Inland Waterways Association

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Inland Waterways Association
Narrowboat on the Peak Forest Canal, Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire, England.jpg
Peak Forest Canal, Whaley Bridge
Founded 1946 (1946)
Registration no. 212342
Focus British canals and river navigations.
Area served
United Kingdom

The Inland Waterways Association (IWA) was formed in 1946 as a registered charity in the United Kingdom to campaign for the conservation, use, maintenance, restoration and sensitive development of British Canals and river navigations.

Notable founding members included L. T. C. Rolt and Robert Aickman.[1]


Early years[edit]

The Association was sparked off by a letter sent by Robert Aickman to Tom Rolt following the publication of Rolt's highly successful book, Narrow Boat in 1944 describing the declining and largely unknown world of the British canals. The inaugural meeting took place on 15th Feb 1946 in London, with Robert Aickman as chairman, Charles Hadfield, vice-chairman, Tom Rolt honorary secretary and Frank Eyre as treasurer. A pamphlet called "The Future of the Waterways" was produced by Rolt and the first action took place in 1947 when the Rolts aboard Cressy challenged the Great Western Railway who owned the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal and had replaced the Lifford drawbridge at Kings Norton Junction by a "temporary" fixed bridge which prevented navigation. After a question in Parliament by Lord Methuen, the bridge was raised to allow Cressy to pass. [2] An Inland Waterways Exhibition was organised at Heal's Mansard Gallery in London which was so successful that it was taken on a one month's tour of provincial art galleries.[3]

By now the IWA had attracted a galaxy of talent, including as president, the writer and parliamentarian Sir A.P. Herbert, and as vice-president the naturalist Peter Scott. Scott's wife Elizabeth Jane Howard was part-time secretary, working in the Aickman's flat in Gower Street. The council included Lord Bingham.

In the year 1948 that the canal system was nationalised, a more extensive campaign took place, in August, when the Ailsa Craig was hired for a six week cruise of the northern canals, which included probably the last crossing of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal before its restoration in 2001. The first boat rally and festival was organized at Market Harborough in August 1950, a meeting place open to boats wide and narrow from south and north of England and off the busier commercial routes. 120 boats and 50,000 visitors attended and this laid the birth of the highly successful rallies that have been a feature of the IWA ever since.

Unfortunately this was overshadowed by a huge row among the organizers. Tom Rolt had resigned as secretary some months before because of pressure of his other work as a writer, though remaining an active member. His next book, The Inland Waterways of England was also due to be published in August, though Rolt claims that it was a coincidence as he did not tell the publisher of the rally that had been organized.[3] Aickman, through Eyre, attempted to prevent Rolt from attending the rally and promoting his book but this only led to the publisher Philip Unwin also attending. There had been personality conflicts with Aickman which had led Charles Hadfield to resign his position as vice-chairman as early as 1946, and disagreements over policy. Aickman wanted to campaign to keep all of the waterways open,[4] whereas Rolt had more sympathies with the traditional canal workers and realised that it was necessary to prioritize which canals could be reasonably be kept open. Aickman engineered a change to the rules to require all members to conform to agreed IWA principles and in early 1951, Rolt, Hadfield and others were excluded from membership.[5]

Stemming the flow[edit]

During most of the 1950s the IWA was fighting in an era when the British Transport Commission (BTC) saw the commercial use of the canal system as its main goal. The country did not have enough money to spend on canal maintenance let alone restoration. The canals, particularly the narrow system, had become inadequate for modern commerce and slowly dropped into disuse.

Early attempts at involvement in saving a canal, when the Basingstoke Canal had come up for sale in 1949, were flouted when a canal committee set up to save it saw their contributions used to support a private bid from their nominated bidder.

A more hopeful start was made on the lower reaches of the Warwickshire Avon, a river where commercial navigation had long since been stopped because of perennial flooding problems so it was not part of BTC's remit. Learning from the experience of the Basingstoke Canal, the IWA advised the formation of a charitable trust and Douglas Barwell who had joined the Midland's branch with this in mind, took charge of the project of restoration.

Local campaigns emerged with the threats to various canals, including the Oxford and Kennet and Avon. An all-party parliamentary committee was set up with 30 sympathetic MPs becoming honorary members of the IWA. A fight to save the Stroudwater Canal was lost in Parliament, although 112 MPs voted against it.

