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The River Lee or River Lea in England originates in Leagrave Park, Leagrave, Luton in the Chiltern Hills and flows generally east and then south to London where it meets the River Thames, the last section being known as Bow Creek.
The spelling Lea is predominant west (upstream) of Hertford, but both spellings are used from Hertford to the River Thames; the Lee Navigation was established by Acts of Parliament and should be so spelt.
The Lee flows south from Tottenham Lock. The large housing development to the west, Bream Close, is situated on a small island in the river, whilst in the distance the Gospel Oak to Barking Line crosses the river on a high bridge.
The source is usually said to be at Well Head inside Waulud's Bank at Leagrave Common, but there the River Lea is also fed by a stream that starts 2 miles further west in Houghton Regis. The river flows through (or by) Luton, Harpenden, Welwyn Garden City, Hertford, Ware, Hoddesdon, Cheshunt, Waltham Abbey, Essex, Ponders End, Edmonton, Tottenham, Upper Clapton, Hackney Wick, Stratford, Bromley-by-Bow, Canning Town and finally Leamouth where it meets the River Thames (as Bow Creek).
It forms the traditional boundary between the counties of Middlesex and Essex, and was used for part of the Danelaw boundary. For much of its distance the river runs within or as a boundary to the Lee Valley Park. Between Tottenham and Hackney the Lee feeds Tottenham Marshes, Walthamstow Marshes and Hackney Marshes (the latter now drained).
In their early days, Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient played their matches as football amateurs on the Marshes. South of Hackney Wick the river's course is split, running almost completely in man made channels (originally created to power water mills, the Bow Back Rivers) flowing through an area that was once a thriving industrial zone.
Inside Greater London below Enfield Lock the river forms the boundary with the former Royal Small Arms Factory, now known as Enfield Island Village, a housing development. Just downstream the river is joined by the River Lee Relief Channel. The man-made,concrete banked water is known as the River Lee diversion at this point as it passes a series of reservoirs: King George V Reservoir at Ponders End/Chingford,William Girling Reservoir at Edmonton and the Banbury Reservoir at Tottenham. At Tottenham Hale there is a connected set of reservoirs; Lockwood Reservoir, High Maynard Reservoir, Low Maynard Reservoir, Walthamstow Reservoirs and Warwick Reservoirs. It also passes the Three Mills, a restored tidal mill near Bow.
In the Roman era, Old Ford, as the name suggests, was the ancient, most downstream, crossing point of the River Lee. This was part of a pre-Roman route that followed the modern Oxford Street, Old Street, through Bethnal Green to Old Ford and thence across a causeway through the marshes, known as Wanstead Slip (now in Leyton. The route then continued through Essex to Colchester. At this time, the Lee was a wide, fast flowing river, and the tidal estuary stretched as far as Hackney Wick. Evidence of a late Roman settlement at Old Ford, dating from the 4th and 5th centurys, has been found.
In about 895, a force of Danes built a fortified camp, in the higher reaches of the Lee, about 20 miles north of London. Alfred the Great saw an opportunity to defeat the Danes and ordered the lower reaches of the Lee drained, at Leamouth. This left the Danes' boats stranded, but also increased the flow of the river and caused the tidal head to move downriver to Old Ford.
In 1110, Matilda, wife of Henry I, reputedly took a tumble at the ford, on her way to Barking Abbey and ordered a distinctively bow-shaped, three-arched, bridge to be built over the River Lee (The like of which had not been seen before), at Bow.
During the middle ages, Temple Mills, Abbey Mills, Old Ford and Bow were the sites of water mills (mainly in ecclesiastic ownership) that supplied flour to the bakers of Stratforde-atte-Bow, and hence bread to the City. It was the channels created for these mills that caused the Bow Back Rivers to be cut through the former Roman stone causeway at Stratford (from which the name is derived).
Improvements were made to the river from 1424, with tolls being levied to compensate the landowners, and in 1571, there were riots after the extension of the River was promoted in a private bill presented to the House of Commons.
By 1577, the first lock was established at Waltham Abbey and the river began to be actively managed for navigation.
The New River was constructed in 1613 to take clean water to London, from the Lee and its catchment areas and bypass the polluting industries that had developed in its downstream reaches. This artificial channel further reduced the flow to the natural river and by 1767 locks were installed on the canalised part of the River, now the River Lee Navigation with further locks and canalisation taking place during the succeeding centuries.
The Lee or Lea is a major tributary of the River Thames and was once used by Viking raiders: King Alfred changed the level of the river to strand Guthrum and his fleet.
In more peaceful times, it became important for the transport of grain from Hertfordshire, but navigation of its southern-most tidal reaches Bow Creek was difficult due to its tortuous meanders.
The first Act for improvement of the river was granted in 1425, this being the first Act granted for navigational improvement in England; a second Act was passed in 1430. The Act authorised local landowners to make improvements paid for by levying tolls.
The first pound lock in England, that is, a lock as we now understand it with mitred gates, was opened at Waltham Abbey in 1577: the remainder of the control of levels was carried out by "staunches" or "turnpikes" — a weir with a single vertically lifting gate, through which boats were pulled against the current. With increasing extraction of water by the New River Company, navigation became difficult and water for mill-owners became scarcer, and a petition was presented to Parliament resulting in a further Act of 1739. However, this did not solve all the problems. John Smeaton made a survey of the river in 1765 and recommended that the staunches be replaced by pound locks.
An Act in 1767 provided these changes, together with the construction of a new stretch of canal, the Limehouse Cut to bypass the tight bends of Bow Creek near the River Thames, and this was opened in 1770 and widened in 1777. Artificial cuts and pound locks were opened at Waltham Abbey, Edmonton and Hackney in 1769. There were further improvements throughout the 19th century, including an Act in 1850 to authorise new lock cuts at Hoddesdon, Carthagena Lock (Broxbourne), Waltham Marsh, Tottenham, Walthamstow, Hackney, Leyton and Bromley-by-Bow and new locks at Hunter's Gate (Bow Bridge) and Old Ford.
The River Lee Water Act of 1855 authorised a new lock at Amwell Marsh and the removal of Stanstead Lock. Edmonton Lock was to be removed and Pickett's Lock rebuilt.
In 1868 the Lee Conservancy Board was formed to take over control of the river from the former trustees.
The Lee Navigation bought the Stort Navigation in 1911, and instituted further improvements, including reconstruction of the locks between Enfield and Hertford, the width being increased from 13 feet 3 inches (4.04 m) to 16 feet (4.88 m): by the 1930s, 130-ton barges could reach Enfield, and 100-ton barges to Ware and Hertford.
The navigation was nationalised in 1948, and control passed to the British Transport Commission. Where possible the locks from Bow Locks through to Ponder's End Lock were duplicated and mechanised - the only exception being Pickett's Lock.
In 1962, the British Transport Commission was wound up, and control passed to the British Waterways Board. Commercial traffic effectively ended in the 1980s.
During the 1950s horse drawn lighters were still journeying as far as Hertford.
By 1980 commercial traffic extended no higher than the Enfield Rolling Mills at Brimsdown, with just one tug, the Vassal was regularly at work on the river. Powered by a 120 hp Gardener diesel engine, she would typically tow a train of two lighters loaded with timber from Bow to Hahn's Wharf at Edmonton.
There are efforts currently underway to revive commercial traffic on the canal with a plan to transport rubbish for incineration at the Edmonton Incinerator.