- Hits: 1887
The Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation is the canalisation of the Rivers Chelmer and Blackwater in Essex, in the east of England.
The navigation runs for 13.75 miles (22.13 km) from Springfield Basin in Chelmsford to the sea lock at Heybridge Basin near Maldon.
It was opened in 1797, and remained under the control of the original company until 2003.
It is now run by Essex Waterways Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Inland Waterways Association.
The navigation runs from Springfield Basin in Chelmsford to the sea lock at Heybridge Basin near Maldon. It has 13 locks, including a flood lock, six bridges and drops 23 metres (75.4 feet) from the basin to the sea.
Prior to the actual construction of the navigation, there had been almost 120 years of proposals for such a scheme, and opposition from the port of Maldon, which anticipated that its revenues would fall if vessels could travel to Chelmsford.
The first such scheme was proposed in 1677 by Andrew Yarranton, who published his idea in a work entitled England's Improvements by Sea and Land. Maldon objected and the scheme came to nothing.
In July 1733, John Hore, who was involved in the Kennet, Stroudwater, and the Avon Navigation at Bristol, proposed two schemes, one to make the river navigable, and another to create a new cut between Chelmsford and Maldon. Despite the projected extra costs for a canal, Hore favoured the canal scheme, as he believed there would be less objection from the millers along the river route.
Maldon again objected on commercial grounds, and the scheme was dropped.
The next schemes were proposed in 1762, when the canal engineers John Smeaton and Thomas Yeoman both carried out surveys for a possible route. Yeoman produced a second plan in 1765, and this was presented to Parliament. Yeoman had a high standing as a civil engineer, and the opponents to the scheme tried to engage a suitable engineer to counter the proposal, but many of the obvious choices declined because they were too busy. Eventually, Ferdinando and William Stratford took on the task, but both caught ague and fever, from which Ferdinando died, while William was ill for a year but then recovered.
An Act of Parliament to authorise the plan was passed on 6 June 1766, with the stipulation that the work must be completed within 12 years, and that no work could start until 25 per cent of the capital had been raised.
The scheme foundered because the required capital had not been subscribed.
Peter Muilman called a meeting in Chelmsford on 2 October 1772, to propose improvements to the river, but a subsequent meeting decided that a new cut would be a better solution. Muilman announced that this scheme would probably not require any locks, and advocated that he should build it once Robert Whitworth had surveyed it, but nothing came of this.
Finally in 1792, with navigations in other parts of the country bringing increased prosperity to the towns they served, the people of Chelmsford decide to avoid the opposition of Maldon by bypassing it, and terminating the navigation at Heybridge, on the River Blackwater below Maldon.
Under the direction of John Rennie Charles Wedge surveyed the route in 1792 and Matthew Hall surveyed it in 1793. The new route would increase the length of the navigation by about 2 miles (3.2 km), but this plan formed the basis of a Parliamentary Bill.
Despite spirited opposition by Maldon, the bill became an Act of Parliament on 17 June 1793, creating The Company of the Proprietors of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, with powers to raise £40,000 by the issuing of shares, and a further £20,000 if required.
Work started soon afterwards, and although John Rennie was officially Chief Engineer, the project was managed by Richard Coates, who had also assisted Rennie on the Ipswich and Stowmarket Navigation.
The port of Maldon now tried to mitigate their loss, and with advice from Benjamin Latrobe, produced a plan to improve the Blackwater through Maldon to its junction with the Chelmer at Beeleigh, which was submitted to Parliament. Realising that this would make the final cut to Heybridge redundant, the Navigation Company opposed the Bill, and it was eventually dropped.
Work continued on the navigation, with the first section from Heybridge Basin to Little Baddow opening in April 1796 and the navigation opening throughout on 3 June 1797. The final cost was around £50,000.
When completed, the length of the navigation was 13.8 miles (22.2 km). 12 locks lowered the level of the navigation by 75 feet (23 m) from Springfield Basin in Chelmsford to the sea lock at Heybridge Basin. An additional stop lock protected the new cut from flooding at Beeleigh. Here, the navigation left the course of the River Chelmer, and joined that of the River Blackwater, before entering the final 2.5 miles (4.0 km) of cut to Heybridge Basin.
The waters of the River Blackwater were diverted into the Chelmer, flowing over a weir between Beeleigh Lock and the stop gates. The navigation was constructed with only 2 feet (0.61 m) of water, which was the lowest statutory draught for any of the English commercial waterways. The locks were constructed to take barges which were 60 by 16 feet (18 by 4.9 m) and each could carry around 25 tons. They were horse-drawn, and remained so until the 1960s, when diesel outboard motors were fitted.
The only branch was a cut to Langford Mill, built privately by Mr Westcomb. It was well used until the 1870s, but was unused after 1881.
There were teething problems, with floods in 1797 creating shoals which prevented the passage of barges. These got steadily worse, until Rennie was called back in 1799 to address the problem.
Rennie was again recalled in 1805, when the mill owners complained about leakage through the locks and requested damages. Further improvements were made, and trade developed steadily.
The first inland gasworks in Britain was built in Chelmsford in 1819, using coal brought up the navigation.
Besides coal, bricks, stone, timber and general cargo was carried from Heybridge to Chelmsford, and the major cargo in the reverse direction was grain and flour. Local wharfs served the communities of Little Baddow, Boreham, Ulting and Heybridge. At its peak in the mid 19th century, the canal was carrying over 60,000 tons of cargo per year.
The Eastern Counties Railway reached Chelmsford in 1843, and a branch line from Witham reached Maldon in 1848, but there was never a direct line between the two towns. Although trade declined, the impact of the railways was less significant than on many canals.
Following the Second World War, the sea lock into Heybridge Basin was extended to 107 by 26 feet (33 by 7.9 m), so that coasters carrying timber from the continent could enter the basin to transfer their cargo to barges.
Traffic slowly declined until the last load of timber was delivered to Browns Yard (now Travis Perkins) on Springfield Basin in 1972.
Although commercial traffic ceased, the navigation continued to derive income from water abstraction and from the sale of wood from the willows which grow along the banks. The willow is used for making cricket bats, and the trees were first planted in the 1880s when one of the directors saw the need for alternative sources of income.
The navigation is unusual in that it was not nationalised in 1948 when most of the other waterways in the UK were, and remained under the control of the original Company of Proprietors of the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation Ltd.
Prior to the cessation of commercial traffic in 1972, pleasure craft were prohibited from using the locks, but leisure use of the navigation was encouraged after that date.
However, the Navigation Company was unable to pay its way, and went into administration in 2003. Although British Waterways were approached, they declined to take over the navigation.
After negotiations with the Administrator, the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) signed a maintenance and operating agreement in November 2005 to take over responsibility for the running of the navigation through a wholly owned subsidiary called Essex Waterways Ltd.
While Essex Waterways Ltd manage the navigation from day to day, it is still owned by the Company of Proprietors.
The towpath from Maldon to Chelmsford has been designated as a public footpath, and is maintained in good order.
Narrow boats can be hired from Paper Mill lock, and the infrastructure is being steadily upgraded.
Access to the navigation from the River Blackwater is only possible at certain states of the tide, and advance booking to use the sea lock is required.