In March 1955 a Board of Survey reported and recommended the downgrading and possible disposal of 771 miles of waterway parts including some like the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, that had already been abandoned and closed to traffic. In response, IWA advocated a National Waterway Conservancy to look after all the waterways and pointed out that it is cheaper to restore and use waterways than to eliminate them. A non-party parliamentary petition was also organized. Slowly opinions were moved so that by the autumn when the annual BTC bill was placed before parliament, the measure did not include the announced measure and the chair of BTC told MPs that he regretted that the board had not had a more independent basis.

The campaign to save the Kennet and Avon Canal intensified. A group supporting its restoration had set up independently after the argument within the IWA but were now brought back within the IWA by the chairman Lionel Munk who was to form a crucial part in the campaign and a trust was set up. A 22,000 signature petition to the Queen was brought from Bristol by water, though parts of the canal had to be traversed by canoe to get it through. In March 1956 a clause in the BTC bill to close the K&A was defeated.[6]

A new committee of enquiry was set up and the IWA invited, amongst others, to give detailed plans for the viability of the different waterways, which put considerable strain on an organisation which didn't at the time have any permanent staff and whose financial affairs were in some disarray. Christopher Clifford, a JP made the presentation. At this stage another dispute arose within the organisation when Aickman pushed to seek incorporation as a company limited by guarantee. At the time there was no chairman of the council, as Aickman had been persuaded to keep only the position of Founder and Vice-President after the last crisis, and he himself was ordered to rest by his doctor at this time. Although the motion was eventually passed, several branches broke away from the organisation.

Canal restoration[edit]

In Warwickshire, work on the Lower Avon was nearing completion after a decade of hard work and it was confirmed that nobody owned the rights to the upper reaches which led to Stratford-upon-Avon. The prospect of a connection from the Severn through to the Midlands was in sight when the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal was threatened with abandonment

In 1958 a wealthy businessman member named John Smith, who had an honorary post in the National Trust suggested that it might take over the canal. Another enthusiastic member, David Hutchings, took over the task of restoration after the National Trust agreed a five year lease on the canal a year later pointing out that the cost of filling it in would be £120,000 whereas the cost of restoration was only £40,000, and completed it on time despite the extremely cold winter of 1962-3. The reopening coincided with the 400th Anniversary celebration of Shakespeare's birth at Stratford-upon-Avon and the Aickman accompanied the Queen Mother in a much-publicized narrow boat trip to reopen the canal into the river as part of a large festival that included 200 boats outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

The experience of restoration led to the creation of the Waterway Recovery Group at the 1970 Guildford IWA Rally[7] by Graham Palmer as an independent charity to act as a co-ordinating force, providing equipment, expertise, publicity and labour to help local restoration schemes.[8] They organised week-end and longer work camps where students and older folks could get dirty doing practical restoration work and were involved in many projects, including saving the Peak Forest and Ashton canals from closure, work on the Kennet and Avon Canal, the barge lock on the Droitwich Canal and many other flying visits.

A new order emerges[edit]

The government set up an Inland Waterways Redevelopment Advisory Committee in 1961 to consider the future of canals that were not considered viable. Two of the IWA stalwarts, John Smith and Lionel Munk, were included on this, together with Tom Rolt. This went against Aickman's slogan of "fighting for every mile" although shortly after this he admitted privately to Lionel Munk that he was now a "90% man".[5] Requests for closures came in thick and fast from British Transport Waterways (soon to separated from the BTC as the British Waterways Board) as the commercial use of the canals was declining rapidly.

People from Aickman to Hadfield (who now joined the BWB) had argued that the canals should be run by a trust such as the National Trust, but the new body faced the same commercial pressures as its predecessors. The Transport Act 1968 showed a new commitment to amenity use, but waterways were put into three classes: commercial, cruising and remainder. One casualty of this was the Kennet and Avon which has never been lifted out of the bottom category for which only essential maintenance was available. The act also removed the statutory right of navigation for these canals.

The period of the 70s and 80s are characterised as "three steps forward, two steps back" by David Blagrove.[9] The restorations and growth in the leisure boat industry were offset by multitudes of other problems with closures of canals, tunnel failures and the breakdown of the Anderton lift. However the attitude of BWB gradually changed from scepticism to a more friendly attitude to the organisation.

The completion of the restored Kennet and Avon Canal in 1990 and the availability of lottery funding from 1994 opened up new possibilities. The membership, which had steadily expanded during the previous decades, settled at around 20,000 and the attendance at the annual rallies and festivals kept their popularity.

Organisation and governance[edit]

Working boats

IWA is organised into regions, each of which consist of several branches. The regions are: East Midlands, Eastern, London, North East & Yorkshire, North West & North Wales, South East, South West & South Wales, and West Midlands.

