KENNET AND AVON CANAL
1699 Bath Corporation tried to revive a scheme which had been dropped in 1606 to make the Avon navigable from Bristol to Bath. There was a lot of protest and it took 13 years to gain the powers needed to start construction. However, protests continued so strongly that the scheme was eventually shelved.
1708 A proposal to make the River Kennet navigable also received strong opposition. The people of Reading and traders on the Thames feared major losses.
1723 An 18½ mile stretch of the Kennet, engineered by John Hore of Newbury, opened between Reading and Newbury. The route consisted of stretches of the River Kennet and of artificial cuts running alongside the river. However, using the waterway was a brave adventure, especially through the centre of Reading where boaters were often threatened by those who feared loss of trade due to the new navigation.
1724 Bath was fast becoming a famous and trendy spa town. Building work was taking place all over the city and the need to get materials into Bath as cheaply as possible rekindled ideas of making the Avon navigable. John Hore was called in and work began on the river from its current terminus at Hanham Mills (near Bristol) to Bath.
1727 The first barges arrived at Bath and the Avon soon became one of the country's most used waterways.
1788 A proposal was made to connect the Avon to the River Kennet. The route was planned to be called the Western Canal and 3 men (including Samuel Simcock) were asked to survey a line.
1789 The surveyors proposed a route from Newbury to Bath via Hungerford, Marlborough, Chippenham and Bradford.
1790 After arguments over the practicality of the route, John Rennie was called in and he re-surveyed the line. At the end of the year he reported that the route was fine.
1793 At first raising money was difficult but as soon as the nation-wide canal mania arrived the promoters had little problem. Rennie was asked to take a detailed survey of the route but when he reported back he said a more southerly route via Devizes would be preferred because the original route would have too many water supply problems.His new line closely followed the Avon all the way into Bath. As the committee were based in Marlborough and had hoped for a canal in that town, Rennie also proposed a branch line and the whole scheme was accepted.
1794 The Act of parliament was passed to enable the building of a canal which would join the River Kennet Navigation at Newbury to the Somerset Avon at Bath. The route would be called the Kennet & Avon Canal. John Rennie was appointed Chief Engineer and the canal proved to be his greatest work. It was built on a grand scale to broad dimensions, there was boldness in its design as it twice crossed the Avon on large aqueducts, it entered Bath through the beautiful Sydney Gardens and strode up Caen Hill at Devizes on a dead straight line of 29 broad locks.
1795 An Act was passed for a neighbouring company to create a narrow canal from Semington on the Kennet & Avon Canal (which was still under construction). The new route was to serve agriculture in the Vale of the White Horse but it was also planned as a short cut to Oxford and the Thames which it was to join at Abingdon. This route was to be called the Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal.
During the same year another waterway was planned under the name of the Dorset & Somerset Canal. This was proposed at a time when a number of plans were being made to link the English Channel to the Bristol Channel. The canal was to be 49 miles long from the Kennet & Avon Canal, between Bradford and Bath, to Sturminster Newton, on the River Stour. The Stour would then take the route to the south coast at Christchurch. However, although an Act was passed the following year only a small part of the canal (near Frome) was ever built.
1796 The Kennet & Avon company were beginning to struggle in many ways; the inexperience of local contractors was causing problems, the uncharted geology presented construction problems and the Napoleonic Wars were causing major financial problems. Many of the shareholders decided to forfeit their initial shares and refuse to pay-up when asked for more cash. To gain extra revenue the company bought virtually all the shares of the Avon Navigation Company.
1797 The Kennet & Avon company fell into such bad financial trouble that their bankers forced them into instructing Rennie to cut back on his construction costs. This can't have gone down well with a man currently in the middle of his greatest creation! Things got worse when it was found that the canal treasurer, Francis Page, was swindling money from the accounts. He admitted to taking £10,000 and to pay it back his brother Frederick, who conveniently owned the River Kennet Navigation, offered to sell his waterway to the canal company.Unfortunately for both Page and the canal company, he'd left them in such a financial state that there was no way they could afford to buy the river navigation.
1798 The first part of the Kennet & Avon Canal route was opened from Newbury into Hungerford on the eastern side of the route but the western side was still far from finished and progress was going so badly that in 1799 the company suspended all work.
1802 The Somersetshire Coal Canal made a junction onto the Kennet & Avon Canal at Dundas (between Bath and Bradford). It ran south and, not surprisingly, was built primarily to carry coal.
