The National Waterways Museum

Gloucester's National Waterways Museum.
Photo by Jim Linwood, licensed under CC BY 2.0
The National Waterways Museum comprises of three museum sites where the national collection of inland waterways are exhibited and curated. The three sites are all located in England at Stoke Bruerne, Ellesmere Port and Gloucester.

In this article we will be concentrating on the museum at Gloucester but first we will look at a little bit of history about the National Waterways Museum.

The museum receives sponsorship from British Waterways and is operated by The Waterways Trust. The main areas of concern are rivers, canals- the navigable inland waterways that were the anchor of our industrial heritage.

The museum is trusted with a wonderful collection holding the status of “designated collection”. This title is designated by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council. However, there is historically concern over this as the museum is not in receipt of funding to maintain and upkeep the historic vessels in its care unlike other collections. It is hoped this will change enabling the museum with the aid of lottery funding and other grants to improve standards. Sadly this has meant that some boats were offered for disposal as the museum could not afford to undertake the restoration.

Visit England Quality Assured Visitor AttractionThe first National Waterways Museum was located in Gloucester, and is now known as Gloucester Waterways Museum. It is housed in an old Victorian warehouse in the city of Gloucester at Gloucester Docks. The collection is fascinating and consists of narrow boats, river and canal tugs, and a steam powered dredger and river barges. As might be expected from a working museum with restoration taking place, there is a steam crane and oil engine in the canal repair yard. There is also a working machine shop, hydraulic accumulator and forge. There are many hands on, interactive exhibits.

Boat Rides

The great part about any water based attraction is the opportunity to get really involved with many activities for children and adults that are educational as well. A highlight is the opportunity to take a boat ride from the museum in Gloucester Docks and enjoy a commentary about the history form the boat’s skipper. A more pleasant way to spend an hour is hard to think of, especially during the summer months.


Children will enjoy all aspects of the National Waterways Museum as apart from boat trips and cruises, children will have the chance to design their own narrow boat, race boats and transport them through locks, dress up as canal children for an authentic experience and explore historic boats in every nook and cranny. Great fun is to be had by interacting with the scale model of the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. This intricate model offers real working engines and hands on displays. Visitors will be fascinated by the ingenious engineering that works the locks and boats on the waterways. If you and your children enjoy getting wet (optional!) and play with water the museum is just the place.


There are informative films that show you what to look out for on riverside and canal walks whether you are in the countryside or urban environments. There is always wildlife to be seen and plenty of nature spotting opportunities. Canals and rivers offer a diverse selection of wildlife habitats and also help fauna and flora to thrive whether in the country side or more urban landscape. Whatever the habitat, they all support different species. Picking up a few hints and tips from the National Waterways Museum will enhance enjoyment of waterside walks for the future.

Trade and Life on Narrow boats and Barges

A marvellous exhibit shows what a working warehouse was like and the role of trade and the need for canals and docks throughout the years of the British Empire and Industrial Revolution.

Another feature of the museum is the story of canals where an interesting overview of people who worked and lived on the canals tells the story of their lives. Using documents, silverware, clothing and tools of the trade, a picture of their different lives is drawn of boat and waterways families from narrow boat dwellers to the navvies who laboured on the canals to engineers and businessmen whose fortunes were built thanks to the canal and waterways system. The visitor will see beautiful canal ware and a sparkling polished motor launch, a conveyance no doubt used by a wealthy business man.

There is an enormous list of activities and exhibits of interest at Gloucester’s National Waterways Museum and it is a perfect place to visit for all ages and there is of course a perfect spot for coffee and a sustaining snack.

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