Black and white photo of man, horse with lock behind

Man and horse pulling two barges from Flatford Lock c1890

River Stour

The River Stour was made a navigable river by Act of Parliament in 1705. Locks were installed at intervals along the River Stour so that horse-drawn barges (also called lighters) could negotiate the differences in water levels between the start of their journey at Sudbury and their destination.

18th century navigation

The destination for the Stour barges was initially Manningtree until the purpose-built port at Mistley was built. Every mill, including the mill at Flatford, needed a height difference in water level in order to operate.  Locks were installed at every mill site in order to make the River Stour navigable but allow the mills along its course to continue to function.

  • Staunches – prior to locks being installed along the River Stour, navigation was only possible via a series of staunches – effectively a single gate – that helped barges over the shallow parts of the river. The staunches were removed as the navigation system became more efficient and the new locks became operational
  • Locks – 13 locks (later increased to 15 with the opening of Wormingford Cut in 1838) and 14 bridges were built along the River Stour between Sudbury and Mistley
  • Lighters – lighters (also known as barges) could carry loads of 13 tons and usually travelled in pairs (called ‘gangs’) by means of a huge steering pole fixed to the bow of the second lighter, which extended forward to the cockpit half way along the lead lighter. The skipper of the front lighter steered the ‘gang’ using the rear lighter as a rudder
  • 14 hours up-stream – the journey between Sudbury and Mistley Wharf normally took two days – approximately 14 hours upstream and 13 hours down stream, depending on the water-flow rate, the depth of water and temporary obstructions. On one occasion the River Stour froze and there was no movement at all!

John Constable - capturing history

John Constable captured the spirit of 18th Century river transport in his most famous painting of Flatford but by the time he painted these scenes, the industrial revolution was already underway and this way of transporting goods was disappearing very quickly. 

No guidelines, many mistakes!

The River Stour was one of the first rivers in England to be converted into a navigation system – there were no guidelines and many mistakes.

  • Rights of passage: although the 1705 Act of Parliament made the River Stour a navigable river, it did not include rights of passage for horses to travel along the tow paths and these rights had to be negotiated afterwards
  • Impasse – where agreement could not be reached on one side of the river it was often secured on the other – which meant the horses themselves needed to be transported from one side of the river to the other
  • Platforms for horses – lighters were fitted with platforms so that the horses could step onto the front of them and be poled over to the other side to resume their journey
  • Fences – at several junctures along the river the horses were required to jump over fences erected by farmers right up to the waters edge to prevent livestock straying from one property to another via the towpath
  • Lowering fences – there were 123 fences between Mistley and Sudbury and records show these fences being lowered to 3 feet from something significantly higher.

The White Horse  was painted in 1819.  It forms part of the Frick Collection. It shows a white horse being poled across the river to resume its journey on the other side.  For more information please click on The White Horse 

The White Horse 1819 Frick Collection

The White Horse 1819

The Leaping Horse was painted in 1825. It is displayed by the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the Royal Academy, London. It shows a large horse jumping a farmer’s fence. For more information please click on The Leaping Horse 

Detail from John Constable's Leaping Horse

The Leaping Horse 1825

Navigation - 19th & 20th centuries

For more images of Stour Navigation in the early 20th century. 

Mistley Warf

When lighters arrived at Mistley Wharf, their goods were unloaded onto sea-going Thames barges that sailed round the coast to London.  John Constable’s father Golding Constable, owned two Thames barges called the Balloon and the Telegraph. At Mistley Wharf the river barges they were loaded with Suffolk wheat, barley, malt, flour, bricks, chalk and lime bound for London. As the river barges were emptied they were quickly reloaded with iron, oil and coal which had been brought down the coast from Newcastle for use as domestic fuel and later in the 19th Century for businesses such as Sudbury gasworks. They were also loaded with London sewage both human and equine (which had been transported by sail barge to Mistley) to spread on the Suffolk fields.

Mistley Warf ©Bob Horlock Collection
Black and white photo of Mistley Warf - Stour lighters and Thames Barges RST
Black and white photo of Mistley Warf Stour lighters and Thames barges - Bob Horlock

Bob Horlock Collection - Photographs of Mistley Warfe in the late 19th – early 20th Century