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Changing Times | The Chichester Canal opening ceremonies

Chichester canal is a leisure waterway that links historic Chichester to the sea, and is an important wildlife habitat that is a site of importance for nature conservation.


It is also popular for walking, fishing, canoeing, paddle boarding and cycling. The canal forms part of the former Portsmouth and Arundel canal, and was intended to be a key link in a through route to London.


Different sections of the canal were opened separately, and had ceremonies to mark these occasions. This article will explore the successes and mishaps that befell these occasions.


After almost three and a half years since the first spade of earth had been turned, and after constant financial problems, disputes with the contractors, unscheduled additions to the original plans and questionable management, a grand ceremony was announced to celebrate the official opening of the Chichester Ship Canal on Tuesday, April 9, 1822.


Local newspapers printed invitations to all subscribers to the canal company, members of the general public and merchants who traded with London to enjoy the journey from Eastney Creek, at the harbour end of the unfinished Portsea Canal, across Langstone Harbour, around Hayling and Thorney Islands, into the Chichester Ship Canal at Birdham and thence to the Southgate Basin in Chichester where a celebratory dinner was planned for 5pm.


The journey was planned to demonstrate the ease and efficiency of using the Canal to trade with London. However, all did not go according to plan.


Mr John Williams, one of the promoters of the navigation, had organised that the steam tug, Egremont, would leave Eastney Creek at 10am, towing a 150 yard-long cavalcade of suitably decorated barges furnished with chairs, cushions and parasols, on a favourable tide.


The intervention of a Mr Burnett, whose credentials remain a mystery but who claimed to have knowledge of the route through the harbours, led Mr Williams to give the responsibility for steering the vessel to Mr Burnett.


The latter’s concern over the lack of depth of water led to the start being delayed, plus another stoppage in Langstone Harbour, so it was not until 5pm, the planned time of the celebratory dinner at The Dolphin Inn in Chichester, that Egremont was approaching the entrance to Chichester Harbour.


Unfortunately, in what was known to be a deep, wide channel, Egremont became stranded on a sandbank and all further progress for the procession ceased until the next tide.


A smaller flotilla which had been waiting in the canal to accompany the Egremont cavalcade to Chichester Basin decided they could wait no longer and set sail. Led by Mr William Johnson’s yacht, Sylph, a mixture of commercial barges, including the Mayflower carrying timber, the Prosperous carrying groceries and the Chichester carrying coal, and pleasure craft repaid the patience of the crowd who greeted them with music from several bands, cannon fire and enthusiastic cheering.


The embarrassed company officials had to cope with the ‘many erroneous reports’ that circulated and blamed strong winds, an ebbing tide and literal ‘hangers-on’ in the form of sailing and rowing boats for the problems encountered, but could not disguise the potential hazards of crossing the harbours.


On Thursday, September 19, 1822, to celebrate the delayed opening of the Portsea Ship Canal to Halfway Houses, the steam tug Egremont towed a procession of decorated barges carrying passengers, including a band, the full length of the canal, watched by ‘many thousand spectators’.


Following the successful opening ceremony at 2pm, a dinner was held at the George Inn in Portsmouth at 6pm, at which the committee and some subscribers to the company were present, along with ‘any gentleman who may feel disposed to be of the party’ – at a cost of 17s, including wine.


The Hampshire Chronicle subsequently reported the opening and concluded, ‘with pleasure, we add, no accident occurred’.


Next week’s article will look at a third opening ceremony of the canal in May, 1823.


By Sue Dixon, trustee at the Chichester Ship Canal Trust


Posted in Lifestyle.