The Boats and Barges
Types of craft
Narrow boats and Kennet barges were the primary craft used on the Kennet and Avon Canal.The canal company specified that these had to be of the following dimensions:
- Approved barge (Class A) – 69 feet (21m) long x 5 feet (1.5m) deep x 12ft 4ins (3.8m) beam, with a capacity of 60 tons.
- Approved boat (Class A) – 69 feet long x 4 feet (1.2m) deep x 6 ft 11ins (2.1m)beam with a capacity of 35 tons.
- Non-approved vessels (Class B) – to the maximum dimensions of 69 feet long x 5 feet deep x 14 feet (4.3m) beam, with a capacity of 70 tons.
The company also approved a boat it called the mule boat (wide boat).This had the same dimensions as the approved barge except that the beam was 10 feet (3m) giving it a capacity of approximately 50 tons. While the cabin of the barge was below the rear deck with access by a companionway, the mule by comparison had the appearance of an over wide narrow boat.
These criteria aside, larger barges were sometimes built, particularly for use on the Avon Navigation. One such vessel was Harriett which was built in 1894 by Robbins Lane and Pinniger, for Ashmeads of Bristol. This barge was over 70 foot long with a beam that was slightly over 14 feet. On her delivery voyage from Honeystreet to Bristol, Harriett stuck fast in a lock at Foxhangers near Devizes. In order to continue their passage, the delivery crew chipped away portions of the wooden quoins and brickwork in the lock sides causing a great deal of damage. Surprisingly, the canal company took no action against Robbins Lane and Pinniger for the damage caused, simply letting them off with a caution. It is likely that this was because the firm had grounds for complaint against the canal company on another matter and, that some tit-for-tat private resolution was reached as a consequence.
Narrow boats and barges were built in their greatest numbers at Newbury in Berkshire and Honeystreet in Wiltshire.
Robbins Lane and Pinniger of Honeystreet also built spoon dredgers for K&A use, sailing trows for the River Severn and large barges for use on the River Wey. The last trading vessel built by the company was the barge Unity, which was built in 1896 and which continued in use until 1933.
Some of the company’s most well known barges were built in the early 20th century for the United Alkali Company (later ICI). These were all named after precious stones and collectively known as the stone barges.
Steam dredgers for use on the canal were built by Stothert and Pitt at Bath. These were commissioned by the Great Western Railway (GWR) who, by that time, owned the canal.
Remains of Harriett
Although a number of working narrow boats still remain, all the Kennet barges have long disappeared.
That is apart from one, because the remains of Harriett can still be seen on the banks of the River Severn at Purton, where in the mid 1960s she was taken to be hulked, and is now named as a scheduled monument. Although ravaged by neglect and the elements, the shape and form of the old barge is still very evident and many of her oak timbers are as solid as the day they were fitted nearly 110 years ago.
By the time work on the Kennet and Avon Canal was completed, both the Kennet and the Avon Navigations had long histories of use, and trade had continued on these waterways for many years.
It therefore followed that as the new waterway gradually reached completion, the knowledge, skills, working practices and social arrangements associated with the original navigations, spread to significantly influence the canal and its operational environment.
Once the canal was operational, long distance trade between London, Bristol, and the inland towns between, soon developed.
Regular services were provided by some carriers from Bristol to major London wharves such as those at Queenhithe Dock, Kennet Wharf, and Three Cranes Wharf, all close to Southwark Bridge.
Apart from these regular services, there were additional special transport contracts.
For example in 1812 the marble plinths for Lord Pembroke’s new colonnade at Wilton House near Salisbury were delivered by barge from London to Devizes.
Compared with travel by road, the regular canal service was considered to be exceedingly fast, with duplicate crews working all day and through the night, and regular changes of horses being arranged at suitable locations along the canal. Eventually these arrangements enabled a five-day delivery service between the two cities to be established.
A vast improvement on the long, dangerous, and uncertain travel a coastal voyage would entail.
Many of the boats used were individually owned, with the owner and his immediate family living aboard in what was likely to be their only accommodation.
This arrangement enabled family members, including children, to undertake crewing duties, and as the work was invariably unpaid, costs could be kept down and hopefully, profits and income for the family increased.
In 1844 the canal company ruled that each barge or pair of boats working “fly” (fast service with navigational priority) must be crewed by a captain and four men and that each single boat had to be crewed by a master and three men.
Museum records show that Tom Hams and his father, George, both worked as bargemen for Robins, Lane and Pinniger, a local company established in 1812 as boat builders, traders and sawmill owners at Honeystreet in Wiltshire.
The elder Hams, Tom’s father, earned 12 shillings (60p) a week as master of the Kennet Barge Unity.
This amount was below the national average for barge work at the time, but if a barge master did not have to pay for his crew or stabling for the horse, and had housing provided, then it could well have been a reasonable income.
Honeystreet was an important trading point on the K&A with virtually the whole village owned by Robbins Lane and Pinniger, who provided housing for their workers.
This sort of arrangement was not uncommon at the time, and with such stability it is not surprising that little migration occurred, and that rural families often remained in one area for many generations.
In addition to barge and boat owners and their families, canal operations required many other trades and skills for its successful operation.
These included maintenance and other engineers, boat builders, carpenters, blacksmiths, toll clerks and agents, as well as wharfingers, masons, lock keepers, and labourers.
As an example of this, the canal company employed the following staff in 1823.
Some of these were provided with the remuneration shown:
- One engineer – £300 pa plus house
- One sub engineer & mason – £100 pa
- Thirty-one lock keepers – 10/6 (52 ½ p) per week plus house
- Twenty-six navigators
- Twelve carpenters
- Two pump men
- One blacksmith
Whilst the canal had been built primarily to link the ports of Bristol and London, a proportion of the trade was more local.
