River Stour Navigation


The River Stour rises at Wratting Common, Cambs and flows to the sea at Harwich. For many miles it forms the border between Essex and Suffolk. It is, of course, world famous as being the inspiration for many of John Constable's paintings including 'The Haywain'. It is also the only navigation in the Ipswich IWA area that has a fully navigable section open to boats and where the right of navigation from end to end still exists.

It is certain that the river was used as a means of transport for many years before a part of it became a fully navigable waterway but the first written record we have is from 1634 when a meeting was held by the mayor of Sudbury to discuss the matter. Various attempts were made over the next few years but it was not until 1705 that a Bill was passed in Parliament to make the river navigable from Sudbury to Manningtree. The act did not specify that a full towing path should be provided but left it to the discretion of local landowners which led to problems in later years.

As originally constructed the navigation had 13 flash-locks or staunches along with a further 13 pound locks. The gates were distinctive in that they were hung like field gates with hinges and the post was carried up above the lock with a lintel across the lock between the two posts. The lintel was necessary to stop the posts from collapsing inwards. The navigation was opened around 1709 and the total cost was only £6,500 which suggests that a lot of the work was renovation of existing structures.

This first attempt was not very successful and in some years the commissioners were spending more than they were receiving in tolls. Eventually by 1781 there were only 2 of the original commissioners left and as 15 were required to elect new ones they had to get a further Act of Parliament to nominate them. Among those nominated were Golding Constable, father of John and Samuel & Thomas Gainsborough brothers of Thomas. This Act also gave greater powers to the Commissioners and new towing paths and much dredging gave the navigation a new lease of life. In The 19th century the staunches were removed, the locks reconstructed in stone and brick and a further 2 locks inserted.

Trade expanded with coal being a major part of the goods carried, along with grain, malt, flour and bricks. Unfortunately little thought had been given to the fact that the towing path changed sides continuously with no bridges, and landowners had placed fences across the path to keep in their livestock. This situation required 20 places for the horse to be ferried across the river and 123 places where the towing horse had to jump over the fences. There is a famous painting by John Constable called 'The Leaping Horse' which clearly shows how the system worked.

Despite all these problems the navigation continued to thrive and even the coming of the railway in 1849 did not bring any immediate problems. However by the 1880's the coal trade was seriously depleted because it was being carried direct to Sudbury by rail from the Midland coal fields. The other important cargo was bricks but by 1890 that too had transferred to rail. In 1892 the proprietors of the navigation formed themselves into a limited company but in 1914 that went into voluntary liquidation. Even then all was not lost as the shareholders of the company formed themselves into a trust and trade continued on the lower part of the river. Indeed in 1928 the South Essex Waterworks Company reconstructed 5 locks at a cost of £5000 each but finally in 1937 The River Stour Navigation (Trust) Co. Ltd. was dissolved.

But that wasn't the end as in 1968 the River Stour Trust Ltd was formed and they have taken on the task of restoring the waterway to full navigation again. You can read the story of the Trust from 1968 to 2002 here and even more about the Trust and it's plans for the future here.

There is a significant amount of information about the Stour Navigation in  '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.

The Waterscape web site here has a lot of useful information about the both the river and the surrounding area.

The River Stour Trust hold regular working parties along the navigation. Their major task at the moment is the restoration of Stratford Lock and you can find out more about that here. They are in desperate need of more volunteers to finish the job. Can you help to see this beautiful waterway restored to it's former glory?