The Aylesbury Arm
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Aylesbury Basin, the Waterside Theatre in the background.

“Within the last few days Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild has died in Paris.  In his young days the Baron was a most fearless rider, and not to be stopped by any fence so long as his horse could go.  The Vale of Aylesbury was then a rough country indeed, and was not gated as at present, nor was there a bridge over every brook.  But Baron Nathaniel cared nothing for falls, and twice in one season he swam the canal between Tring and Aylesbury.”

Bailey’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, Vol. 18 (1870).

IT is likely that the Baron retains the world record for completing that particular swim in whatever time he took ― whether he got out at the locks or was locked through by the family retainers is unrecorded.

Narrow boats in Aylesbury Basin.  The former power station is in the background.

In 1792, the canal engineer James Barnes [1] surveyed a route for a canal that was to connect Braunston on the Oxford Canal in Northamptonshire, to Brentford on the Thames.  With little change the route he surveyed is that followed by the Grand Junction Canal (GJC) today (since 1929, the southern section of the Grand Union Canal).  Following completion of the survey and its publication, investors flocked to sink their money into the project, for this was the age of “canal mania” and it was perceived that there were big profits to be made from any new canal scheme; in the case of the Grand Junction Canal Company (GJCC) this was so, until the coming of the railways in the 1840s, when this new and quicker form of transport captured much of its business.

A general committee was quickly formed from among the scheme’s subscribers under the chairmanship of the banker, William Praed (1747–1833).  Having obtained an Act of Parliament authorising them to build the Canal, “The Company of Proprietors of the Grand Junction Canal” (as the Act described them) pressed ahead with its construction together with surveys for a number of branch canals that were intended to connect the main line with important towns that lay in its vicinity.  In later years the Company obtained Acts of Parliament to build some of these branch canals, but  the schemes only proceeded after much debate, or not at all, for what appeared at first sight to be an attractive business proposition looked much less so when the water requirement and its supply had been investigated, the scheme’s opponents had made their objections known, and a cost-benefit analysis had been weighed against the GJCC’s burgeoning financial commitments elsewhere. [2]

The statutory notice announcing the GJCC’s intention to apply for an Act to build the Aylesbury Arm ― the advertisement also dealt with the Wendover and Buckingham branches and the proposed branches to Dunstable and St Albans.

Northampton Mercury, 14th September 1793.

As early as 1793, a branch canal to Aylesbury had been surveyed and the land owners that were to be affected by the proposed scheme approached to establish whether they would be prepared to accept the Company’s offer to purchase.  Evidence later given by William Jessop (the GJC project’s Chief Engineer) and Acton Chaplin (the GJCC’s Clerk) before a parliamentary committee suggests that the Company was, at that time, intent on building several branches, including that to Aylesbury:

“William Jessop, Esquire, being examined, said, That the Petitioners are now proceeding to make the said Canal, agreeable to the Powers vested in them by the said Act. That by Levels and Surveys, lately made, it appears practicable to make certain Navigable Cuts from the several Towns of Buckingham, Aylesbury, and Wendover, in the County of Buckingham, and also from the Town of Saint Alban, in the County of Hertford, to join and communicate with the said Grand Junction Canal and Collateral Cuts, or some of them. Acton Chaplin, Esquire, One of the principal Agents to the said Grand Junction Company, being examined, said, That the said Company are willing, at their own Expense, to make and maintain the said several Navigable Cuts.”

Journal of the House of Commons, Vol. 40, (1794).

The Aylesbury Arm did eventually come into being, but only after a long and difficult gestation and then without the significance of being the first section of a grand plan to link the GJC main line at Marsworth and the Wilts & Berks canal at Abingdon (and then onwards to the Somerset coalfields).  The Arm was to remain a cul-de-sac, but one that did enjoy some prosperity in its early days.  However, in 1838 work began on building the Aylesbury to Cheddington branch railway (some of the sleepers for which were shipped by canal to Cheddington and Broughton wharves), which ran more-or-less parallel to the canal to make a connection with the London & North Western Railway’s main line.  Following its completion in 1839, the Cheddington Branch gradually drew away much of the canal’s traffic.  But, ironically, it was the railway that was to disappear in 1964, a victim of the Beeching Axe, while the Aylesbury Arm managed to struggle on into the age of leisure boating and survival.  In 2007, British Waterways sold the canal basin to Aylesbury Vale District Council, and today it forms the focus of a multi-million pound waterside redevelopment; Aylesbury High Street Station, terminus of the Arm’s erstwhile competitor, now lies beneath shops.


