“I need not say more than that every inquiry into the problem since and including the valuable report of Mr. Neville Chamberlain in 1921 has been unanimous in saying that there was no alternative to compulsory amalgamation if the canals were not to go further into decay.  We cannot escape that conclusion.  While we cannot encourage the hope of any large expansion of canal traffic, we believe that with the economies to be secured by amalgamation and with the aid of new capital to be raised on the basis of public credit, something can be done to restore their position.”

Lord Pakenham ― House of Lords debate on the Transport Bill, 20th May 1947

. . . . but despite the best efforts of the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, and then of British Waterways, British canals as commercial carriers had had their day and the next two decades were to see considerable uncertainty about their future.


Following the Labour Party’s election victory in 1945, Clement Atlee’s government set about implementing a mammoth programme of nationalisation.  Utility companies and major industries were taken into state ownership and by 1951 some 20% of the British economy was in the public sector.

Under the Transport Act, 1947, railways, long-distance road hauliers and some inland waterways were nationalised [1] and placed under the control of the newly formed British Transport Commission (BTC) whose remit was to provide “an efficient, adequate, economical and properly integrated system of public inland transport and port facilities within Great Britain for passengers and goods”, but excluding air transport.  The different modes of transport were to co-ordinate their activities to supplement each other rather than compete, but little of the intended integration ever materialised.

The BTC was steered by the Ministry of Transport on matters of general transport policy.  It exercised control over its vast empire through a number of ‘Executives’ set up to manage specific sections of the transport industry.  As from 1st January 1948, the Grand Union Canal Company’s assets were taken over by the ‘The Docks and Inland Waterways Executive’. [2] The former Grand Union Canal (excluding the section north of Leicester), the Birmingham Canal Navigations (to the east of Birmingham), the Oxford and Coventry Canals, and the Lee and Stort Navigations were grouped together to form the Executive’s South-eastern Division.  Thus, the thrust of the 1906 Royal Commission’s recommendation on state control was fulfilled, although not quite as the Commission might have imagined: [3]

“I think that hon. Members opposite must congratulate themselves on their Transport Act, 1947, which while all its provisions were not, perhaps, entirely acceptable to this side of the House, did in one respect implement the recommendation of every Royal Commission.  It got our inland waterways under uniform ownership.  That was the first real ray of light shed on our canal system for nearly a hundred years.”

David James M.P. ― House of Commons Debate on Inland Waterways, 4th December 1959.

During the following decade, the Executive (and later the BTC itself [4]) invested in British canals, [5] but the large backlog of wartime neglect coupled with the high cost of remedial work and the rapid growth of road haulage [6] made significant modernisation uneconomic.  Canal carrying continued its decline, relying increasingly on subsidy to make good its losses.  Between 1954 and 1962, the total tonnage conveyed by inland waterways decreased by 8% (that conveyed by the British Waterways fleet fell by 18% during the same period) while the annual deficit [7] increased from £153,000 to £1,068,000. [8]


During the 1950s, two important reviews of our Inland Waterways took place.  Although neither had immediate impact, taken together their recommendations were to shape future policy.

In 1955, a ‘Board of Survey’ under the chairmanship of Lord Rusholme recommended that canals and inland waterways should be categorised under one of three headings, their future being determined accordingly:

Group 1, comprising commercially viable waterways (mainly river navigations), should be retained and improved.  This group comprised the River Trent, the River Severn, the River Lee Navigation, the River Weaver, the Aire and Calder Navigation and the section of the Grand Union main line south of Berkhamsted.

Group 2, comprised most of the narrow canals and some wide canals, such as the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the Grand Union main line north of Berkhamsted, which still carried some commercial traffic.  Attempts should be made to increase commercial use, but if that failed, the waterway should be relegated to group 3.

Group 3: comprising the remainder, should be considered for disposal to organisations other than the BTC, or closed.

Following consideration of the Rusholme Report, in 1956 the BTC embarked on a £5.5 million improvement programme, some of the investment being spent on the Grand Union Canal’s southern section where work included:

“. . . . dredging, and the reconstruction of Thames and Brentford Locks and certain lock sills, culverts and bridges, will enable Lee-type barges of 135 tons to reach wharves and warehouses at Brentford Depot, and craft carrying at least 90 tons to navigate as far as Berkhamsted . . . . Bank protection and new dredging plant are all part of these programmes.”

Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Inland Waterways, H.M.S.O., July 1958

Rusholme was followed in 1956 by a wider ranging survey under the chairmanship of Leslie Bowes, Managing Director of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company.  The Bowes Committee reported in 1958; by then only 1,400 miles of the 2,170 miles of waterways controlled by the BTC remained in commercial use.  Bowes recommended much the same categorisation of waterways as Rusholme ― the Grand Union Canal still being divided at Berkhamsted ― but made three further important recommendations.  First, that an annual licence fee should replace the chaotic toll structure that had existed since the canals were built and which was recognised to be an anachronism:

“If any of us tried to operate a lorry on a road which may not be in existence in ten years’ time and which is, in any case, subject to varying charges between points A and B, which could not be determined in advance, we should have some idea of the difficulty facing operators of canals, and a uniform annual charge based on £1 per ton per annum would seem to be a very effective answer.”

David James M.P. ― House of Commons Debate on Inland Waterways, 4th December 1959

Second, waterways, which Rusholme classed as Group 2, should have an assured a life of 25 years.  The Bowes Committee were “convinced that confidence in the future existence of the latter waterways is an indispensable condition of a revival of traffic upon them”.  And third, that more emphasis be placed on deriving revenue from other sources, such as water sales, angling and pleasure boating ― although on the latter, the Committee concluded that “the amount of additional revenue which can be foreseen from pleasure boating is small in relation to total revenue”, for even as late as 1958 Bowes still held the view that had prevailed within the Grand Union’s boardroom some 30 years earlier, that with sufficient investment in the infrastructure, canal carrying could be revived.  With regard to completing the Grand Union Canal Company’s abandoned improvement of the Birmingham main line, Bowes had this to say:

“A tentative estimate of the cost of making this canal navigable by vessels of 14ft beam carrying about 90 tons which could load or unload alongside ships in the Port of London, [9] through to Birmingham without transhipment, is £4.2 million, including works on locks, bridges and culverts, bank protection, dredging and additional water supplies, but does not include the cost of acquiring any additional land.  The estimated cost does not appear a high one in relation to the addition to the nation’s transport facilities which could be expected to result from efficient water transport between Birmingham and the London docks, apart from any increase in intermediate traffic which might arise.”

Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Inland Waterways, H.M.S.O., July 1958

It is difficult to understand the basis for this conclusion, for in the years 1955 and 1956, the southern (commercially viable) section of the Grand Union Canal turned in a small operating surplus (£7,359 and £4,475 respectively) while the northern section made a significant loss (£64,592 and £61,301 respectively).  On the eve of the UK’s motorway network, [10] the position was hardly likely to improve, even assuming the Treasury was persuaded to put up the required £4.2 million.

Finally, Bowes was divided equally on whether inland waterways should remain the responsibility of the BTC or whether they should be placed in the hands of a separate canals conservancy.  But on this point any continuing debate was settled by the Transport Act 1962, [11] which abolished the monolithic BTC, its inland waterway assets being transferred to the newly formed British Waterways Board (the Board), the gist of whose brief was to:

“. . . . manage the undertaking with ‘due regard to efficiency, economy and safety of operation’ and, secondly, to review the whole problem of waterways which are no longer self-supporting and to formulate proposals with the object of putting these waterways to the best use.”

The Facts About the Waterways, the British Waterways Board, December 1965

The Board commenced work with yet a further review of its estate.  In their interim report, published in 1964, the Board found the Grand Union Canal to be a heavy loss-maker, but despite this they took a relatively optimistic view of the waterway’s future including, for the first time, its use as part of a “pleasure network”:

“The Board are also disturbed by the losses on the main line of the Grand Union Canal.  These amount to about a quarter of a million pounds a year.  Toll revenue has been falling for a number of years and there is no immediate prospect in sight for arresting this decline.  Revenue from water sales is appreciable but total income falls far short of meeting the heavy cost of maintenance.  However, given the crucial position it occupies in the pleasure network and its potential importance in the water supply field, and given that some existing commercial traffic, and possibly some further potential traffic, remains on this waterway, we think that there will probably be general endorsement of the view that the Grand Union main line should be one of the waterways given a reasonable security of tenure ― which is so necessary to make the best use of those canals which are to be retained.  We shall continue to investigate all possible methods of reducing expenditure to accord with the present usage pattern of the Grand Union Canal.”