1803 It took over 2 years until a new Act of Parliament was granted and work could continue - though still very slowly. A local grocer, John Thomas, was appointed as resident engineer and bit by bit the route progressed until it was possible to open a stretch from Great Bedwyn to Newbury and another from Bath to Foxhanger, west of Devizes.However, there was still a gap in the middle of the canal and there was no connection into the Avon.
1804 Rennie had problems when building the Avoncliffe and Dundas aqueducts. He'd wanted to build them in brick but the company insisted that they should be constructed in local stone similar to that used in Bath. The stone came from quarries nearby but it was not of the best quality and the aqueducts (Dundas in particular) suffered from cracks and from pieces dropping off!
1805 After already spending over ½ a million pounds on the route the company were forced to seek yet another Act of Parliament to allow them to raise another £150,000. This allowed Rennie to begin building the missing link between Great Bedwyn and Devizes. A reservoir and a pumping station were needed on this section due to the short summit level.
1808 At long last, the canal was nearing its completion though two major hurdles still needed to be overcome. At Bath a flight of locks was needed to carry the canal down to the Avon and at Devizes a massive lock flight was needed to climb up Caen Hill.
1809 While Rennie struggled with his aqueducts, water supply problems, the mighty lock flight at Devizes, lack of money and the demands of the upper classes on his approach into Bath - the Wiltshire& Berkshire Canal company opened their route. However, the Wilts & Berks company appear to have got a little over confident with their early successes gained before the Kennet & Avon was fully open; They began thinking they could become the dominant through route to London.They planned to cut out the Kennet & Avon Canal and the Thames & Severn Canal by creating a line direct from Wootton Bassett into Bristol.Although this plan never came to fruition, it sparked the Kennet and Avon company into promoting a new route of their own which would link their canal to the Basingstoke Canal at Old Basing. The scheme was opposed by Frederick Page who still owned the River Kennet Navigation and by the Commissioners of the River Thames. Both feared that the new route would rob them of trade and both were very much looking forward to the Kennet & Avon Canal providing them with through traffic between London & Bristol, they didn't want traffic diverted and the scheme was defeated in Parliament.
1810 After a final Act for yet more cash the route was finished and the Kennet & Avon Canal finally opened. This allowed passage of barges from the Bristol Channel to London via the Avon to Bath, the Kennet & Avon Canal to Newbury, the Kennet Navigation to Reading and the Thames through to London. The first boat to climb the Caen Hill flight did so in December with a cargo of stone. There was no ceremony and no celebrations.
The chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal, Charles Dundas, spurred the shareholders of the canal into buying out Frederick Page and take control of the River Kennet Navigation (they already had substantial control of the Avon from Bristol to Bath). The purchase of the Kennet Navigation gave the canal complete control of the whole through-route from Bristol to Reading, a distance of nearly 90 miles. The plan, however, was for even greater things. Some shareholders had already taken up shares in the Great Western Canal in Devon thinking that a line all the way from Exeter to London would be the next step - though this never happened.
1813 Unfortunately, while Rennie's aqueducts were often described as magnificent, his water supply plans were always very suspect. He had supply problems of the same sort on virtually all his canals though whether it was his poor planning or his reluctance to fight the wishes of the promoters is not clear. His summit levels were often far too short though on the Kennet & Avon Canal this led to a unique pumping station which Rennie designed himself. Near Claverton, a water wheel was installed to pump water from the Avon up to the canal on the hillside high above the river.
1824 The first promise of things to come arrived when the first railway proposals were made. This would have been a very early railway though no tracks were ever laid. Once again the threat of competition stirred the canal company into thinking about the future and they backed a proposal which was put forward to create the Hants & Berks Junction Canal which would connect the Basingstoke Canal to the Kennet & Avon. This was much the same scheme that had originally been proposed by the Kennet & Avon company themselves in 1809. Back then they had been defeated by the River Thames Commissioners and Frederick Page who had then owned the River Kennet Navigation. This time opposition once again came from the River Thames Commissioners because the new route would bypass their waterway completely. Ironically the main promoter for the scheme was Frederick Page who now worked for the Kennet & Avon Canal and later became Chairman for a short period until his death in 1834. However, his proposal was successfully defeated by the Thames Commissioners once again when the Bill was brought to Parliament. The Hants & Berks Canal was never built.
