Obituary: John Gould

Tim Bullamore
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:05

JOHN GOULD toiled for half a century to see the gloriously sunny day in August 1990 when the Queen reopened the Kennet and Avon Canal, the famous waterway linking the River Thames in the east with the River Avon in the west.

The years immediately after the Second World War were dark days for the Kennet and Avon Canal. Officialdom saw the canal network as an antiquated transport system which had outlived its usefulness, and was a drain on the public purse. Fortunately, there were a few far-sighted individuals such as Gould who loved the canal system and its way of life.

Work began on building the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1715 and it took almost a century to complete. But in 1847 it was acquired by the Great Western Railway, which had a vested interest in the waterways' decline. By 1877 the canal was making a loss and at the turn of the century through traffic had ceased as various parts fell into disuse.

John Gould, whose grandfather had kept a house at Newbury in Berkshire overlooking the canal, was serving as a bombardier with the Royal Artillery in India in 1943 when his wife, Wyn, posted him a copy of a book called Narrow Boat by Tom Rolt. In their subsequent correspondence, Gould expressed concern to his wife about the way the canal network in general and the Kennet and Avon in particular were being allowed to rot.

Before the war Gould, who was educated at Newbury Grammar School, had qualified as a marine engineer. Once demobbed, he began working with the canal's maintenance staff. Although he approached his job with intense enthusiasm, he took a forthright approach with those senior figures in the industry who were allowing the system to decay.

He had acquired a pair of narrow boats with the intention of trading along the canal; however by 1951 the waterway had become unnavigable. Although forced to give up the canals commercially, Gould never gave them up in spirit. Working with a former colleague, John Knill, who died last year, Gould began a ferocious fight. Their persistence produced a petition of 22,000 signatures and helped prevent a proposed Act of Abandonment from reaching Parliament in 1955. The canal might be unnavigable, but it was never formally closed.

The Kennet and Avon Canal Association was established in 1951 and gradually the campaign to save the canal gained momentum. In 1956 an inquiry was established into the future of the country's inland waterways and by 1962, with the official mood gradually changing, the association received charitable status allowing it to raise funds more effectively and focus on its aim of restoring the navigation.

The real turning-point came with the Transport Act of 1962, which transferred the waterways from the British Transport Commission to a new administration, the British Waterways Board. Here, at last, was an organisation prepared to listen. From this point on, serious work could be undertaken on restoration.

In the meantime, Gould had fought and won a lengthy court case with the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, part of the Commission, over the loss of revenue from his narrow boats. With the ensuing compensation, he acquired a series of pleasure craft and houseboats with which he plied short stretches of the canal. This provided the income he needed while fighting his sometimes lonely campaign for funding. He lobbied Members of Parliament, tackled obstructive bureaucrats and was a thorn in the side of Newbury District councillors.

The task of restoring the Kennet and Avon was enormous and took volunteers and professionals many years working section by section. There were some 86 derelict locks, 172 pairs of rotting gates, a leaking canal bed, crumbling aqueducts and abandoned pumping stations to be attended to.

During the restoration work itself Gould strived for an authentic rather than a standard solution, and many of the plans and schemes were modified thanks to his intervention and knowledge of detail. The complete length of the canal is now fully operational and a further pounds 25m of lottery money has been allocated for restoration and development due to be completed within the next three years.

Gould's appointment as MBE in 1992, a plaque at Newbury lock and a bust currently being sculpted for the new Newbury library are public acknowledgements of his contribution. Typically, he accepted these not for himself, but on behalf of all whose perseverance during the long wilderness years of campaigning had paid off.

John Gould, engineer and waterman: born Newbury, Berkshire 8 June 1913; married 1939 Wyn Ryle (three sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Newbury 19 March 1999.

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