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The Waterway passing by

Denham has long been a stopping place for travellers on the road from London to Oxford. In the 18th century the journey took at least two days. Travellers would normally stay overnight in High Wycombe, but the village of Denham offered the weary travellers on unpaved roads and tracks a break for rest and refreshment.

Of course the journey became a great deal shorter in the 19th century with road improvements and the coming of the railways, but one means of transportation has continued at a leisurely pace close by our village - the canal that at first served the vital needs of industrial growth and which latterly has provided so much leisure time enjoyment.

This month we tell the story of the Grand Union Canal beginning with the history of the development of the canal network and the determination of one formidable female politician who ensured the preservation of an important legacy.

Barbara Betts Castle

It is most appropriate, just after Women’s History Month, that as we continue our focus on the special environmental and recreational areas on our doorsteps, we honour Barbara Betts Castle, a determined female politician who stood no nonsense from men who thought of politics as their preserve. Barbara Castle had many opponents on all sides of the political spectrum, but she certainly made a significant positive contribution to an important feature of Denham's history. She was instrumental in ensuring that the Grand Union Canal remained a vital part of the UK infrastructure. At Denham, the Grand Union Canal passes through Denham Country Park. (After a merger of several canals in 1929, the Grand Junction Canal became known as the Grand Union Canal.) Our access to the Canal and Lock No. 87, the deepest on the canal system with an 11-foot drop, continues to be navigable, thanks to more than a century of public and private support as well as volunteer efforts.

Though we can each of us make our views known to our elected officials, who continue to represent us, and to volunteer out services when possible, few of us will ever be in a position to influence our environment as Barbara Castle did.

Barbara Anne Betts was born in Chesterfield in 1910. Like her father, a civil servant, who became editor of the Bradford Pioneer, the city's socialist newspaper, Barbara was a member of the Independent Labour Party and later became a contributor to the Tribune, a left-wing socialist weekly . While still a working journalist and after marrying Ted Castle in 1944, she was elected a Member of Parliament to represent Blackburn, a northern industrial city. She remained its MP from 1945 to 1979. At the age of 91, she died at her home in Ibstone, Buckinghamshire, on 3 May 2002.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson appointed Barbara Castle Minister of Transport in December 1965, a time when her predecessors thought completing the road network was the only transport priority. In the late 1960s, it was impossible to ignore the increasing dominance of the automobile – private transport for individuals was beginning to have an impact on the whole of society. Also, by the end of the 1960s freightliners were operating their own fleets of lorries used to transport goods by road. At the height of the railroad, a lorry was described as a freight-carrying rail car, and prior to that time, a lorry was a low-loading trolley, pulled by a horse-drawn vehicle to carry other vehicles and large loads.

When Barbara Castle took the reins as the Minister of Transport, the country’s extensively nationalised public transport system was in disrepair and deteriorating at alarming rates. Many believed that maintaining public transport was no longer a viable option. Castle’s vision, however, was to bring order to the chaos of the wider transport network. She challenged the Government’s position, believing instead that "This is really a matter of faith in our own future as a nation. If we believe we have a great future, then we must also believe that … we shall have the resources to remould our environment to our liking."

Decades of expansion and heavy use of the canal system, followed by neglect would require changing attitudes and management schemes, and cooperation in order to save this historic piece of infrastructure.

The coming of the canal network

Before 1700, the early canals were small and privately constructed by wealthy landowners to provide new markets for their agricultural products. Early success prompted more bankers, merchants - particularly coalmine owners, textile manufacturers, and pottery barons, to build canals to open up new markets for their products. Some were highly beneficial for the owner, as well as the consumer. In 1761, for example, the Duke of Bridgewater opened a canal between his colliery (a coal mine and the buildings and equipment associated with it) at Worsley and the rapidly growing town of Manchester. Within weeks of the canal’s opening, the price of coal in Manchester halved.

Other canal-building schemes were quickly authorised by Acts of Parliament to link up an expanding network of rivers and waterways, including Paddington close to the heart of London. The Paddington Arm opened on 10 July 1801, linking the Grand Junction Canal to West London. The Paddington Arm terminated in a 400-yard long basin, 30 yards wide, around which were wharves, a hay and straw market, sheds for warehousing, and pens for livestock. Paddington was soon a busy inland transhipment point, with goods being carried on to other parts of London on carts.

