Queen Anne - reigned 1702-1707
House of Commons C1705

In 1705, (reign of Queen Anne), an act of Parliament was passed enabling a formal navigation system to be constructed along the River Stour –  in order transport goods along the river.  It was known as “The Navigation”.

  • Beneficiaries of the Navigation – the businessmen of Sudbury and so they were the main drivers of the project
  • Responsibility for creating The Navigation would be The Mayor and Alderman of Sudbury and ten other gentlemen were named as ‘Undertakers’ responsible for making the river navigable from Sudbury to Manningtree.
  • In case of disputes – the Act appointed over a hundred commissioners to act as referees in cases of dispute between riparian owners or other interested parties and the Undertakers.
  • Construction – the works were of a crude pattern fifteen ‘pound’ locks between Sudbury and Brantham and thirteen additional flash-locks all of which were constructed of timber.
  • Pound locks were of the type on the Stour today with two gates and a chamber between them. These locks were over 90ft long, sufficient to take two lighters bow to stern (a gang).
  • Flash locks, or staunches, were of a simpler construction and consisted of just one gate. This meant that it was wasteful of water and difficult to negotiate.
  • Cost and funding –
    the work was completed at a cost of £9000, £800 for 16 lighters, £6500 for navigation works, £1700 for warehouses and shares were issued in the company to raise the money required.
  • Tolls – the Undertakers were to receive 5/- for every “chalder* of coals” and every ton of merchandise carried from Manningtree to Sudbury (*A Chaldron was a unit used specifically for coal and was equal to 36 bushels.)
  • Exemption from tolls – millstones and other materials for use in the mills and also lime and muck for the fields were exempt from toll.
  • The first mention of trade was the movement of 2,211 tons of coal from Manningtree to Sudbury in May 1709. Coal was the main cargo carried up river, whilst corn and bricks were carried downstream.

It can be deduced from the above that: coal was seen as a very important cargo as it was the only item separated by a specific toll for a specific weight and the people who had most to lose from the Navigation were the millers and the local landowners and free transport for them might reduce/prevent their opposition. 

Phase One: C1713-C1770 - SLOW PROGRESS!

The locks were in good condition. No major repairs were necessary. Trade consisted mainly of local agricultural produce, bricks, chalk and lime downstream and coal, oils and other merchandise upstream. 

Although trade was steady, the return on investment was not spectacular generating an income of around £200  per year.

black and white photo of two lighters on the River Stour
A gang of lighters leaving Swan Lock on Wormingford Cut and going upstream.

Phase Two: 1770-1848 - Boom Years!

Navigation Tolls - 1822

From 1770 extensive repairs and improvements were undertaken which left the Navigation in very good condition. 

The locks

  •  in 1771 Dedham lock was rebuilt as new followed by
  • rennovation at Henny, Langham, Nayland, Bures and Flatford locks which was followed by
  • rennovation of all the Stour locks 

Three horse bridges, (known as ‘roving’ bridges) were built where the towpath changed sides at Higham, Langham and Stratford St Mary.

In 1780 a new Act superseded the original 1705 Act which, amongst other things, appointed new commissioners as all but two of the original commissioners had died.  

New Commissioners

Among the new commissioners were Golding Constable, Samuel and John (scheming Jack) Gainsborough. These new commissioners were given various powers to control the Navigation including the right to make bye-laws.

There are two ways of assessing the success of these changes:

  • Prior to 1752 it was stated that four gangs of lighters worked the river but
  • By 1791 there were eighteen gangs + three single barges
Golding Constable

Annual receipts rose from a few hundred pounds in the early years to

  • £700 in 1782
  • £1600 in 1812

Plans to build a railway

1836 – plans to build a railway – by 1836 there were the first suggestions that a railway would be built between Sudbury and Colchester. The Proprietors of the Navigation acted quickly by reducing tolls and by asking Mr Cubitt (a local and highly regarded engineer) to survey the river and suggest improvements. (It’s not clear exactly who the Proprietors were but it is logical to assume that they were the shareholders together with some of the commissioners).

  • In September 1836 Mr Cubitt  recommended the replacement of all the existing staunches, much improvement of the towpath, new locks at Pitmire and between Horkesley and Boxted, extensive repairs to other existing locks.
  • All this work cost £12,000 but this was accepted and the work started the following year.
  • The improvements triggered a large increase in trade and despite more decreases in tolls, income rose to well over £2,000 per year, reaching a peak of £3,414 in 1847.
  • At this stage the lighters were going upstream in 14 hours and coming back down in 12 hours, an average speed of a very creditable 2mph

Construction of the Railway in Essex

The opening of Colchester to Sudbury Railway 2 July 1849 – was direct competition with the Navigation. However, by the time the  railway opened for business the Navigation was in very good shape to fight for its share of the business. 

Construction underway near Ilford 1838 - Foxearth & District Local History Society
Carrying soil away 1838 - Foxearth & District Local History Society

Phase Three: 1849-1892 - Gradual Decline

As early as 1845 there were negotiations between the Proprietors and the Railway to sell the Navigation to the Railway but eventually these came to nothing and so the Navigation had to do its best to survive on its own.

Decline in trade – the treasurer’s report of 1850 was very pessimistic about the long term prospects of the Navigation and from the mid 1860s the prediction came true and trade started a slow but steady decline. The main goods carried were agricultural products and they remained reasonably constant until the final years but coal and brick figures had by then fallen to almost nothing. To give some idea of the trade in 1861 the main cargoes carried were coal, bricks and agricultural goods.