Marsworth staircase locks.  Unlike the main line, the locks on the Arm are narrow (i.e. 7ft compared with 14ft).
One of a number of English Heritage ‘listed’ structures of the Aylesbury Arm . . . .

Locks 1 and 2 Grand Union Canal Aylesbury Arm


Date Listed: 15 October 1984

English Heritage Building ID: 42091

“Narrow double lock at entrance to Aylesbury arm. 1811-14. Brick retaining walls, the lower lock with brick coping, the upper lock with stone coping. 2 flights of brick steps on N. side. E. end of upper lock has single gate with sluice, winding gear and quoins dated 1878. 2 other pairs of narrow gates with sluices, the centre gates with quoints dated 18?6. 5 cast iron bollards.”


Sales by Auction
A Capital and Commodious
Immediately adjoining the Grand Junction Canal and the
High Road at Marsworth, in the county of Bucks.
At the ROSE and CROWN INN, Tring, Herts, on Wednesday
the 19th September, at Three o’clock in the afternoon,

AN excellent DWELLING -HOUSE, and Grocer’s
Shop, Warehouse, Stabling for 18 horses, and other
convenient Buildings, brick-built and slated and in sub-
stantial repair.  The whole Let at an annual Rent of £60
and possession of which will be given at Michaelmas next.

Particulars may be had at Griffin’s, Green Man and Still,
Oxford-street, London; at the Inns in the neighbouring
towns; of Mr. Giles Willis, solicitor; and of the AUC-
TIONEERS, Tring; also of Mr. Gregory, Marsworth, who
will show the premises.

The Bucks Chronicle, 8th September, 1821.



CONSTRUCTION of the Aylesbury Arm was authorised under the second GJC Act (1794), but because the main line had yet to reach the planned junction at Marsworth, nothing further was done.  When, in 1800, the main line did reach Marsworth, the GJCC declined to commence work on the Arm.  There was probably two reasons for the Company’s reluctance.  First, the cost of building the main line was running well over budget and the Company was having problems enough raising sufficient capital to complete it without the added expense of a branch canal.  Second, there was difficulty in providing this section of the main line with sufficient water without adding a branch that would increase demand on the limited supplies (the fall from Marsworth Junction to Aylesbury Basin is almost 95 feet).  But regardless of the GJCC’s problems, the citizens of Aylesbury continued to press for a canal to compete with nearby Wendover, where a branch had been open for trade since c. 1799.

To placate the townspeople, the GJCC offered them an alternative to a canal and by September, 1800, their Clerk was at work on a notice inviting subscriptions to a £5,000 loan with which to commence “the immediate prosecution of the works for making an Iron Rail-Road from the said canal to the Town of Aylesbury”.  The rate of interest on the loan was to be 5%, with £20 per cent to be paid on acceptance.

The railway, had it been built, would have been horse-drawn.  Such a line was already in use between Stoke Bruerne and Blisworth, where it bridged the gap in the canal  caused by the excavation of the Blisworth Tunnel having to be abandoned through severe flooding.  It seems that the appeal was successful, the Marquis of Buckingham and the GJCC Clerk, Acton Chaplin, being among the subscribers.  On 15th December 1802, Barnes (the GJCC’s Resident Engineer) wrote to Chaplin to apologise for missing an appointment; he then went on to say that he intended to visit shortly “and determine to the best of my knowledge, whether it will be best to have a Canal or Rail Road to Aylesbury.”  The decision taken was to build the “Rail Road”, which was cheaper to construct and offered the advantage of not drawing water from the main line, at the time in comparatively short supply.  Although the rails were bought, they were used instead to assist in building the canal embankment across the Great Ouse at Wolverton.

