Serving the communities of Bures St Mary and Bures Hamlet

The River Stour Navigation 1713 - 1930


After the Civil War the population of the country and in particular London increased, creating an enormous demand for food. East Anglia with its lush plentiful fields and river network provided two key elements, to meet this growing demand.

The first recorded evidence of the river being used for traffic was in 1628 when King Charles I granted rights for the river to become navigable.
In 1705, an Act of Parliament was made for the river to be made navigable from Sudbury to Manningtree a distance of 23.5 miles. This act, authorised channels and locks to be constructed enabling the passage of barges, boats etc between the two towns.
The river navigation was opened for traffic in 1713.
In 1780 a new act was passed appointing 70 new Commissioners to look after the Navigation, this was necessary as only 2 Commissioners survived the original 1705 membership.
Notable names now included Golding Constable (father of John Constable MA) together with Samuel and John Gainsborough (brothers of Thomas Gainsborough)
Abram Constable(Brother of John Constable MA) the owner of Dedham and Flatford Mills regularly attended the Commissioners meetings, obviously with a vested interest in the proceedings

River Stour Map dated 1805

The map on the left is dated 1805 and shows the river and the enormous flood plain.
CLICK image to enlarge.(800k pdf file)

The river today is just a narrow stretch of water, compared to what we see back in the peak days of navigation.

Between Brantham and Sudbury locks were located at:-
Cornard, Henny, Pitmere(Lamarsh), Bures, Wormingford(2), Wissington, Nayland, Horkesley, Boxted, Langham, Stratford, Dedham, Flatford and Brantham. These were mainly located at the site of "Mills" where they provided sufficient head of water to operate the Mill. The lock gates were spaced 95 feet apart to allow the passage of two `lighters`
However these locks became very unpopular with the local millers in dry weather, when so much water was lost each time a boat passed through. Water was essential for the millers in powering their mill wheels. The miller was in a no-win situation, he was then penalised if he worked the river to a low depth, when there would be insufficient water to allow the passage of the vessels.
To keep the millers content, the Navigation Act allowed the passage of mill stones or other material used for milling to be carried toll free. The farmers also managed to gain similar concessions with lime, manure, straw etc.

There were also 12 "Staunches" or Flash Locks, where the water level was very shallow. The "Staunch" consisted of a single lock gate made entirely of timber which would block the flow of water. The Barges would wait behind the "Staunch" until the water level had risen considerably. The gate was then removed and the Barges would be carried along by this rush or "Flash" of water over the shallow part of the river. The "Staunch" had the advantage that the closed gate backing up the water would make the river upstream more navigable.
However, the disadvantage came downstream with Barges having to fight this sudden surge in water level whils`t raveling upstream against the flow. It was also a terrible waste of water each time the "Staunch" was opened.

Barges on the River Stour were known as `lighters` and were mostly built in a special basin at Flatford, which can still be seen today. These `lighters` were similar in every respect to those barges used on the fens and other waterways.

There can be no better portraits of these `lighters` and scenery than those painted by John Constable.

Horse pulling Lighters and Flatford Dry Dock by `John Constable`

Uniquely, the `lighters` operated in pairs, being permanently shackled bow to stern, rather in the style of an articulated lorry, the rear lighter being used as a rudder for the pair. The stern vessel had a single hold with a small cabin at the rear.
The crew consisted of a captain and a horseman. The latter was often a small boy, who often rode the horse. The journey from Sudbury to the estuary normally took about 2 days, with an overnight stop halfway at Horkesley - where a special "bothy" - or bunkhouse - was provided for the lightermen.
The `lighters` were usually pulled by just one horse going downstream and possibly two coming back against the river flow.
Each `lighter` was 47ft in length by 10ft 9" wide with a depth of 2`8ft.
Each `lighter` could pull 13 tons of freight, this meant that one horse, was not only pulling the weight of the craft, but also 26 tons of cargo.

