The Kennet & Avon Canal

Newbury Branch meeting Wed 13 April 2016

Speaker: Dr Hugh Pihlens


         The distance from London to Bristol, an important commercial axis, is about 120 miles, but in the early eighteenth century the roads were impracticable for the transport of heavy goods, and the alternative sea route was very lengthy.

         At the western end, the tidal Avon had always been navigable, and in 1712, under the engineer John Hore, this was extended to Bath, lowering the cost of exporting Bath stone. East of Bath the prospects for connection languished, even though it had been known since 1660 that the sources of the Avon and Kennet rivers were but three miles apart.

         The proposal to make the Kennet navigable from Reading to Newbury was promoted by all the towns further west, but vehemently opposed by Reading, which foresaw loss of trade. A Bill was passed in 1715, although progress was sluggish until the appointment of John Hore, who shortened the route. In 1720 the Kennet Navigation was opened, with 20 turf locks, a vital basin at Newbury and, four years later, a horse-towing path. The towpath alone accounted for £35,000 of the total cost of £80,000.

         Francis Page, a Newbury coal-trader, bought the Kennet Navigation, and invested in widening and deepening the channels to take 128-ton Newbury barges. Meal, flour, cheese, coal, timber, iron and groceries were the principal commodities, transported at the rate of about 10 barges a week.

         The first proposal to extend navigability to Hungerford was made in 1788. Shortage of water was the chief obstacle, overcome when John Rennie was appointed and proposed a different route, bypassing Marlborough and Ramsbury. His original plan included branches and a 4,312-yard tunnel, which in the event was shortened to 500 yards, saving £47,00 from the projected cost of £200,000.

         Shares were oversubscribed on issue in 1792, the nation being in the throes of canal mania. However construction was impeded by the onset of the French wars and inflation. Technical difficulties beset the inexperienced local contractors who bid for sections of construction. Nonetheless, the Kennet and Avon Canal opened, section by section: 1797 to Kintbury, with much civic fanfare; 1798 to Hungerford; 1799 to Bedwyn; and finally in 1810 through to Bath. The engineering feats involved were prodigious, particularly the series of locks ascending Caen Hill, and the Crofton beam-engine pumping station, still well worth a visit on its five or six open weekends per year. A curiosity is the Ladies’ Bridge, the elegant stonework of which was prescribed by Susannah Wroughton of Stowell Lodge despite the fact that is was to carry only livestock. The Avoncliffe and Dundas aqueducts are remarkable monuments to Rennie’s achievement.

         The final cost was just over £1 million, and for 40 years the canal thrived, with coal, stone, slates, metals and Irish imports shipped eastwards, and chalk, whiting, flint and peat ashes in the opposite direction. Toll receipts averaged £42,000 a year.

         The London to Bristol railway was first proposed in 1824, and during its construction the canal was used to supply the materials. But from the moment the GWR line opened (London to Bristol in 1841, with the branch line to Hungerford in 1847) the canal was doomed. Profits slumped as goods transferred to the railway, and in 1852 the GWR took over the canal. Thereafter its role diminished, although when ironstone was discovered near Melksham the canal served the three blast furnaces until the GWR built a rail connection from Hungerford.

         The Royal Commission on Canals in 1909 found no through traffic. Lack of maintenance led to closure of some sections, although the Kennet & Avon had become something of an Edwardian leisure facility for swimming and boating. In 1926 Newbury’s profitable basin was filled in to make car park. The line of the canal was recognised as strategically important in WWII, when it was designated Stop Line Blue, and pillboxes were built at regular intervals (from waterborne stone).

         The canal’s postwar saviour was local hero John Gould, who opposed its closure in the High Court and got questions asked in the House. The Kennet & Avon Canal Trust was formed in 1961, and in 1963 the newly formed British Waterways began restoration. In 1974 the canal was again naviagable to Hungerford, and in 1990 the Queen visited Caen Hill on the Rose of Hungerford.

         Today, thanks to the largest ever lottery grant in 1998, the Kennet & Avon Canal is a heritage tourism destination, part of the National Cycle Route and an officially classified cruiseway.

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