In June 1803, at a meeting chaired by William Praed, Barnes, Holland and Barker (the latter two being surveyors) were instructed to provide the Committee with a plan and estimate for “the intended navigable cut from Marsworth to Aylesbury”.  Nothing constructive appears to have been done, for by October 1805 the subscribers to the rail road loan were seeking legal advice on obtaining a writ of mandamus against the GJCC.  The opinion they received from counsel was that this strategy would be difficult to achieve, and so a different approach for obtaining a remedy was adopted, that of applying for an Act of Parliament (the scheme for a railway seems, by now, to have been abandoned).  The following notice then appeared in the official newspaper of record:

“NOTICE is hereby given, that Application is intended to be made to Parliament in the next Session for Leave to bring in a Bill, and to obtain an Act, to require and compel the Company of Proprietors of the Grand Junction Canal to take such Steps as shall be necessary and proper for beginning, carrying on, and completing a Collateral Cut from the Town of Aylesbury, in the County of Buckingham, to join the Grand Junction Canal in the Parish of Marsworth, in the said County, under and according to the Provisions and Powers of the Act of Parliament, made and passed in the Thirty-fourth Year of the Reign of His present Majesty . . . .”

London Gazette, 2nd September 1806.

The bill also required the GJCC to cease paying dividends until they had set aside the sum they had agreed to expend on the Arm, this being £20,256.  This tactic must also have failed, for nothing further is heard of it.

In 1810, yet a further approach to obtaining a remedy emerged, that of petitioning Parliament:

“The want of water has hitherto prevented the Grand Junction from completing a cut to Aylesbury, and occasioned a petition from the Marquis of Buckingham, which was presented to the House of Commons, on the first of March last, requesting no further extensions might be granted to the Grand Junction, till that Company shall have fulfilled their engagements with Parliament, by making a collateral cut to Aylesbury.”

Two Reports of the Commissioners of the Thames Navigation, 29th December, 1810.

However, by then progress on the Aylesbury Arm had become of keen interest to others beyond the town, including the above-mentioned Commissioners of the Thames Navigation.  Their interest stemmed from the completion in that year of the Wilts & Berks Canal, which linked the Kennet and Avon Canal near Melksham to the River Thames at Abingdon.  In order to reach London, traffic from the Wilts & Berks needed to use the Thames, a river in which navigation was difficult in the upper reaches while its sinuous path provided a lengthy route to the capital.  And so an alternative waterway was planned, to be named the Western Junction Canal.  This was to extend from Abington to Aylesbury (36 miles) where it would connect with the planned Aylesbury Arm to provide a link to the GJC main line at Marsworth.  By this means, so the canal’s advocates claimed, the journey from Abingdon to Brentford would be shortened by 14 miles and made over a more reliable waterway.

“It is notorious to all of you that the Navigation of the Thames, from Lechlade to Oxford, is not only tedious at all times, and very expensive, but, frequently impassable for months together; in Summer for want of Water, and in Winter from Floods, in consequence of which, and the enormous expense of its navigation, your supply of Coal, Stone, and other articles cannot be brought to you nearly upon such easy and cheap terms as they would be if Canal Communications were effected . . . . In respect of the proposed WESTERN JUNCTION CANAL, there can be no possible doubt of its great PUBLIC UTILITY and the advantages that will result from it to you,―for should it take place the COALS brought up the WILTS and BERKS CANAL will go as far as THAME at least, which will operate as a useful check on the Oxford Canal Company, and keep down the price for your benefit, and which, without competition, will be increased upon you, without any means on your part to prevent it . . . .”

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 26th January, 1811.

An extract from one of the many advertisements supporting the proposed Western Junction Canal.  Probably just as many opposed it.


Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 6th September, 1828.
The final attempt to ‘float’ the

During 1810 and the early part of 1811, a flurry of notices appeared in the press in which the proposed Western Junction’s advocates and detractors pleaded their cases, potential investors were canvassed and public meetings were announced.  At the head of the opposition were the Thames Commissioners, who saw the Western Junction diverting trade, and hence their revenue, away from the Thames between Abingdon and London.  The opposing forces were finely balanced, but when the Bill went before Parliament in 1811, the detractors prevailed and it was defeated by a majority of ten. [3]  But by then the prospects of the Marquis of Buckingham’s petition forestalling the GJCC’s ambitions elsewhere succeeded in bringing about a settlement, with the Company finally agreeing to build the Aylesbury Arm.  The solution to the water supply problem was resolved by a proposal to construct new reservoir capacity, this being provided for in a further Act of Parliament:

“The Company to make a reservoir of at least 15 million cubic feet of water at or near the summit level, for supplying water which formerly flowed into the Thame, from Wendover etc. within three years of the Act, and to send down 15 million cubic feet between May 10th and October 30th each year into the Thame.  Reservoir may be discharged into the Aylesbury Arm and supply the Thame through it.  A superintendant to be appointed to see that the water is not used for any other purpose.  If the regular passage of boats along the Aylesbury Arm provides the requisite flow of 600,000 cubic feet per week, the duties of the Superintendant may cease.”

52 Geo. III, C.140: Royal Assent 9th June, 1812.

Work commenced on Tringford Reservoir in 1814, followed by Startops (pronounced “Starrups”) End Reservoir at Marsworth a year later.  They were completed by 1817, both taking surplus water from the Tring Summit (supplied mainly from the Wendover Stream).  In the meantime, Henry Provis Snr. was appointed the scheme’s Engineer and in August, 1811, work commenced on the new canal at Aylesbury and at Marsworth.  Two years later, Provis was able to report that some two thirds of the distance had been cut, eleven of the locks and ten of the bridges had been completed and work was progressing elsewhere.

In July, 1813, a sale by auction was advertised of “improvable land contiguous to and at the termination of the collateral cut from the Grand Junction Canal to Aylesbury . . . . extremely desirable for the erection of wharfs, warehouses and buildings.” The ground plan that accompanied the advertisement shows the canal terminating in Aylesbury at Walton Street, but without any indication of the layout of what would later become Aylesbury Basin.  Potential buyers were alerted that “These lots are sold subject to the power of the GRAND JUNCTION CANAL COMPANY to purchase sufficient Ground for the forming of Wharfs, &c. in case the Owner or Owners shall neglect to do so on Twelve Months Notice. . . .” which suggests that Aylesbury Basin, with its once extensive wharfs and warehouses was probably not built until some time after the Arm had opened.  When exactly the opening took place is unclear; some sources give 1815, but local historian and onetime Editor of the Bucks Advertiser, Robert Gibbs, states that:

“The Aylesbury Branch canal was finished in the spring of 1814, and opened in the month of March in that year, a year noted for its intense and prolonged frost. . . . The construction of the canal was an event of great importance to Aylesbury; its opening was the occasion of a general half-holiday amongst the townsfolk. This branch not only connects the town by a waterway with other towns in the district, but by the Grand Junction forms a link with London and with other canals in the North. By this new source Aylesbury obtained what it never before possessed, viz., means for the transport of heavy merchandise to and from all parts of the country.”

Buckinghamshire: A History of Aylesbury, Robert Gibbs (1885).

And so the Aylesbury Arm was completed, but at an unexpected cost to the GJCC shareholders who, for the half year ending 31st March, 1816, received no dividend:

“. . . . for the following reasons, viz. . . . . to complete Two Reservoirs forming on the Tring Summit . . . . and also to discharge bills for completing the Canals to Aylesbury and Northampton . . . .”

Circular to GJCC shareholders, 13th June 1816.

Much to his chagrin, Henry Provis’s work on the Arm was criticised and he was forced to ask the Company to have the canal inspected by a competent but independent person to exonerate his professional reputation.  The “inspector” turned out to be none less than Thomas Telford, who in his report stated that “. . . . upon the whole this branch of Canal is at present in a very perfect state and will, he had no doubt, answer its intended purpose. . . .”  It might be coincidence, but Telford was later to employ Provis’s sons John and William [4] on some of his major projects, including the Holyhead trunk road.

Unlike its lockless and meandering neighbour, the Wendover Arm, the Aylesbury Arm follows a fairly straight and declining path to its destination.  Commencing at Marsworth Junction, 45ft below the Tring summit, the Arm falls 94ft 8ins during its 6¼-mile journey, negotiates 16 narrow (7ft wide) locks ― the first two at Marsworth forming the only staircase on the original GJC system [5] ― and passes 20 bridges, all but one still being in their original condition.  There is only one winding hole, which is located to the west of College Road Bridge (No. 9).

