History Historic Documents
Canal into Highway - Fleming Way Swindon

By E.V Tull and K. Walter

When Robert and William Whitworth surveyed the route of the Wilts & Berks Canal in 1793 they followed the 330-foot contour for as much as possible of the eight mile summit length. The route thus passed through the damp fields of the clayland one mile north of the small hilltop town of Swindon. This was near enough for the operation of the coal trade, while inconveniencing no one except a few local farmers whose fields were bisected.

Thirty years after the opening of the canal the Great Western Railway reached the Swindon area on a converging route a few hundred yards further north. The siting of a railway junction and major factory at the foot of the hill gave birth to New Swindon, but this boom-town was at first trapped between the two lines of transportation; its north-south thoroughfares were constrained to a small number of bridges under the railway and over the canal. The eventual result was a maze of narrow, truncated streets on both sides of an obsolescent canal; many of these streets still exist today, making Swindon a nightmare for traffic managers and road users. In 1906 the canal ceased to carry through traffic, and eight years later Swindon Corporation succeeded in having an Act of Abandonment passed by Parliament in respect of it. They thus acquired the canal and some adjoining land and buildings. However, the silted, weed choked waterway was an expensive embarrassment, and soon after the Great War they had the one and a quarter mile urban stretch of the canal filled in. In the harsh economic climate of those days nothing further could be done with the site, so it became a weedgrown, rubbish strewn eyesore for the next 40 years (see Fig. below).



Those bridges which could be demolished without affecting adjacent dwellings or business premises were removed. One of these was the narrow, stone built bridge of 1803 which carried the old Saxon way known as Drove Road over the canal half a mile east of the town centre. Its site became covered by Drove roundabout, nowadays known as the Magic Roundabout.

Nearer the town centre were two bridges which could not be conveniently disposed of; namely Whale Bridge and York Road Bridge. They had little else in common. Whale Bridge was the third successive one built on or near the same site where Princes Street, running the length of the low ridge from Regent Circus, had to be connected with Corporation Street on the far side of the canal. The final Whale Bridge, built in 1893, was a very plain structure. It consisted of a corrugated steel deck on abutments of blue glazed engineering bricks, with a span of about 25 feet and width 36 feet including two narrow pavements. The sides of the bridge were of sheet steel topped with lengths of timber.

Th addition to the two main streets joined by Whale Bridge no fewer than four other streets converged on it, namely Lowestoft Street and Gordon Road on the south side, and Medgbury Road and Oriel Street on the north. The approaches were short and steep, and there was a perilous double bend in the northern one. (The bend is manifested today in the form of an oval roundabout with its long axis aligned at 45 to the old canal line). All this contributed to an increasing number of road accidents throughout the long existence of the bridge. However the obvious remedy, the removal of the bridge, was not practicable in those years. The Whale Public House, originally built in the 1840's, was rebuilt in 1906 tight against its northeast corner and a large motor repair building, owned from about 1920 by the influential Harry C. Preater, stood equally tight against its southeast corner. Furthermore, on the northwest corner there was a fine example of a Victorian gents' urinal elevated to the level of the bridge deck, a surprisingly prominent position for such a facility in those days. The various interests vested in these three buildings were such that the bridge, sandwiched between them, remained safe from demolition for 40 years after the water beneath it had disappeared.

York Road bridge, 450 yards east of Whale Bridge and only 250 yards short of Drove Road, was similarly hemmed in by buildings and embanked streets, and was built only fourteen years after Whale Bridge. However, unlike Whale bridge, which owed its siting to a farm road of the pre-canal era, York Road bridge originated from forward planning by Swindon Corporation. The extensive fields north of Swindon hill which comprised the Rolleston estate were developed between about 1895 and 1905, after which the developers began to acquire fields south of the canal for the same purpose. The new spine road, named York Road, was to begin almost opposite the southern end of Graham Street and to head straight towards Old Town, which the planners of the day may have expected it to eventually reach via Belle Vue Road (although this has not yet happened). A bridge was therefore planned to connect the two development areas, and Graham Street had been embanked for this purpose.

By the time York Road bridge was erected, c. 1907, the canal was derelict and its ultimate fate predictable, but its water presented a problem to the builders of this last bridge to be built over the canal within Swindon borough boundary. Anecdotal evidence ('Canal Days in Swindon'; Dr E.V. Tull, page 54) is that the channel had to be temporarily diverted a few yards south to permit the construction of the southern abutment, and there is some corroborative evidence (K Walter, unpublished ,manuscript.) that the completion of houses at the northern end of York Road was delayed, presumably by this operation.

The design of the bridge was complicated by the 30' misalignment of York Road with Graham Street. This caused the bridge to be aligned at about 15' to each of the two streets, lengthening the axis of the span by a foot or so beyond the 25-foot distance between the parallel abutments. The northern abutment was positioned where is can still be seen now (1994), but the southern one stood approximately where the centre line of Fleming Way now is. The southern abutment was flanked by two retaining walls which held small triangular embankments against its sides, thus strengthening it laterally.The bridge was 42 feet wide, including two pavements of generous width. The deck was supported by longitudinal steel girders of 'top hat' section, riveted together at their upper flanges as shown in Fig 2. The depth of the channel so created was about 16 inches.


The bridge was 42 feet wide, including two pavements of generous width. The deck was supported by longitudinal steel girders of 'top hat' section, riveted together at their upper flanges as shown in Fig 2. The depth of the channel so created was about 16 inches.

On each side of the deck the outermost channel had a row of angle iron lengths fixed across it to improve the lateral stiffness. All the channels were filled with rubble, above which was a layer of small, oil impregnated wooden blocks forming a lightweight, shock absorbing filling under the tarmac surface. A striking feature of the bridge, especially when compared with Whale bridge, was the design of the bridge sides. These were of iron castings about an inch thick, with large trefoil perforations which both lightened the members and gave the bridge a touch of elegance.

Unfortunately this enhancement was somewhat offset by two arrays of fiercely spiked railings at the south end of the bridge, and by the failure of the Corporation to check the luxuriant growth of nettles on the earthen embankments each summer.