THE building of the Basingstoke Canal was an incredible feat of engineering, stretching more than 31 miles from Weybridge to Basingstoke, moving thousands of tons of soil and constructing 29 locks using a workforce of over 100 men with picks and shovels; but it was also a story of incompetence and ineptitude.

The initial plan of the canal was authorised on May 15, 1778, and the Basingstoke Navigation Company was formed, with shares to the value of £86,000.

The first meeting was at the Crown Inn in Basingstoke where agreement was reached that the canal could not be dug through anyone’s yard, park or paddock, and that no water could be taken from the River Loddon due to the demand needed to power the mills on the river.

In 1787 William Jessop, a well-known canal builder of his day, was appointed surveyor and John Pinkerton was awarded the main contract, Pinkerton’s being the largest firm of early canal builders.

The dig began in October 1788 and only stopped for the winter period when the soil became frozen.

At Pirbright, the cut necessitated the raising of the level by 29.5 metres which made it necessary to install fourteen locks within a distance of two miles. This involved digging a cutting of over 21 metres deep - after which the area became known as Deepcut.

The canal was to be the main artery for transporting heavy goods through Woking, Brookwood, Pirbright, Dogmersfield, Winchfield and Odiham. From here it travelled past the site of King Johns’ Castle and through the Greywell tunnel which, at 1,120 metres in length and 42 metres below the surface, was the 12th longest canal tunnel in the country. After the tunnel, the canal wound past Up Nately and Basing House and into Basingstoke wharf at the bottom of Wote Street, approximately where Potter’s Walk is now.

Things did not run smoothly however as sub-contractor Charles Jones, a mason and miner, was employed to build the tunnel. On a previous project building the Sepperton tunnel on the Thames & Severn Canal, Charles was arrested three times and sent to prison for debts. At one point this tunnel collapsed under his supervision, but that didn’t prevent him from securing the Greywell Tunnel contract. Inevitably this did not go well because he continued in his ways and was caught in ‘improper conduct’, possibly inebriation, and Pinkerton decided that once the tunnel was completed he should be sacked.

Richard Hudson, another sub-contractor, absconded with the workers' wages and the Pinkerton company had to bail them out, after which the company requested the workers select their own foreman to avoid a similar situation happening again.

During the excavation a Saxon idol was unearthed and, at Basing House, 800 golden guineas were discovered by a local watchmaker, possibly buried during Oliver Cromwell’s siege in 1645.

Part two to follow in The Gazette on November 29.