A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII

RIVERS AND RIVER TRANSPORT


In the earliest days of our history, and for many generations later, navigable rivers exercised a most important, if not a paramount, influence on the settlement of tribes, the location of towns, the development of trade and the social life of the people. They were natural highways, open to all who possessed the means of using them, at a time when men had otherwise still to make roads for themselves; and in a land covered to so great an extent with forest and fen such natural highways were of exceptional value. They offered a ready means of reaching points in the interior of the country which would otherwise have been more or less inaccessible. They allowed of the transport, in craft however primitive, of commodities too heavy or too bulky for conveyance by packhorse along the narrow paths trodden out on the hill-sides, winding through woods, or picked out across bog, plain, or morass.

Rivers further helped to develop that civilisation which is directly encouraged by facility of communication between groups of people who would otherwise assuredly remain backward in social progress. It will even be found that down to the turnpike, if not, indeed, to the railway, era in this country, communities dwelling on the banks of navigable rivers, and thus possessing a ready means of communication at all times with others having a like advantage, attained to a higher degree of culture, refinement and social standing than people in localities where, remote from any river or passable highway, they were shut off by bad roads from all intercourse with their fellow-men for, at least, the whole of the winter months.

In C. H. Pearson's "Historical Maps of England During the first Thirteen Centuries" there is abundant evidence of the way in which towns and trading centres in Britain grew up [ 109 ]along the course of navigable rivers, while the country at any distance therefrom remained unoccupied, however important the places that may be found there to-day. On the map of Saxon England, for instance, mention is made of Gleaweceaster (Gloucester; spelling from "Saxon Chronicle"), Teodekesberie (Tewkesbury; "Domesday"), Brycgnorth (Bridgnorth; "Saxon Chronicle"), and Scrobbesbyrig (Shrewsbury; "Saxon Chronicle"), but no one can doubt that these places attained to their early importance mainly because of their situation on the river Severn. Other typical inland cities or towns include London and Oxford on the Thames; Ware on the Lea; Rochester on the Medway; Peterborough on the Nen; Lincoln on the Witham; York on the Ouse; Doncaster on the Don; Cambridge on the Cam; Norwich on the Yare; Colchester on the Colne; Ludlow on the Terne; Exeter on the Exe; Winchester on the Ouse (Sussex); Hereford on the Wye; Chester on the Dee; Caerleon (Isca) on the Usk; and so on with many other places, the location of which alongside a river must doubtless have been due, in part, it may be, to the convenience of water supply, and in part, also, to the greater fertility of the river valley, but more especially to the facility offered by the water highway for transport when other highways were either lacking or far less convenient.

Adam Smith, in his "Wealth of Nations" (Book I., chapter xi., pages 20-1), compares the cost of sending goods by road from London to Edinburgh with that of forwarding them by sea, and adds:—

"Since such are the advantages of water carriage it is natural that the first improvements of art and industry should be made where that conveniency opens the whole world for a market to the produce of every sort of labour, and that they should always be much later in extending themselves into the inland parts of the country. The inland parts of the country can for a long time have no other market for the greater part of their goods but the country which lies round about them, and separates them from the sea coast and the great navigable rivers. The extent of their market, therefore, must for a long time be in proportion to the riches and populousness of that country, and consequently their improvement must always be posterior to the improvement of that country. In our [ 110 ]North American colonies the plantations have constantly followed either the sea coast or the banks of the navigable rivers, and have scarce anywhere extended themselves to any considerable distance from both."

On the Continent of Europe the location of the chief inland centres of trade, commerce, and industry was no less decided by the convenience of transport afforded by the great navigable rivers, as shown (to give two examples only) by Augsburg on the Danube and Cologne on the Rhine.

In Britain there were found to be advantages in having a port, not at the mouth of a river, but as far inland as the vessels employed could go. One of these advantages lay in the fact that, the further inland the river-port, the greater was the protection against the Danish or Norwegian pirates who, at one time, infested the seas around our shores; but the main reasons for the preference are somewhat quaintly expressed by "R. S.," in a pamphlet, published in 1675, entitled "Avona; or a Transient View of the Benefit of making Rivers of this Kingdom Available. Occasioned by observing the Scituation of the City of Salisbury, upon the Avon, and the Consequence of opening that River to that City." The writer says:—

