River Avon (Hampshire)

This page dates from 1999 - one of the first on the Southampton Canal Society website. New pages on the river are currently being prepared but further research is required. Some of the research throws doubt on some of the statements made on this page, particularly in the section on “Remains of the waterway”. The text of the old page is reproduced below for the time being with the addition of the picture of the river.


Although usually referred to as the Hampshire Avon, the river rises in Wiltshire near Pewsey and the Kennet & Avon Canal. This naming avoids confusion with the Bristol Avon much of which is also in Wiltshire. Also called the Salisbury Avon, the river is about 65 miles long from source to sea. Over half lies in Wiltshire and, since local government reorganisation in the 1970's, the mouth near Christchurch is in Dorset not Hampshire.

Although there were proposals in the 1790's for a canal parallel to the young river to join the Kennet & Avon to Salisbury, no such navigable link has ever existed. Attempts were made on a number of occasions to establish a navigation southwards from the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire to the sea near Christchurch. However, none of these was very successful.

A Commission was appointed in 1535 in order to clear weirs and obstructions from the river. It is likely that this was to allow navigation but no action seems to have resulted.

In 1623, the water-poet John Taylor and Gregory Bastable rowed from London to Christchurch and on to Salisbury in a wherry to see whether the river could be made navigable. Taylor said that this would be possible without too much difficulty and thought likely cargoes of coal, timber, bricks, corn and beer would result. He urged the citizens of Salisbury to carry out this work.

The Earl of Clarendon was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1664-5 to make the Avon navigable for a distance of about 36 miles from Salisbury to Christchurch, but the only work done by him was at the quay in the latter place; the river itself remained unimproved.

The River Avon near Breamore

River Avon from Castle Hill near Breamore
31 December 2004, © 2019 Peter Oates

Andrew Yarrenton was a man of wide interests and vision who saw that efficient transport was necessary for industry to flourish. He had been involved with navigation works on a number of rivers including the Stour and the Avon in Worcestershire. Lord Salisbury asked Yarrenton in 1675 to survey the river and he concluded that a navigation was practicable. Salisbury Corporation took up the cause, trying to raise money and to find someone to undertake the work. They decided to start the work themselves at a cost of £2,000, appointing Samuel Fortrey as engineer. The work was started at a ceremony on 20 September 1675.

The council was unable to get enough assistance and decided in 1677 not to continue with the work. However, an agreement was reached that year with a number of private individuals to carry on the work so that 10-ton boats would be able to navigate the river. After some years and £3,500, the work seems to have been successful, at least up to a point, as two 25-ton barges were reported to have reached Salisbury in 1684. In 1687 a Code of Regulation and Tolls was issued.

In 1693, another group were working on the river and it appears that they constructed the main navigation cuts, flash locks at the mills and also some more conventional pound locks. They also built a quay and alehouse at a haven below Christchurch (possibly Mudeford) and attempted, apparently unsuccessfully, to improve access from the haven to the sea. They fined landowners for failing to maintain ancient weirs or clearing the river of weed. In 1699, a Bill was introduced into Parliament for increased powers, supported by Salisbury corporation. But this failed and the undertakers appear to have given up.

A further set of undertakers seem to have taken over the work around 1702, building bridges over the navigation, but they too failed. Navigation on the river ceased in about 1705. Salisbury corporation tried to revive the navigation again around 1730 but opposition from those with interests in mills and water-meadows was too great. Flooding is often cited as the reason why the 1702 undertakers failed, but there is no proof for this. It is more likely that all the attempts were unsuccessful because the task was too difficult for the technology of the time.

Joseph Priestley in his book “Priestley’s Navigable Rivers and Canals” published in 1831 gives a short account of the river. This has been extracted and may be seen (as a PDF file) here.

Remains of the waterway

Very little remains of the navigation and much of the river is inaccessible to the public. It is unlikely that any horse towing path was ever built. Many changes have been happened in the Avon Valley in the three hundred years since barges travelled the waterway. The construction of water-meadows, particularly in the 18th century, has had a great effect.

Ten navigation cuts were constructed between Salisbury and Christchurch but not all can be traced today. The first of these runs for about 2 miles from below Harnham Bridge, Salisbury, past the village of Britford, to rejoin the main river by Longford Castle. Beside the road bridge south of the village of Britford (OS ref 160278) is the remains of one of the navigation's three locks. It is estimated to date from the early 18th century, although the sluice gates at the head are 19th century.

The next cut at Downton has produced nothing conclusive. The courses of the next two cuts cannot be traced.

Close to Fordingbridge, at a settlement called Horseport, the fifth cut contained the second pound lock. However, neither the lock nor the wharf which is said to be under Victoria Cottages can be identified.

There were further cuts at Ellingham Church, Ringwood, Avon, Sopley and Winkton, the last said to contain the third pound lock.