The Arm is supplied with water from three sources:

  •     (principally) the Marsworth Pound via lock No. 1, over the head gate weirs;

  •     Wilstone Reservoir, via the sluice on Gudgeon Brook; and

  •     Draytonmead Brook.

Much of this water is from Wendover via the Tring Summit and Wilstone Reservoir.  The three outflows from the Arm are over:

  •     a weir into Draytonmead Brook near Merrymead Farm;

  •     the offside (opposite the towpath) bank of the canal in the two mile pound between College Road and Broughton Lane, and

  •     a weir into California Brook at Aylesbury Basin . . . .

. . . . all water eventually entering the River Thame.


Black Jack’s lock (No. 4).



“Among the general improvements which have rapidly followed each other in modern days, the conveyance of goods and merchandise, by a branch of the Grand Junction Canal from the principal trunk at Marsworth to Walton, and the more recent completion of the line of railway communication, are said to have materially contributed to advance the benefits of all classes here, and effected a highly favourable change in the manners and habits of the people.”

The History and Antiquities of Buckingham, George Lipscomb (1847).

FOLLOWING its opening, the Arm became well used.  Although there were wharfs along it, trade centred on Aylesbury Basin where (in common with other towns on or near a canal) coal prices fell dramatically, from 2s.6d. to 1s.3d. per cwt.  Other commodities discharged in the early years included the usual timber and building materials, while exports were predominantly agricultural.  Barge-loads of emigrants destined for the Americas via Liverpool, and soldiers and convicts being transported to the coast from Aylesbury also used the canal; this particular trade was later taken over by the Cheddington branch railway and, so far as paupers for the colonies was concerned, with the enthusiastic support of workhouse superintendents it flourished.

It is unclear how many wharfs lay along the Arm.  Until 1917 at least, there was a coal wharf at Wilstone operated by W. F. Jeffery, but it was not secured and local folklore has it that pilferage led to its abandonment.  There is also evidence of wharfs at “Red House”, servicing Aston Clinton (until the late 19th century, also served by Buckland Wharf on the Wendover Arm) and at Broughton.  In addition to established wharfs, agricultural produce, such as hay and straw, was probably loaded into barges from accommodation bridges while manure, lime and “sweepings” were discharged between barge and canal bank over planks.

Looking west from Bridge No. 6.

During the nineteenth century, the population of Aylesbury began to grow in line with the general drift from countryside to town.  Indeed, better transport communications helped attract businesses to the town, a number of which made use of the canal.  The book printer Hazel, Watson and Viney moved to Aylesbury in 1867, and a decade later was employing 200 people.  The company used the canal to transport straw board.  The Aylesbury Condensed Milk Company (later the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company and Nestlés) established a canal-side factory in 1870.  They started with a workforce of twenty and a decade later were employing fifty, mainly young women involved in filling, sealing, labelling and packing tins of condensed milk:

“The filled tins are now transferred to the packing-room, where they are neatly labelled and wrapped in paper.  Boxes, all exactly of the same size, are prepared on the premises, and in them the tins are packed, ready for delivery; these packages are passed down a shoot from the upper part of the premises to the Company’s wharf, and quickly conveyed to the barge lying in the canal to receive them.”

Buckinghamshire: A History of Aylesbury, Robert Gibbs (1885).

In 1891, the old Walton water mill on the Bear Brook was bought by flour millers Hills and Partridge, who erected new buildings on the site.  The firm had their own wharf and much of their raw materials and produce arrived and departed by canal.  Canal transport was also the reason for siting the town’s electricity works, timber yard and the all-important coal yard at the canal basin.  However, more sustained railway competition came in 1892 with the Metropolitan and, in 1899, with the Great Central railways.  Activity on the Arm diminished still further after WWI with the growth of road transport, which by then was also making inroads into railway business.