"There is more advantage to those places, which, being seated far within the Land (as this[1] is), do enjoy the benefit of Commerce by Sea, by some Navigable River, than to those Port-Towns which are seated in some Creeke or Bay only, and are (as I may call it) Land-lock'd, having no passage up into the Land but by Carriages, as we see in Poole and Lynn, in Dorset, and in a number of other Port-Towns of like Scituation in other places quite round the Island: For such places, though the Sea brings in commodities to them, yet they can neither without great charge convey those commodities higher up into the Land, nor, without the like charge, receive the Innland commodities to export again: Whereas, Cities seated upon navigable Rivers far within the Land look like some Noble Exchange of Nature's own designing; where the Native and the Forreigner may immediately meet, and put off to each other the particular commodities of the growth of their own Countreys; the Native (as a Merchant) receiving the Forreign Goods at first hand, and exchanging his own for them at the [ 111 ]very place where they are made, or grow; or, at most, going no further to it, than to his ordinary Market."

Thus the ideal river-ports were those that were situated, not only a good distance inland, but in close connection with a Roman or other road along which commerce could be readily brought or distributed, the land journey being reduced to the smallest and most convenient proportions. The advantage was still greater where the small sea-going vessels could be carried by a tidal stream right up to the town to which their cargo was consigned.

As against these advantages, however, there was the disadvantage that, the further inland the river-port, the greater was the risk that access to it might become impracticable either through the formation of shallows in the river-bed or because the larger build of vessels in later years could not pass where the smaller and more primitive type of ship of earlier days had gone without difficulty.

From one or other of these causes many English rivers on which considerable traffic formerly passed have dwindled in importance, even if they have not ceased to be navigable at all; and many inland places that once flourished as river, or even as "sea"-ports, would to-day hardly be regarded in that light at all, as shown, for example, by the fate of Lewes on the Sussex Ouse, Deeping on the Welland, Cambridge on the Cam, Ely on the Ouse, West Dean on the Cuckmere, and Bawtry on the Idle. York and Doncaster, though situated so far inland, once considered themselves seaports because of their river connection with the coast, so that, as told by the Rev. W. Denton, in "England in the Fifteenth Century," they claimed and exercised the right of sharing in "wrecks at sea" as though they stood on the seaboard instead of high up the course of the Ouse or the Don.

The Romans not only supplemented their road transport by river transport but they sought to improve the latter by the construction of river embankments. In the case of the Trent and the Witham they even cut a canal—the Fossdyke—in order to establish direct communication between them. Just, however, as road-making became a lost art here on their departure from Britain, so did an interval of a thousand years elapse before there was any material attempt to follow their example in effecting improvements in river navigation. The [ 112 ]initial advantage, therefore, lay with towns located on rivers which were naturally navigable and remained navigable both for a considerable extent and for a considerable period, without need of amendment; though river navigation, as a whole, did not attain to its highest development until, as will be shown in the chapter that follows, much had been done, especially in connection with streams not naturally navigable, to overcome the various impediments or difficulties to effective transport.

All the same, the part that English navigable rivers, great or small, have played in the social and economic progress of the country has been one of undeniable magnitude and importance, and offers many points of general interest.

These considerations more especially apply to the river Severn, which, in conjunction with such of its tributaries as the Wye and the Warwickshire Avon, was once the great highway for the trade and traffic, not only of the western counties, but of, also, a considerable area in Wales and the midland and northern counties, enabling the districts it more directly served to attain an early development long before others which were then still struggling with the disadvantages of bad roads, however much they may since have outstripped them in the race for industrial advancement.

The Severn itself was naturally navigable from Welshpool, Montgomeryshire, a distance of 155 miles by a very winding stream to where the river empties itself into the Bristol Channel. This was the greatest length of navigation, unaided by artificial means, of any river in the kingdom. The early Britons passed along it in their coracles, and, as these were supplemented by vessels of an improved type, trade was developed, towns and cities—each a storehouse or an entrepôt for a more or less considerable area—began to arise on the banks, while Bristol attained to the dignity of a great national port when Liverpool was still only an insignificant fishing village.

It was in connection with the Severn that the question arose as to the right of the community to regard a navigable river as a public highway, the same as if it were a road dedicated to general use.

The writer of the article on "Rivers" in the "Penny Cyclopædia" (1841) observes that: "In rivers which are [ 113 ]navigable, and in which the public have a common right to passage, the King is said to have 'an interest in jurisdiction,' whether the rivers were the King's property or private property. These rivers were called 'fluvii regales,' 'haut streames le roy,' or 'royal streams,' because of their being dedicated to public use, all things of public safety and convenience being under his care and protection." Navigable rivers being thus, the writer continues, the King's highway by water, many of the incidents belonging to a highway on land attached to such rivers, and any nuisances or obstruction upon them, even though occurring on the private land of any person, might be made the subject of indictment.

