Grand Imperial Ship Canal

Reports on the grand ship canal from London to Arundel bay and Portsmouth
by Nicholas Wilcox Cundy, 1825.

Grand Imperial Ship Canal
The Grand Imperial Ship Canal

On page 25 in Epsom Common, a pamphlet published by The Epsom Common Association during 1981 it was written: -
"Before giving some account of those railways which affected our Common. reference must be made to a most attractive scheme which never came into being. It is too interesting and bizarre to omit. In 1825 rival plans were drawn up for the construction of a 'Grand Imperial Ship Canal' to link London with Portsmouth. Sailing round by sea could take up to twelve days, and it was estimated that the largest ships afloat' would use this canal and thus be able to make the journey in less than 24 hours. Fresh food and farm produce could be brought to London, bypassing the awful local roads, shipwrecks could be avoided, and, in time of war, should such arise, goods and equipment could be taken to the naval base at Portsmouth rapidly and without risk. George Rennie and his brother, John the Younger, submitted plans for this splendid project. Their prospectus detailed an 86 mile stretch of canal, 3OO feet wide, 24 feet deep, from Deptford via Merton, Chessington, Epsom Common, Guildford, Alfold and Loxwood to the Arun valley, thence to Langstone Harbour: estimated cost 7 million. A rival set of proposals took the canal by a slightly different route on its southern reaches, but this too would have crossed Epsom Common entering it at a point most oddly described as 'The Gate on Epsom Common'. The whole thing however came to nothing and created little other than recrimination between the rival builders. One can't help regretting this. The vision of large ships placidly crossing our Common and passing all those bramble bushes, crab-apple trees, wild roses and furze patches is very attractive."

Mr Cundy, promoter of the scheme had described part of the route as
"From Merton Road to Tolworth Court, across Merton Common and the Hogg Mill River, leaving Cannon Hill, Maiden Church, Mr. Taylor's Powder Mills, Worcester Park and Ewell to the left, the ground is remarkably level, and chiefly consists of meadow and arable land, without interfering with a single house or enclosure, through a clay soil with marl earth. From Tolworth Court over Horton Manor to Epsom Common, the land rises progressively to the summit valley on Epsom Common: (here millions of tons of the finest chalk can be brought to London, for brick-making, whitening, &c. at a small expence.) Between Tolworth Court and Epsom Common I recommend three locks to be placed, which will at once raise to and extend the summit level to twenty miles. From Epsom Common to Leatherhead Bridge, the line runs through Horton Wood, about two miles of open common and some meadow and arable land, and one or two small enclosures: the understrata consists of chalk, brick earth and clay soil. At Leatherhead Bridge the summit level will require filling and embanking for nearly a mile, which will give an opportunity of passing the Mole River under the bed of the Canal: here the line strikes through two enclosures up Mickleham Vale, passing the East side of Norbury Park to Dorking Mill Pond, without being obstructed."
Mr Cundy's Counterbalance Suspension Bridge
Mr Cundy's Counterbalance Suspension Bridge

His schedule of distances included "To the Gate on Epsom Common 7½ & From Epsom Gate over the Common to Leatherhead Bridge 3."

'Horton Wood' is a misnomer incorporated by Surveyors on to the Ordnance Survey map of 1816 and copied by later cartographers: it was actually Newton Wood in Ashtead Forest.

The projected route may be traced on the Surrey Ordnance Survey map surveyed around 1811 and published 1816-1819. It would have run beside the Hogs Mill River, passing St John the Baptist Parish Church, Old Malden, to Talworth (sic) Court, then along its tributary the Bonesgate Stream behind Ruxley Farm to reach Chessington. There it would need to rise up to the north-western corner of Epsom Common, near the present Old Glanmire Farm.

A southern descent through Ashtead's Newton Wood would have been started close to Woodcock Corner to parallel bridleway 38 down to Summersgate (at the western end of Woodlands Road, The Wells, Epsom) - 'The Gate on Epsom Common'. Thence the route continues west along The Rye brook through Ashtead Common and The Woodfield towards the River Mole at Leatherhead.

The ships were to be hauled along the canal by 'steam towage'.

