History of the Kennet & Avon Canal in Bath

An east-west inland waterway was discussed in Elizabethan times but nothing happened until the early 1700s, when stretches of the rivers Kennet and Avon were made navigable to Newbury and Bath respectively.

Black and white photo of canal at Malthouse in Bath in 963 Malthouse, Bath, 1963

Painting of Kennet & Avon Canal in 1700sBath was a popular place in the 1700s, attracting thousands of fashionable and wealthy visitors including members of the Royal Family. They came to ‘take the waters’ at the spa and to enjoy the social activities taking place in the city at the Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms and the theatres and music halls.

Huge loads of coal came into Bath via the canal to heat the spacious Georgian mansions for these visitors.

Commercial wealth

Built as a commercial transport route between 1794 and 1810, the Kennet & Avon Canal transformed Bath, providing safe and efficient travel between London and Bath, and via the River Avon, to Bristol.

Before the canal, the journey to London involved a difficult overland route or a perilous sea journey via the Bristol Channel and around the south coast. The canal shortened the journey, offered a safe and efficient route and created new opportunities for trade and transport. Bath stone could be delivered easily to London and other cities, and tons of coal, food and other goods essential for Bath’s profitable tourist industry could be broughtinto the city.

Rise, fall and rediscovery

The canal flourished between 1810 and 1840, carrying stone from Bath and bringing coal and domestic goods into the city. It reached its trading peak in 1840 transporting building materials for the Great Western Railway.

Black and white photo of crowds at locks on Kennet & AvonIronically the railway signaled the end of the canal’s prosperity as it offered quicker journeys for goods and people. Canal trade then gradually decreased until stretches became virtually derelict in the 1950s.

The creation of the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust in the 1960s reversed the decline, and now the canal and its towpath is popular with walkers, cyclists, fishermen and boaters.

A potted history of the Kennet & Avon Canal

  • 1788 John Rennie appointed to survey a route between Newbury and Bath.
  • 1794 An Act of Parliament received Royal Assent to make a navigable canal from the River Kennet at Newbury to the River Avon at Bath. Work started on the towpath.
  • 1810 Kennet & Avon Canal completed and opened on 28 December.
  • 1810-1840 were the heydays of the canal with toll receipts of over £50,000 a year.
  • 1841 Great Western Railway arrived in Bath.
  • 1852 Great Western Railway bought the Kennet & Avon Canal Company.
  • 1877 Kennet & Avon Canal Company made a loss for the first time.
  • 1920 Commercial navigation ceased, and the canal’s condition declined.
  • 1951 Kennet & Avon Canal Association formed to prevent further deterioration.
  • 1955 A stretch of the canal was closed.
  • 1956 Kennet & Avon Canal Association petitioned successfully against further closure.
  • 1962 Kennet & Avon Canal Association became the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust. Restoration work started, with hundreds of volunteers.
  • 1990 Canal re-opened by the Queen.
  • 1996 Heritage Lottery Fund gave £25million grant for a five-year restoration project.
  • 2010 British Waterways celebrated the canal’s bicentenary with conservation and improvement work, plus a commemorative sundial at Widcombe.
  • 2012 British Waterways becomes The Canal & River Trust, the new custodian of the Kennet & Avon Canal.

Last date edited: 17 July 2015