At Marsworth junction is a branch of the canal connecting the main line with the town of Aylesbury, the distance from the junction to the town being 6¾ miles.  At Aylesbury are to be found numerous firms taking advantage of canal transport.  Coal is taken to the Electricity Works, as well as to other premises and, in addition, timber, grain, wire, building materials, and straw board are dealt with.  Mr. A. Harvey Taylor, canal carrier, has his wharf at this point.

Grand Union Canal Company advertising material, c. 1938.

By WWII, trade on the Arm had become sporadic, although the hostilities provided a brief revival ― aluminium ingots were carried by canal from London to International Alloys for casting into billets before being sent by canal to Birmingham for use in the manufacture of aero-engine cylinder blocks.  Following WWII, canal traffic in general fell into serious decline.  Little money was spent on maintenance and in tune with this the Arm deteriorated rapidly.  Data published in the Rusholme Report [6] illustrates the extent to which trade had declined by the early 1950s; none is recorded as having originated on the Arm in any of the three years analysed in the Report, while income and expenditure were recorded as follows:

ANALYSIS OF INCOME 1951, 1952 & 1953


& dues





























Locks &
Lock gates


Canal &
river banks


Bridges &


let to





Plant &









































. . . . in other words, canal carrying was earning next to nothing, and overall the Arm was losing money.  Against this background ― and that of numerous other waterways that shared the Arm’s loss-making capacity ― it is unsurprising that Rusholme recommended [7] that:

(iii)  the [British Transport] Commission concentrate on those waterway activities which are of real value as part of the transport system and to be relieved of the remainder, which are placing a heavy burden on the waterways administration and finances;

(iv)  certain defined waterways are to be developed, others are to be retained for navigation and the remainder are to be regarded as having insufficient commercial prospects to justify retention for that purpose.

In 1959, the Arm gained a reprieve from permanent closure when a new boat hire company set up business in Aylesbury Basin.  A brief diversification into coal and timber carrying resulted in a limited amount of dredging, but overall it was a losing battle.



The sole remaining business on the Arm is Jem Bates’ boatyard at Puttenham.

Following nationalisation in 1948, control of inland waterways was vested in the gargantuan and lethargic British Transport Commission.  Under the Transport Act, 1962, the Commission was replaced by five successor bodies of which the British Waterways Board (BW) took over the management of the inland waterways.  An early task for the Commission was to reshape national waterways policy, particularly as it affected canals, which were making a considerable loss,[8] some being in derelict condition. Thus, BW set about a comprehensive review of their estate to establish the facts.

The figures that appeared in the section of their published report [9] dealing with the Aylesbury Arm [App.] reveal that in the decade following Rusholme (see above), receipts had grown substantially but so had expenditure, resulting in a higher annual deficit: £3,913 for 1963 (£2,930 at 1953 values based on the RPI), and £6,404 for 1964 (£4,800 at 1954 values based on the RPI).  Perhaps more interesting is the value that BW placed on converting the Arm to a water channel [10] ― about £2,300 p.a. ― and of eliminating the waterway entirely [11] ― £3,500 p.a. reducing to £2,200 p.a.

Fortunately, BW took no immediate action to implement the thrust of their findings, for the Board recognised that new and wider implications had by now to be taken into account before any decision about a waterway’s future could be reached:

“As far as the wider aspects of waterways problems are concerned, it has been impressed upon us that there is a steady and rapid growth of interest in (and perhaps anxiety about) the use of leisure, out-door recreation and the future of the countryside.  Moreover, as will be seen, our studies have led us ― regretfully ― to judge that there is no hope of many of the waterways balancing income and expenditure ― at any rate for many years to come.  Clearly, therefore, the question of the future is not one that can be resolved simply on commercial grounds; it brings in broad social questions as well.  As far as the broader questions are concerned we realise that we form only part ― we think a unique part ― of a bigger subject, the subject of general future policy towards recreation.

So we think we ought to make the facts generally available for consideration by all concerned.”

The Facts About the Waterways, British Waterways Board, London, 1965.

The 1960s proved to be the low-water mark in the Arm’s fortunes.  Commercial traffic ended in 1964 with the last regular delivery of coal, the boat hire company ceased trading and wharf-side buildings and warehouses were demolished.  Aylesbury Council expressed an ambition to fill in the basin and, for good measure, sought to have the entire Arm abandoned.