The Future of the Waterways: Interim Report of the Board, 1964

Dr. Beeching ― by then applying his axe to the railway network with vigour ― might well have reached a different conclusion.

The Board published their final report in the following year. [12] In it they identified nine waterways (mostly ‘navigations’, such as the Aire and Calder) that they considered to be commercially viable, plus a further three that were in substantial commercial use despite being unprofitable.  Among the latter was the southern section of the Grand Union Canal, [13] which remained in regular commercial use by short-haul traffic.  The Board recognised that this section offered “a great potential in avoiding road congestion in and around the Metropolis”.  It was in good condition, the BTC having invested in extensive dredging and bank protection, and it fulfilled an important land drainage role in that area of West London.  With regard to the remainder of the main line from Slough Junction to Birmingham, the Board had this to say:

“The Grand Union Canal main line to Birmingham is financially perhaps the Board’s most intractable single problem.  For both historical and geographical reasons it has always been considered as a major trunk route in the canal system, linking London and the Thames to the Birmingham canal network.  Physically it is in good condition.  Its commercial traffic, however, has steadily declined over the years and is now negligible, and there is a very heavy financial deficit.”

The Facts About the Waterways, the British Waterways Board, December 1965

The Board divided the Canal into two sections, above and below Slough Junction, for which they costed three options; to continue operations (the ‘do nothing’ option), to convert the canal to a water channel (i.e. merely to convey water) and elimination.  Despite its heavy maintenance costs, the Board concluded that the southern section should have an assured a life of 25 years with its annual deficit, estimated initially at £70,000 p.a., being met by subsidy while attempts were made to increase commercial traffic.  But the costed options for the northern section of the main line demonstrated that conversion to a water channel was the most economic (economy of operation being a key requirement in the Board’s brief):

(a) The deficit incurred in maintaining the Grand Union main line (above Slough Junction) to navigational standards was well over £150,000 a year.

(b) The existing deficit would be reduced to about £87,000 a year if the canal were to be converted to a water channel.

(c) Elimination would scarcely be realistic except on the middle length, where however it would cost more than conversion to a water channel.

The Facts About the Waterways, the British Waterways Board, December 1965

Elimination was considered unrealistic due to cost and the engineering difficulties involved.  It could at any rate only be considered for the central section, [14] for south of Tring Summit the canal supplied water to the viable waterway below Slough Junction, while parts of this section consisted of canalised rivers that performed an important land drainage function.  Similarly, the Braunston Summit reservoirs supplied water to the North Oxford and the Warwick and Napton canals (there being appreciable water sales at Leamington).  The problems attendant on elimination were by then well known, and while the following claim made during an earlier parliamentary debate was not universally true, it did apply in some cases:

“We have an inescapable form of expenditure in that it costs more to fill in a canal than to dredge it and make it available to use.  In particular, we know that the cost of filling in the Avon Canal [the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal] was to be £120,000, while the National Trust hopes to redevelop it for about £55,000.”

David James M.P. ― House of Commons Debate on Inland Waterways, 4th December 1959

There was also a heavy deficit ― £44,000 for 1964 ― on the operation of the Leicester Section, with negligible commercial traffic and pleasure traffic that was “not extensive”.  Here the ‘water channel’ option appeared the most viable, for although elimination would deliver a somewhat greater saving in the long term, the Foxton summit and the Saddington reservoirs provided an indispensible water supply to the Grand Union Canal at Norton Junction.  The Aylesbury Arm was also subject to the Board’s scrutiny.  It too was in deficit, ― £6,404 for 1964 ― but here the Arm’s need for water from the main line made elimination an attractive option (£3,500 p.a. reducing to £2,200 p.a.) and also slightly cheaper than conversion to a water channel (£2,300 p.a.).

And so ‘The Facts About the Waterways’ was passed to ministers and their civil service advisors to await policy decisions.



While the Board pondered the viability of what remained of the UK’s inland waterways, they made a prompt decision on the future of their narrow boat carrying operation on the Grand Union Canal.

By 1962 the South-eastern Division’s operational narrow boat fleet had fallen to 45 pairs, with manning continuing to be a problem as crews retired or left the waterways for shore-based employment.  The position was exacerbated by the severe winter of 1962-63 [15] which, when taken with the continual losses incurred by their narrow boat fleet, was probably the last straw.  Unlike the Bowes Committee, who a few years earlier had reached the extraordinary conclusion that “. . . the operation of British Waterways’ fleet is generally welcomed, particularly on the narrow waterways, and we recommend that it should continue”, the Board recognised that the decline in narrow boat carrying was both accelerating and irreversible and they withdrew from this business during 1964.

