From the archives: a royal visit

The day the Queen Mother re­opened the Stratford­-upon­-Avon Canal


As you can imagine, the Canal & River Trust’s archives don’t hold many photos or ephemera depicting the original opening ceremonies of our canals, but there is a wealth of documentation about their re-openings, such as this wonderful archive photo of the Queen Mother re-opening the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal in 1964.

Many canal restorations took place in the 1960s and 70s, sparked by Tom Rolt’s revolutionary book Narrow Boat (1944), which brought the decline of the British canal system to nationwide attention and inspired the formation of the Inland Waterways Association.

One such canal rescued from ruin was the Stratford-upon-Avon, originally completed 200 years ago in 1816. Its runs from the suburbs of Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon – 25 miles in total – and like many other waterways of its heyday, its principal cargo was coal.

In 1845 the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway proposed building a line from Moreton-in-the-Marsh via Stratford to Birmingham. It offered to buy the the canal, an offer that was readily accepted. Traffic diminished, but the railway company had a legal obligation to keep the canal open. However, by the Second World War the southern section was almost unnavigable.

To the north, the canal owners fixed one of the swing bridges permanently shut. It soon became the scene of a number of incidents – where protesters, including Sir Peter Scott aboard his boat Beatrice, insisted it be moved as it was blocking a statutory right of navigation.

Meanwhile, the Southern Stratford quietly decayed. But when Warwickshire County Council announced it was closing the canal by lowering a bridge at Wilmcote, public outcry prompted a campaign for restoration. Proposals for closure were stymied at the 11th hour by a canoeist who produced a toll ticket less than three years old, proving that boats still wanted to navigate the canal.

Having avoided closure, the Southern Stratford was taken over by the National Trust. By using a combination of volunteers, prisoners and members of the Royal Engineers and RAF, the canal was restored at reportedly less than half the estimated cost of filling it in. The restoration was a turning point for the waterways movement in Britain, with many other disused canals following suit.

As this striking archive image shows – the canal was reopened by HM The Queen Mother on 11 July 1964. Crowds packed the canal side on that hot summer day, keen to see the boat parades and the beloved Royal, dressed in the height of 60s regal fashion, cutting the ribbon draped across the waterway.

John Betjeman (then the Poet Laureate and a huge supporter of canal restoration) wrote a poem to commemorate the Queen Mother re-opening the canal:

Inland Waterway

He who by peaceful inland water steers
Bestirs himself when a new lock appears.
Slow swing the gates: slow sinks the water down;
This lower Stratford seems another town.
The meadows which the youthful Shakespeare knew
Are left behind, and, sliding into view,
Come reaches of the Avon, mile on mile,
Church, farm and mill and lover-leaned-on stile,
Till where the tower of Tewkesbury soars to heaven
Our homely Avon joins the haughty Severn.
Sweet is the fluting of the blackbird’s note,
Sweet is the ripple of the narrow boat .

Your Majesty, our friend of many years,
Confirms a triumph now the moment nears;
The lock you have re-opened will set free
The heart of England to the open sea.

John Betjeman

In 1988, the National Trust handed the Southern Stratford-upon-Avon Canal to British Waterways and, together with the Northern Stratford, it now forms part of the Trust’s Avon Cruising Ring.

Watch this wonderfully narrated video showing volunteers restoring the canal in 1962.

Visit the Waterways Archive, Ellesmere Port

Look up company records, staff records, library, photographic collection and more. Research service available. Open MonWed 10.00am 4pm; booking advisable.