Discover the Kennet & Avon Canal & its history

Dundas wharf, Kennet & Avon canalbutterfly on Kennet & Avon canalducks on Kennet & Avon canal

Unlock the Secret World... of one of England’s best kept secrets as you cruise along the wooded side of the Limpley Stoke valley towards the gently rolling landscape of the Marlborough Downs. The Kennet and Avon Canal offers the holidaymaker the best of all possible worlds.

The Kennet and Avon Canal is England’s southernmost link between the Severn and the Thames. Completed during the Napoleonic Wars in 1810 it was welcomed by the traders and merchants of Bristol as a safe way of getting their goods to the capital. It’s 86 mile route leads along the River Avon via fashionable Bath and then onwards through the downlands of Wiltshire and Berkshire before joining the Thames at Reading.

The Kennet and Avon Canal - a short history

The idea of an east-west waterway link was first mooted in Elizabethan times but nothing happened until the early 18th. Century

In the last years of the 18th Century, England was caught up in “canal mania”. The main canals were producing large dividends and people fell over each other to subscribe money for canals. Many schemes were ill conceived and doomed to failure even before they were started because of the lack of any guaranteed trade to justify them.
In 1715 work began to make the River Kennet navigable near Newbury. An18 mile stretch with 11 miles of new cut, 7 miles of river with a rise and fall of 134 feet through 20 turf sided locks were made. It took 9 years to complete.

By 1727 11 miles through 6 locks had been made navigable from Hanham Mills to Bath. Soon, barge loads of Shropshire coal were taken upstream, and Bath stone downstream. Barges hauled by men were commonplace. This “foreign” coal upset many including the Somerset colliers. Some people wanted to extend the waterway through to Bradford on Avon and Chippenham for the cloth trade but there was not enough interest.

In 1730 there was a daily wherry service running between Bristol and Bath. A wherry is “a shallow light boat for fast rowing or sailing.”

In 1740 there were two boats making daily 4 hour trips between Bristol and Bath at a cost of 1 shilling

Below the historic Caen Hill locks Devizes.

In 1788 plans for a western extension were put forward. The suggested route was from Newbury to Bath via Hungerford, Ramsbury, Marlborough, Calne, Chippenham, Lacock, Melksham and Bradford, but a big worry was the lack of water supply.

In 1788 John Rennie an engineer was called in to oversee the project. In 1793 Rennie proposed a more southerly route through Great Bedwyn, Devizes and Trowbridge.

On the 17th April 1793 an Act of Parliament for making a navigable canal from the River Kennet at Newbury to the River Avon at Bath received Royal Assent as the Kennet and Avon Canal Act. In 1793 the Kennet and Avon Canal Company initiated the construction of a horse towing path to be provided by 1812.

In 1802 John Thomas, a grocer from Bristol, was appointed as superintendent of works with a salary of £600 plus £150 expenses. Work began on the floating harbour in Bristol. It was finished in 1809. In 1808 a Bath to Bradford passenger service was started.

In 1809 the Kennet and Avon Canal was completed and opened on 28th December.

Quick facts
The building costs of Kennet and Avon Canal were £16,666 per mile.
The canal is 57miles long with 79 locks; 31 rising to a summit level 474ft above sea level at Savernake and 48 falling to Bath.
The Bruce Tunnel under Savernake is 502yards long with a minimum height of 13ft. 2ins and width of 17ft. 4ins. Boats were hauled through by side chains or sometimes legged while the horses were taken over the top.
Crofton Pumping Station was a major engineering feat.
The 29 locks at Devizes are said to be the most spectacular lock flight in England because the locks are broad and laid out in a straight line so they can be seen in perspective.
Life for the workers on the canal was extremely hard and there was much fighting, drinking and “rough conduct”. Accidents were common. However one man who broke a leg under a fall of earth was granted 5 guineas compensation but this was “not to be regarded as a precedent”!!
Number of tons carried on the canal
1812 - 1813 was 126,299 tons
1813 - 1814 was 139,990 tons
1814 - 1815 was 151,980 tons

In 1833 a wrought iron boat from Scotland “The Swallow” was introduced to carry about 40 passengers each way between Bath and Bradford in less than 90 minutes. Soon it was making two trips a day with 1st and 2nd class accommodation in its long cabin. It was horse drawn.

By 1840 traffic and trade had reached its peak with toll receipts totaling £51,173 per Annum. But by 1841 G.W.R. had provided a rail link between Bristol and London and inevitably trade was transferred from canals to rail.

In 1852 the Kennet and Avon Company sold the canal to G.W.R. with the proviso that navigation be maintained. The G.W.R. later imposed a 4m.p.h. speed limit on the canal so this put paid to water travel and trains took over.

In 1877 the Kennet and Avon Canal Company made a loss for the first time and never made a profit again.

By 1900 the last cargo was carried from London to Bristol but local traffic continued.

In 1920 the railway raised its tolls by 150% so further decline was inevitable.By 1921 commercial navigation ended when the last canal carrier, William Dickenson, retired. The last goods was timber to the wharf at Honey Street from Bristol by Robbins, Lane and Pinniger.

In 1926 G.W.R. wanted to close the canal but met with strong opposition.

In 1948 G.W.R. was nationalized and control of the canal passed to the Railway Executive. In 1951 the Kennet and Avon Canal Association was formed to try to prevent further deterioration and closure but many sections were by now disused.

In 1961 the Kennet and Avon Canal Association was replaced by Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, a registered charity; a programme of restoration began with the work done mainly by volunteers.

In 1990 the Canal was reopened by Queen and more and more traffic is using it every year including a few commercial enterprises.