Narrow boat carrying on the Grand Union Canal did not cease immediately.  Willow Wren Canal Transport Services took over the remaining BW contracts and leased 25 pairs of their boats.  Their boatmen carried the operational expenses of the boats and paid a percentage of their earnings to Willow Wren, but the firm found that the business did not pay and ceased trading in 1970.  Blue Line Canal Carriers took over the Samuel Barlow coal carrying business in 1962, and continued carrying coal from Baddesley Colliery near Atherstone on the Oxford Canal to Kearley & Tonge’s jam factory at Southall until the factory closed in 1970.  The last regular cargo was barrels of lime pulp, shipped from Brentford to Rose’s factory at Boxmoor until it closed in 1981.



The Labour Party was returned to office in 1964 and in December of the following year Barbara Castle was appointed Minister for Transport.  In this role she was to be responsible for introducing the mammoth Bill that eventually became the 1968 Transport Act, now remembered mostly for its introduction of seat belts, tachographs into commercial vehicles and passenger transport executives.  At the time the Treasury was planning further growth in road transport ― which then accounted for 90% of passenger miles and 60% of freight ton miles ― and with this end in mind they intended a Beeching-style elimination of the canal network, with some canals being transformed into roads.

Although Mrs. Castle presided over Beeching closures amounting to some 2,000 miles of railways, she staved off the assault on canals by emphasising their essential role in land drainage and the high cost of constructing alternative drainage measures (or letting arable land revert to bog) if they were to be eliminated.  The outcome was that the Treasury plans were shelved and an “extensive and exhaustive” consultation process commenced, its principal aim being to establish the size of the pleasure cruising network to be retained.  The views of quangos, trade associations, local clubs and “many hundreds of individuals” were taken from which one key point to emerge was the need to “retain waterways forming part of through or ring routes”.  At the close of consultation, the Ministry summed up the situation in the following prophetic words:

“Pleasure cruising on inland waterways and rivers is no longer a pastime within reach of only the well to do.  The Government welcomes this and believes that in the next few years more and more people will want to use the waterways for spare time relaxation and quiet holidays.  Therefore, the Government intend, at the outset, to retain for pleasure cruising substantially the existing network available for this purpose.  The British Waterways Board will be given the new and positive duty of maintaining these waterways to a standard of navigability suitable for powered pleasure craft.  It is thus the Government’s intention that for the first time, this recreational purpose of the nationalised waterways should be recognised by public Act of Parliament.”

British Waterways: Recreation and Amenity (Cmnd. 3401) – Ministry of Transport, 1967

The report also recognised the important role of volunteers in canal restoration:

“In recent years voluntary societies have put forward a number of schemes for restoring lengths of disused canal to navigation.  Many of these schemes are highly attractive because they would reopen waterways running through lovely countryside.  On the other hand the capital cost of such schemes can be very high and each restoration, when carried out, brings in its train a new and continuing liability for maintenance.  Despite this the Government is keen to encourage volunteer effort to develop the amenity network of waterways.”

British Waterways: Recreation and Amenity (Cmnd. 3401) – Ministry of Transport, 1967

And so the category of cruising waterways came to be recognised in law and enshrined in the Transport Act, 1968.  Although Mrs. Castle moved office before the Bill completed its passage through Parliament, the resulting Act did provide a measure of safeguard for the remaining canal network.  It classified the nationalised waterways into three distinct categories:

  •     Commercial ― waterways that could still support commercial traffic; these were mainly located in the North East of England;

  •     Cruising ― waterways that had a potential for leisure use, such as cruising, fishing and recreational use;

  •     Remainder ― waterways for which no potential commercial or leisure use could be seen.

By this time the Grand Union Canal had ceased to have any commercial significance and had found its place among the cruising canals, from:

“. . . . its junctions with the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal at Digbeth and Salford to its junctions with the River Thames at Brentford and at Regent’s Canal Dock, including the branches to Northampton and Aylesbury and the Hertford Union Canal leading to the River Lee at Old Ford . . . . [and] from Leicester to Norton Junction including the branch to Market Harborough.”

