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. There is a photogallery and a short article on the current recreational use.
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.
One of the last parts to be completed was the Caen lock system to Devizes. The Directors of the company had a horse drawn light Rail way built from Foxhangers to Devizes Wharf. This was to provide income from the provision of coal and building stone supplied to the Devizes fare from the Bath / Bristol area whilst the locks were completed. Evidence of this are the 4 under road "tunnels" that are bricked in between Foxhangers and Devizes. These are under the Bath road in Devizes, Prison bridge and the Rowde road from the bottom of Caen Hill. Right the Old Lower Wharf at Devizes
In 1809 the Kennet and Avon Canal was completed and opened on 28th December.
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 1928 Captain C. Herbert Smith of Chilvester Hill House, Calne made what was probably the last trip along the full length of the canal from Reading to Saltford with his wife, a youth and his dog! He used a 20ft. motor boat with a 7 h.p. engine. It had a flat bottom and was equipped so that they could sleep on board. He did the journey in 3 stages and encountered many problems along the way including swing bridges which didn’t swing, the tunnel, the flight , weed and debris in the canal.
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. Right the dilapidated state of the Caen locks before restoration
In 1990 the Canal was reopened by Queen and more and more traffic is using it every year including a few commercial enterprises.
No mention of the canal could possibly be complete without mention of the Devizes to Westminster cane race.