  • in 1861 the Navigation had been transporting 22,707 tons
  • in 1895 this was reduced to 5,120 tons 


  • in 1861 the Navigation had been transporting 2,185,300
  • in 1895 this was reduced to 811,00 

Agricultural was the only commodity where river transport remained stable.  In 1895 – 42,143 quarters of wheat, 55,787 sacks of flour, 4046 quarters of malt

Trying to Halt the Decline

The Proprietors responded to the opening of the railway by immediately lowering the tolls again. This had the effect of increasing trade but, because of the reduced tolls, income fell. The Proprietors  did their best to halt the decline  – and invested money two new ideas a steam dredger and a steam barge.

Experiments with steam

  • Steam dredger – one of the problems with the Navigation was the silting up of the river and so in 1880 they bought a steam dredger and this seems to have been very successful and done good work until 1908.
  • Steam barge – the expensive maintenance of the towpath and paying tolls to landowners was draining money away from the Navigation and so in 1860 the company decided to invest in a steam barge. 

Experiments with a steam barge started in 1860 and continued until 1869 but were never a success, partly because the propeller either came above water level, causing drag, or fouled the bed of the river. At first sight it seems strange that the speed of a steam barge was not a factor in its trial.

  • Certainly the steam barge could have moved faster than a horse drawn barge but it would still have had to go through the locks which was a time consuming business and the engine reduced the cargo space.
  • In addition if the steam barge had gone too fast it would have caused erosion of the banks and so added to the problem of silting.
  • So, while the steam barge would have shortened one part of the journey, the impact on the whole journey would not have been significant.

Criticism is sometimes levelled at the Stour Navigation for not investing further in steam power. However, a steam barge would not have been the saviour of the Stour Navigation as is clearly shown by the experiene of the Gipping Navigation. 

Steam barge pulling two lighters - River Gipping, Sproughton C1910

Steam on the Gipping

In 1794  nintey years after the River Stour had been declared a navigable river by Act of Parliament a similar horse-drawn navigation was built along parts of the  River Gipping Navigation in Suffolk.  It ran the 16 miles from Stowmarket to the port at Ipswich.

However, after the railways arrived, trade started to drop just like it did on the River Stour. The Gipping Navigation bought four steam barges which operated for some years on the river. Eventually they were forced to accept that the navigation could not compete with the railways and the Gipping Navigation closed in 1922.

Outperformed by rail on time, cost and labour 

The inherent problem with the Navigation was the time, cost and labour involved in first transporting Sudbury to London cargoes down the Stour then transferring them to a Thames barge at Mistley. The Navigation could not match with the railway on any of these things, so decline was inevitable.

  • Labour – most of the transfer of bricks was done with a four men forming a chain and so transferring 100 tons (the minimum capacity of a Thames barge), this would have been a long job! (the maximum load a “gang” of River Stour lighters could carry was 26 tons)
  • Time – even when the Stour lighters had completed their 2-day journey down the Stour and when their goods were loaded and the Thames barge was full, it had to sail round to London. This journey to London would have taken several days as the barges were dependant on wind and tide. So the river traffic could not hope to compete with the railways on the total time of the journey – several hours for a train but for the barges it would have been about a week.
  • Cost –  the major cargoes for the Navigation were farm produce, bricks and coal. The time taken to transport agricultural goods was not so critical to start with  and kept the Navigation in business – but for coal and bricks the cost of transport became critical and to remain competitive they transferred their transport arrangements to the trains.

 An August 1880 survey showed the navigation from Sudbury to Cattawade was 24.5 miles long and there were:15 locks (Cornard, Henny, Pitmire (actually in Lamarsh), Bures, Wormingford (2), Wiston, Nayland, Horkesley, Boxted, Langham, Stratford, Dedham, Flatford and Brantham tidal lock),16 bridges,15 mills between Manningtree and Sudbury.  

Mounting losses – in 1892 the River Stour Navigation made its first loss. Although agricultural traffic remained reasonably good which meant the toll income was over £500 but expenses for maintenance were mounting. In view of the above the Proprietors decided to change the Navigation to a Limited Company.

For the next few years small profits were made on the operations but expenses continued to rise.

Phase Four: 1892-1936 - Voluntary Liquidation

On the 18th September 1913 the Company went into voluntary liquidation. However some of the shareholders formed a Trust and so the Navigation continued to be used. It seems that the last lighter reached Sudbury in 1914. 

  • First World War – during the First World War, 14 lighters (including the only steam lighter), were scuttled in Ballingdon Cut. It is said that the scuttling was on the orders of the War Department in case they fell into enemy hands in the event of an invasion. There is no concrete evidence to support this but it seems the likely – it’s difficult to think of any other reason as to why the shareholders would have agreed to sacrifice their sole remaining asset. However, Mr Percy Clover, then owner of the mill at Dedham, owned his own lighters and they escaped being scuttled. 
  • Final passage – the lower stretches of the River Stour were worked until 1930 when the last gang passed through Dedham lock & Mr Clover paid a final annual payment of 33/- for use of the navigation as far as his mill.
  • Until 1937 – the Trust remained nominally in existence and so technically responsible for the maintenance of the river. The Trust Navigation was not officially declared defunct until the 19th of March 1937. 

Comparisons with the British Canal System


  • There were some canals before 1750 but the majority were built after that date (the canalisation of 24 miles of the River Stour was completed much earlier in 1713). The length of canals had increased and by 1850 to over 4,000 miles
  • The canal companies also faced the problem of competition from the railways and they too declined after 1850.
  • The canal companies also tried steam barges but they found that in practice this only gave a very small increase in speed over the horse drawn barges and this was at the expense of valuable cargo space.
  • They also experimented with steam barges towing several barges but these only became useful on long stretches where there no locks and so the canal companies abandoned the idea of steam barges.