The Inland Waterways Association (IWA) History

The Inland Waterways Association was formed in 1946 to campaign for the greater use of the waterways and to resist the deterioration and frequent abandonment of the canals that was taking place then. For more about the condition of our canals prior to the formation of the IWA see the background information.

In these pages we tell the story of the IWA, the fight to save the canals, the people involved and of our continuing efforts to improve Britain's unique waterways. To help you find what you want we have provided four different ways to access our history. These are:-

An Overview that gives you the story in brief and allows you to click on various links that take you down to more detail on the other pages.

The timeline giving details of the major events in chronological order.

The campaigns which we have mounted to save and restore waterways, to influence navigation authorities and to promote waterways for all.

The final section is the people who have made it all possible and without whom we would have achieved nothing.

These pages were produced to mark the IWA's diamond jubilee (1946 - 2006) and are intended not only to mark our many past achievements but to also inspire the association's members to tackle the challenges of today with the same determination and persistence that our predecessors displayed.

Background to the founding of the IWA

In the second half of the eighteenth century a great canal building age began that was to result in a nework of canal and improved river navigations. This was done to provide a means of bulk transport that could not be carried by the inadequate roads of that time and provided the transport system that was to make possible the Indrustrial Revolution. This canal building reached its peak in 1793 and led to a major reduction in transport costs, the price of coal being cut in half in many places. Soon thousands of horse-drawn boats carried coal and raw materials to the new manufacturing centres and brought out the products they made, farm produce was taken by water right into the heart of major towns and cities.

BY the 1830s "railway mania" had replaced the ‘canal mania’ years and many of the waterways came under the control of railway companies. Investment in canals reduced and most of our our canals were not modernised in the way that other european waterways were. There were some exceptions to this such as the Aire & Calder Navigation where the waterway was enlarged and still carried much traffic. In other places, particularly on the narrow canals, traffic dwindled, navigation channels fell into disuse, boats and locks were left to rot, structures suffered neglect and started to crumble.

By World War II, freight carrying on all but a few waterways was ending, pleasure boating on canals was almost unheard of, few visited them and except for a small core of canal people nobody cared.


In 1944 the book Narrow Boat by L T C Rolt was published and touched a chord with the British public. It described the author's journey in 1939 around the canals in his narrowboat Cressy, which was also home for him and his new bride. The book captured the spirit of the fast declining waterways and of the special breed of people that lived and worked on them.

One of the many people who wrote to Tom Rolt in response to Narrow Boat was a literary agent and aspiring author called Robert Aickman It was he who suggested to Rolt the idea of the formation of a society to campaign to regenerate the canals. This was an idea that had not occurred to Rolt who was by nature a private man but he embraced the proposal enthusiastically. The two men and their wives Angela and Ray first met aboard Cressy at Tardebigge, near Bromsgrove on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in August 1945. The two couples quickly established a good working relationship that included cruising on Tom and Angela's boat and visits to Robert and Ray's London Flat in Gower Street.

It was at 11 Gower Street that the inaugural meeting of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) took place on the 15 February 1946. Robert Aickman was appointed chairman and Tom Rolt Honorary Secretary. The role of vice-chairman was taken by Charles Hadfield, a canal historian who later became predominate in his field, but he left the post in September because he and Aickman took an instant dislike to each other. The job of treasurer was filled by Frank Eyre, who was a friend of Hadfield.

May 1947 saw the IWA's first campaign cruise when the Rolts aboard Cressy challenged the Great Western Railway (GWR), the owners of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal, at the bridge on Tunnel Lane, Lifford near Kings Norton. The bridge here had replaced a former draw bridge and was too low to allow boat passage even though a statutory right of navigation existed on the canal. A question in parliament, raised by Lord Methuen who had recently joined the IWA, and a notice of intention to navigate made by Tom Rolt had forced the GWR to lift the bridge to allow Cressy to pass.

A second more ambitious campaign cruise took place in August 1948 when the Ailsa Craig was hired for six weeks from R H Wyatt at Stone. This was to cruise the northern canals including what was probably the last complete crossing of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal before its restoration in 2001. In addition to the cruises the IWA was also active in many other waterways causes in these early years including the Basingstoke Canal, the Kennet & Avon Canal and the Derby Canal as well as mounting a successful waterways exhibition in London.

The 1950s

In the early 1950s IWA continued its campaigns, held its first of many National Festivals and Rallies and took a wide interest in a number of waterway related subjects. Canalside lock cottages and other buildings were being needlessly neglected and demolished, working boatmen were not given the same rations as seamen, both trade and pleasurecraft were discouraged, canals were illegally closed to traffic and the Ordnance Survey were marking canals as closed before they had been abandoned. All these and many more issues were being pursued, at the same time IWA Branches were set-up, annual dinners, New Year parties and boat trips for members were organised. The association also got involved in hands on waterway restoration on the Lower Avon (Warwickshire) and at Linton Lock in Yorkshire.

