Historically, the Kennet and Avon Canal comprises three waterways, the Avon Navigation from Bristol to Bath (opened in 1727), the man-made canal section from Bath to Newbury (opened in 1810), and the Kennet Navigation from Newbury to Reading (opened in 1723). The sea route between Bristol and London was hazardous during the 18th and early 19th centuries, not only because Atlantic storms and the rugged coast line took their toll on the small coastal sailing ships of the day, but also because a succession of conflicts with France and her allies, frequently made British cargo ships navigating the English channel, the prey of both privateers and warships of the French navy. As transporting large volumes of goods by road was not viable at the time, both entrepreneurs and traders alike dreamed of a day when Bristol and London could be linked.The river Avon had been navigable from Bristol to Bath during the early years of the 13th century but construction of mills on the river forced its closure. Eventually a 1712 Parliamentary Bill enabled the Bristol to Bath section of the Avon to be made navigable again. The enormity of the task meant that progress was slow and it wasn’t until 1715 that the Kennet Navigation Bill authorised the making of the river Kennet navigable from Reading on the River Thames to Newbury. This work was completed by 1723. In the late 1780’s canal mania swept Britain, and on 16th April 1788 a meeting of interested parties at the town of Hungerford, under the chairmanship of Charles Dundas the MP for Berkshire, concluded that a junction between the Kennet and Avon rivers would be of material benefit. As a consequence the then named Western Canal Project was born, with the election of a committee and proposals for a survey.
After two surveys with little progress, John Rennie was commissioned to carry out a third survey, reporting back through Robert Whitworth the committee’s engineer. This time Rennie found that there was in fact insufficient water available on the original Marlborough route and recommended that the canal should be built via Devizes. It is likely however that it was not only the lack of water that prompted this decision, and in his 1839 book Chronicles of the Devizes, Waylen states that the new route was in fact agreed as a result of lobbying by two Devizes MPs. The Kennet and Avon Canal Act received Royal Assent on April 17th 1794 and Rennie was appointed consulting engineer. An independent assessment of the proposals, however, was sought from another engineer William Jessop who, in a report later that year, largely agreed with Rennie’s proposals but suggested a number of small route changes. The most important of these was a recommendation that the summit route should be moved slightly to the north. This avoided the need for a tunnel of more than two miles in length with a saving in both construction time and money. It did, however, require water to be pumped to a much shorter summit pound necessitating 6 extra locks of eight feet rise each, and a length of deep cutting. The arrangements subsequently implemented to allow this to happen, resulted in the creation of Crofton pumping station and the reservoir at Wilton Water. However Lord Bruce the local landowner was having nothing to do with a deep cutting through his land, and insisted on a tunnel instead. As a consequence a costly 502-yard construction had to be built, and this became known as the Bruce Tunnel.
The building of the Kennet and Avon Canal was initially the responsibility of three district committees. These committees had delegated financial responsibility and awarded contracts for construction and other associated work. Most of this work was awarded to local businesses and, in addition to constructing the canal itself, these businesses were contracted to build associated roads, bridges, workshops, and houses. During this period the requirement for stone became so great, that the canal company opened its own quarries near Bath. Local men were employed in the quarries and as stonemasons. Careful examination of bridges and other structures on the canal reveal what are known as ‘masons marks’. These marks were carved by individual stonemasons and, have the appearance of Egyptian hieroglyphics. In practice the marks were used to show supervisors which mason was responsible for a particular run of work over a known period. This arrangement provided an early form of quality control, as well as allowing piecework assessments to be made prior to payment. The canal company and its contractors also employed labourers who were known as navigators or navvies (hence the term in use today). These men were usually agricultural labourers who found canal building work more financially rewarding than farm work. During the boom years some workers would follow the canal contracts, providing a ready pool of labour for the company to use. Contemporary newspaper reports of court proceedings at places such as Bath, Devizes, Salisbury and Newbury, suggest that drunkenness and rowdiness amongst the navvies was a common occurrence, and one which caused much concern within the rural canal side communities.
Once the canal was operational, long distance trade between London, Bristol, and the inland towns between, soon developed. Regular services were provided by some carriers from Bristol to major London wharves such as those at Queenhithe Dock, Kennet Wharf, and Three Cranes Wharf, all close to Southwark Bridge. Apart from these regular services, there were additional special transport contracts. For example in 1812 the marble plinths for Lord Pembroke’s new colonnade at Wilton House near Salisbury were delivered by barge from London to Devizes. Compared with travel by road, the regular canal service was considered to be exceedingly fast, with duplicate crews working all day and through the night, and regular changes of horses being arranged at suitable locations along the canal. Eventually these arrangements enabled a five-day delivery service between the two cities to be established. A vast improvement on the long, dangerous, and uncertain travel a coastal voyage would entail. Many of the boats used were individually owned, with the owner and his immediate family living aboard in what was likely to be their only accommodation. This arrangement enabled family members, including children, to undertake crewing duties, and as the work was invariably unpaid, costs could be kept down and hopefully, profits and income for the family increased.
In 1844 the canal company ruled that each barge or pair of boats working “fly” (fast service with navigational priority) must be crewed by a captain and four men and that each single boat had to be crewed by a master and three men. Museum records show that Tom Hams and his father, George, both worked as bargemen for Robins, Lane and Pinniger, a local company established in 1812 as boat builders, traders and sawmill owners at Honeystreet in Wiltshire. The elder Hams, Tom’s father, earned 12 shillings (60p) a week as master of the Kennet Barge Unity. This amount was below the national average for barge work at the time, but if a barge master did not have to pay for his crew or stabling for the horse, and had housing provided, then it could well have been a reasonable income. Honeystreet was an important trading point on the K&A with virtually the whole village owned by Robbins Lane and Pinniger, who provided housing for their workers. This sort of arrangement was not uncommon at the time, and with such stability it is not surprising that little migration occurred, and that rural families often remained in one area for many generations. In addition to barge and boat owners and their families, canal operations required many other trades and skills for its successful operation. These included maintenance and other engineers, boat builders, carpenters, blacksmiths, toll clerks and agents, as well as wharfingers, masons, lock keepers, and labourers.
The museum tells the story of the creation, restoration and re-opening of the waterway link between the Thames and Bristol, through the people involved with planning, building, working and restoring the Kennet and Avon Canal. The museum is located within easy walking distance of the famous Caen Hill Flight of 29 locks. The museum welcomes assistance dogs and is wheelchair accessible, as is the tow path.
Location : Devizes Wharf, Couch Lane, Devizes, Wiltshire SN10 1EB
Transport: Chippenham (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 1, 2, 39, 49, 55, 77, 85, 87 and 87A stop 4 minutes away.
Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 17:00.
Tickets : Adults £2.75; Seniors £2.00; Children £1.00.
Tel: 01380 721279