The navigation in it`s early days was very successful.
The inventory for 1750 lists the following goods transported by lighter from Mistley towards Sudbury:-

Glass Bottles
Grindstones (Millers)
Rape Seed

From Sudbury and Bures the main cargo would have been bricks, tiles, hides and malt that would have made the journey to London.

Looking up river towards Sudbury from the Bures roadbridge, the barge towing path would have been on the left. The horse at Bures would cross the bridge and jumped back on the `lighter` from the wharf side, which was just below wharf cottage.

`White Horse` painting by John Constable showing the horse hitching (boating) a lift on the `lighter`

As it had been impossible to acquire rights of access for a continuous path on one side of the river, the Navigation Company did not own the lands, but only paid a toll. Consequently, the horse was required to cross the river at least 33 times. Now as there were only 16 bridges, the horses were trained to cross by stepping onto the `lighter` and then jumping off the other side. Straw was sometimes used to aid stability. It was not uncommon for a horse to loose it`s footing, slip into the river and drown.

Horse pulling `lighters` at Wormingford

In 1836 It was decided to survey the navigation to see what improvements could be made. The obvious was to have a continuous towing path on one side of the river to speed up the journey. If this was implemented the journey time from Sudbury to Catterwade would be in the region of 12 hours and the return journey from Mistley taking 14 hours.
Unfortunately this work was never implemented, a disastrous error !

In 1843 a survey was carried out into the feasibility of extending the route northwards to Clare.
With the final estimate in excess of £30,000 the scheme was abandoned.

In 1850, yet another survey was undertaken and it was estimated the horses had to jump 123 stiles between the two ends of the journey.
`John Constables` painting, "The Leaping Horse" depicts this action vividly.
The height of the stiles presented a major problem at some locations. The Lightermen wanted them lower for their horses, but the farmers wanted them higher to avoid losing cattle, Stalemate, once again nothing happened to alleviate this dilemma.
This was to have disastrous consequences in the following years. (see conclusion)

In 1870 the authorities had trouble with the Sudbury sewage which was blocking the free passage of the barges. Apparently the river was getting so bad in some stretches the Navigation Authority had to spend £600 on a steam dredger to clear a passage. In 1887 to recoup their expenses it was loaned out to the "Zeoninite Company" at Brantham for 30/- a week.

In order for the cargo to be transferred from the `lighters` to and from coastal ships, they were unhooked from their horse at Brantham and floated on the tide, down to Mistley Quay.
This 2 mile tidal journey provided the most difficult part of the journey. The horses were left at Brantham and with the help of the wind and tide they set off for the quay. If the wind was favourable the skipper would hoist a square sail made out of sacking to assist passage, if all else failed the `lighter` would be pushed along with a pole.
No mean task on a tidal river together with the weight of the `lighters` for a distance of 2 miles.


Sea going Sailing Barge

Bricks were the major cargo originating from works at Ballingdon and Bulmer, going downstream, with coal and grain returning upstream from Mistley. We all look at the Albert Hall and perhaps the South Kensingtons museums architecture with some wonder, but did we appreciate the bricks for those buildings, travelled through Bures from the Ballingdon Brickwork's on they way to London. The brickwork's were producing some 3 million bricks per year in the early 1900`s and most of them would be transported by `lighter`.

Mistley was a thriving port from the time it opened in 1730 importing coal from the North of England to the Gasworks at Bures and Sudbury together with grain for the Maltings.
Bricks, chalk, flour and straw were exported to London and malt to the Guinness brewery at Dublin.
Why straw you may ask ?

The horses pulling the London cabbies, depended on straw and feed brought in by stack barges or "stackies". These craft were wider in the beam making them handle better. Waste made by the stable sweepings (London mixture) was then shipped back to the farms.
The "Brickie" barge could carry between 40 - 45,000 bricks, enough to build a pair of semi detached houses ...... so which came first, the size of semi or the size of barge ??

