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IWA – 75 Years of Campaigns

2021 was a very special year for The Inland Waterways Association, marking 75 years of campaigns to save, restore and protect our canals and rivers.

It is possible to walk or boat along many waterways now only because of our early volunteers.

This photographic journey is a celebration of the work of volunteers and campaigners across the country who saved the waterways and helped to make them what they are today.

1945 – It all began at Tardebigge

It all began at Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in August 1945. After reading Tom Rolt’s book Narrow Boat, Robert Aickman, a London literary agent, wrote to Rolt, and a meeting between them took place on Cressy, Rolt’s boat. During the visit, the seed of an idea to campaign for preserving and improving the country’s waterways was firmly planted. After much correspondence between the two men, an inaugural meeting for a waterways association was arranged for early in 1946.

Photo: Cyril Smith, President of Worcester & Birmingham Canal Society, speaking at the unveiling ceremony of a plaque to commemorate the occasion in 1982.

1948 – Fact-finding tour of the northern waterways

When Robert Aickman planned a fact-finding tour of the northern waterways in the summer of 1948, the route included Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. Permission was given to traverse the canal despite it having been officially closed in 1944. It was to be more than 50 years before the canal reopened, and the through trip became possible again. The boat for the trip, Ailsa Craig, had been hired from The Canal Cruising Company at Stone.

Similar fact-finding tours became a feature in IWA’s calendar for many subsequent years.

Photo: Diggle end of Standedge Tunnel in 1968 by John Gagg

1950 – First Boat Rally at Market Harborough

Having previously organised car rallies, Tom Rolt suggested a boat rally would be good publicity and involve IWA’s members. The first Boat Rally at Market Harborough, which included an arts festival, was a great success with 120 boats and large numbers of the public. It coincided with the end of Tom Rolt’s involvement in IWA, as the split that had been developing with Robert Aickman proved unbridgeable.

Photo: Early arrivals at Market Harborough rally in 1950 by C P Weaver, with thanks to Historic Narrow Boat Club.

1950 – Exploring new waterways

With a growing membership, IWA started organising boat trips so that members could discover new waterways. At this time, the Regent’s Canal was a commercial waterway with the public discouraged from using towpaths and access limited. Trips like this provided a glimpse into an otherwise hidden world.

Photo: Regent’s Canal boat trip in 1950. Robert Aickman Collection, the Waterways Archive, courtesy Canal & River Trust

1968 – The Transport Act that promised a new future

The future of the nationalised canals for pleasure boats was secured with the 1968 Transport Act classifying usable canals without commercial traffic as ‘Cruiseways’. ‘Remainder’ unnavigable waterways were guaranteed to not be allowed to deteriorate further over the next 3 years, allowing time for restoration proposals to be made. The Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council (IWAAC), which included IWA activists, was set up to investigate these and give advice on use of the network for recreation. It wasn’t quite the National Waterways Conservancy that IWA had long campaigned for, as it only covered those waterways nationalised in 1948, but it was a big step towards it.

The sting in the tail, however, was the removal of the historic right of navigation, which IWA and others had relied on to get reluctant waterway authorities to do maintenance work.

Photo: Tame Valley Canal near Salford Junction in 1971, one of the canals classified as ‘Remainder’ in the 1968 Act. Photo by John Gagg.

1972 – ASHTAC

The restoration of the Ashton Canal, agreed to in 1971, was started in March 1972 with Ashtac, another mass work party. Restoration continued over the next two years and the canal was reopened in May 1974. As far back as 1961, Robert Aickman had regarded the Ashton Canal as a bellweather for the canal system as a whole, arguing that if the campaign to restore the Ashton was lost then IWA’s fight to protect the whole network would have been effectively lost too.

Unlike Operation Ashton, Ashtac was a collaborative event, reflecting the change in the political atmosphere on the waterways.

Photo: Some of the 1,000+ volunteers on Ashtac in 1972 by Robin Higgs

1960s to 1990s – Birmingham Canal Navigations revival

IWA campaigned for the retention of the BCN system, much of which was threatened with ‘Remainder’ status in 1967.  This included a 24-hour protest cruise in March 1968 and a conference at Birmingham University in July 1968, both organised by the Midlands Branch.  IWA’s National Rally was held in Birmingham in August 1969. Also in 1969, IWA co-operated with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Society to produce a cruising guide to the BCN, followed by IWA Birmingham Branch’s very detailed ‘Cruising and Walking Guide to the BCN’ in 1984. The competitive 24-hour Marathon Challenge was run by IWA annually from 1993 to 2002 (more recently run by the BCN Canal Society). These, along with annual BCN Clean Up weekends, all raised the profile of the BCN and ensured the survival of many less well-used sections.

Photo: A well-crewed narrowboat Ben approaching Windmill End Junction on the Dudley No. 2 Canal on the Marathon Challenge in 1999. Photo by Alison Smedley

2005 – Saving the Chelmer & Blackwater

IWA Chelmsford Branch had taken a close interest in the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation since the branch was formed, just before commercial trading on the waterway ceased in 1972, and it was instrumental in the navigation becoming popular for leisure cruising. The Branch led the restoration and reopening of Springfield Basin and Lock in 1993. In 2003, the navigation company that had operated the waterway since its opening in 1793, went into administration and IWA took over management
from November 2005 through Essex Waterways Ltd, a subsidiary company formed for the purpose. This has been a huge success with the waterway’s operation highly regarded both locally and nationally.

Photo: Sailing barge Thalata leaving Heybridge Sea Lock in 2015. Photo by Roy Chandler


IWA fought against closure of the Forth & Clyde Canal in 1963 and then lobbied for its reopening, supporting the formation of the Forth & Clyde Canal  Society in 1980. A separate Scottish IWA (now closed) had formed in 1971, but IWA continued its support, including occasional visits from WRG. Millennium Lottery funding enabled both lowland canals to reopen in 2002. When Canal & River Trust was formed, the Scottish Government decided to maintain its waterways and ‘Scottish Canals’ was formed. In 2017,
IWA became concerned at some of Scottish Canals’ policies, which resulted in a lack of maintenance and boating restrictions. Bridges needing maintenance were simply closed, blocking the coast-to-coast route. Lobbying by IWA and local groups has been rewarded in recent years with significant additional funding from the Scottish government, which has enabled the bridges to be reopened.

Photo: Reopening of the Bonnybridge Lift Bridge on the Forth & Clyde Canal in 2019 following a campaign for funding. Photo by Jonathan Mosse.

In achieving this great milestone, our members can look back with pride having supported IWA over the past 75 years.

Paul Rodgers, former IWA National Chair