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British Waterways Board


Records of the British Waterways Board



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Administrative /​ Biographical history

The Transport Act of 1962 abolished the British Transport Commission (BTC), establishing independent boards including the British Waterways Board (BWB), which came into being on 1 January 1963. As an independent board it had powers to develop and lease or sell its land, manufacture plant and equipment, acquire other undertakings and lend or borrow money, while the Ministry of Transport met any deficit. Members of the Board were appointed by the Minister of Transport. All members were part-time with a full-time General Manager. In May 1963 the Board opened the Waterways Museum at Stoke Bruerne. The museum was contained in an old granary alongside the Grand Union Canal and housed exhibits from all parts of BWB as well as from the Museum of British Transport in London and private enthusiasts. In 1964 BWB abolished the four administrative divisions set up under the BTC and set up in their stead two regions, Northern based in Leeds and Southern based in Gloucester. Each Region had a Manager called a Marketing Officer working alongside the Principal Engineer. Within each Region freight services were looked after by a Group Manager who looked after sales representatives, Dock and Depot Managers and Carrying Superintendents. Freight groups were based at Leeds, Weston Point, Birmingham, Gloucester and Brentford. Locally there were Area Engineers working with Area and Section Inspectors. Wigan, Northwich, Castleford and Nottingham formed some of the Northern areas while Birmingham, Gloucester and Watford were part of the Southern. In addition to these the Southern Region included the South Wales canals formerly under South Wales Docks administration and looked after by the Gloucester Area Engineer. Canals in Scotland were run from Glasgow, under the charge of the Manager and Engineer of the Caledonian Canal. BWB headquarters was at Melbury House in London. The General Manager, Secretary, Chief Engineer and Estates Officer, Freight Services Manager and the BWB Solicitor were based there. From 1969 a new Amenity Services Manager was based at HQ looking after pleasure boating, while an office in Watford looked after pleasure boating licensing and enquiries. Early in its life BWB made important decisions about the future of waterways, the commercially unviable canals were to provide pleasure facilities as well as water sales and remain in the system. These decisions encouraged private individuals and companies to invest in hire-fleets; boat building and building amenities on these once threatened canals. The documents 'The Future of The Waterways' published in 1964 and 'The Facts About The Waterways' published in 1965 explained these decisions gaining strong public approval. These documents were endorsed in the Transport Act of 1968. The 1968 Transport Act gave wider powers to BWB to manage hotels and provide road transport. It also reclassified the boards' waterways into commercial, cruising and remainder waterways. The Minister of Transport could transfer waterways between classifications and could authorise a Government Order to close waterways. Under the Act BWB had to maintain its waterways for the purposes of their classification i.e. commercial or pleasure, and these duties were enforceable by the courts. The Act abolished any rights of navigation existing in waterway authorising Acts and BWB were granted powers to dispose of any remainder waterways it wished to. Finally the Act set up the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Committee (IWAAC) to advise BWB on cruising and recreation. Another early decision made by BWB was to discontinue all narrow boat carrying operations as these had made increasing losses since nationalisation in 1948. Other factors in the decision were the opening of the M1 motorway in 1959 and the very hard winter of 1963 when no boats moved for thirteen weeks. From mid 1963 the only BWB narrowboats on contract work were two pairs taking cement from Rugby Portland Cement at Stockton to Birmingham, and three pairs taking lime pulp in barrels from Brentford to Boxmoor. The cement traffic lasted until 1969 and the lime pulp until 1973. Following the loss of general narrow carrying BWB introduced a commercial licence to replace tolls, though this only applied to certain canals and major private carriers. Many of BWB's boats were leased to Willow Wren Canal Transport Services who took over many of its contracts; by 1967 these had been repossessed and were sold in 1968. Between 1968 and 1987 BWB initiated a number of private Bills that were enacted and which gave BWB various powers such as that to register pleasure boats and to fill in certain specific waterways no longer regarded as necessary. The British Waterways Act 1983, for instance, was concerned mainly with the regulation and management of vessels and the recovery of charges for various services, but it also reclassified some 85 miles of restored waterway from remainder waterway status to cruising status. In 1975 the DoE commissioned a study known as the Fraenkel Report to assess the costs of operation and maintenance of all waterways as required to comply with BWB's obligations. It gave an overview of BWB's activities and concluded that there were 'many instances where the condition of works and structures fell below that indicated by BWB's obligations' and that it would cost some £60 million to clear the backlog. In 1982, following a further study, BWB prepared a Corporate Plan that set out a scenario whereby the backlog of maintenance would be cleared subject to the constraint of Government spending. In July 1984 the DoE and BWB agreed a Statement of Objectives for BWB in line with Government policy for nationalized industries. BWB was required, consistent with its statutory obligations and powers, to run its affairs on a commercial basis as far as practicable but the statement also recognized the need for continuing financial support from the Government. In July 1986 the Monopolies & Mergers Commission (MMC) were asked to report on the efficiency and costs of BWB in relation to the maintenance of its waterways. The report, published in 1987, made a number of recommendations for improvements and although it criticised BWB it found that it was not pursuing a course of conduct that operated against the public interest. The membership of the BWB changed radically following the report and the organization was restructured. In 1988 the restructured board became 'British Waterways'. For further information on the British Waterways Board see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations'.