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Friday, March 04, 2016

K&A Canal Trust leader during the canal’s restoration and re-opening has died

Admiral Sir William (Bill) O'Brien pictured last year at the 
celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the re-opening
of the Kennet & Avon Canal by the Queen. 
Picture by Bob Naylor: WaterMarx©

Sir William O’Brien, Chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust from 1974 until 1991 died on 19th February at the age of 99.

Sir William O’Brien discovered the K&A Canal when he moved into the house in Devizes that he had bought for his retirement: “At that time” he recalled, “the canal was no more than a dirty ditch and sceptics said it would never be restored.” But during his time as Chair of the Trust Bill was to oversee the K&A’s restoration and re-opening by the Queen... and last year he attended the 25th anniversary of that event in 1990.

Having retired to Devizes Bill learnt that there was an organisation trying to restore the canal and he tracked down the then chairman of the K&A Canal Trust, General Sir Hugh Stockwell, who was delighted to hear from him because he wanted someone to take over the Chair of the Devizes Branch. With no prior knowledge of the canal, but an outstanding Navy career behind him, Bill became a branch chair and had a seat on Trust Council. After a couple of years, the General decided to retire and Bill was appointed to take over as Chair of the K&A Canal Trust in 1974 and he is remembered with admiration and affection by everyone who worked with him and knew him at the Trust.

Bill had many battles to fight during his time as Chairman. In 1974 the Trust had no official base and Bill described the branch structure along the 87-mile canal as parochial. Each branch was concerned only with their own patch, jealously holding on to their own branch funds, not able to see the benefits of working in unity and pooling the charity’s resources. He could see that if the canal was going to be restored it was essential for the Trust to be working as one organisation. It was a battle he fought for eight years.

Another hurdle he felt he had to overcome was the management of the Trust as a whole. At this point the Trust’s organisational structure was 100 per cent voluntary, with nobody claiming any expenses let alone wages. Bill’s proposal to employ a salaried General Secretary was not popular and it took him three years to get approval from Trust Council to appoint someone to run the office and support him in his role as Chairman. Eventually he did — but he only advertised with the Officers Association because he was determined to appoint someone who he would be able to work with easily. 

But for this to happen the Trust needed a base which was to come once Kennet District Council became involved. They offered the Trust the derelict bonded warehouse on Devizes Wharf, and although Bill originally wanted the current Wharf Theatre Building, in retrospect he believed that the bonded warehouse building that they moved into in 1980 was more appropriate to the Trust’s needs.

In September 1975, the year after Bill became Chair of the K&A Canal Trust, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey introduced the Manpower Services Commission’s Job Creation Unit. Bill realised that the scheme was custom-built for canal restoration and he spent a year trying to persuade British Waterways Board that he was right — but the Chief Executive would not agree. 

Finally, however, at a meeting with the BWB engineer in Gloucester when the "Dry Section" between Dundas and Avoncliff was being discussed, Bill was given the go-ahead. He drove back to Devizes, called an extraordinary meeting of Trust Council in a pub — and they approved the plan. This was courageous of the Council because although the labour was free the materials were not. Trust Council agreed to spend £75K in one year on the Dry Section alone when the income for the whole Trust was only £40K. It was really putting their necks out, but as Bill recalled: “Very often during my time with the Trust I stuck my neck out  and the money came in somehow”.

In the end, the Dry Section didn’t cost £75K. It cost £110K. And it didn’t take one year as it was supposed to. It took 18 months. But at the end of it the Trust had £150K invested, having paid fully for the Dry Section.

Bill considered this to be, without doubt, the most important achievement of his time as Chairman. The restoration of the Dry Section was the catalyst that moved restoration forward. Both the Dry Section and Caen Hill Flight were the obstacles that gave people the excuse not to fund the Trust’s work. 

John Bartholomew of Wadworth Brewery repeatedly told Bill that the Trust would never restore the Dry Section or the Caen Hill Flight. He said: “I’m buggered if I’ll give you any money”. And Bill never got a penny from Wadworth until the Dry Section was restored. Once that was done, the sceptics realised that the Trust really was going to restore the canal and according to Bill, everything else followed from that.

K&ACanal Trust Chairman, Bill O'Brien, with the Queen at the
canal re-opening ceremony on Caen Hill, Devizes in 1991.
Picture by Bob Naylor: WaterMarx

Wiltshire County Council were co-sponsors  of  the Dry Section restoration — the first time a local authority was involved in canal restoration — and seeing what had been done with the Dry Section, Kennet District Council organised the Job Creation Scheme work on the Caen Hill Flight and that was a tremendous boost to the restoration of the canal.

After that, the Chief Executive of Kennet District Council and the Recreation & Amenities Officer, Bob Harris, achieved the support of Kennet DC for the canal. Through Bob Harris’s work and the generosity of Kennet DC, Pewsey Wharf was refurbished and rented to the K&A Canal Trust and the Canal Centre at Devizes Wharf was rented to the Trust — both at very low rents. And then the other riparian Councils began to take an interest.

In 1991 the K&A Canal was approached by a former K&A restoration volunteer who had moved to work on the French canals with the proposal that the K&A twinned with the Canal du Nivernais in Burgundy. Bill was very enthusiastic about this, seeing the potential for sharing expertise and gaining publicity. He signed the pioneering twinning agreement on behalf of the K&A Canal Trust in April 1991 along with Brian Rogers, Regional Manager of the South West Area of British Waterways.

As Chairman, Bill managed the restoration from the centre, working with a small executive team of Treasurer Ian Mackintosh and General Secretary Nick Wright, carrying out a great deal of fund raising and participating in detailed forward planning discussions with BW. But the Trust Council felt that they weren't being consulted and Bill acknowledged that to a degree they were quite right. As he recalled:  “We were often presenting a fait a complis. We would tell Trust Council that we’d got this money and we've decided to spend it this way and we want your approval to do so – and actually we started last week!”.  He went on to add: “There's no doubt I did not run it on a consensual basis to the extent that the Council would have liked. And so they weren't going to have my selection as Chairman after me, they were going to elect one. And that's what they did.”

In a tribute after Bill’s retirement as Chairman former K&A Canal Trust President, Lord Jellicoe, recalled Bill’s enthusiasm, tireless energy, determination and refusal to let obstacles get in his way: “It is almost impossible to exaggerate the dedication to the Trust and its work and its activities that he has shown in his 17 taxing years as Chairman.” A former Vice President, Peter Collins, agreed, saying: “Bill always met all problems head on. His integrity is beyond reproach. He was never devious and dealt with everything and everybody with absolute honesty.” Peter also remembered the early days of working in a freezing cold Canal Centre huddled in his overcoat and being cheerfully encouraged by Bill who, together with another volunteer, was building the toilets next door: “I wonder how many headquarters have loos built by an Admiral?”

Bill was succeeded as Chairman of the K&A Canal Trust in 1991 by Brian Starke.

Admiral Bill O’Brien (born 13 November 1916, died 19 February 2016) is survived by two daughters and one son. His wife, Rita, died in 2012.
By Di Harris: WaterMarx©