Waterways have historically played a major role in human development, providing the navigational arteries through which people and goods flowed. At the time of the Industrial Revolution, the growing need for transport led to the development of a canal network to supplement the naturally occurring waterways. At the turn of the 19th century Bedford was still a relatively small town but grew rapidly in the early years of the new century. The House of Industry, a new prison and an asylum were built and there were plans to construct a new bridge over the River Great Ouse. All these projects were driven and often financed by Samuel Whitbread, MP for Bedford. Lighters laden with coal and other products came up to the wharves in Bedford. However the opening of the Grand Junction Canal in the 1790s had an adverse effect on Bedford’s trade.
The roots of the Bedford-Milton Keynes Canal go back 200 years to October 1811 when a group of Bedford businessmen met with the Mayor of Bedford to discuss the trade benefits to be gained from a link the River great Ouse and the Grand Junction Canal. Local roads were poor and they hoped that the canal would lead to greater prosperity for towns along the route and into the Fens.The Mayor of Bedford, Charles Short, called a meeting for Monday 4th November at the Shire Hall. A prospectus was published. Sam Whitbread and the Duke of Bedford were among the supporters of the scheme. William Praed, chairman of the Grand Junction Canal, was enthusiastic and agreed to fund half of the cost. They commissioned John Rennie, the famous canal engineer, to survey the route with his colleague, Francis Giles.
In December Rennie stated that “agreeable to your directions, my surveyor Mr. Francis Giles has examined the country between the town of Bedford and the Grand Junction Canal”. He proposed two possible new lines for the new canal, one joining the Grand Junction at Woughton and the other at Soulbury. The costs would be between £140,000 and £180,000. Four possible sites for a reservoir were proposed at an additional cost of £20,000.
At the same time a list of landowners who consented or objected to the project was prepared. Henry Hugh Hoare of Wavendon House was clearly leading the opposition to the canal. An opposition meeting was held at Ampthill in 1812. Henry Hoare employed his own engineer, John Holland, to undertake his own survey which was over £100,000 more than Rennie’s. Enthusiasm for the canal began to wane. The Duke of Bedford became disillusioned. It became clear that the canal project was doomed without the financial support of the Grand Junction Company which would not be forthcoming. In early 1815 the creditors were called in and paid off.
Other proposals for canals appeared. The advent of the railway, followed by the internal combustion engine and a growing network largely replaced waterways as transport routes over time. In 1846 came the Bedford to Bletchley Railway which largely followed the route of the 1812-13 canal. The railway seemed to have sounded the death-knell for further canal development, although in 1892 a company called ”The Ouse River, Canal and Steam Navigation Limited” attempted to acquire the rights of the river and to build a canal between the Ouse and the Grand Junction. There were numerous objections to the proposal which also failed.
Nearly 200 years later in 1994, another radical thinker and Bedford resident, Brian Young, had the idea of getting the canal built as part of the celebrations of the new millennium. His aim was for a “Waterway for All” – improving the quality of the local environment and serving the new industries of leisure, tourism and communications – in short reinventing canals for the 21st century. Brian founded the Bedford & Milton Keynes Waterway Trust, an informal group of volunteers. In the year 2000 British Waterways started working with the Trust to investigate the feasibility of the project, and in November of that year the Trust became a formal voluntary organisation with a growing, active membership.