1841 The Kennet & Avon Canal was always expensive to maintain but it was also successful for many years, especially compared with its rival for the London to west coast through traffic - the Thames & Severn Canal. However, as soon as the Great Western Railway entered the scene with its line from London to Bristol, the Kennet & Avon began to backslide.
1846 Struggling from railway competition, the canal company took a Bill to parliament proposing to turn the canal into the London, Newbury and Bath Direct Railway Company. The Bill failed but Great Western Railway started to show interest in the waterway, fearing that the canal company would make further attempts to convert the navigation. GWR made a bid to take over the canal but the Kennet & Avon company rejected their offer.
1848 The canal began to cut wages so they could afford to cut tolls in an attempt to fight off railway competition, but rather than get better things only got worse. More railways arrived including the Reading to Pewsey line which ran right alongside the canal.
1851 The canal company continued to cut wages and costs in order to cut tolls but it was a losing battle. GWR made more offers and eventually the Kennet & Avon Canal sold out and the railway took over the whole route.
1852 An Act of Parliament was passed enabling GWR to legally run the navigation but only on the condition that it was kept open as a canal. They did this, but only just. They made no attempt what so ever to maintain (let alone improve) the route. In fact, the new owners were so disinterested in the waterway that the canal didn't even have a head office. All administration work was carried out at Paddington in London.
1876 The canal made its last profit after years of declining trade. The following year it made a loss and never recovered. A number of complaints were filed by private canal carriers and the Board Of Trade surveyed the situation and agreed that GWR were not keeping the route up to a reasonable navigable standard. However, GWR took no notice what so ever and nothing was ever done to improve the deteriorating waterway.
1905 The Kennet & Avon Canal was in a sorry state, it was suffering from chronic water shortages and the route was generally in poor repair. All the same, GWR charged tolls some 50% higher than on any other waterway in the country.
1926 Following WW1 road traffic increased in the area and the remaining trade on the canal was lost. GWR announced that they would close the entire route. They would start by closing locks and converting them into weirs to maintain the water supply. They also suggested that local authorities should take on the stretches which ran through their boroughs. However, the whole scheme gained such widespread objections that GWR were forced to drop the idea.
1932 Traffic had virtually ceased with only the very rare sighting of a pleasure boat crawling through the weeds.
1948 Maybe a saviour was on the way? The railways were nationalised and ownership of the canals fell into the governments hands. Surely they would put the canal back on the right "tracks"?Sadly, over the next 5 years the route was left to rot until it fell into complete dereliction.
1954 Most of the water had drained away, lock gates had fallen off and the British Transport Commission proposed to officially close the canal. However, right on time, the canal preservation movement was just building up a head of steam. The Kennet & Avon was virtually the first canal to have its own local branch of the Inland Waterways Association and they refused to allow the canal to die. They had to over come many battles which not only included the BTC and local councils but their own national body as well. The national IWA were intent on saving every inch of canal in Britain while the Kennet & Avon branch believed that only waterways with a viable future should be saved - and this, of course, they believed included the Kennet & Avon.Their beliefs caused a split in the IWA but they stuck to their guns and fought hard for the restoration of their own waterway.
1955 The BTC surveyed the whole inland waterways network and categorised each canal. The Kennet & Avon was certified as useless - that is -a class 3 waterway, "insufficient commercial prospects to justify its retention". The Act that followed this report relieved the BTC of responsibility for such canals and the Kennet & Avon was left to continue to decay.
1958 A new report by the Bowes Committee rescued the canal by saying that although it didn't feel its status should be changed, the canal should be considered for redevelopment.
1962 After years of campaigning, the Kennet & Avon division of the IWA pushed the Inland Waterways Advisory Committee into agreeing that the canal should be restored. However, very little financial aid would come from the government, the local IWA reformed as the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust and began a restoration plan which would take 28 years to complete. The battles with the government, local councils and the British Waterways Board are a very long story but eventually the hard work and years of negotiations paid off. Bit by bit some stretches were reopened and the river stretches at each end were classified as "cruiseways"
1980's The main bulk of restoration work was needed on the canalised stretches between Newbury and Bath. At Devizes (for instance) every one of the 29 locks had to be cleared out, repaired and re-gated.
1990 After decades of hard work the Kennet & Avon Canal was fully restored. It was re-opened by the Queen on August 8th and is now one of the most popular pleasure routes in Britain.
THE FATHER OF GEOLOGY
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