The Kennet and Avon Canal opened in 1810, and enjoyed a period of considerable prosperity until the 1840s. The Great Western Railway opened from London to Bristol on 30th June 1841, and almost immediately there was loss of through traffic on the canal.
Receipts fell, tolls were reduced in an effort to maintain volume of trade, wages were cut and staff numbers reduced. In 1842 report to the shareholders painted a gloomy picture. The opening of the Great Western Railway in 1842 brought a great loss of income. The very great difference in the Receipts of the past year (1842) is attributed to the general depressed state of trade, and the absolute necessity of reducing the Tonnage Duty, to compete with other means of transport. At this time, an economy drive began, wages were cut, and the staff of the canal reduced in number. During the next few years, there was great competition for traffic between the Kennet and Avon Canal and the railways, a major problem was the price cutting by the Great Western Railway.
Canal mania changed to railway mania! In October 1845 a meeting in Devizes proposed "London, Newbury and Bath Direct Railway" (promoted by K&ACC). However, the rival "Berks & Hants Railway" (promoted by GWR) received wider support. This railway, from Reading to Newbury & Hungerford opened on 21st December 1847 (ending at a terminus station at Hungerford).
Desperate measures were taken by the canal company, including further reductions in tolls.
In 1841 (census) the lock keeper of the town lock was Charles Martin, aged 25 years, living on the east side of the High Street with his family Amy (20), Jerimia (3) and Joseph (1). Looking after the locks on Freeman's Marsh was Thomas North aged 40 years.
1849-50 was the last year when a dividend was paid to investors.
On 30th June 1852 the K&ACC passed to the GWR by Royal Assent.
Maintenance and lock-keeping let out to contract. Thomas Wooldridge, the wharfinger on Hungerford wharf, was responsible for the canal length from Wootton Rivers to Reading. The requirements were stringent:
"The canal had to be maintained in a navigable condition to meet the requirements of the engineer. It had to be kept clear of barges and other impediments. The contractors had to employ at their own expense a sufficient number of workmen, artificers and lock keepers to keep the canal in full working order. All lock gates had to be of English Oak and the mud removed from the bottom and sides of the canal to keep the water at a certain level. Cranes had to be maintained in good order and with lock cottages, swing bridges and lock gates had to be painted each alternate year. Efficient lock keepers who gave their whole time and attention to the working of the canal were to be employed by the contractors so that at all times it was kept to the satisfaction of the engineer."
All this had to be done for £2,965!
Standards of maintenance dropped. In 1857 ice-breaking was stopped, and as a result several boats became stuck in thick ice. Payments were pinched, standards dropped. Wooldridge's contract was not renewed after June 1863.
The situation was to get worse when the railway extended west of Hungerford.
Seend Ironstone Company: In 1858 ironstone was discovered on Seend Hill, Melksham. The Great Western Iron Ore Smelting Company was formed, which was to have three blast furnaces, employing 300 men.
Initially the quarry was only served by the canal, but in 1862 the railway was extended from Hungerford - the 24½ mile, single-track "Berks & Hants Extension Railway" opened on 4th November 1862.
In 1864 the canal's affairs were transferred to Paddington, but the GWR no longer seemed to care for the canal. In 1877 the canal company made a deficit of £1,920 and it never again made a profit.
Despite the low trade overall on the canal, the trade through Hungerford remained surprisingly boyant. The tonnage entering Hungerford wharf was:
- 1860: 3,133 tons
- 1870: 1,984 tons
- 1880: 2,317 tons
- 1890: 3,646 tons
The end of an era: In 1909 a Royal Commission was set up to report on all the Canals of the UK. It ran to 12 volumes! It reported that there was no through traffic on the Kennet and Avon, but there was just a very small amount of local traffic between Newbury to Hungerford and on the Devizes section.
