The first turf of the canal was dug close to the Ship and Anchor public house at Ford on August 20, 1818, by Mr J. Williams, the chief clerk of the Portsmouth and Arundel Navigation Company and one of the leading proposers of the canal.
The opening of the barge canal from Ford to Hunston marked the completion of the Portsmouth and Arundel Canal and the anticipated London to Portsmouth inland waterway was finally open.
Dinners to celebrate the event were planned at the Swan Inn in Chichester on Monday, May 26, 1823, and at the George Inn in Portsmouth the following day, with tickets costing 12s 6d, including wine. On the water the celebrations lasted for two days.
May 26 was a beautiful summer’s day and 18 boats and barges, decorated with colourful streamers, gathered at the entrance to the Canal at Ford.
A boat with a ‘Band of Music’ from the Sussex Militia led the procession, followed by the Earl of Egremont with a large party of guests on his pleasure barge.
The Duke of Norfolk followed in his ‘handsome pleasure boat’, accompanied by the Mayor of Arundel, William Holmes, and gentlemen from the town and neighbourhood.
The Mayor of Guildford brought many of his townspeople in his boat. Six other barges were filled by parties of local gentry and another band of musicians.
Five barges with goods for Chichester, one of which had reached Ford from London in three days instead of the usual four, and three laden with chalk for farmers on the line of the canal, brought up the rear.
The Morning Post reported: “The procession was handsomely decorated with colours, and it glided along upon the smooth surface of the canal through a country possessing every beauty, which high cultivation, interspersed with occasional plantations, could give it; while from the decks of the barges, the charms of a beautiful day were heightened by a very extensive and delightful varied prospect”.
At Hunston Common, this procession was joined by the schooner ‘Richmond’, launched at the Basin the year before, and five sloops which had sailed from Chichester Harbour for the journey up to the Southgate Basin, creating a procession almost a mile long.
A ‘very numerous assemblage of spectators, entirely covering the wharves and adjoining land’ welcomed their arrival, along with cannon fire.
An unexpected demonstration of the purpose of the Basin was the discovery of a sloop and two barges unloading their cargoes as the celebratory procession arrived.
In 1887, an elderly resident of Chichester remembered the event:
“The first thing that took place was the digging of the canal, and when that was finished there was a grand ‘to do’. It was a pretty sight, the vessels being towed down with scores of people on the decks, bands playing and flags flying. There was a fair held there that very day, which was kept up afterwards for years. There was jumping in sacks, diving for oranges, donkey racing and so on”.
The refurbished Heritage Centre at the Chichester Canal will be opening later this summer. Visitors will be able to discover the canal’s history from a commercial waterway in the 19th century to the leisure opportunities it provides today. Permanent displays, temporary exhibitions and touch screen information will illustrate the successes and failures of the canal over the last 200 years.
The Heritage Centre is housed in the Old Stable Block next to the Richmond Arms and both of these were original buildings at the Canal Basin, dating from the 1820s. The Heritage Centre will be open seven days a week during the cafe opening hours and entrance is free.
In addition to independent visitors, Chichester Canal welcomes school, youth and adult groups and tailors these visits to the requirements of each group, including a boat trip along the canal.
For further information please see the canal website: chichestercanal.org.uk
By Sue Dixon, trustee at the Chichester Ship Canal Trust