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The history of the Kennett & Avon Canal.

There are three navigations involved. Separate histories are given of the Bristol Avon and the Kennett first and then the Kennett and Avon history takes over the account of all three.

History of the Bristol Avon.

1606 a scheme was proposed to make the Avon navigatable from Bristol to Bath, but never carried out. In 1699 Bath Corporation tried to revive it but meet so much opposition that although they got the powers in 1712 they gave up.

In 1724 the rapid growth of Bath required cheap transport for building materials so the scheme was revised and John Hare of Newbury who had been engineer on the Kennett Navigation between 1718 and 1723 was appointed engineer here between 1725 to 1727 the 16 miles from Bristol to Bath was equipped with locks etc to enable navigation.

In 1727 the first barges arrived at Bath and the Avon became one of the country's most used waterways.

In 1797 the Kennett and Avon Canal Company, who had started to build their canal in 1794 bought a controlling share in the navigation.

History of the River Kennett.

The river has a fall of 85 inches to the mile, or 138 feet in its eighteen and a half miles. This meant it was fast.

In 1708 the first bill was introduced to make in navigatable, but due to the opposition of Reading which feared a loss of trade it was not passed until 1715. It did not however prosper. John Hare, 1690 - 1762 of Newbury was appointed as the engineer and started work on the river in 1718 and by 1723 he had built eighteen pound locks, 122 feet by 19 feet and eleven and a half miles of new cut. Numerous over-bridges and timber swing bridges were constructed.

However despite the work the navigation did not prosper then in 1767 one man, Mr Page purchased all the shares and with his energetic work made it succedd. By 1798 it was carrying 20,000 tons a year.

When in 1797 the Kennett & Avon Canal found that the canal treasurer, Francis Page, was swindling money from the accounts his brother Frederick, 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 at that time.

In 1794 to 1810 the Kennett & Avon Canal Company, constructed their canal. In 1810 a link was suggested to the Bassingstoke canal to avoid both the Kennett and much of the Thames. This proposal produced so much opposition from Mr Page that it 1813 the Kennett & Avon brought the Kennett Navigation from him. However nothing came of this idea. But the Canal and Navigation were now one concern.

History of the Kennett & Avon.

Authorised in 1794 and opened in 1810 with the completion of the lock flights at Devizes and Bath, for a cost of £980,000. It is 57 miles long with 31 locks on the east and 48 locks on the west. The summit however is only one mile long despite a great debate about the advantages of a longer and lower summit which would mean a tunnel. As a result back pumping was installed at Croft from the start.

In 1795 to 1810 the Wilts and Berks canal was built from Serrington on the Kennett & Avon up to Abingdon on the River Thames.

Also in 1795 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.

In 1797 the Kennett & Avon Canal Company acquired a controlling share of the Avon Navigation.

Construction proved very difficult as did the start of the Napoleonic War. In 1798 the canal was opened from Newbury to Hungerford, but they had to suspend work and with was not till 1802 that work slowly resumed.

In 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.

The canal was opened from Great Bedwyn to Newbury and 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. So in 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.

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. It took another Act of Parliament and it was not till 1810 the route was finished.

In 1810 a link was suggested to the Bassingstoke canal to avoid both the Kennett and much of the Thames. This proposal produced so much opposition that it 1813 the Kennett & Avon brought the Kennett. However nothing came of this idea.

The canal was soon more successful than their northern rivals, the Thames & Severn Canal and the Wilts & Berks (which depended on the Kennet & Avon Canal for an outlet). Most of the Kennet & Avon's success came by way of coal from the Somersetshire Coal Canal which joined the Kennet & Avon alongside the Dundas Aqueduct. Most of the coal travelled east to Semington and then north on the Wilts & Berks to Swindon. It enjoyed a modest prosperity at its peak carrying up to 350,000 tons, but most of the traffic was at the two ends and the maintenance costs were high.

Unfortunately on the Kennet & Avon Canal the summit levels were far too short this led to the building in 1813 of 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.

In 1835 the Kennett & Avon was threatened by the construction of the Great Western Railway. When the act was passed they had compensation of £10,000. For a few years carriage of materials to build the railway helped the canal. But then competition started.

In 1845 there was a suggestion to convert the canal to a railway. This eventually lead to the GWR purchasing the canal in 1852 for £210,000 to avoid competition.

In 1876 a number of complaints were filled about the lack of maintenance by the GWR but they were ignored.

By 1956 sections were closed to traffic, but parliament refused to close it.

In 1962 the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust was formed 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"

Finally in 1990 after decades of hard work the Kennet & Avon Canal was fully restored, it was re-opened by the Queen on August 8th


Nicholson Guides to the Waterways.

Roots & Routes, Peter Hardcastle's Website



Some pictures of this canal?

Reading to Devizes. / Devizes to Bath / Bath to Bristol.


More information from Reed Boats about this canal.

General information on the canal.

Find our information about other canals on the canal index page.


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