As early as 1708 a Bill to make the River Kennet navigable from Reading to Newbury was introduced into Parliament.
This Kennet Navigation Bill was firmly supported by Hungerford and several Wiltshire towns which would benefit from cheaper rates of goods transport, including Westbury, Trowbridge and Bradford-on-Avon. There was considerable opposition from Reading, whose tradesmen feared loss of custom when people no longer had to travel to their town to buy and sell.
Despite these protests, however, the Kennet Navigation Bill received Royal Assent on 21st September 1715.
Initially a poor engineer was appointed, who simply installed locks near existing mill dams. There was no shortening of the sometimes meandering route of the existing river Kennet.
When John Hore was appointed as surveyor, he made significant improvements - shortening the route to 18½ miles byt creating several artificial channels, and installing 20 turf locks. (The only remaining turf-sided locks are Monkey Marsh lock and Garston lock). John Hore was responsible for the large basin at Newbury.
The Kennet Navigation was eventually fully open to traffic on 1 Jun 1723 - although the horse-towing path was not completed until the following year, May 1724. The total cost was £84,000, of which the tow-path cost £35,000.
The main trade between Reading and Newbury was meal, flour, cheese, coal, deals, iron, groceries and heavy goods.
80 ton barges were used, but shoals often meant off-loading goods onto "lightening" boats (or "lighters").
By 1731 trade slackened – "the works are in the greatest declension" – locks, banks, bridges need repairing, weeds and gravel need removal.
Francis Page (a local coal trader) became the sole owner, and soon set about arranging significant improvements and repairs. The canal was deepened, and the locks were enlarged to accommodate the 128 ton flat bottomed, rounded head "Newbury" barges, which were 109 ft long, with a beam of 17 ft, and a draught of 3 ft 6 in when loaded with 110 tons. Each Newbury barge required a crew of six men and a boy. When travelling downstream they could manage with one horse, but when travelling upstream against the strong Kennet current, they often needed 8-14 horses!
Trade was steady, but not spectacular. Between 1798 and 1810 about 6,000 vessels passed - 500 per year, or 10 a week.
By the 1780s however, there were moves to extend the navigation west of Newbury. This story is continued in the main KBuilding the Kennet and Avon Canal article.
- First page of the Kennet Navigation Act, 1715
- Monkey Marsh Lock, Thatcham, Apr 2010, one of only two remaining turf-sided locks on the K&A (the other is Garston Lock).
- Kennet & Avon Canal Photo Gallery (for additional archive photographs)