Manchester Ship Canal, Runcorn

The current National Chairman is Clive Henderson, and the National Deputy-Chairmen are Les Etheridge, Roger Squires and Vaughan Welch.

The Association is governed by a Board of Trustees; among its members are the actor David Suchet and Sheila Suchet.

The main committees are Finance, Navigation, Restoration, Promotions and Communications, Waterway Recovery Group, Inland Waterways Enterprises Limited, IWA Festivals Division, Inland Waterways Freight Group, IWA Committee for Wales, and Essex Waterways Limited.

Main activities[edit]

Boathorse Queenie

The IWA membership in 2010 is over 17,500.[10]

The Association works closely with United Kingdom navigation authorities including British Waterways and other waterway bodies, a wide range of national and local authorities, voluntary, private and public sector organisations.

Castlefield moorings, Manchester

IWA is engaged in fundraising, lobbying for support, and encouraging public participation. It also organises conferences for waterways societies, e.g. on how to obtain funding.

The Association also supplies voluntary labour through its subsidiary, the Waterway Recovery Group.

It is a registered charity, number 212342.[11]

Through these efforts, more than 500 miles of derelict and unavailable canals and river navigations have been re-opened [12] to public use since the Association was founded. Another 500 miles are currently the subject of restoration plans.[13] However, the Association believes there is still much to do.

IWA as navigation authority[edit]

Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation

In November 2005 IWA signed a maintenance and operating agreement with the Administrator of The Company of Proprietors of the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation Ltd, whereby IWA will be responsible for the navigation in perpetuity. The Chelmsford Branch of the IWA worked closely with the C&BNCo from 1994 until it went into administration in August 2003.

IWA has formed a subsidiary company, Essex Waterways Ltd. and, with support from local authorities, will operate and maintain the river navigation for the benefit of the general public. This is the first time that IWA has taken full operational and maintenance responsibilities for a navigation.

IWA National Festival[edit]

IWA Rally at Beale Park, 2006
Main article: IWA National Festival

Every year, the Association organises the IWA National Festival & Boat Show which is run entirely by volunteers on behalf of IWA. These regularly attract large numbers of boats and visitors and have extensive exhibitions. For example, the rally at Beale Park in 2006 on the Thames above Reading had 600 boats and 28,000 visitors.

IWA National Campaign Rally[edit]

NB Maria, Peak Forest Canal, England

The Campaign rally has been an integral part of IWA activities since its inception. Bringing a large number of boats to a particular waterway highlights the difficulties of navigation and has kept a number of waterways open that would otherwise have closed.

In the past, the annual festival often had campaigning as one of its functions, but the number of boats attending makes many desirable venues impracticable. So, together with campaign rallies held by particular regions, a national campaign rally was established in 2006 to highlight the continued need for this activity.

Annual event

IWA National Trailboat Festival[edit]

Canalway Calvalcade at Little Venice, May 2005

Annual event

IWA Canalway Cavalcade[edit]

Annual event since 1983, organised by IWA at Little Venice, London over the early May Bank Holiday weekend, combining a Boat Rally with a trade show, activities and entertainments.


Two plaques commemorating the 1945 meeting which led to founding of the IWA stand at Tardebigge Top Lock on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "History of the IWA". 
  2. ^ "The 1940s". Inland Waterways Association. Retrieved 11 Jun 2010. 
  3. ^ a b L.T.C. Rolt (1977). Landscape with Canals. pp. 118–119. 
  4. ^ A motion passed by the council in November 1950 reads "this council confirms that the policy of the Association is to advocate the restoration to good order and maintenance in good order of every navigable waterway by both commercial and pleasure traffic." Ian Mackersey (1984). Tom Rolt and the Cressy Years. London: M&M Baldwin. p. 87. 
  5. ^ a b David Bolton (1990). Race against time. Methuen. pp. 89–91. 
  6. ^ "Kennet & Avon Canal". Inland Waterways Association. Retrieved 17 May 2011. 
  7. ^ "Navvies 183". WRG. Retrieved 2010-06-15. [dead link]
  8. ^ "Canal Resurgence: The Inland Waterways Association's Waterway Recovery Group Celebrates 40 Years of Achievement". IWA. Retrieved 2010-06-15. 
  9. ^ David Blagrove (2006). The Inland Waterways Association: Saving Britain's canal and river navigations. tempus. 
  10. ^ "About Us". IWA. Retrieved 11 Jun 2010. 
  11. ^ Inland Waterways Association, Registered Charity no. 212342 at the Charity Commission
  12. ^ "History of Waterways Restoration". 
  13. ^ "2009 Survey Analysis (pdf)". 

External links[edit]