River Great Ouse - History


[ ] River Great Ouse
The Wash
River Babingley
Gaywood River
River Nar sluice
A47 Kings Lynn
River Nar
Relief Channel sluice
Middle Level Navigations main drain
A1122 Downham Market
Salters Lode Lock
Old Bedford Sluice
A G Wright Sluice
Denver Sluice (lock)
Relief Channel Lock
River Great Ouse
Cut off channel
Old Bedford River
New Bedford River
River Wissey
Rly bridge
River Little Ouse
A10 Littleport Bridge
River Lark
Welches Dam lock
Mepal pumping station
B1382 Adelaide Road bridge
March to Ely Rly bridge
Ely to Norwich Rly bridge
A142 Ely High Bridge
Newmarket Rail bridge
Soham Lode
River Cam
Ely to Cambridge Rly bridge
A1123 Road Bridge
A10 Road bridges (2)
Cottenham Lode
Hermitage Lock
A1123 Road Bridge
Westview Marina, Earith
Brownshill Staunch
St Ives Lock
A1096 St Ives bypass
Holt Island
Hemingford Lock
Houghton Lock
A14 Road bridge
Godmanchester Lock
Peterborough to London Rly
Brampton Lock
Offord Lock
St Neots Lock
River Kym
Eaton Socon Lock
A428 Road bridge
A1 Tempsford Bridges
River Ivel
Roxton Lock
Gt Barford Lock
Site of Old Lock
Willington Lock
A421 Road bridge
Castle Mill Lock
Cardington Lock
A5140 Road bridge
Bedford Lock
A6 Road bridge
Bedford Railway bridges (2)
A6 Road bridge, Bedford
Site of Kempston Mill
(Limit of navigation)
to source

The river has been important both for drainage and for navigation for centuries, and these dual roles have not always been complementary. The course of the river has changed significantly, and does not follow its ancient route from Cawdle Fen near Ely to Kings Lynn. Originally, it turned to the west at Littleport, between its present junctions with the River Little Ouse and the River Lark, and made its way via Welney, Upwell and Outwell, to flow into The Wash near Wisbech. At that time it was known as the Wellstream or Old Wellenhee, and parts of that course are marked by the Old Croft River and the border between Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. It was initially diverted to join the River Nar after flooding at Littleport in 1236, and so joined the Wash at Kings Lynn. Parts of this course were later used for the River Lark, which flows in the reverse direction along the section below Prickwillow, after the main river was moved further to the west. The original northern course began to silt up, depriving Wisbech of a reliable outlet to the sea, and was kept navigable by diverting the River Nene east to flow into it in the 1470s.

An Act of Parliament was passed in 1600 which allowed Adventurers, who paid for drainage schemes with their own money, to be repaid in land which they had drained. The Act covered large tracts of England, but no improvements were made to the region through which the Great Ouse flowed until 1618, Arnold Spencer and Thomas Girton started to improve the river between St Ives and St Neots. Six sluices were constructed, and Spencer attempted to obtain permission to improve the river to Bedford, but the Act was defeated, despite support from Bedford Corporation. Some dredging was done, and Great Barford became an inland port, but he lost a lot of money on the scheme, and the condition of the river worsened.

Below Earith, thirteen Adventurers working with the Earl of Bedford formed a Corporation to drain the Bedford Levels. Cornelius Vermuyden was the engineer, and a major part of the scheme was the Old Bedford River, a straight cut to carry water from Earith to a new sluice near Salters Lode, which was completed in 1637. The sluice was not popular with those who used the river for navigation, and there were some attempts to destroy the new works during the turmoil of the civil war. A second drainage Act was obtained in 1649, and Vermuyden oversaw the construction of the New Bedford River, parallel to the Old Bedford River, which was completed in 1652. There was strong opposition from the ports and towns on the river, which increased as the old channel via Ely gradually silted up. Above Earith, Samuel Jemmatt took control of the river, and navigation was extended to Bedford in 1689 by the construction of new staunches and sluices.

Between St Ives and Bedford, there were ten sluices, which were pound locks constructed at locations where mill weirs would have prevented navigation. There were also five staunches, which were flash locks constructed near to fords and shallows. Operation of the beam and paddle provided an extra volume of water to carry the boats over such obstructions. On the lower river, a combination of high spring tides and large volumes of floodwater resulted in the complete failure of Denver sluice in 1713. While there were celebrations among the navigators, the problem of flooding returned, and the channel below Denver deteriorated. Charles Labelye therefore designed a new sluice for the Bedford Level Corporation, which was constructed between 1748 and 1750 and included a navigation lock. No tolls were charged on the river below St Ives or on the New Bedford, and those responsible for drainage complained about damage to the sluices and to banks by the horses used for towing boats. An Act of Parliament to regulate the situation was defeated in 1777 after fierce opposition, and it was not until 1789 that a Haling Act was passed, which ensured that tolls were charged and landowners were repaid for damage to the banks caused by horses. These measures were a success, as there were few complaints once the new system was in place.

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