A gang of lighters has passed through Flatford Lock, heading for the bridge

Building the Navigation

Over the years there had been attempts to make the Stour navigable but they had come to nothing. In the early C18 the merchants of Sudbury wanted access to the London trade and they tried again. In 1705 Queen Ann signed off the permission for them to make the Stour navigable from Sudbury to Manningtree. This was called the Stour Navigation.

Building The Navigation involved the construction of locks, weirs, wharves and  complicated negotiations to rent land for a towpath along the river bank. The intention was that two barges, (which were called lighters) were joined together to form a “gang” transporting goods between them of up to 26 tons. Of course this also allowed a single barge carrying up to 13 tons to be worked if required.

  • Removal of 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
  • Installation of 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.
  • The lock gates were very heavy and so put a lot of stress on the hinges. In most locks elsewhere in the country this stress was counteracted by ‘balance beams’ which were long heavy wooden beams on the opposite side from the lock gate. These beams were not practical on the Stour and so the very unusual lintels (which you can still see at Flatford today), were used to counteract the stress.

In practice the whole journey from Sudbury to Mistley Wharf via Cattawade was spread over 2-4 days.

When one considers these obstacles plus passing through the locks, passing lighters going the other way and poling the lighters under bridges where there was no towpath, the journey was not straightforward!

Sudbury to Cattawade

Map by the Environment Agency (click on it to see a larger version)

The journey between Sudbury to Mistely 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. The time of the journey on the tidal stretch, from Brantham down to Manningtree depended on the wind and tide.

River Stour Lighters

Boat Building by John Constable 1814 - owned by V&A

River Stour lighters were mostly built in the basin at Flatford.

Lighters were made of wood and clinker and measured 47 feet long by 10ft 9ins beam.

Lighters when fully loaded   carried loads of 13 tons each and usually travelled in pairs.

Pairs of lighters travelling together were called  ‘gangs’. The were linked together 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 aft boat was called the ‘house lighter’ and had a cabin for the two-man crew.The skipper of the front lighter steered the ‘gang’ using the rear lighter as a rudder.

To find out more about this painting which shows a lighter being built,  click on the following link to the V&A  Boat Building

The ‘gangs’ were towed by horses between Sudbury and Brantham Tidal Lock, a distance of 24 miles.  From Brantham Tidal Lock the lighters were floated on the tide to Manningtree, where their cargoes were transferred to sea-going Thames barges which used wind to power their sails in order to make the journey to London.

A gang having gone under Flatford Bridge is heading for Flatford lock.
A gang of lighters emerging from Brantham Lock
A gang leaving Swan Lock on Wormingford Cut, heading upstream.

Mistley Wharf

Prior to the early 18th century there had been one small harbour at Manningtree to service the trade requirements of local businesses. 

In the late 1720s the Rigby family (who owned Mistley Hall), decided to build a new quay at Mistley.

By 1730 Richard Rigby had completed Mistley Quay which included granaries, warehouses and coal yards. 

Mistley Warf ©Bob Horlock Collection
Mistley Quay looking downstream with lighters, Thames Barges and the large waterside mill

As a result the importance of both Manningtree and Mistley as harbours for London-bound barges became much more significant. Eventually most of the Stour river barges (lighters) docked at Mistley rather than Manningtree because the natural curve of the channel along the waterfront provided a greater depth of water for the Thames barges.

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 vessels (called sloops) The Balloon and The Telegraph. At Mistley Wharf the Stour lighters unloaded their Suffolk wheat, barley, malt, flour, bricks, chalk and lime bound for London. As the lighters 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. 

Problems with Tow Paths

Scene on a Navigable River by John Constable 1816-17 Painting owned by the Tate Gallery

The Stour Navigation was one of the first statutory navigations and some parts of it did not work out well. 

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.

The Undertakers decided to pay tolls to landowners rather than buy the tow path land.

The painting to the left by John Constable  shows a horse that has travelled along the tow path, now uncoupled while the lighterman poles the lighter under Flatford Bridge.

Click  Scene on a Navigable River for more information about the painting.

Boating Horses

Due to the vagaries of negotiating with many different landowners and various physical obstacles, the towpath changed sides 33 times between Sudbury and Brantham.

This meant that the horses had to be ‘boated’ or ‘poled’ (taken across on the bow of the leading lighter) from one bank to the opposite bank. 

The horse steps onto the barge and is boated across to the other side

Boating was needed when the towpath moved to the other side of the river. Constables famous picture called The White Horse illustrates this practice of ‘boating’ very well.

Further obstructions on the towpath were the stiles placed at intervals across the path to stop animals straying from one property to the next. There were 123 stiles between Manningtree and Sudbury. These stiles had to be jumped by the horses, a feat well illustrated by Constable’s famous picture The Leaping Horse

The White Horse 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 by John Constable - 1819

The Leaping Horse 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 

The Leaping Horse by John Constable - 1825

Navigation - 19th & 20th centuries

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

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