23 Sept. 2021: What happened to villages which lost out when a navigation opened?

They took our trade.”

That charge was laid by Liverpudlians against the people of Manchester when the Manchester Ship Canal opened in 1894. Liverpool certainly lost out economically. Within a few years Manchester, 36 miles inland, had become “the third busiest port in Britain”.

Sought-after status as head of navigation

Even villages lost out. The severe effects on downstream inland ports when new canals and navigations were built can be charted nationwide. Margaret Bird’s talk for the Bure Navigation Conservation Trust (BNCT) on 23 September 2021 will highlight the damaging consequences for two of Norfolk’s former inland ports, Horstead and Coltishall, when the Aylsham navigation opened in 1779. Details of the meeting are given below.

Only nine miles long, the new waterway nevertheless set in train a whole series of pressures. These led to economic and commercial decline for the two places which had formerly been the most inland heads of navigation on the northern Norfolk Broads.

Coltishall Staithe at King's Head

This staithe at Coltishall on the River Bure had been a busy coaling wharf attached to the King’s Head Inn until the new navigation created a canal basin upstream at Aylsham

Within six months of the opening of the Aylsham navigation, also known as the Bure navigation, the 50-year-old innkeeper at Coltishall King’s Head was dead. Joseph Browne left his financial affairs in a “desperate” state according to the local diarist Mary Hardy, who lived close by at the confluence of the new and old rivers.

The eleven maltings at Coltishall in 1780 had shrunk to seven within a few years. Its three commercial breweries became one. Formerly a prosperous community, some high-profile bankruptcies followed among its merchants and manufacturers.

Tellingly, the tax-gathering service, the Excise, reported to London on the loss of local manufacturing and reduced the number of serving personnel accordingly.

Alarm felt at King’s College, Cambridge

Also watching anxiously were the manorial lords for Horstead and Coltishall: King’s College, Cambridge. Referring in 1805 to the college’s Coltishall manor, its valuer repeated his view of three years earlier that Horstead had suffered similarly:

This was originally the head of the navigation; the new cut must have been injurious to this property.

Staithe fees charged for loading and unloading were lost. Public houses saw trade go elsewhere. Wherrymen were accused of stealing chickens and swans as they sailed past. Local contractors building the locks and deepening the waterway went unpaid and failed in business. Riverside properties upstream of the newly-built lock at Coltishall became flooded as the raised banks prevented effective field drainage.

Aylsham navigation at Oxnead

The Aylsham navigation at Oxnead, showing raised banks for improving water flow. The fields (left) now lie below the level of the waterway

Horstead Watermill, owned by the college and seen at the banner in an early-19th-century photograph courtesy of the Norfolk Wherry Trust, suffered from new competition at enlarged watermills upstream. At the same time the water flow to Horstead was severely diminished, reducing the miller’s ability to grind.

It says much for the social cohesion of the area that no rioting occurred, despite the loss of trade and jobs.

Talk hosted by the Bure Navigation Conservation Trust

Everyone is welcome at the illustrated talk, entitled “Hard times for Horstead and Coltishall: The opening of the Aylsham navigation in 1779”. It will be held in Horstead Tithe Barn beside Horstead Church on Thursday 23 September 2021 at 7.30 pm. The barn, seven miles north-east of Norwich, stands prominently in Rectory Road, Horstead NR12 7EP. Free on-road parking is available in Rectory Road.

The wearing of face coverings is discretionary. There will be a charge of £3.00 for non-BNCT members.

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Margaret Bird

Margaret Bird in 2016

The editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes

You can read about the historian Margaret Bird on the link above

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