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Company of Proprietors of the Kennet and Avon Canal Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Kennet and Avon Canal Navigation: administrative, financial and legal records 1792-1851, plans of the canal 1793-mid 19th century.



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Administrative /​ Biographical history

Bills for a canal to join the Kennet and the Avon had been submitted for consideration by Parliament since Elizabeth I's reign but had been consistently rejected. Plans were revived in 1788; a committee was formed, pamphlets were printed and surveys made by Samuel Weston, Samuel Simcock, James Barnes, who worked together, and John Rennie working independently to establish water supply. So restrained was the prospectus that very little money was pledged and so nothing was done. A rival committee was formed in 1792 and this spurred the original into action. Eventually the interested parties merged. John Rennie made a final survey, with some alterations to the line, and reported his findings to Robert Whitworth. The Act passed in 1794. Twenty four men sat on the committee. Almost as soon as the Act was passed, the company bought shares in the Avon navigation, purchasing enough over the decades to give them a controlling interest, though it was nominal at first. The company bought the Kennet navigation outright in 1812. Ideas for an extension from Bath to Bristol were put forward in 1795 but were abandoned shortly thereafter. Prices were rising and in September 1796 action was taken against shareholders in arrears with payments. Eventually 200 shares were forfeited in 1797, and more by 1800, and the company was unable to find buyers for them. The bank's reticence in granting the company money meant work progressed slower than the company would have liked. In 1798 the Newbury-Hungerford section was completed and Hungerford to Great Bedwyn opened the following year. The Foxhanger to Bath section was not entirely finished until 1804. Foxhanger was connected to Devizes by a railway from 1802, but it was so poorly constructed that the canal company threatened proceedings against the contractors. Construction on part of the canal had not yet begun in 1805. When John Rennie presented his estimation of further funds needed to complete the canal he found himself under personal attack. This was the second time vehement criticism had been levelled at him; the first had been in 1799. Both times Rennie was vindicated. The completed broad canal was 57 miles long. Its 79 locks were suitable for craft 73 feet by 13 feet 10 inches. The main engineering feature was the flight of 29 locks near Devizes. Wilton Water Reservoir supplied the canal, as did the Sneed feeder and several canals that joined the Kennet and Avon. Although the whole length was not finished until December 1810, each section was opened to traffic as soon as it was completed in order to generate revenue. The towpath was built in 1813, six years after it had been authorised. Traffic built up steadily. Long hauls and full loads were encouraged with drawbacks and reduced rates. A steam barge was briefly used in 1813 but was discontinued because of the damage it did to the banks. Instead fly-boats ran between Bristol and Reading from 1818. The focus was on the conveniences of speed and regularity the service provided. In February 1828, the company decided to become involved with the Avon and Gloucestershire Railway, authorised that year. Again, they invested in a large number of shares. It was anticipated that traffic would increase because the railway would open up collieries in Gloucestershire. Bridges along the 5 ½ mile track were built wide, so that if the line was doubled in the future there would be less expense and inconvenience. The Kennet and Avon Canal borrowed money in 1830, 1831 and 1832 to pay for the railway before it opened in 1832. That was the year that Charles Dundas died, having been chairman of the company for almost forty years. Once the railway was finished, they were now able to begin rebuilding the timber locks on the Kennet with stone, which had been agreed in 1828. That year, 1833, also saw the introduction of an experimental passenger service from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon, an initiative that paid off as the service was successful enough to run for twenty years. Until then the Kennet and Avon had been a busy and successful waterway, despite the lasting effects of its high construction costs. It carried the bulk of the through London-Bristol traffic. The proposal for the Great Western Railway to link those towns by rail was generally supported by all but the affected landowners and waterways. The Bill's initial failure bought the Kennet and Avon Canal some time but they were aware that this was only delaying the inevitable. Delegates were sent off to examine the impact of the London and Birmingham Railway on the Grand Junction Canal. When the Great Western Railway got their Act and paid the Kennet and Avon Canal for the land, the money was spent on replacing the remaining six wooden Kennet locks. Briefly, traffic rose as railway construction material was carried on the canal. The Great Western Railway and the Berks and Hants Railway, completed in June 1841 and 1847 respectively, caused traffic on the Kennet and Avon Canal to fall as predicted. Tolls were cut by 25 per cent, wages were reduced and 22 out of 122 staff were made redundant. Even the committee did not escape cost-cutting: their mileage payments for attendance at meetings were reduced. Their efforts, however, were hampered because those canals joining the Kennet and Avon refused to reduce their tolls. Compounding this problem was the situation with the Avon and Gloucestershire Railway, which had not brought the company any profit. The line was leased to the Midland Railway Company in 1845 but had very little traffic and was closed for some periods of time. The canal company attempted to convert their towing path or canal into a railway in July 1845. Engineer James Walker's report formed the basis of the 1846 Bill. It failed, and it seems that the Great Western Railway, who had a rival scheme, paid the canal company to drop any plans to reintroduce it in the next parliamentary session. Tonnage carried on the canal was reasonably stable, but the company's revenue dropped as they repeatedly lowered tolls in an effort to remain competitive. They entered into the carrying business in 1848 with 33 boats, and again reduced tolls. After a promising start, the carrying department began to lose money, newly-appointed traffic manager Aurelius J Drewe resigned and the company admitted that they were never going to successfully compete with the railways. Drewe had communicated with several railways to negotiate an end to price cutting, but had not received positive responses. In fact, it took another two years before progress was made. In the same year as chairman Admiral Dundas resigned, it was agreed with the Great Western Railway that the canal committee would manage the canal and carrying business as trustees for the railway. Before the Great Western Railway formally took over the canal in summer 1852, four employees were killed in a steam tug explosion and a traffic agent at Newbury was committed to an asylum. For the next twenty five years the canal brought in ever-decreasing profits. The canal remained navigable but was not generally in good repair, and the problem was exacerbated by water shortages. The Great Western Railway did repair pumps at Crofton and Claverton and dredged Wilton Water, and so cannot be accused of neglecting the navigation. The carrying business stopped in 1873 and from 1900 all traffic on the canal was local. Road competition began eroding that after World War I. Having committed themselves to keeping the canal in good repair, the Great Western Railway began an extensive and expensive programme of dredging, repuddling and lock repair towards the end of the 1930s, although they must have realised that they would not recoup the money spent. By the time it was completed, the only traffic was pleasure craft. There were attempts to abandon the navigation in 1955, but they were forced down in the face of public opposition. Instead, the entire canal was restored and was fully opened in August 1990. For further information on the Kennet and Avon Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of South and South East England'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain the original structure of record-keeping from the records held for this company. The fonds has, therefore, been arranged into two series by subject. The company's administrative, financial and legal records have been placed first, followed by plans of the canal. The records within each series have generally been arranged chronologically while keeping records relating to each other together. This means that some records may fall slightly out of the chronological sequence.

Associated material

[See also BW16 for further records of the River Kennet and BW157 for records of the Kennet and Avon Canal during its period of railway ownership]