The River Blyth meanders for around 9 miles from Halesworth to Blythburgh where it joins a tidal creek which eventually leads to Southwold. A proposal to make the Blyth navigable came from the inhabitants of Halesworth in the 1740's but is was clear that to be a success the harbour and entrance at Southwold would need to be improved. These improvements were made in the late 1740's. An estimate of around £4,600 to make the river navigable was submitted in 1753 but it was not until February 1757 that a Bill was presented to Parliament by a group from Halesworth and the trustees of Southwold Harbour who wanted to increase their powers.
The Bill received the royal assent in April 1757 and the commissioners met for the first time in June 1757. They decided that whoever was appointed to undertake a full survey should also be required to undertake the work at the price quoted in his own estimate. At that meeting they received a letter from a Langley Edwards saying he would undercut anyone else by 25%. Later Edwards produced an estimate for exactly £3000 and he got the job. The commissioners would come to regret that decision!
By June 1759 they had raised £3,600 from 38 people in the local area and in December 1759 work finally started but trying to get Edwards to attend meetings was proving impossible. The commissioners were having to deal direct with the contractor because neither he or they could get Edwards to turn up for anything. Finally in July 1761 the navigation was opened at a cost of £3822. The navigation had 4 locks and a tidal staunch just above Blythburgh bridge. That bridge now carries the A12 but the river has been culverted at this point to bring the bridge down to road level. Later on another lock was built at Halesworth to give access to some maltings. The locks were built to take vessels (mainly wherries) 50ft x 12ft and were similar to the locks on the Suffolk Stour with a galley beam above.
Trade was steady throughout the 18th century but in the early 19th century Southwold harbour was becoming increasingly silted up. John Rennie in 1820 and James Walker in 1840 both pinpointed the cause as the large scale reclamation of marshland around the tidal creek between Blyhburgh and Southwold. This had dramatically reduced the amount of tidal scour. Although trade steadily declined because of the harbour problems it was still possible to use the Blyth to transship coal to Halesworth from the few coastal colliers than managed to enter the harbour up to 1911.
The navigation was formally closed by an order of abandonment in February 1934.
To find out more about the Haleworth Navigation try and track down a copy of 'The Canals of Eastern England' by John Boyes and Roland Russell. This was the last volume in the series 'Canals of the British Isles' and was published by David & Charles in 1977.
Mike Fordham, curator of the Halesworth and District Museum has recently issued a revised edition of his booklet 'Halesworth Quay and the Blyth Navigation'. The first edition was published in 2011 to mark the 250th anniversary of the opening of the Navigation. It costs £2.50 and can be obtained from the Muesum. Contact details are on the Halesworth and District Museum website.
A few years ago, Brian Holt, the Public Relations Officer for our branch wrote an article about the Halesworth Navigation for our branch magazine, Anglian Cuttings. Have a look at Jim Shead's web site here to read that article.
The Visit Suffolk Coast website here has an interesting article about a walk beside the Blyth and gives some more detail about the history of the navigation.
Although the Southwold Railway which opened 1879 may have had some small effect on the navigation in reality it was already doomed because of the problems at the harbour. The railway itself is very interesting and you might like to find out more at this website.