In 1961 the Inland Waterways Association held their National Rally at Aylesbury Basin.  It was a great success, for by then leisure boating was beginning to become a popular pastime.   But the real change came in 1968, when Barbara Castle’s Transport Act gave the first government recognition to the recreational value of waterways, with a new remit for BW to develop their leisure potential.  Due to long-term underfunding, little could be done to stem the canals’ decline and it was the work of enlightened enthusiasts that became central to saving and restoring many miles of the waterway network. By the early 1980s, the number of leisure craft topped 20,000 as canals became increasingly used for leisure purposes.

After much effort by the Aylesbury Canal Society and other amenity bodies, the Arm was saved, with leisure boating providing its sustaining force together with walking and fishing.  British Waterways, working with the Local Authority and countryside bodies, have improved the waterway and its infrastructure to provide a pleasant back door route into Aylesbury, while much redevelopment has greatly enhanced Aylesbury Basin’s surroundings.


Sunday school outing in a pair of Harvey-Taylor narrow boats, 1931.
Reproduced by kind permission of Miss Catherine Bushell.



THE Aylesbury firm of John Landon & Co. were coal merchants who also ran a small fleet of horse-drawn narrow boats from the Basin; according to a trade directory for 1852, they even operated a weekly “fly-boat” service to London.  Taken at face value, this suggests there remained – after the railway had creamed off most of it – sufficient high-value trade to justify an express canal service:

“CONVEYANCE BY WATER: To LONDON, William and John Landon’s Fly Boats, from Aylesbury wharf, Walton St, every Saturday.”

Slater’s Directory, 1852.

By 1869, the Landon’s non-stop fly-boat service had been replaced by still faster “canal steamboats” operated by the Grand Junction Canal Carrying Establishment, John Landon now being their agent:

“WATER CONVEYANCE. London, Birmingham, & all parts of the kingdom, by canal steamboats; Grand Junction Canal Company; John Landon, agent. Goods delivered in London at the ‘White Horse,’ Cripplegate, & at 30 Wharf, City Road basin.”

Kelly’s Directory, 1869.

    In 1876, the Grand Junction Carrying Establishment ceased trading.  Landons continued in the business, although no more offering a service to “Birmingham & all parts of the kingdom”; the firm’s advertisement in Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers (1904) offered merely a service “between London and Aylesbury and towns en route”.  Incoming cargoes would have supplied the various businesses around the Basin, but other than condensed milk, the return journey would probably have depended on anything that could be collected along the way, such as animal feed and straw from along the Arm and perhaps building aggregates from the many pits below Rickmansworth.

    Landon’s business was taken over in 1923 by Arthur Harvey-Taylor, who enlarged the all-wooden fleet by having craft constructed at local boat building yards (Costins at Berkhamsted, and Bushell Bros. at Gamnel).  The firm dominated the carrying trade on the Aylesbury Arm for some 30 years.  Coal was their major business, the firm supplying amongst other concerns Nestlé’s, the Aylesbury power station, the Aylesbury Steam Laundry and, further afield, John Dickenson’s various canal-side factories and that of A. Wander & Co. (makers of Ovaltine) at Kings Langley, as well as domestic consumers.  Large customers for other goods included Mead’s Flour Mill at Gamnel Wharf and Garside’s sand quarry at Leighton Buzzard.


A pair of Harvey-Taylor narrow boats in Tring Cutting.  Note the telegraph poles ― selling wayleave to telecommunications companies provided a useful source of revenue to canal companies from the 1860s onward.  On this section, a fibre optic highway was installed during the 1990s.

The opening of the direct Aylesbury-London telegraph service, via the GJC.
The Bucks Herald, 23rd September, 1871.

    By the beginning of WWII, the fleet had reached its greatest size, consisting of nine pairs of boats and two spare butties.  A severe water shortage led to the closure of the Arm in 1942, and it did not reopen fully until 1947; the closure affected Harvey-Taylor’s regular traffic into Aylesbury with road and rail providing alternatives.  Some compensation came from the firm’s long distance carriage of coal from the Warwickshire coal fields to customers on the main line, such as John Dickenson and Wander Foods, and others in the London area.  But business tailed off, the fleet gradually dispersed and the firm ceased trading in 1955.

