Bristol Communications History

During the early part of the seventeenth century networks of canals were used to transport goods such as wool from Spain, wood and coal to Gloucester and the Midlands of England. The canal system, under great strain was expanded in the latter part of the century with the improvement of river connections between Bristol and Bath on the Avon and a shelved plan to improve communications on the River Frome (also known as Stroudwater). In its place a canal was built to extend the travel of Severn river trows to Stroud in 1779.

Three years later Robert Whitworth planned a canal to connect the Severn to the River Thames. Opened in 1789, the canalís traffic was heavy though the waterway suffered from leaks and was forced to close during the summer months due to low levels of water. A further three canals were started in 1792 Ė namely Bristol to Gloucester, one linking Bristol with Southampton and London, and Bristol to Taunton. Economic depression and a war with the French meant that none of the projects came to fruition. The successful Gloucester to Berkeley canal was opened in 1827 but at huge expense.

The effectiveness of the canals was far exceeded by that of the railways exemplified by the train shed designed by engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. As early as 1811 a horse-drawn tramway from the Gloucester docks took over the load from the Coombe Hill canal for the transportation of construction materials and coal. The Great Western Railway and West Midland Railway were to forge the way ahead for both the carriage of goods and passengers.

Brunel's Train Shed

Brunel's Train Shed

Though initially taking the form of simple trackways the potential of such systems of transport was quickly realised. The first steam railway was opened in 1828 to service the Bristol coalfield. The Great Western Railway linked Bristol and London, the collective concept of John Hartford, William Tothill, Richard Guppy and George Jones.

With the capacity to house 209 wagons, Brunelís train shed was an exemplary piece of engineering serving not only the Great Western Railway but also the Bristol & Exeter and Midlands railways. Trade was brisk, even rivalling that of London. Although Brunel adopted a wider gauge rail than standard to gain a more comfortable ride, the Great Western Railway eventually accepted the narrower gauge.

All was not straightforward however. Disputes over land usage and massive engineering problems such as the need for bridges and tunnels slowed work immensely. A majority of the problems were overcome with the application of the ingenuity of the age such as the construction of the Severn Tunnel. The rail network quickly expanded with the addition of numerous branch-lines, many of which later declined and were subsequently closed through lack of use from the mid twentieth century.

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