoo peninsula and then westward along the Thames to London could be perilous for military and commercial shipping.

And so a short cut was proposed – a canal that would cut through the base of the peninsula, joining up the Medway at Rochester (specifically the small towns of Strood and Frindsbury on the opposite side of the river) with the Thames at Gravesend. It was the great era of canal building, helping to drive the Industrial Revolution (a horse on the road could tow a ton of goods, but up to twenty tons towing a narrow boat). The money was found and construction began at Gravesend in 1800. The idea for a canal had first been proposed in 1778, but only started to become a reality when engineer Ralph Dodd submitted proposals for a six-mile canal which would cut journeys between the two ports from 75kms to 14.5km, as well as offering protection to shipping.

Spring blossom over the canal

Dodd originally proposed a route consisting of 11.1km open canal ending with a 3.4km tunnel cut through the chalk cliffs between Higham and Frindsbury/Strood. His madly optimistic assessment was that it would take two years to build and cost £24,576. He revised his plans to feature a shorter route and a cutting through the cliffs rather than a tunnel, but as other engineers took over, the idea of a tunnel (begun in 1819) returned and the price rose to a colossal £260,000 by the time the canal opened in 1824.

The former canal tunnel at Higham

It was a stupendous engineering achievement, particularly the tunnel, which was 3.5km long (the second-longest canal tunnel in the UK at that time), 10.7m high from canal bed to top of the arch, 6.6m wide, with water 2.4m deep, enabling a 60-tonne sailing barge to pass through, if its mast was lowered. It was so straight one could stand at one end and see the light at the end other end, with no illumination require within the tunnel (which remains the case).

The opening of the canal on 14 October 1824 was enthusiastically noted by The Sun newspaper:

The Canal commences just below Gravesend. At its entrance, there is a large river lock, capable of admitting vessels of upwards of’ two hundred tons into a fine basin where there is excellent and extensive wharfage. The Canal thence proceeds through marsh lands to the village of Higham, an extent of nearly five miles, where the tunnel begins, as already stated; previously to arriving at the tunnel the Canal is fifty feet wide, with seven feet of water. The width, height, &c. of the tunnel, with its depth of water, have already been detailed. The whole extent of this Canal is not quite seven miles and a half, between the rivers Thames and Medway; and by this short line there is avoided the long, circuitous, irregular, and often dangerous route round by the Nore of fifty miles! This is a great advantage gained for trade.

The Sun, 15 October 1824

Sadly, in the twenty-five years it took to construct canal and tunnel, time and need had passed it by. The Napoleonic wars were over. Potential commercial users soon found that journey times were not as dramatically cut as had been promised, owing to the time it took got get through the locks, and the single vessel traffic necessary for passing through the tunnel. The canal suffered from leaks and water levels that fluctuated with the spring tide.

Canal map, via

Worse still, railways were on the horizon. At first, the canal company worked with the railways, in 1845 adding a single-track line through the tunnel which rested on wooden trestles that were partly on the towpath, partly supported by stakes in the water. The line then carried on to Gravesend adjacent to the canal. But the following year the company sold canal and tunnel to the South Eastern Railway company, which filled in that part of the canal that passed through the tunnel, replacing it with a double railway track. The open part of the canal, between Higham and Gravesend, continued in use until 1934, after which the weeds took over.

Canal with Thames & Medway Canal Association notice

I walked along the Thames and Medway Canal on a sunny Easter Sunday. It is still there, albeit some of it long neglected. Starting at Gravesend, you first encounter the former canal basin, now a marina. Twisting and turning through some industrial backstreets you come to the start of the canal proper, with its straight-edge end to let you know that this is no flowing river, but really just a long, thin pond. This end of the canal has been lovingly restored by the Thames Medway Canal Association (formed in 1976), with a well-tended former towpath and water dredged and cleared of vegetation. The views are unspectacular – flat fields and marshland with hardly a tree in sight to alleviate the plainness on either side – but it is ideal for strollers and cyclists. The all-conquering railway line runs in parallel.

Towpath, canal and train

As one journeys further east, the well-tendedness ends. The canal narrows; at times it becomes completely swallowed by vegetation. The waters, when you can see them, are muddier, grubbier. Trees branch out, casting strange strange shadows. As one nears the village of Higham the path gives way to a road while what remains of the canal at some points disappears from view. One catches glimpses of waters among woods and reeds, still clinging to the edge of the railway line, a history being swallowed up by time.

Murky canal waters near Higham

At Higham itself the canal becomes a thin line of water passing along the back of houses, before one gets to the railway station, where it trickles through woodland to the northern side of the station, petering out to nothingness as the railway tunnel through the chalk escarpment takes over. To follow the route one must therefore catch a train, emerging 3.5km later at Strood. Coming out of the station one walks to the waiting Medway river, Rochester being on the other side. Housing fills the space where the Frindsbury canal basin once stood. In front of the former basin, on Canal Road, there is a sign behind a wire fence that tells you that here once was something great that is no more.

Where once the canal ended (or began) at Strood, overlooking the Medway
Canal and railway leading into the tunnel at Strood, 1845, via the Victoria Web

Napoleon’s grand strategy was to crush Britain by destroying its ability to trade. As Philip Dwyer, author of a three-volume biography of Napoleon, notes, just about everywhere that he attacked or commandeered, from the North Sea ports to the Mediterranean to Egypt, was linked to British trade.

Napoleon himself admitted that all his wars of conquest were designed to gain control of the coasts of Europe. Conquest and expansion were simply a means of getting at the British by extending a blockade that would bring the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ to its knees through economic strangulation.

Central to this was a coastal blockade strategy, known as the Continental System, one empire trying to throttle another. The strategy failed, of course. Too many lands, supposedly in alliance with the French, carried on trading with the enemy, because it profited them to do so. Napoleon was a reactionary – he saw progress in terms of military conquest, because that was how power in Europe had been determined for millennia, and that was how historical figures such as Charlemagne on which he modelled himself had carved out their world. But the new power had shifted from the land to the seas, and Napoleon never understood the seas.

The Thames and Medway Canal stands as a monument to misjudged calculations and real fears. Though he never set foot on these lands, Napoleon was here.

The end of the canal waters in woodland beside Higham station



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4 thoughts on “Napoleon’s canal

  1. Absolutely brilliant! especially the verdict on Napoleon’s out of date ideology. Looking forward to visiting the fascinating relics of this and other Medway fortifications you picture.

    1. Thank you Ian. The link between canal and emperor is a tenuous one, but I live near one and have been reading about the other, and it made for a good title. The canal walk starting from the Gravesend side has a particular poetry about it, as it starts out straight and clear, then descends into the mysterious and murky. Fort Amherst is fascinating to ramble over and with fabulous views (look out also for the nearby naval war memorial, which is particularly well done).

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