Navigation on the River Stour

Horse and man near 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

Locks were installed at intervals along the River Stour so that horse-drawn barges (or lighters) could negotiate the differences in water levels between the start of their journey at Sudbury and their destination at Mistley Wharf.  
Every mill, including the mill at Flatford, needed a five foot 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. 

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?

Once 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 which at Mistley Wharf he loaded with. Suffolk wheat, barley, malt, flour, bricks, chalk and lime bound for London. He loaded his smaller domestic barges (or lighters) with iron, oil and coal which had been brought down the coast from Newcastle (for use as domestic fuel and for businesses such as Sudbury gasworks) plus London sewage both human and equine to spread on the Suffolk fields.

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.

Links to John Constable

Constable painted many scenes showing lighters, lightermen, boys, horses, locks and the business of navigation on the River Stour; including one showing a horse being transported across the river on the front of a lighter and another showing a horse jumping a large fence.
The White Horse - painted in 1819 and part of the Frick Collection
The Leaping Horse - painted in 1825, displayed by the Tate Gallery in London, courtesy of the Royal Academy, London