An appreciation of the canal pioneer who died, aged 86, on 19th. March 1999.

By David Harris
(reproduced from Waterways World May 1999)

(John was a Vice -president of W&BCAG)

Boating at the 1998 IWA National TBF.

        Just as a handful of inspired engineers built Britain’s canal system in the late 18th century, so too did a handful of inspired individuals rise to the challenge of saving the system from threatened closure in the 1950s. In the case of the Kennet & Avon Canal, the efforts of John Gould of Newbury are he stuff of legend, for it was he who inspired so many to embark on a 40-year restoration campaign that ended with the reopening of the waterway by Her Majesty The Queen in 1990. Born in Newbury in 1913, John Gould began his affair with the waterway as a small boy playing with toy boats on the River Kennet, that flowed past the backyard of his grandfather’s harness shop in the market square. Little did he know then that he would become involved in he canal throughout his adult life - as canal labourer, crewman, boat proprietor, hirer, skipper, trader, agent and, most unexpected of all, as he waterway’s saviour.

        Such was the lack of commercial mat movement on the K&A in the 1920s that it wasn’t until his father took a job in Brighouse, close the Calder & Hebble navigation, that John’s interest in commercial carrying first emerged as he observed the busy horse-drawn traffic.

        Returning to Newbury with his family a year later, he was pleased to see narrowboats arriving in the town laden with wheat bound for the local joys flour mill. By now, in his early teens, he had built a flat-bottomed wooden dinghy with a school friend or use on the river.

        During war service in India with the Berkshire Yeomanry, he kept his canal interest alive by watching barge traffic on the Ganges and by reading Tom Rolt’s newly published book Narrow Boat sent out by his wife, Wyn. On demobilisation, John took a job with the Canal Department of the Great Western Railway, then owners of the K&A, as a labourer. For the next two years, he worked on general maintenance, which included making and replacing lock gates.

        His first trip along the full length if the canal came in 1947 when he helped crew two converted landing raft, Tranquil and Jaunty, from Saltford on the Avon to Reading. This inspired him to join others in encouraging traffic on the K&A - among them Neville Davis, who John helped bring Callisto from Oxford to Newbury where Neville set up a owing boat hire business; and John Lester and the late Sir John Knill who delivered salt from Middlewich to Newbury Laundry.

        John’s campaigning began in 1948 When the K&A was threatened by the Government’s nationalisation plan under the British Transport Commission. Action in Newbury was swift; in conjunction with the local Workers’ Educational Association, a mock-Parliamentary debate on the Transport Bill was organised to which John invited Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt, founders of the Inland Waterways Association, to put the case for the canals. This was the first of many public meetings, in defence of the canal, in which John played a major part. Eighteen months later, the IWA established a branch in Newbury with John Lester as chairman and John as secretary. In 1951 the branch was reformed as the Kennet & Avon Canal Association, with the two Johns continuing in office, finally becoming the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust in 1963.

        Meanwhile, in 1949, John took his own involvement a stage further by buying a pair of narrowboats and working them out of Newbury to show that the canal was still very much alive.

        He bought Colin and Iris at Aylesbury, had them restored at Linslade, but he then needed a cargo to pay his way back to the K&A. He found paving slabs for sale in Birmingham and, persuading the Newbury borough surveyor to purchase them, carried the 20 tons back aboard his newly acquired craft.

        A year later he secured a regular contract with T. Harrison Chaplin to carry topsoil from gravel pits at Newbury to Hampton parish wharf on the Thames. But hardly was the contract underway when the BTC announced that "owing to the condition of Heales and Burghfield locks, the canal would be closed until further notice". After further closures elsewhere on the canal, John found a new use for his trapped boats; he began organised school and public trips, later buying the rowing boat business from Neville Davis. With Ronald Shephard, he formed John Gould (Waterways) Ltd.

        In 1955, following rumours that the BTC was going to abandon the canal, John issued a High Court writ against the Commission on the grounds that their actions had deprived him of a living. He also sought an injunction to prevent further deterioration of the canal.

        Although the injunction was not granted, John received an out-of-court settlement of £5,000. During the case a BTC representative asked if it was right to spend money on a canal "merely because one man wants to sail a couple of boats on it?". The reply by Mr Justice Roxburgh is still pointed to as an important landmark and included the statement: "If that is the law, then it is the duty of a statutory monopoly to obey it, just as much as anyone else; indeed, if possible, even more so because its opportunities of getting the law altered would appear to be greater -- ." (Times Law Reports, 23rd July1955).

        The High Court action prompted the BTC to seek Parliamentary approval to close the K&A which sparked of one of the first major waterway lobbying campaigns in Westminster. Through sheer weight of public opinion, BTC’s proposal to close the canal was thrown out.

        During the next 40 years, John Gould devoted his considerable energy and expertise to the restoration cause. He carried on playing an active part in the Newbury branch as its secretary and Trust Council member, typically turning up to meetings wearing his favourite duffel coat complete with windlass poking out of his pocket! He ran his hire boat business until the late ‘70s and, even after retirement, he continued to manage moorings in Newbury and act as a British Waterways agent.

        In 1986 he was made an Honorary Life Member of the IWA and in 1992 was awarded the MBE. Two years ago the Kennet & Avon Canal Partnership invited John to unveil a plaque at Newbury Lock recording a public vote of thanks for his dedication to the waterway. At the same time, BW launched the John Gould Award to be given annually to the person or group who has "undertaken noteworthy actions or deeds for the Kennet & Avon Canal in the past year".

        John’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the waterway has long been part of local folklore and it was to him that the public and media turned whenever historical facts were sought or canal activities featured locally. His indomitable spirit never waned and, as anyone who has sat with him for a chat will know, an hour or two was the norm as the anecdotes kept coming!

        The K&A and its supporters, the people of Newbury, and the waterway movement as a whole, have lost a true warrior and patriot. His last journey on his beloved canal was when his coffin was taken from West Mills, aboard the Rose of Hungerford, into Newbury Lock where it was taken from the boat for burial in the canalside Globe Garden which he tended. His wife Wyn, whose support for all that he set out to achieve was total, survives him along with their five children. His untiring efforts on behalf of the K&A Canal will also live on for all to enjoy.

John Gould was a Vice-President of the Wilts & Berks Canal Amenity Group.


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