A brief history of the IWPS

What is the IWPS? It began in 1958 in the Compasses Inn, Holborn, London, with a somewhat radical agenda. Powerful minds in the Inland Waterways Association had clashed. A splinter group, containing two leading personalities, Bessie Bunker and L.A. "Teddy" Edwards, stopped for a drink. Many IWPS members have since wished they could have been a fly on the wall! Eitherway, another national society, dedicated to the preservation and development of the inland waterways of Great Britain, was born. Amongst early members were the writers L du Garde Peach and J.B. Priestley; while the engineering fraternity and other professions were well represented. Bessie, however, led from the front. She became famous for taking an uncompromising stance against any issue that crossed her path. "The Margaret Thatcher of waterways restoration", applied to her posthumously by one writer, was a nickname she would have loved.

So what was the difference between the IWA and the IWPS; the former then only recently founded in 1946? With only an incomplete archive available some have speculated that problems arose over the exact balance between "preservation and development". Bessie, in single-minded style, always demanded a full national programme of waterways modernization. Major cities should be joined by waterways, equal in quality to the highest international standards. Bulk transportation of goods would thus be removed from the roads. Peaceful countryside apart, what then would have happened to classic and existing features, such as James Brindley's Bratch or the Oxford Canal, beloved of Aikman and Rolt?

From the very beginning, Bessie, together with husband Percy John Bunker, and a loyal band of supporters, made engineering surveys of many canals. Initial campaigns targeted the Ernest Marples Transport Bill of 1963: "set to destroy the English canal system," as Bessie once said. Working in parallel, but still at variance with the IWA, an IWPS contribution helped to save parts of the Birmingham Canal Navigations; the Peak Forest, the Southern Stratford, and the Chesterfield canals. First, and even before the IWA became involved, the IWPS publicized the need to modernize the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation. Unfortunately, by the time such works took place, those heavy industries, which would have benefitted most from reduced transport costs, had all but disappeared.

Sometime around 1958, the society found Bugsworth Basin, and ten years later (September 1968) received permission to begin restoration. This became Bessie's last work. In failing health, and supported by "PJB" as Honorary Site Manager, she came to the Basin almost every weekend for the remaining six years of her life. Meanwhile, inspired by her example, and using only the most basic equipment, IWPS volunteers had cleared the channel as far as the Middle Basin by 1972. Conflicts then arose, however, when it became clear that the IWPS leadership saw the future of the site as a hireboat marina.

Following Bessie's death in 1974, project direction was transferred to Ian Edgar. Restoration resumed with an involvement of mechanical plant wherever possible. As such, Ian became a past master at making appeals for assistance from the commercial world; be it advice from the construction industry, or other help in kind. At the same time, too, historical information, such as maps, old photographs, and the personal reminiscences of elderly residents, combined to realize the historical significance of Bugsworth Basin: the largest and most important canal-tramway interchange port ever constructed on the narrow canal system. Ancient monument status followed in 1977.

Politics aside, physical difficulties with the project occurred throughout the clearance process. Serious leaks regularly developed in the Entrance Canal and Entrance Basin. Bypass construction, adjacent to IWPS works, resulted in a large bank slippage, and permanent changes in the water table, which somehow exacerbated the leaks.

In the meantime, volunteers continued restoring the fabric of the Basin: rebuilding wharves, collecting stone from elsewhere, and excavating all associated arms and boat-loading basins. Manpower Services Commission Community Task Force participation, and later related projects for the unemployed, were given the responsibility of reconstructing three bridges and the stonework of four tippler piers. Site clearance by the same personnel, and also by contractors employed under a Derelict Land Grant, resulted in the exposure of tramway trackbeds. Other contractors repaired a river wall, rebuilt part of a collapsed limekiln, and made good the effects of land subsidence near the terminus of the canal.

Work continues (January 1998) under an English Partnership Grant to make the Entrance Canal watertight, and thus permit the entry of boats. Similarly, designs commissioned through the Local Authorities should result in toilet and refuse disposal facilities, and the development of an interpreted visitor trail.

At all times, too, British Waterways, English Heritage, and the local authorities, whether at borough or county level, continue to give their fullest support: the ultimate aim being a museum to the limestone extractive industry, set within a conservation area based on Bugsworth Basin. As lessees of the site for fifty years, the IWPS retains its position as controller of the restoration, and likewise raises a team of volunteers for care and maintenance works.

What then the plans of Bessie Bunker? By a curious twist of fate, the small scheme for the boatyard, which no doubt she saw as a side issue to her great national schemes, grew into the major endeavour of the IWPS.

What then of the break with the IWA? In the fullness of time, the two organizations realized they still had much in common, culminating in re-affiliation in 1995. A "sharing" of volunteers, notably via the IWA Waterway Recovery Group, had cemented many friendships. Most importantly, the IWPS had benefitted for several years from favourable insurance rates, negotiated on behalf of British canal societies by the IWA.

What would Bessie have made of it all? As one who knew her for the last five years of her life, I think she would have approved. The other side of her complex personality wrote learned studies of Anglian cruck buildings, and the history of her own Yorkshire region. Confronted with a wealth of similar material on Bugsworth Basin in the years after her death, we can be sure she would have given the new-style project her blessing.

Martin Whalley, January 1998