Beginning in 1801, a passenger boat service was operating between Paddington and Uxbridge. The Paddington Packet Boat were narrow beamed boats whose boat crews were known for wearing smart blue uniforms with yellow capes and yellow buttons. On Friday 31 July 1801 The London Sun newspaper announced the schedule: “On Saturday next, and every day afterwards, the Boat will set out from Paddington at eight o’clock each morning, and leave Uxbridge on its return, at three o’clock in the afternoon" Fares were set for passengers and luggage; tea was available if you brought your own, alcohol was not. Smoking and walking around were prohibited and dogs were not allowed. The Paddington Packet Boat was a well-used passenger service that continued until 1810.

The lack of a local railway service created a demand for a passenger boat service along the canal to connect with the railway network. These were called 'fly-boats', which were long narrowboats with covered seating for passengers. They were usually towed by two horses (often galloping!) and travelled much faster than any other boats on the canal. They had 'right of way' over other boats, which had to release their towlines to let the fly-boat pass. Fly boats could also go to the front if there was a queue of boats at lock gates.

By 1815, over 2,000 miles of canals were in use in Britain, carrying thousands of tonnes of raw materials and manufactured goods by horse-drawn barge. A report in the Uxbridge & W.Drayton Gazette tells of how foreign timber, dry goods, slates and about 10,000 tonnes of coal were annually brought into its docks. Grain, flour and bricks were exported. Brickfields around Hayes and West Drayton expanded and became the most important industry in the area. It was a trade which continued well into the twentieth century. Vince Thorn, who still lives in West Drayton remembers barges that were steel hull and timber covered, with the timber mainly from the Scandinavian countries.

Vince lived next door to Mr. and Mrs. Wood, parents of Rolling Stones guitarist, Ronnie Wood and the musicians and graphic artists Arthur (Art) Wood junior and Ted Wood. Ron, who was married in St. Mary's church in 1985, has said that his generation was the first in the family to be born on dry land. Arthur Wood, Sr. worked on the barges, at the helm taking empty barges to Paddington Basin then taking the train back to West Drayton. Vince tells of how, in the 1950s, Mr. Wood would guide the barges full of London rubbish and rubble from bombed buildings from the Blitz to Scobies Yard in West Drayton. The loads of rubble were used as landfill in the dug out gravel pits; while the clay and sand from the pits were used to make bricks, to help rebuild London and other cities. Brick making was a major manufacturing business in West Drayton.

Maintaining the man-made canals was laborious and sporadic. In May 1836 the Leicester Journal reported that: A stoppage will take place on 16 May next, upon the Grand Union Canal for seven days, and 200 men will be required to cleanse out about four miles between Foxton Locks and Bosworth tunnel. The Company[EP10] will find scoops."

With the arrival of the railway system in the 1840s, the canal transport system changed. Indeed, to eliminate competition from waterways, railway companies began buying up canals and by the late 19thCentury they had acquired about one-third of the British canal systems.

Although the struggle of competition with the railways was a constant problem from the mid-19th Century onwards, the Grand Union Canal remained a busy route throughout its commercial life. In the 1930s companies such as Fellows, Morton & Clayton worked hard to modernise both the canal and their fleets of boats operating on it. There was financial support from the Government for this work, which helped to relieve unemployment caused by the great depression of the 1930s. Eventually, only the broad waterways which linked with main estuarial ports, such as the combined Grand Junction/Union route, survived as profitable transport channels. However, it too went into steep decline through the 1950s when road transport developed considerably. Although it has always remained open to commercial traffic, it is now well used by leisure craft.

Canals mid 20th century - who needs them ?