“Canals, as the predecessors of railways, did good service in their day.  They created internal trade, facilitated the introduction of foreign merchandise into, and the exportation of produce from, the interior parts of the country.  To agriculturists they were, and indeed still are, a great boon.  Manure, marl, lime, and all other bulky articles which cannot possibly bear the great expense of cartage are by them transported from one district to another at a very light cost; thus poor lands are enriched, and barren lands brought into cultivation, whilst hay, corn, and other produce can be carried to distant places at a comparatively nominal charge.”

Buckinghamshire: A History of Aylesbury, Robert Gibbs (1885).


In the bleak mid winter - at Lock No. 11 (Puttenham), looking towards Wilston.

The same location in summertime - Puttenham Bridge (Lock No. 11)




The Facts About the Waterways, British Waterways Board, London, 1964.
(App. 5, p.74)

1.    The Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union Canal descends through 16 narrow locks in its 6¼ miles from Marsworth Junction to its terminus at Aylesbury Basin.  Water supplies derive from the Tring summit supplies on the main line, of which a large proportion have first to be pumped from the Tring group of reservoirs into the Tring summit.  There are a number of water sales in Aylesbury.  Commercial traffic is negligible but there is a fair use by pleasure craft.  The Arm is expensive to operate and maintain — not least in terms of lockage water — and incurs a heavy deficit in relation to its length.

2.    In 1964, gross receipts were £2,453, including £1,350 from water sales and £713 from pleasure craft.  Direct costs totalled £6,828 (£1,092 per mile).  The deficit was £6,404.

3.    If the Arm were to be converted to a water channel, direct costs would fall substantially to about £2,600 (£420 per mile) per annum, and the deficit to about £2,300 per annum.

4.    If the Arm were to be eliminated, the deficit would be about £2,200 per annum, with an increase to about £3,500 per annum during the interim period.

5.    Clearly the present high level of deficit on this heavily-locked short length would be greatly reduced by conversion to a water channel.  Moreover, as water sent down the Arm is lost to the system the balance of advantage might well be in elimination on general water conservation grounds, even though the interim period figure is higher than the water channel one.  However, a decision between these alternatives would require careful study of the alternatives available to the present Aylesbury users.




James Barnes (c. 1739-1819), Civil Engineer.
Resident Engineer and Surveyor of the route of the GJC
and most of its branches.  He supervised the GJC’s construction.

William Jessop (1745-1814); a leading Civil Engineer of the era.
Chief Engineer and consultant to the GJC project.



Branches that were planned, but not proceeded with, were to Watford (with a later extension to St. Albans), Chesham, Hemel Hempstead, and Daventry.  It is possible that the Daventry Arm might yet be built together with an even more ambitious scheme to resurrect the long-forgotten plan to link the Great Ouse at Bedford with the GJC at Milton Keynes ― such is the popularity of leisure boating today!


Further attempts were made to float the Western Junction Canal, in 1813, 1819 (surveyed by Telford) and in 1828 (surveyed by Provis, but unclear which member of that family).


. . . . who acted as Resident Engineer for the construction of Telford’s magnificent Menai Suspension Bridge.


The GJCC later acquired the ‘old’ Grand Union Canal and with it the fine double set (five in each flight) of staircase locks at Foxton.


Canals and Inland Waterways: Report of the Board of Survey.  British Transport Commission, London, 1955 . . . . App. 4(C) and 5(C).


Rusholme’s seven recommendations are summarised in Chapter IX. of the Report.


The total deficit (including interest) for 1962 was £2M ― at 2010 prices, equivalent to £33.3M based on the RPI and £74.2M based on the rise in average earnings.


The Facts About the Waterways, the British Waterways Board, London, 1965.


This involves weiring the locks, keeping the water flowing by essential dredging, and maintaining banks, towpaths and hedges ― in other words, avoiding the waterway becoming “a decayed and decrepit water channel” (BW).


Eliminating a waterway (i.e. returning the land to its pre-canal condition) can be an involved task from both legal and engineering standpoints, involving significant on-costs (e.g. maintaining culverts), unless another body could be paid to take these over as a commuted settlement.