As the decade of the 1950s came to an end it was clear that the British Transport Commission (BTC) had a policy of removing traffic from the waterways and that British Waterways, as a subsidary part of BTC, could do nothing to reverse the decline. The IWA fought this on a local level by opposing restrictions and the neglect on indivdual canals and rivers while, at the same time, advocating the use of the waterways as a system that should be retained for trade, pleasure boating, water supply, recreation and the good of the environment.

The 1960s

Teams of volunteers started work on the southern section of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal in 1960 in what could be seen as the begining of a decade of waterway restoration by voluntary organisations. The reopening of the canal in 1964 was certainly an outstanding example of what could be achieved. The whole process had started earlier on the River Avon (Warwickshire) with the restoration of the river below Evesham and continued there with the Upper Avon resoration.

The whole waterway restoration movement quickly expanded, helped by the publication of Navvies Notebook in 1966. By the end of the decade the work of these "new navvies" had extended to the Kennet & Avon Canal, Stourbridge Canal, Ashton Canal, Peak Forest Canal, Caldon Canal and other waterways.

The 1960s were also the time when pleasure boating inceased and there was a turn in tide of public and political opinion. The battle for public opinion was generally won. Canals were seen as a national asset to be preserved rather than a scar from the industrial past to be eliminated. The 1968 Transport Act was the political response to this shift with waterways given a more secure postion than had been the case for many years.

The 1970s

Battles over waterways under threat continued with the Ashton Canal and navigation of the River Derwent being major concerns. Restoration work was being undertaken on River Great Ouse, Grantham Canal, Droitwich Canal and many others including long standing projects such as the Kennet & Avon Canal.

The major sucesses of the period were the reopening of the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal in 1970, the reopening of Dudley Tunnel on the Dudley Canal in 1973, the official reopening of Upper Avon by HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1974, the reopening of the restored Caldon Canal in the same year and the completion of restoration of the River Great Ouse in 1978.

The waterways that remained open now had increasing problems due to the maintenance backlog. Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal was closed all of 1974 due to repairs being carried out on roof lining falls and this was just one example of the problem. In 1977 the Fraenkel report costed the maintenance backlog as at least £60 million and towards the end of the decade there were long stoppages while major repairs were carried out.

The 1980s

The fight over navigation rights on the Yorkshire Derwent continued all through the decade as did the restoration of the Montgomery Canal, Rochdale Canal (where the restored section of canal between Todmorden and Hebden Bridge was opened) and many other long running restoration schemes as well as the more recent projects such as the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.

Dealing with the maintenance backlog caused the closure of many major structure for months or years including Wast Hill Tunnel on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal (closed for 2½ years), Blisworth Tunnel on the Grand Union Main Line (closed 4 years) and Preston Brook Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal and the Anderton Boat Lift between the Trent & Mersey Canal and the River Weaver which was not reopened until 2002.

Legal action on the Middle Level started in 1981 met with success with the Commissioners agreeing to restore Horseway Lock and to build a new lock near Ramsey. The Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation improvements to take larger commercial craft were offically opened.

The 1990s

The new decade started hopefully when in 1990 the Queen re-opened the Kennet & Avon Canal and in 1991 HRH The Duke of Kent formally reopened the Basingstoke Canal. 1996 saw three reopenings when the Rochdale Canal was reconnected with the waterways system by the opening of the new Tuel Lane Lock, the final length of the Ripon Canal was reopened to Ripon Basin and another stretch of the Montgomery Canal was opened to the Queens Head.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of these years also came in 1991 when IWA lost its long running battle for the right of navigation on the River Derwent (Yorkshire) through a decision against them by the Law Lords.

In 1996, the Inland Waterways Association Golden Jubilee Year, all IWA branches and regions contributed to a giant Jubilee Jigsaw and the IWA acquired its own boat Jubilee.

The New Century

This is perhaps too recent to be called history but it is worth recording some of the very significant events that have occured so far, such as the major canal restorations of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and the Forth & Clyde Canal, both completed in 2001, and in 2002 the Anderton Boat Lift which was reopened thus restoring the direct link between the River Weaver and the Trent & Mersey Canal and the new Falkirk Wheel linking the Forth & Clyde Canal to the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal which was opened by the Queen.

This is far from the end of the story for the IWA we still have numerous restoration projects that we want to see finished as well as new waterway links that have been proposed and which we support. Nor is our progress any more exempt from setbacks than that of those who battled during the early years but looking back on their foresight, ambition, detirmination and persistent hard work gives us the inspiration and confidence to take on the role of guardians of the waterways for the future.

Copyright © The Inland Waterways Association 2006 Notices
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