During the Second World War, the Government began to control the canals and continued to do so under the 1947 Transport Act. Under the Act, railways, long-distance road hauliers and some inland waterways were nationalised and placed under the control of the newly formed British Transport Commission (BTC). Its 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.” Air transport was excluded. 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. Meanwhile, some canals called ‘dirty ditches’ were used as dumping grounds making transport impossible unless they were designated to be cleaned out and repaired. The BTC exercised control over its vast empire through a number of ‘Executives' set up to manage specific sections of the transport industry. From 1 January 1948, the assets of the Grand Union Canal Company were taken over by the ‘The Docks and Inland Waterways 'Executive'. During the following decade, the Executive, (and later the BTC itself) invested in British canals, but the large backlog of wartime neglect coupled with the high cost of remedial work and the rapid growth of road haulage made significant modernisation uneconomic. Commercial canal carrying continued its decline, relying increasingly on government subsidy to make good its losses.

Finally, Parliament abolished the monolithic BTC by the Transport Act 1962, which transferred its inland waterway assets to the newly formed British Waterways Board. Along with efficiently and safely managing the waterways, this newly established Board was delegated “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 Board commenced work. 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 1964 Report was good news for the future of the Grand Union Canal. "The Board are also disturbed by the losses on the main line of the Grand Union Canal…and there is no immediate prospect in sight for arresting this decline. …However, given the crucial position it occupies in the pleasure network and its potential… the Grand Union main line should be one of the waterways given 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."

Then came Barbara Castle

Then was the advent of Barbara Castle. In her appointed role as Minister of Transport in December 1965, Barbara Castle was responsible for introducing the Bill that eventually became the 1968 Transport Act, now remembered mostly for its introduction of seat-belt requirements, speed restrictions, and tachographs in commercial vehicles. At the time, Treasury was planning further growth in road transport ― which then accounted for 90% of passenger miles and 60% of freight tonne-miles ― and with this end in mind, the Treasury intended to eliminate the canal network, with some canals being transformed into roads. Barbara Castle 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. As a result, the Treasury shelved its plans, and an “extensive and exhaustive” consultation process commenced, its principal aim being to establish the size of the pleasure cruising network to be retained. Quangos, trade associations, local clubs and “many hundreds of individuals” expressed their views about the fate of the canals during the consultation year.

At the close of the consultation, the Ministry summed up the situation in the following prophetic words in its White Paper:

“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.” – Ministry of Transport, 1967.

Her Bill, Barbara Castle told the Commons, offered: "new hope for those who love and use our canals (which she herself did), whether for cruising, angling or just walking on the towpath, or who want to see stretches of canal in some of our unlovely built-up areas, developed as centres of beauty or fun."

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 a 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 a new and continuing liability for maintenance. Despite this, the Government is keen to encourage volunteer effort to develop the amenity network of waterways.” – Ministry of Transport, 1967.

Closer to Denham, the Middlesex County Times, on 15 September 1967, announced on its front page: “Pleasureway Plan for the Grand Union Canal” supporting the findings in the White Paper. And so, the category of Cruising Waterways came to be recognised in law and then enshrined in the Transport Act, 1968.

Mrs. Castle had moved into a different role before the Bill completed its passage through Parliament, the resulting Act it is a vital part of her legacy. The Act provided a measure of safeguard for the remaining canal network.

The Act classified the nationalised waterways into three distinct categories:

Commercial ― waterways that could still support commercial traffic, 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.

Barbara Castle had managed to minimise closures on the 1,400-mile canal network as it was then, and the Grand Union Canal found its place among the cruising canals. Of its 137 miles , the Grand Union Canal includes 166 locks allowing boats to travel to different levels on the waterway. (Every time a lock is used, thousands of litres of water are moved lower down the canal. If there is not a good water supply, or paddles on the lock gates are left open, this can result in there not being enough water for the boats to pass through the locks and travel on to their destination.)

200 years and thriving

As the Grand Union Canal as a single waterway was formed from a merger of other canals in 1929, It is not possible to attach a date to its origin but it was decided to celebrate the bicentenary of canal construction in 1993, nine years before Barbara Castle died.

In May 1993 the Uxbridge & W.Drayton Gazette, taking a little journalistic licence to attach the celebrations only to the Grand Union reported:

“The bicentenary of the Grand Union Canal was celebrated in style at the weekend at the first Rickmansworth Canal Festival. More than two years planning and a £100,000 investment came to fruition as 90 narrow boats from all over Britain moored along the canal banks by Batchworth Lock for three days. For some, the boats brought back memories of a way of life long gone. For many of the 5,000 schoolchildren attending the education day, it was a revelation to learn about the pace of transport in the past.

