In the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre there is a curious little publication, just six pages long, entitled ‘Proposed Norwich to Yarmouth Ship Canal’ which nicely demonstrates that the threat of war had been felt for many years before 1914. First published in the periodical ‘Black and White’ on 10 July 1909, its author was a Norwich man, W.J. Botterill about whom we know almost nothing. He is described as a member of the Society of Engineers and Official Arbitrator to the London Chamber of Arbitration.
Botterill’s plan was for a canal 120 feet wide and 21 feet deep from the River Yare at Berney Arms to Norwich, cutting the journey between the city and the North Sea from 31 to 22 miles. It would terminate in a commercial dock of eight acres, turning Norwich into an inland seaport.
A crucial part of his scheme was for a naval base at Rockland Broad, four miles from Norwich. By enlarging the Broad from 60 to 400 acres he claimed that 300 cruisers, torpedo boats, destroyers and submarines could be harboured. “Geographically”, he said, “Norfolk is the best site for the premier naval base; for when the fight comes which may decide the fate of the Empire for centuries, it will be in the North Sea”. The main Royal Navy base at this time was at Rosyth, near Edinburgh, and there were concerns that a German fleet might slip past to attack the Channel ports. A strong contingent of the fleet based in the southern North Sea would help prevent this.
Showing remarkable foresight, Botterill suggested that the flat Norfolk countryside would prove ideal for the “coming ‘airships of war’”, which he saw being launched from the decks of ships as they passed along the canal (perhaps he was referring to aeroplanes?).
Then he really gets into his stride. Not content with linking Norwich to the sea, he proposes a project for “the greatest waterway scheme ever formulated and placed before the nation” – nothing less than a ship canal across England 240 miles in length from the North Sea to the Bristol Channel. It would feature docks at Cambridge, Bedford and Oxford, entering the Bristol Channel near Bridgwater. But there is more! By suggesting a 60 mile branch from Oxford he also introduces the idea of “Birmingham as a seaport”!
The whole thing sounds crazy, but was it? As an engineering project it could have been feasible. But Botterill is inconsistent: the St Vincent class battleships launched in 1909 had a draught of 28 feet, so his claim that the Rockland naval base would accommodate “warships of the largest type” was untrue – his canal would have been only 21 feet deep. The base could have harboured the light cruisers of the Royal Navy though, and would have been almost invulnerable to attack from the sea.
The main objection was probably expense. Amidst great concern that the Imperial German Navy was rivalling the Royal Navy with its own dreadnoughts there was strong public pressure to build more and more battleships to keep ahead in the naval race. Great Britain could barely afford to build all its warships – a new canal and naval base in Norfolk was just a sideline.
Botterill was clearly inspired by the 61 mile Kiel Canal, which cuts across the Jutland peninsular in northern Germany. Finished in 1895, it was a vital strategic link allowing ships of the Imperial German Navy to avoid a lengthy passage around the coast of Denmark. It enabled Germany to operate a fleet in both the North Sea and the Baltic, easily switching focus between its two main enemies of Great Britain and Russia. The Kiel Canal was too small for the dreadnought battleships being built from 1906, however, and in 1907 work began to widen it. Admiral Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord and head of the Royal Navy, correctly predicted in 1911 that war with Germany would break out in late summer 1914. He based his calculation on the expected completion date of the widening of the Kiel Canal and the fact that war was unlikely to begin until the summer crops were harvested and forage gathered. The canal was finished in June 1914; the War started six weeks later.
By early July 1914 war in Europe was looking certain. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, had been assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June and Austria-Hungary was preparing an ultimatum to Serbia which was ultimately to lead to war. Did anyone in Norfolk then remember that little article of five years earlier and thought about something which, had it been built, might have helped alter the course of the War? Expensive it would have been, but the Norfolk Ship Canal would probably have cost less than a single dreadnought battleship. Let Mr Botterill have the last word: “Warships and naval bases are cheaper than war”.