Early History of the Navigation

Photo: View of the Navigation in the early 1900s

During the eighteenth century Chelmsford was becoming increasingly important in the commercial and social life of the county and was growing rapidly.  The changes then taking place in farming brought prosperity to Chelmsford and the fertile districts to the west and north west of the town, but there was no satisfactory way of transporting the bulk raw materials, such as lime, dung, coal and timber, that the Chelmsford district required.  The nearest point of entry of these seaborne goods was Maldon, a day’s journey away.

The first hint at making the Chelmer navigable was in 1677.  Other more positive plans were to follow in 1732 by John Hoare and in 1765 by the engineer Thomas Yeoman.  Neither of these schemes was brought to fruition; however by the 1790s about 10,000 tons of goods, 5,000 tons being coal, were tranported annually along the rough road across Danbury Hill to Chelmsford.  It was obvious that the carrying of these goods inland could be made much easier and cheaper with a navigation between Maldon and Chelmsford.  In 1792 therefore, during the country’s canal mania, the Chelmer scheme was revived yet again by the ninth Lord Petre of Thorndon Hall and Thomas Bramston of Roxwell, M.P. for Essex.

The Borough of Maldon, for fear of losing tolls, the millers, and landowners along the Chelmer, opposed the scheme, so the promoters decided to bypass Maldon and its silting river completely and take the navigation through the village of Heybridge. After long arguments between promoters and antagonists an Act was passed in June, 1793, to make the navigation from Colliers Reach (Heybridge Basin) to Springfield.

Photo: John Rennie F.R.S. Principal Engineer of the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation

John Rennie F.R.S. (176 1—1821) was appointed the principal engineer for the project, but because he was so busy constructing canals in other parts of the country he visited the site only five times.  The survey was carried out by Charles Wedge and the building of the navigation was supervised by the Resident Engineer, Richard Coates.

The 1793 Act gave power to the Company of Proprietors of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation to raise money for building the navigation and to purchase land compulsorily.  About half of the £52,000 needed for the building of the navigation came from Essex and the other half from Leicestershire.  The Company purchased 63.75 acres of land (16.5 in Heybridge and 8.25 in Springfield) for £5,352.

Building operations commenced with 50 men under Richard Coates in October 1793.  Difficulties were soon encountered at Langford where the Chelmer and Blackwater had to cross the newly built Langford Canal and further complications arose with the severe floods of 1795 when the works sustained considerable damage where unstable sand and gravel presented problems near Hoe Mill.  However, by April, 1796, the navigation had been completed as far as Little Baddow Mill and by July 1796, Heybridge Basin had been completed too.  The navigation was finally opened on 3 June 1797, three years and eight months after its building commenced.

The navigation is a very broad one and the pound locks (of which there are 11 and one sea lock) measure on average 68 x 17 feet taking vessels measuring 60 feet long, 16 feet of beam and only a two foot draught, making the Chelmer and Blackwater the shallowest navigation in the country.

The bridges and locks were designed by John Rennie, and except for Chapman’s Bridge, Heybridge, they are all constructed of red bricks which were made from brickearth excavated at Hoe Mill and Sawpit Field, Boreham.  The parapets are capped with Dundee stone.  The navigation is just under 14 miles long and has a total fall of 76 feet 11 inches between Springfield and Heybridge Basin.

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These notes are taken from the booklet 'The Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation' by Peter Came B.A. by kind permission of his family.