Back to Bures:-

The railway arrived in Colchester in 1843, which started 40 years of network expansion.
Perhaps seeing problems ahead, in 1846 the Navigation Company reputedly offered to sell itself to the Railway Company for £30,000. The offer was refused as was a counter offer made by the Railway Company.

The arrival of the railway from Marks Tey to Sudbury in 1849, started the inevitable decline in the use of the river. An attempt was made around 1862 to power barges with steam engines to cut journey times but this proved a disaster. Fitting engines to existing `lighters` either caused the propeller to stick out of the water or foul the river bed because of the meager 3ft draught. This project was abandoned in 1867.
In hindsight, another disastrous mistake.

In 1879 the Ministry of Agriculture purchased a steam dredger to clear the river of silt and keep the navigation clear. Within six months this proved ineffective and compounded by landowners, who would not pay the tolls for the work.

In 1886 the Navigation company reported that the trade in bricks was seriously affected by the rail network.
The bricks from Ballingdon continued to be transported, but alas only from their works to Sudbury Railway Station, where they continued their journey by rail.

Bures wharf

Bures Wharf circa 1900.
The road bridge can be seen to the left and the Wharf to the right.
A "Lighter" can be seen beside the jetty.

This would have handled outgoing bricks, malt etc.

Coal would have arrived from Mistley for the Gas works.

Surprisingly, maximum tonnages of various classes of goods were achieved in various years after the various after the introduction of rail transport as shown by the following list

Coal 22,813 tons (1860)
Wheat 43, 122 Quarters (1862)
Flour 61,382 sacks (1868)
Malt 15,912 Quarters (1851)
Bricks 3,245,450 (1866 and 1864)
Barley & Oats 20, 918 Quarters (1894)
Oil 4096 barrels (1893)

Stiff competition between river and rail meant fares were cut and more locks (13 to 26) were built to speed up the journey.
Sadly in 1890 the Navigation Company fell into debt.

Traffic fell from a total of 20,000 tons annually in the 1890s to 10,662 tons in 1911.

In 1913, there was a pleasure trip by barge from Bures, commemorating both the end of the navigation and its 200th. anniversary. One gentleman lost his gold watch overboard on the occasion and never retrieved it.

The real demise came when the Admiralty decreed (1914 -1918)as a wartime measure, that all the lighters should be sunk, to make sure they did not fall into enemy hands. The entire fleet of 14 lighters at Sudbury were scuttled and they sank into the river at Ballingdon Cut.
Unfortunately the horses also came to the end of their useful life. Sentiment was not a high priority.

By the outbreak of the First World War, little freight traffic now remained on the river.

The Navigation Company finally went into liquidation on September 9th. 1913, a few craft continued to use the river, paying dues to the Liquidators. The last `lighter` went up to Sudbury in 1914/15, but Dedham Mill continued to use the barges until 1930, when Percy Clover, the owner, paid tolls amounting to £1 13s. that year.
The last recorded barge through Boxted Lock was in 1916.

Following the loss of freight traffic on the river it soon deteriorated, the locks fell into disrepair and the navigation became unusable.
In 1935 three feet of water was lost from the river following the breakdown of the floodgates at Wormingford Mill. The gates were never reinstalled and the river has never regained this full height since.

The Liquidation of the Navigation Company was finally completed in 1935.
It is now only navigable between Sudbury and Bures, the path south being blocked locally by a sluice gate at Bures Mill.

Factors affecting its closure:-
(a) arrival of the railway which poached the transportation of bricks and coal.
(b) the failure of the Navigation Company to pursue the use of steam on the river
(c) the lack of a continuos towpath, doubling the journey time
(d) with the loss of the brick and coal trade, the lack of reform to find alternative cargoes.

Finally the River Stour Trust salvaged a steam powered vessel, dating back to 1862 near to Pitmere Lock.

Updated 20/09/09
Credit:- Witgar Hitchcock (dec), Bures Mill
& History Society
River Stour Trust
, The Suffolk Stour by Ambrose Waller