With the new pedestrian and cycle bridge opening on Chobham Road, our heritage volunteer Richard has had a look at the history of Wheatsheaf Bridge.

A bill to enable the building of the Basingstoke Canal received royal assent on 15 May 1778. William Jessop, one of the eminent canal engineers of the day, was appointed surveyor and consultant engineer. John Pinkerton was awarded the contract on 3 October 1788. It was hoped to build the canal in four years.

Work started at the junction of the River Wey in Woodham the same month. The canal probably reached Horsell in 1789. Woking as we know it today did not exist at the time. Woking, or Old Woking today, was some miles to the south. In 1791 the first tolls were collected for a shipment from the River Wey to Horsell. The full length of the canal to Basingstoke was opened on 4 September 1794.

The canal was never very successful in terms of paying its way, but supplying building materials for the London to Southampton railway and later, materials for the Aldershot army camps, improved matters temporarily. From its beginning until 1914 seven different companies ran the canal. After each period of ownership, the canal was put into receivership. None of the companies had much interest in spending money on maintenance.

Most of the original bridges and locks were built with bricks from local brickyards which opened especially for the canal. The bridges were of a basic humped back design entirely suitable for the local, mostly farm traffic of the day. The best example of an original bridge can be found in St Johns.

On some canals, bridges were of a roving type designed to allow a horse to stay attached to the boat when crossing to a towpath on the opposite side of the canal. The Basingstoke Canal did not have these which meant that a horse had to be unhitched, cross over the bridge and be hitched up again. Crossing Chobham Road has been the only way to follow the towpath until this year.

As early as 1883 it was reported that all the canal bridges were failing to cope with increasing traffic loads especially around the new town of Woking. At least two collapsed and temporary timber structures were put in place. Wheatsheaf Bridge was in a dangerous state. There were not even railings.

This applied to all the bridges in Woking and probably along the whole length of the canal. Concerns were raised about bridges in Frimley, Ash, Woking and Scotland Bridge in New Haw, St Johns and Hermitage. Kiln Bridge in St Johns was strengthened in 1899.

An early 1900 view of Wheatsheaf Bridge and the newly opened Victoria Cottage Hospital

A traction engine and cart fell through Hermitage Bridge in 1904. A temporary wooden bridge was erected but only to allow pedestrians and light traffic to cross. In 1906 Chertsey Road Bridge was replaced with a temporary wooden structure. A weight restriction was applied to many bridges including Wheatsheaf Bridge. Woking Urban District Council wanted the bridges repaired or replaced. Correspondence and meetings on this subject continued through to 1909.

In 1905, William Carter bought the canal for £10,000 from the receiver 'on spec'. The canal was now using a fifth title – Woking, Aldershot and Basingstoke Canal and Navigation Company. William Carter came from an interesting family.

His father, Jesse Carter, sold a large well-established building business in Winchester to be a partner in a building supply company in Weybridge. He then moved to Poole in Dorset having bought a run-down pottery which became the internationally known Poole Pottery.

William inherited his father’s entrepreneurial skills. When he was just 19 he was a brick and lime merchant employing 9 men in Christchurch, Dorset. William moved to 1 Farmvil Villas, Goldsworth Road, Woking for a few years around the time of the 1881 census when he was 29 years of age just after his marriage. He records himself as a land financier and brick maker employing 12 men.

William’s son, Emerson Balstone Carter (b. 1879), lived in Woking from just after the First World War until his death in 1963, running a property business, Homesteads Ltd. Initially he lived at Brynford, Grange Road, which became the home of St Michael’s School, and then Potters Croft on Woodham Rise now Halstead School.

William had big ideas for rejuvenating the canal, none of which were implemented. One idea was to drain the canal and convert it into a light railway and tramway. Not knowing what to do with the canal he was introduced through Ernest Hooley, a fraudulent financier, to Horatio Bottomley. This unfortunately resulted in a gigantic swindle. Hooley and Bottomley were eventually jailed for fraud. William remained the mortgagee through three more periods of liquidation until 1923 when again it fell into the hands of the receiver.

Woking Urban District Council took the canal owners to court and eventually to the High Courts of Justice in a bid to force the canal owner to repair and rebuild the bridges. The canal owner stated that they were responsible for the bridges but not the roadway over the bridges. WUDC’s action cost £1412. They agreed to pay for repairs which had been estimated at £1337, but the funds were not forthcoming so WUDC bit the bullet and financed a new bridge.

A notice was placed in the Surrey Advertiser on 25 May 1912: “The Woking Urban District Council (Basingstoke Canal) Act 1911.  WUDC hereby do give notice of their intention to exercise the powers vested in them under the above Act by carrying out the works mentioned: The reconstruction of Wheatsheaf Bridge, Chobham Road. The bridge will be taken down and a new bridge 40 feet wide will be constructed on the site of the present bridge. The northern terminus will be in Chobham Road, Horsell Parish and the southern terminus in Chobham Road partly in Horsell Parish and partly in Woking Parish. Work to commence after 3 months from the publication of this notice 24 May 1912 Robert Mossop Clerk to the WUDC.”

The state of the bridge was still being discussed by Surrey County Council in November 1914 which rather undermines the date on the plaque on the new bridge which states: “Erected by the Urban District Council of Woking 1913-14’. The new bridge was to be longer, flatter and wider and illuminated by four ornate lamp posts but it could not have been opened until 1915 at the earliest.”

The new bridge opened in 1914

Later the bridge was widened again to accommodate a wider carriageway with three lanes of traffic and two pavements making it even more difficult to cross.

To make the crossing from one side of the canal to the other at Wheatsheaf Bridge safer, a new £2 million bridge was designed in the style of the old roving bridges but with shallower ramps, good lighting and provision for cyclists. Work commenced in November 2019 by building a dam on either side of the bridge, removing fish and draining the water. Work was completed in October 2020.

For more blog posts on Woking’s local history – or some fun ideas for staying creative, please visit our blog.