The organisers, Rickmansworth Waterways Trust, had arranged a host of activities around the main canal site and nearby at Rickmansworth Aquadrome.

The Grand Union runs from London to Birmingham and played a vital role in transporting heavy cargo inland during the Industrial Revolution. From Rickmansworth, the canal climbs 400 feet above sea level in the Chilterns."

Tim Woodbridge, one of the Rickmansworth Waterways Trust’s directors, told the Gazette: "The Grand Union was one of the last working canals. A handful of boats were still working in the late 70s. Gravel from North London pits, that was carried on the Grand Union, was used heavily in London’s expansion between the 1890s and the 1950s. Factories were built beside the canal because it was the only way you could deliver 50 tons of coal (black diamonds) a day. The other main cargo towards the end of the canal’s working life was rubbish from Central London.

Mr Woodbridge added that in planning the festival, the Trust wanted to do something to bring the canal alive for new generations. Visitors could take a trip on the canal while the more adventurous went up in a hot-air balloon. Back on terra firma, there was almost non-stop music, everything from the folk songs of families who worked the canals to a moonlit concert.

The Uxbridge & W. Drayton Gazette returned to the story in July 1993 reporting that that “One of Hillingdon’s Labour councillors had a pleasant surprise from the postman recently. Peter Ryerson’s houseboat, Rosa, which is moored on the Grand Union Canal off Benbow Waye, had been chosen by the Royal Mail for photographs to promote their new range of stamps.” It is pictured here on the 24p stamp.

Until July 2012, British Waterways was the public corporation that cared for the 2,200-mile network of canals and rivers in England, Scotland and Wales. Its role was to ensure that the waterways could be used for all to enjoy, then and for many years to come. On 2 July 2012 the Government transferred inland waterways, reservoirs and a wide range of heritage buildings and structures in England and Wales into a new charitable body, the Canal & River Trust. In Scotland the management of canals remains within the public body, British Waterways.

The Trust receives a fixed grant from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over 15 years commencing 2012. Its major other sources of income are from utilities (including fibre optic data connections and water sales) and property rentals from a £500m property endowment granted by the Government. It also receives an income from issuing licences for boats using and mooring on the waterways; this is one of the largest income streams that Canal & River Trust Limited has, after the Government grant. It has also been given a funding pledge by the People’s Postcode Lottery and the National Lottery.

As with the multi-layer management of the Denham Country Park and the Colne Valley Regional Park, the Canal & River Trust includes management from its governing council, regional partnerships, trustees, executive directors as well as committees to:

· maintain and enhance the landscape

· safeguard the countryside

· conserve and enhance biodiversity

· provide opportunities for countryside recreation

· provide a vibrant and sustainable rural economy, and

· to encourage community participation.


Fly boat drawing by Rob Davies

Photo of Barbara Castle National Archives of Malawi, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

An idyllic spot on the Grand Union Canal between Denham and Uxbridge (Flickr/Steedman)

Gerard Gilbertson: Denham: A Pictorial Essay on Places and Buildings, Roadways, Railways, and Waterways

Royal Mail Mint Stamps, 1973, Pack No. 239, Design Keith Bassford, Text Tim Shackleton, Litho-Tech Limited, UK


Materials from the House of Commons Library including Hansard on the 1968 Transport Act

Fighting all the Way by Barbara Castle (MacMillan 1993)

Red Queen, the authorised biography of Barbara Castle by Anne Perkins (Pan 2003)

The Castle Diaries, 1964-1976 by Barbara Castle (Papermac 1990)

The Beeching Reports and 1966 Transport White Paper by Jonathan Bray

Published by pteg, 40-50 Wellington Street, Leeds LS1 2DE,September 2008

Gladwin, D.D. Victorian and Edwardian Canals from old photographs, 1976, Portman Books

Faulker, Alan H. FMC: A Short History of Fellows, Morton and Clayton Limited, 1975.



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