The Company charged tolls on goods carried at so many pence per mile and for this purpose goods were divided into 4 classes, each carrying a different charge.
This list indicates the diversity of cargoes carried.
In order to properly administer the toll system, the company arranged for all canal craft carrying cargoes to be gauged at special docks.
This procedure involved measuring the freeboard, or dry inches, with a toll staff. Weights were added to the boat in ¼ ton or ½ ton stages.
In this way a toll collector could determine the weight carried by a narrow boat or barge of any size and capacity.
At approximately the same time as the Kennet and Avon Canal became operational, the Somerset Coal Canal and the Wilts and Berks Canal were also completed.
Coal from the Somerset coalfields was brought down the coal canal to join the K&A at Brassknocker Basin at the western end of the Dundas Aqueduct.
From this junction coal could be taken anywhere on the Kennet and Avon, and soon became an important cargo.
The Wilts and Berks Canal ran from Semington, near Melksham, Wiltshire, to the Thames at Abingdon, Oxfordshire, and was used as a short cut for trade between the Midlands and the western end of the K&A.
These tributary canals whilst being important in their own right, also provided an added advantage in that they allowed an increase in markets for the products of those traders that used the K&A.
Whilst cargoes were often diverse in nature, George Hams spent much of his working life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries carrying tin plate boxes from Robbins Lane & Pinniger to Bristol, on the barge ‘Unity’, returning from Avonmouth near Bristol with deal boards and scantlings.A trip to Avonmouth or to London with a horse drawn barge was not an easy journey.The canal company which, by then, was the GWR, did not allow steam powered vessels to trade on the waterway as they claimed that such craft caused bank wash and increased the cost of maintenance as more frequent dredging became necessary as a result. As a consequence horse, or some times manpower, was the only motive force available, particularly as sails were normally impracticable within the confines of a canal.
Alec Huntly who lived beside the canal at Honeystreet remembered seeing timber stamped with exotic sounding names such as Archangel, Murmansk, Bergen and Oslo being delivered to Robbins Lane and Pinnegar’s wharves.
That company also ran a fertiliser factory at Honeystreet, near Pewsey in Wiltshire and Tom Hams, who worked as a bargeman at Honeystreet, for example, used to take the barge Unity to Avonmouth to pick up carboys of acid using two horses to haul the laden barge back up the Avon and on to Honeystreet.This journey was made necessary because the canal owners (GWR) considered the cargo too hazardous to transport by rail.
Only one horse was needed to return the empty carboys, so two days after the barge departed from Honeystreet the second horse, which was needed for the long haul back, would be walked to the station at Woodborough, near Pewsey to catch the train for Bristol and so meet up with the barge again.
Many more wharves existed in the 19th century than are in evidence today. At Newbury two whole canal basins now lie beneath the library and car park. At Reading the entire length of the river was lined with wharves. Although today, only one wharf can be seen at the Wiltshire market town of Devizes, where there were once seven. Approaching Devizes by canal from the west, one first encounters Marsh Lane Basin at the bottom of Caen Hill. Most of the western edge of this triangle of water was wharf with a basin in the north corner. The main trade here was in road materials and manure. Above Caen Hill there was a dock where St Peter’s Church now stands. The Quaker meeting house now occupies what was Sussex Wharf, and old stables are still located on Lower Wharf, behind Wadworth’s brewery. After this comes Town Wharf, which is the only one remaining today and just before the canal bends sharply is what was once a stone wharf at London Road. Finally there was a sand wharf near Coate Bridge from where very fine sand that was used in foundry casting, was transported to Bath and Bristol.
Devizes Wharf past and present
In its heyday the canal brought prosperity to the areas through which it passed, changing small rural villages such as for example Pewsey in Wiltshire, into relatively prosperous towns. Not only did the canal provide an effective means for the transport of a myriad of goods, but it also enabled a number of ancillary trades and activities to flourish.
Some of the most prominent of these were the waggoners, who provided an essential service delivering goods to and from the wharves, and the wheelwrights who manufactured and repaired wheels for the carts and other vehicles that carried those goods.
At Great Bedwyn there was a wheelwright’s shed on the wharf, and the last wheelwright operating from there ceased to trade in the 1940s.
Other associated trades included blacksmiths who not only produced much of the ironwork used on the canal but also provided the regular function of shoeing horses.
Stabling for horses
Horses also needed stabling and some of the original stable buildings are still in evidence along the canal, although most are now used for other purposes.
Boat building was also an important ancillary trade, and in addition to large boat building concerns such as Robins, Lane and Pinniger at Honeystreet, it is likely that some craft were simply built on the side of the canal in a position where they could be easily launched side on.
Boats and barges for use on the K&A were mainly built using local timber from the Savernake Forest and from around the town of Hungerford. Timber was labouriously reduced by sawing over sawpits, and knees and other acutely bent timbers were fashioned from branches which had naturally grown to the shape required.
The heavy oak timbers used for planks, were bent where required by steaming until supple enough to be forced into place around the boat or barges frames. All this work was carried out with a minimum of tools and required great skill in application.
Plenty and Sons
Other local firms whose products supported the canal trade were Plenty and Sons of Newbury, who produced steam engines for pumping and other applications, and various sail and rope makers from whom canvas tarpaulins and sheeting to protect cargoes, and ropes for a myriad of uses, were purchased.
Crane makers such as Acramans of Bristol also provided essential equipment, and installed their products on wharves along the canal.
The one remaining Acramans crane can still be seen at Dundas Wharf at Brassknocker Basin where it has stood since around 1830.