Interview 1 - Hugh J Compton

Hugh J Compton, historian and author of the book, The Oxford Canal, who died October 2014

Interviewer: Maria Parsons
Editor: David Charles
Total recording time: 1 hr : 16 min : 15 sec


  • Hugh was interviewed in the Jericho Living Heritage office in the Community Centre
  • He is a historian with particular interest in railway and canal history whose interview provides rare details of the social, economic and engineering history of the Oxford Canal
  • Hugh’s account is articulated in a lively style, showing his passion for his topic and accompanied by him rapping his knuckles on a table to emphasise a point (he does this quite a lot), laughing out loudly
Access available in Oxfordshire History Centre and Libraries only

Click on track number below to play

Track Content summary Length
1.1 Summers spent in Oxfordshire around the canal as well as meticulous research provide invaluable content for content The Oxford Canal which Charles Hadfield commissioned him to write when Hugh was member of Railway and Canal Historical Society. Recalls pleasure in seeing pile of 30 copies of his book in Parker’s books, Broad Street, Oxford, 1976. 4 min : 47 sec
1.2 Construction, financing and building of Oxford Canal progressed by Coventry coalmine owner who wanted to get his coal to Oxford and Duke of Marlborough who wanted to secure regular coal deliveries for his Wolvercote Paper Mill as well as his many tenants.

1768 Oxford Canal proposal passed in Parliament – project plan included rough route, finance and end date. The canal engineer was the renowned James Brindley until his death and then James Barnes. The Oxford Canal Company was established and work began but funds ran out after 15 miles. New loan taken out in 1775 to continue project.
5 min : 57 sec
1.3 Navigational problems of the Oxford Canal – River Thames route to London mainly due to weirs rather than locks on much of the river. Also the size of locks on the Oxford Canal near the city centre and the transfer of goods from canal boats to Thames Barges.

Competition from railway when God’s Wonderful Railway (Great Western Railway) gets to Oxford. Obstacles to serving outlying towns like Abingdon or Wantage due to narrow gauge and the expense of replacement with broad gauge. By 1852 broad gauge line built and more goods began to arrive by train rather than canal.
5 min : 24 sec
1.4 No detailed national canal strategy – impetus construction came from individual canal companies. Planning permission for canals? Compensation offered to people when canal routed through their land but many freeholders did not have documents to prove they owned property. If objected, so only recourse was to make a case at magistrate’s court. 5 min : 28 sec
1.5 Oxford Canal built following land contours. Acceptable north of Banbury but in 1830 Oxford Canal Company went to Parliament to obtain permission to straighten canal south of Banbury to provide faster and straighter route. Work began in 1852 and the loan for the work was soon paid off as trade to Oxford increased. 1 min : 25 sec
1.6 Oxford Canal Company run by Durrell family of Jersey. Despite falling trade in the early part of the 20th century, annual profits of 30% to 40% were achieved and dividends paid by World War Two. The company also purchased land 10 feet on the side of canal opposite towpath and anyone building wharves etc. had to make a payment. 5 min : 30 sec
1.7 Passengers on flyboats Pickford’s established as early carriers of goods and passengers on the Oxford Canal. 6 min : 11 sec
1.8 World War Two and Oxford Canal – a busy time for trade but Oxford Canal Company were instructed not to be seen to be profiting from the war. All profits were saved large post war dividends paid to Oxford Canal Company shareholders. 5 min : 21 sec
1.9 British Waterways canal trade hit hard by weather over winter 1963. Narrow canals including Oxford, froze. The use of canals for pleasure began. 1 min : 27 sec
1.10 Hugh’s adventures on a boat on the Oxford Canal. 3 min : 28 sec
1.11 Risks of removing locks from canals as leisure boating increased as canals had a part in land drainage – they might help with current flooding problems? Discussion of water on Port Meadow and the naming of the Trap Grounds, Shipton Weir and freshwater spring behind lock keepers cottage at Duke’s Cottage. 7 min : 45 sec
1.12 Hugh’s developing interest in history, particularly railway and canals. How he collected and collated details for his book, including scrutinising daily minutes written by Oxford Canal Company clerks – some documents held in former Oxford Canal Company headquarters now part of St Peter’s College. Banbury Historical Society provided good sources and Hugh even played detective in tracking down details of Oxford Canal Company management pensions to a solicitor’s office. 13 min : 01 sec
1.13 Wharfingers: a Woodstock county councillor proved to be a good source of information as had relative who was wharfinger and showed Hugh rare photos of him and his family. The job of wharfingers and their pensions explained.

Maria Parsons reflecting on the importance of the Oxford Canal’s history and thanking Hugh Compton for his contribution.
10 min : 33 sec