We love and care for your canals and rivers, because everyone deserves a place to escape.

Our story

Our story, as a charity, is wrapped up in the history of the waterways themselves. Read more to see how far we’ve come.

Family walking on canal towpath Family walking on canal towpath

We’ve inherited something truly unique. Amazing waterways imagined in another age, reborn as thriving, open and active spaces we can all enjoy. The creation of the Canal & River Trust has secured the future of the canal and river network, and waterways enthusiasts in England and Wales can look forward to the next chapter in the waterways’ story.

2017 - our fifth anniversary

In July 2017 we reached our fifth birthday as a charity. See how much we had to celebrate...

You can read the full story in our Annual Report 2016-17

Canal history

The 20th Century story of the waterways is one of discovery. After the height of the industrial revolution, canals and rivers declined as a freight carrying network but found a new purpose in leisure and quite simply as a place to get away from it all.

Our place in history

Read the story of how we, the Canal & River Trust, came to be. It's a captivating tale of enthusiasts, communities and how we helped the people of Britain to re-discover the value of their waterways.

1940s - Nationalisation

  • The canals see a resurgence of freight traffic as their creaking infrastructure is pressed into service for the war effort. But with the return of peace comes the threat of decline and irrelevance
  • In 1948 the waterways, somewhat an afterthought, are moved into public ownership as part of the new British Transport Commission, with one official remarking: "Oh, do we get the canals too?"
  • Canals still have their supporters though. Formed in 1946, the fledgling Inland Waterways Association lobbies government for the disappearing canal network to be saved - highlighting their leisure potential

1950s - Freight survival

  • Many canals are abandoned as there is little prospect of alternative use – illustrated by a government survey which concludes there is no market for property next to the decaying and out-of-favour waterways
  • Although pioneering pleasure boaters are evident, a waterways' staff magazine of 1958 says that this ‘will not mean greatly increased earning in the kitty and our main efforts must always be directed towards getting commercial traffic’
  • Already impacted by the growth of the railways and road transport, waterborne freight becomes further pressured by the opening of the first motorways
Freight on the waterways Freight on the waterways
"Oh, do we get the canals too?"

1960s – From big freeze to leisure revolution

  • Derelict canals have become standing jokes in comics like the Beano. Local authorities including Glasgow and Manchester start to fill in canals, which they see as public safety hazards
  • British Waterways is created under the ’62 Transport Act to operate much of the nation’s inland waterways but a particularly harsh winter sees boats unable to move between Christmas and March, virtually finishing off commercial freight carrying on the narrow canal network
  • A 1967 Daily Mirror article entitled 'The Wasted Heritage' draws attention to the plight of derelict canals heralding...
  • Barbara Castle's 1968 Transport Act, which gives the first official recognition for the recreation value of waterways and a remit to develop their leisure potential
Rubbish in the canal Rubbish in the canal

1970s – The great stagnation

  • Long term underfunding is still a way of life for the waterways, however enlightened enthusiasts remove old bedsteads, point brickwork and mix concrete. Although a far from fashionable pastime, their passion is central in saving and restoring many miles of canal in a recessionary and largely heritage-blind decade

1980s – The regeneration potential

  • The early 1980s sees leisure boat numbers top 20,000 for the first time
  • By the mid-1980s, the successful redevelopment of Brindleyplace in Birmingham and London's Docklands helps to further shift attitudes towards waterways

  • In 1989, English Heritage identify a skills gap in waterway conservation, saying: "Poor craftsmanship and inappropriate materials ruined the appearance of many historic structures...British Waterways’ officers do not have adequate training or access to professional advice on the conservation of historic structures."
Brindley Place, Birmingham Brindley Place, Birmingham

1990s – Lottery boost

  • The value of the waterways is increasingly realised. Research shows that properties next to well-maintained waterways are now worth up to 20% more in value
  • The case is successfully made for increased investment to overcome major arrears in canal maintenance and in 1999 the Deputy Prime Minister announces new support and funding
  • By the late 1990s waterway restoration schemes pick up pace as community support and grants from the newly created National Lottery enable the biggest expansion in the network in 150 years

2000s – A second golden age

boat crossing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct boat crossing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
  • Licensed boats increase from 25,000 to 35,000. There are now more boats on the network than at the height of the industrial revolution

  • English Heritage regularly praises British Waterways for its conservation skills and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct joins the Taj Mahal and the Acropolis as a World Heritage Site
  • The waterways attract many millions of pounds of work carried out by others such as local authorities to resurface towpaths, upgrade visitor facilities and protect wildlife
  • 200 miles of new and restored waterways are added to the British Waterways network. At one point the network is expanding at a faster rate than at the peak of the industrial revolution
  • In 2009 British Waterways revives and energises a debate, which began almost half century before, about taking its canals and rivers out of state control to become a ‘national trust’ for the waterways
There are now more boats on the network than at the height of the industrial revolution.

2010s – A new waterways charity

Children playing by the Grand Union Canal Children playing by the Grand Union Canal
  • Following years of hard work by volunteers and British Waterways the Droitwich Canals are opened, 70 years after they were abandoned

  • In October 2010 the Government announces its intention to transfer the inland waterways in England and Wales into a new charitable body. The Scottish Government announces that British Waterways Scotland will remain in the public sector
  • Preparations are made to transfer the canals and rivers to the new charity. Trustees are appointed, Council members are elected, Waterway Partnerships set up and a new fundraising team is assembled
  • The new charity gets a name - Canal & River Trust. The Prince of Wales is announced as the charity’s new Patron
  • On 12 July 2012 the Canal & River Trust launches, taking over the guardianship of British Waterways’ canals rivers reservoirs and docks in England and Wales heralding the next chapter in the renaissance of the waterways

2015 - our third birthday

  • On our third birthday as a charity we celebrated a massive billion visits to our canals and rivers
  • Our fantastic volunteers have given us 140,000 days of their time and we have an amazing 12,000 Friends and regular donors
  • £350million has been spent caring for our cherished canals and rivers

2017 - our fifth birthday

Go back to the top of the page to see everything we've achieved in July 2017.

Last date edited: 9 October 2017