The city of Bristol was the fourth largest medieval town (after London, York and Norwich), and it was England's second largest sea port (after London) at the end of the 17th century. However, there was no direct cross-country route to London - a distance of "only" 100 miles. The roads were in terrible state before the 18th century Turnpike Acts, especially for the transport of heavy goods.
The 14 miles of tidal river Avon (from the River Severn through the Clifton gorge to central Bristol) had always been navigable. Prior to about 1200 the river from Bristol to Bath had also been navigable to small boats. However, from the early 13th century the river became obstructed by water mills. During the Elizabethan and Stuart period several schemes were proposed, but none was successful.
In 1626, Henry Briggs, Professor of Geometry at Merton College, Oxford, found that the headwaters of the river Avon and river Thames were only three miles apart – but Briggs suddenly died, and any thought of linking them lapsed.
The Civil War prevented any further thoughts of navigation. In 1660, after the restoration of Charles II, four Bills were proposed to link London and Bristol, but none was passed.
Only on 22 May 1712 did a Bristol to Bath Navigation Bill receive Royal Assent.
This was the era of Bath in its full glory! In 1705 Beau Nash was appointed Master of Ceremonies – and became the uncrowned King of Bath. Ralph Allen, previously postmaster of Bath, had made a fortune with various Post Office contracts. He bought the stone quarries at Combe Down and Bathampton Down - a sound business investment. The third member of the important trio was John Wood Senior, the architect of Queen Square, the Circus, Royal Crescent, Assembly Rooms, and Prior Park mansion (for Ralph Allen).
It was hard to transport stone by packhorse, and in 1724 Ralph Allen became part owner of Bath to Hanham Mills navigation. Work started to improve the navigation. John Hore was appointed as engineer, and he installed six locks. The work was completed at a cost of £12,000, and the Avon Navigation was opened in December 1727.
Ralph Allen built railways to get the stone down from Bathampton Down and Combe Down to the river. He made a huge profit, at least partly from the huge export of fine stone to the developing cities of Dublin and Belfast.
So far so good – but this is still Bristol to Bath only. What about extending east of Bath?
Several meetings were held (in 1729, 1734 and 1735), but no-one was interested. The navigation was restricted to the Bristol to Bath section only.
- Kennet & Avon Canal Photo Gallery (for additional archive photographs)