In 1636 the history of navigation on the Avon commenced when letter patent were granted by Charles the first to William Sandys of Fladbury who used his private fortune, estimated between £20,000 and £40,000, in purchasing the necessary land and property and in the construction of sluices, weirs, channels and locks to make the Avon navigable from Tewkesbury to Stratford.
In 1758 the Lower Avon (ie the 26 miles/42 km from Tewkesbury to Evesham) was acquired by George Perrott who discovered that the locks were in such poor condition that in places passage was impossible, and it became necessary to close the Navigation for some months while repairs were carried out. Over a period of ten years some £4,000 had to be spent in restoration.
In 1830 the lower Avon was leased to the Worcester and Birmingham (canal) Company for £1,000 per annum for 21 years, during which period they spent considerable sums on repairs. On expiry the lease was renewed but a lower rental was negotiated as the profits of operation had fallen steadily through out the first term, and when the railway linked Evesham to Gloucester was opened the Lower Avon commenced making substantial losses each year and consequently the lease was terminated finally in 1872.
The declining standard led to the formation in 1899 of the River Avon Improvement Association, which successfully persuaded the Local Authorities in 1903 to call a public enquiry into the state of the navigation, but unfortunately the Commissioners’ recommendations, which have led to restoration, were not accepted.
By 1914 the income from the navigation was insufficient to carry out proper maintenance and the traffic operators, together with mill owners and Local Councils, were obliged to undertake essential repairs at their own expense.
In 1919 local borough and county councils became concerned abut the condition of the Avon, and set up a joint committee to draw up a scheme for restoring the whole river for submission to the Ministry of Transport, the cost was claimed to be prohibitive, and the scheme was dropped.
In 1924, The Lower Avon Navigation Company Ltd was formed and acquired the Navigation by purchasing the Perrott interest. Over £2,000 had to be spent on immediate repairs and by 1931 it was decided that the Navigation would have to be abandoned as the revenue had become too small to maintain the river in a navigable condition. In order to obtain powers to increase revenue by various charges to river users, a last effort was made by introducing a Private Bill into parliament. Possibly because these powers were being sought by a private company they were opposed by Local Authorities and others, and the Bill was rejected.
During World War 2 the river became unnavigable above Pershore, and continued to deteriorate, so that by 1949, as Strensham Lock was rapidly becoming impassable, the river was virtually closed for navigation. Only a grain barge “Pisgah” managed to trade to Pershore Mill continually into the post restoration period until she ceased running in 1972.
Since the days of Charles the first, there have been three names prominently associated with navigation on the Avon – William Sandys, who started it, the Perrotts who developed it, and Douglas Barwell who saved it.
In 1949, C D Barwell entered the scene when the Navigation of the Lower Avon was fast approaching complete, final and irrevocable disintegration. In this year, the Inland Waterways Association called a conference of people concerned with the fate of the Avon, after which Douglas Barwell commenced its salvation by purchasing for £1,500 the Mouibund Lower Avon Navigation Company Limited, carried out essential repairs and managed to keep the Navigation going until the Lower Avon Navigation Trust Limited was incorporated on August 1st 1950, with him as Chairman.
The renaissance of the inland waterways was under way!
After 1951 major works were carried out and this colossal task was accomplished entirely bay a voluntary organisation with money subscribed privately and with no assistance from government funds.
In 1962 the Navigation was re-opened to Evesham.
Behind this bare statement – the first successful venture of its kind in the world – can be imagined the enormous amount of time and effort of the members and their supporters, and the generous donors, were responsible for preventing the Avon from reverting to its natural state – ‘a small mud-bound brook’.
The Trust raised and spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in this work and it is now accepted, as a matter of course, that boats can journey between Tewkesbury and Evesham with ease and safety whilst most of their passengers, enjoying the passage and the beauty of the river, are unaware that without the efforts of the Trust Members and their supporters this would never have been possible.
Douglas Barwell, OBE died on 6th October 1990 at his home overlooking the Avon. His vision and hard work over many years restored the Vale of Evesham a priceless asset and inspired in others a resolve to undertake similar projects.
Spurred on by an anonymous donation of £1/4 million to “prime the pump”, the IWA led by Robert Aickman called a meeting of the Severn River Board, National Trust, LANT, Stratford Canal Society and other interested parties to consider the prospect of restoring the Upper Avon Navigation in order to re-connect the Stratford Canal at Stratford upon Avon with the Lover Avon at Evesham. This was under the Chairmanship of Christoper Clifford and held at the Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire on 23rd November 1963 and, although support from certain quarters was not encouraging, a second meeting was decided to hold further discussions to be arranged by LANT in the valley at the Sammy Groves’ Marine Ballroom beside the river at Evesham on 7th June 1964. This resulted in the formation by the IWA of the Upper Avon Navigation Trust Committee under the Chairmanship of Sir Fordham Flower. Subsequently it was decided that the Upper Avon Navigation Trust Limited should be formed and the Memorandum and Articles were duly formalised and signed on 26th August 1965. Eventually, due to the uncertain legal position regarding the Upper Avon Navigation, it was proposed to obtain a new act of Parliament to enable work to commence and thus the Upper Avon Navigation Act was passed and became law in 1972.
It was understood that the extent and the success of the operation would not be achieved using the LANT method of mainly volunteer labour with professional contract support. David Hutchings, MBE, who had successfully re-opened the southern section of the Stratford Canal under the auspices of the National Trust, was approached and offered employment with the Upper Avon Navigation Trust Limited as its Project Manager to undertake the refurbishment of the Upper Avon Navigation, which he accepted and successfully completed. There was a grand opening in 1974 by H.M Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on “the glorious 1st June” at Stratford alongside Holy Trinity Church. The poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman, composed a poem (below) to mark the occasion:
He who by peaceful inland waterways steers
Bestirs himself when a new lock appears.
Slow swing the gate: slow sinks the water down;
The lower Stratford seems another town.
The meadows which the youthful Shakespeare knew
Are left behind, and, sliding into view,
Come reaches of the Avon, mile on mile,
Church, farm and mill and lover-leaned-on stile,
Till where the tower of Tewksbury soars to heaven
Our homely Avon joins the haughty Severn,
Sweet is the fluting of the blackbird’s note,
Sweet is the ripple from the narrow boat.
Your Majesty, our friend of many years,
Confirms a triumph now the moment nears:
The lock you have re-opened will set free
The heart of England to the sea
On the 1st January 2010, LANT and UANT legally amalgamated as Avon Navigation Trust. This became the first time that the River Avon will have been run as one since 1717 over 300 years ago.