Navigation on the River Stour
The installation of a lock at Flatford allowed horse-drawn barges (or lighters) to pass the 5-foot height difference in the water levels created by the mill’s activities.
Flatford Mill and River Stour Locks
A few facts about navigation on the River Stour:
- 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.
- There were 13 locks (later increased to 15 with the opening of Wormingford Cut in 1838) and 14 bridges along the River Stour between Sudbury and Mistley.
- Lighters 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.
- The journey between Sudbury and Mistley Wharf normally took two days - approximately 14 hours upstream and 13 hours down stream- depending on the waterflow rate, the depth of water and temporary obstructions. On one occasion the River Stour froze and there was no movement at all!
What happened when Stour lighters arrived at Mistley Wharf?
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.
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. 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.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. 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. There were 123 fences between Mistley and Sudbury and records show these fences being lowered to three feet from something significantly higher.