British Waterways: Recreation and Amenity (Cmnd. 3401) – Ministry of Transport, 1967



Despite the 1968 Act recognising their amenity value, inland waterways continued to attract little development funding, with canal restoration relying greatly on the help of canal enthusiasts and societies.  Volunteer-led canal restoration began with the Stratford-upon-Avon canal in 1960 (re-opened in 1964) to be followed by the Kennet & Avon, Stourbridge, Ashton, Peak Forest, Caldon, Monmouthshire, Brecon & Abergavenny canals among others.  Leisure boating continued to grow, and by the early 1980s the number of craft using the waterways for leisure purposes exceeded 20,000.  Entrepreneurs began to see the profit potential in canal-side locations for property development, the construction of marinas to service the needs of the growing leisure-boating community, boat hire and the operation of trip boats.  And on the Grand Union Canal, when the Blisworth Tunnel fell in need of major repair in 1980, the £4 millions necessary to finance the four-year project was found.

By the late 1990s the canal network was flourishing.  Revenues generated for canal maintenance reached £100,000,000 for the first time in 1998, large grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund allowed the canal network to expand again by restoring former canals, and additional funding was announced for British Waterways in 1999 by the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.  By the early 2000s, boating numbers had overtaken the previous industrial revolution high, and the canal network was officially classed as ‘safe’ following the completion of all outstanding safety works.  There are now about 2,200 miles of navigable canals and rivers throughout the United Kingdom.

The role of British Waterways has now been taken over by the Canal & River Trust (Glandwr Cymru in Wales), thus bringing to an end over 60 years of state control.  The Trust will be funded through a combination of income from Government, boat licences, third party grants and commercial activities.  The main change will be through the establishment of a guaranteed, long-term contract with Government (giving greater certainty over funding); a ‘charity lock’ on British Waterways’ property endowment; and growing income from tax relief and charitable sources (e.g. donations, legacies etc).  It is also expected that the inland waterways currently managed by the Environment Agency will transfer to the Trust in 2015.

As for the Grand Union Canal, it continues to carry canal boats across the Chilterns while volunteers from the Wendover Arm Trust are hard at work returning our town’s northern boundary to full operational use . . . .

Restoring the Wendover Arm.





During an interview many years later, former Labour Transport Minister Barbara Castle revealed that the Attlee Government did not realise for some considerable time that it had also acquired canals.


The GUCC’s profitable shipping subsidiary, Grand Union (Shipping) Ltd., was sold in 1948 for £180,000.  Ruislip Lido, formerly managed by Grandion, was sold to Ruislip-Northwood Urban District Council in 1951.


 . . . . which was that a State-owned Central Waterways Board be set up to acquire and administer the four main waterway routes centred on Birmingham, and linking respectively to the Thames (at Brentford), Humber, Mersey and Severn.  This eventually came about in 1962 through the creation of the British Waterways Board.


The Docks and Inland Waterways Executive was abolished under the Transport Act 1953, and its powers assumed by the British Transport Commission.  The Commission was abolished under the Transport Act 1962, and five new public authorities including the British Waterways Board were established to replace it.


In the six years from 1948 to 1953, well over £1,000,000 was spent making good arrears of maintenance and £500,000 on additional plant and equipment (Rusholme Report, 1955).


The Grand Union Canal was particularly affected by the opening of the M1 in 1959.


The excess of expenditure over income before taking account of capital charges which, if added would, for example for 1962, increase the deficit to some £2,000,000.


The Future of the Waterways, British Waterways Board, 1962.


A vision entertained some 30 years earlier by the GUCC’s Chairman, W. H. Curtis.


The first section of the M1 to Rugby together with the M10 and M45 were almost complete, and work was in progress on the bypasses that would eventually link up to form sections of the M6.


This Act is probably best remembered today for putting in place the measures that enabled the closure (the ‘Beeching Axe’) of about a third of the UK’s railway network.


The Facts About the Waterways, the British Waterways Board, December 1965.


The viable section of the GUC identified in the Rusholme and Bowes reports (1954 and 1958) had, in the intervening years, receded southwards from Berkhamsted to Slough Junction.


Tring Summit to lock 7, Buckby, including the Northampton Arm.


During which the waterway was frozen over for three months.  Some of their remaining customers turned to road and rail haulage to ensure better reliability of supply, and never returned.