The Canal, Bradford on Avon
Scotch boat with passengers coming from Bath as depicted by Mrs Elizabeth Tackle in 1850
The wrought Iron Boat, the Swallow which had been brought from Scotland at the joint expense of the Canal Company for £150. It was leased to Messrs Parker in June 1833 for £30 per annum.The trip from Bath to Bradford took less than an hour and a half in each direction. By 1837 there were two trips daily carrying an average of more than forty each way.The accomodation consisted of 1st and 2nd class cabins and there was also a string band for entertainment.
The opening of the Railway in 1857 bought this service to an end.
Scotch boat at Freshford on its way to Bath as depicted by Mrs Elizabeth Tackle in 1850
Scotch boat at Limpley Stoke on its way to Bath as depicted by Mrs Elizabeth Tackle in 1850
Starting place for the Scotch boat near Sydney Gardens, Bath

The Claverton Hotel (now Bassett House) was built along side the canal to provide accomodation for the passengers.
The same view today with Bassett House on the horizon and the bridge taking the path over the canal.
The Canal at Dundas Aqueduct with the train passing through the tunel below.

Red Cross barge Bittern at Bradford on Avon c.1918
1838 Map of Bradford showing the Wharf

Original Wooden Swing Gate over the Canal before Restoration, photograph by Peter Maundrell

Planning the Canal - The Need
Historically, the Kennet and Avon Canal comprises three waterways, the Avon Navigation from Bristol to Bath (opened in 1727), the man-made canal section from Bath to Newbury (opened in 1810), and the Kennet Navigation from Newbury to Reading (opened in 1723).

Hazardous Sea Route
The sea route between Bristol and London was hazardous during the 18th and early 19th centuries, not only because Atlantic storms and the rugged coast line took their toll on the small coastal sailing ships of the day, but also because a succession of conflicts with France and her allies, frequently made British cargo ships navigating the English channel, the prey of both privateers and warships of the French navy.

Transport by road
As transporting large volumes of goods by road was not viable at the time, both entrepreneurs and traders alike dreamt of a day when Bristol and London could be linked by a safer yet still viable alternative to the hazardous sea route they were of necessity forced to use when transporting their goods.

Avon Navigation
The river Avon had been navigable from Bristol to Bath during the early years of the 13th century but construction of mills on the river forced its closure.

Eventually a 1712 Parliamentary Bill enabled the Bristol to Bath section of the Avon to be made navigable again, although it wasn't until 1727 that the river fully reopened to barge traffic.
Kennet Navigation
Irrespective of this, the enormity of the task meant that progress was slow and it wasn't until 1715 that the Kennet Navigation Bill authorised the making of the river Kennet navigable from Reading on the River Thames to Newbury.

This work was completed by 1723.

Western Canal Project

In the late 1780's canal mania swept Britain, and on 16th April 1788 a meeting of interested parties at the town of Hungerford, under the chairmanship of Charles Dundas the MP for Berkshire, concluded that a junction between the Kennet and Avon rivers would be of material benefit.

As a consequence the then named Western Canal Project was born, with the election of a committee and proposals for a survey.
Notice calling
for meeting in 1788
Alternative Routes
Three engineers, Messrs Barnes, Simcock and Weston, were contracted to carry out survey work, and proposed a route via Hungerford, Marlborough, Lacock, Melksham and Bradford on Avon, reporting an adequate supply of water.There was no lack of support for the project although a second survey was considered necessary and in 1791 engineer John Rennie was asked to carry this out.Reporting directly to the committee, Rennie agreed with the earlier findings, although it was agreed that actual construction would not commence until £75,000 had been raised.

Two further years were to pass before a group of Bristol businessmen, having become impatient with the prevarication of the canal committee organised a secret meeting at the Red Lion public house in Bristol with the intention of taking over management of the canal project.
The canal committee claimed that in two years they had been unable to raise the required £75,000, yet this group of rebellious Bristolians managed to raise £264,000 in share subscriptions at their single meeting.
The outcome was that Charles Dundas moved swiftly to accommodate the new interest, an equitable division of shares was agreed, and the project was able to progress.

Lack of water supply
John Rennie was commissioned to carry out a third survey, reporting back through Robert Whitworth the committee's engineer.
This time Rennie found that there was in fact insufficient water available on the original Marlborough route and recommended that the canal should be built via Devizes. It is likely however that it was not only the lack of water that prompted this decision, and in his 1839 book Chronicles of the Devizes, Waylen states that the new route was in fact agreed as a result of lobbying by two Devizes MPs.
Whilst Devizes gained economically from this decision, Marlborough did not, and as plans for a branch canal to Marlborough had also fallen through, the people of that town felt very hard done by.
They were ultimately placated however by an offer of reduced carriage tolls for goods dispatched to Marlborough.

Royal Assent
The Kennet and Avon Canal Act received Royal Assent on April 17th 1794 and Rennie was appointed consulting engineer.

Summit route altered
An independent assessment of the proposals, however, was sought from another engineer William Jessop who, in a report later that year, largely agreed with Rennie's proposals but suggested a number of small route changes.
The most important of these was a recommendation that the summit route should be moved slightly to the north.
This avoided the need for a tunnel of more than two miles in length with a saving in both construction time and money.
Page one - Planning the Canal
- Alternative Routes
It did, however, require water to be pumped to a much shorter summit pound necessitating 6 extra locks of eight feet rise each, and a length of deep cutting.

The arrangements subsequently implemented to allow this to happen, resulted in the creation of Crofton pumping station and the reservoir at Wilton Water.
However Lord Bruce the local landowner was having nothing to do with a deep cutting through his land, and insisted on a tunnel instead.

As a consequence a costly 502-yard construction had to be built, and this became known as the Bruce Tunnel.
'Unity' enters the Bruce Tunnel
Rest is on Kennet & AVon Canal Trust website

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