Maintenance had to continue when crisis occurred. One such event occurred in 1911 when the old elm culvert under the canal close to St Lawrence church was breached. The photograph on the right shows the work team repairing the culvert, making use of an Archimedes screw pump to clear water from the ditch. Interestingly, the same screw pump, which was found in the 1970s close to Hungerford Town lock, lying in water to keep the wood swelled, was rescued, and for some years could be seen on the wharf at Newbury (close to the stone house). In the spring of 2010 it was at Crofton Pumping station, where I understand it is to be conserved, prior to public exhibition. (See adjacent photo). (The same culvert had to be replaced, this time by a concrete one, in Mar-May 1980).
The canal began to be used for occasional pleasure. The photograph above shows a barge leaving the wharf laden with people in festive spirit, possibly celebrating the coronation King George V.
Starting just before the First World War, but continuing in the inter-war years, the annual Swimming Sports proved very popular. Photographs above show the Quarter-mile race, and the Cigarette race, on 2nd August 1913.
Commercial trade became very sparce:
- H Dolton & Son Ltd traded in wheat from Wootton Rivers, Burbage, and Hungerford to mills at Aldermaston, Burghfield, and the Thames. This ended in 1915 when both their boats were requisitioned for war service.
- J.T. Ferris carried corn from Hungerford to Burghfield and Aldermaston mills. This ceased about 1919.
- The last commercial user was Robbins, Lane & Pinniger Ltd, who carried roundwood and softwood between Avonmouth and Hungerford. By 1920 they had only one barge the "Unity" remaining. It was last used in 1933.
In October 1926 GWR announced it proposed to close the entire K&A navigation. There were lots of objections, and they then promised to keep it in water, and maintain the sluices.
The first part of the K&A to become non-navigable was Newbury wharf – filled in for a car-park in 1926!
In 1929 there was a further dispute between Robbins, Lane & Pinniger Ltd and GWR. In the end they won, and it was agreed that GWR had to maintain the canal between Hanham Mills and Hungerford for standard vessels, e.g. "Unity". Dredging had to be completed to Hungerford by 31 July 1932.
GHQ Stop-line "Blue": The canal had a brief but important resurgence of activity in 1940 when most of its length became the focus of 2nd World War defences - the GHQ Stop-line "Blue". For much more on the local wartime defences see Pillboxes and Hedgehogs.
After the 2nd World War there was only an occasional boat, and from 1951 the canal deteriorated rapidly.
In 1954 the British Transport Commission planned to close the canal, but this triggered a major outcry. John Gould appealed to the High Court for an injunction to prevent the BTC allowing further deterioration of the Kennet and Avon. He delivered a petition of 20,000 signatures to The Queen. Questions were asked in parliament, and a Committee of Inquiry was set up.
The Kennet and Avon canal was about to rise "from the ashes". See the next section on The Restoration of the Canal.
- Seend Ironworks, 1888. Note the canal bridge, and now the railway lines in the bottom left corner.
- Hungerford wharf, 1896
- Hungerford wharf, c1900
- Hungerford wharf, c1902
- Hungerford wharf, c1908
- Hungerford wharf, c1904
- Hungerford wharf, c1910
- Repairing the culvert near St Lawrence's Church, 1911. Note the Archimedes screw pump.
- The "Hungerford" Archimedes screw pump awaiting conservation at Crofton Pumping Station, Apr 2010.
- A well-attended outing on a hot summer's day, with flags and parasols galore. This was probably to celebrate the coronation of King George V, 1910.
- The canal was the focus of attention for many years when the Annual Swimming Sports were held each summer. Huge crowds came to enjoy the spectacle. The Quarter-mile race, 2nd August 1913.
- The Cigarette race, 2nd August 1913.
- Anti-tank defences near Dun Mill
- Kennet & Avon Canal Photo Gallery (for additional archive photographs)
- "The Kennet & Avon Canal", by Kenneth R. Clew, David & Charles 1973.
- "Queen of Waters", by Kirsten Elliott, Akeman Press 2010
- The Railway
- Pillboxes and Hedgehogs