Details of the various proposals for this ship canal which was never built may be found at

Approximate route shown on an extract from the First Edition OS Map 1811
Approximate route shown on an extract from the First Edition OS Map 1811

Background on Nicholas Wilcocks Cundy

The Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, identifies Nicholas Wilcocks Cundy, as a son of Peter Cundy of Restowrick House, St. Dennis, Cornwall, and Thomasine Wilcocks his wife, born in 1778 a younger brother of Thomas Cundy the elder, who was distinguished as a civil engineer, and as the projector of a ship canal from Portsmouth to London and one of the four competing schemes for the London and Brighton railway. He also designed the Pantheon in Oxford Street. He married Miss [Frances Erskine Stamp], Stafford - Cooke at St Pancras Old Church on 9 September 1806, and unsuccessfully contested the borough of Sandwich. His publications included: - Reports on the Grand Ship Canal from London to Arundel Bay and Portsmouth(1825), Imperial Ship Canal from London to Portsmouth (1828), and Inland Transit: the Practicability, Utility and Benefit of Railroads(1834). The demise of 'Fanny' Erskine Stamp Cundy was registered in Kensington for the September Quarter of 1837: her husband is also reported to have died in the same year.

With regard to the Pantheon, The London Gazette had reported in 1812 that 'A Commission of Bankruptcy is awarded and issued forth against Nicholas Wilcox Cundy, of New Norfolk-Street, in the parish of Saint George, Hanover-Square, in the County of Middlesex, Dealer and Chapman,...'. Susbsequently a Parliamentary debate revealed that
"[Mr Cundy] having obtained a licence from the lord chamberlain to commence performances at the Pantheon Theatre, had laid out a very large sum in putting the theatre into such a state as to make it fit for the reception of the company. The whole was conducted by Mr. Cundy in such a manner as to give great satisfaction to those who attended the performances. In the midst, however, of his prosperous career, an injunction was issued by the lord chamberlain to discontinue these theatrical representations. Mr. Cundy had expended between 50 and 60,000, and without any reason being assigned the injunction was issued. Mr. Cundy had been harassed by criminal informations, and had been totally ruined, arrested, and cast into gaol, where he remained for three or four years, and at last was liberated under the Insolvent act, and all this without any reason but the caprice of the lord chamberlain, by whom the injunction was issued, which reduced this gentleman in an instant to beggary"
The case of Cundy, 'formerly of Princess-Square, Kennington, Surrey, then of Belvidere-Cottage, Harrow, Middlesex, then of the King's Bench Prison, Surrey, then of Frognill-Cottage, Hampstead, and also of No. 2, Parliament-Street, Westminster, then of No. 1, Fludyer-Street, and also of No. 2, Parliament-Street aforesaid, all in Middlesex, then of Sheen-Grove, Mortlake, Surrey, and also of No. 22, Bridge-Street, Blackfriars, London, then of Hackbridge-Cottage, Carshalton, Surrey, and also of Bridge Street aforesa'd, and late of Hackbridge-Cottage, Carshalton aforesaid, Surveyor, Architect, and Engineer, and one of the Commissioners appointed by Act of Parliament for the improvement of Alnwick and Bognor New Town Roads', been brought before The Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors on 5 January 1830.

Cundy's plan known as 'The Grand Southern Railway' was deposited in 1834 [SHC ref. QS6/8/167/1] routed from Lambeth to Dorking via Epsom and Ashtead.

His proposed 'Brighton Shoreham and London Railway' had been intended to run from Nine Elms along London and Southampton Railway metals to a junction at Wimbledon and then via Epsom, Dorking, Horsham, and Shoreham to Brighton. An 1835 plan at Surrey History Centre, QS6/8/178/1, reveals two lines one of which came from Ewell through Horton to pass across the Great Pond on Epsom Common, then through the corner of Newton Wood, Ashtead Common, by the brickworks continuing north of the Rye brook until the parish border. There it crossed the stream to converge with the line from Epsom at Leatherhead town. The Ewell branch seems to have been based on surveys for length of the abandoned Grand Imperial Ship Canal. Beyond Leatherhead, Cundy suggested a cutting 230 feet deep through part of Box Hill. John Herepath's Railway Magazine, 28 November 1836, reported, however, that:-
"Cundy's Line, as it was called, but who has now nothing to do with it, has been very much improved by Mr. Mills, the engineer. The nine miles of embankment have been got rid of; so also has the formidable cutting of Box-hill. The marshes the engineer has prudently left to the undisturbed possession of their proper inhabitants, the quacking tribes and the frogs, and has taken more elevated, and consequently more solid ground. By this means he has much improved the gradients."

Brian Bouchard, May 2016

For further details of the Grand Imperial Shipping Canal see London's Lost Route To The Sea by P.A.L. Vine published by Middleton Press (ISBN 1 873793 782). A scale plan (in 12 sections at 4in to 1 mile) is available at the Surrey History Centre under reference QS6/8/122/1

Annotated composite detail from the plan for the canal - Click image to enlarge
Annotated composite detail from the plan for the canal
Click image to enlarge (Very large image)
Image Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre © 2016 under reference QS6/8/122/1