In regard to the Severn and the right of access thereto, it was found necessary, in 1430-1, following on complaints which had been made to Parliament, to pass an Act (9 Hen. VI., c. 5) for the protection of boatmen in the Severn estuary against "many Welshmen and ill-disposed persons" who "were used to assemble in manner of war and stop trows, boats and floats or drags on their way with Merchandise to Bristol, Gloucester, Worcester, and other places, hewing these craft in pieces, and beating the sailors with intent to force them to hire boats from the said Welshmen, for great sums of money, an evil example and great impoverishment of a King's liege people, if remedy were not hastily provided."

Under this Act the Severn was declared a free river for all the King's subjects to carry on within the stream of the river. The Act made no mention, however, of any right on the part of the boatmen to use the land alongside the river for the purpose of towing their vessels; and in regard to this point the writer in the "Penny Cyclopædia" says: "Though a river is a public navigable river, there is not, therefore, any right at common law for parties to use the banks of it as a towing path."

By an Act passed in 1504 riparian owners along the Severn were authorised, notwithstanding the earlier enactment of the freedom of the river itself, to take "reasonable recompense and satisfaction" from every person going upon their land to draw a boat. There is no evidence that the landowners availed themselves of this authority; but in a later Act, passed in 1532, it was stated that although, "time out of mind," people had used, without any imposition or toll, a path [ 114 ]one foot and a half broad on each side of the river for drawing their boats, "of late certain covetous persons" had "interrupted" those so using the said paths, "taking of them fines and bottles of wine," and the Act imposed a penalty of forty shillings on anyone attempting to enforce such tolls, except as regards the reasonable recompense which the riparian owners could claim. This enactment seems to have been due to the action of local officials in Worcester, Gloucester and other places on the river in seeking, as told in Nash's "History and Antiquities of Worcestershire" (1781), to raise revenue for their cities or towns by taxing traders who used the Severn for the transport of their commodities.

The importance of the Severn, from the point of view of trade and commerce, in the middle of the sixteenth century, is suggested by what William Harrison wrote of it in his "Description of the Sauerne" (1577): "As the said stream, in length of course, bountie of water, and depth of chanell commeth farre behind the Thames, so for other commodities, as trade of merchandize, plentie of cariage ... it is nothing at all inferiour to or second to the same."

One reason for the early commercial prosperity of the Severn towns was the important trade in flannels which they carried on with Wales; though the industry was, also, considerably developed in the Severn counties themselves. Made mostly in the farm-houses and cottages of Montgomeryshire, Merionethshire and Denbighshire, before the days of factories, the flannels and webs were taken by the makers to the fortnightly market at Welshpool. This was a convenient centre for the drapers from Shrewsbury, who, journeying thither along the Severn, would, at one time, buy up the entire stock; though later on they had competitors in the traders from Wrexham and other places. Although carried on only as a domestic industry, the making of these Welsh flannels underwent considerable expansion, Archdeacon Joseph Plymley saying, in his "General View of the Agriculture of Salop," published in 1803, "The manufacture in Wales by means of jennies introduced into farm-houses and other private houses is four times as great, I am told, as it was twenty years ago."

At Shrewsbury the wares thus brought down the Severn from Wales were purchased mostly by merchants from London who either sent them to Continental markets or else consigned [ 115 ]them to South America or the West Indies, for conversion there into clothing for the slaves.

As the demand increased, flannels and webs were more and more produced in and around Shrewsbury itself and other parts of Shropshire. Shrewsbury also developed a large manufacture of coarse linens, linen threads, and other textiles, and eventually attained to such prosperity that Defoe says of it, in his "Tour":—

"This is indeed a beautiful, large, pleasant, populous and rich Town; full of Gentry, and yet full of Trade too; for here, too, is a great Manufacture, as well of Flannel, as also of white Broadcloth, which enriches all the Country round it.... This is really a Town of Mirth and Gallantry, something like Bury in Suffolk, or Durham in the North, but much bigger than either of them, or indeed than both together.... Here is the greatest Market, the greatest Plenty of good Provisions, and the cheapest that is to be met with in all the Western Part of England; the Severn supplies them here with excellent Salmon, but 'tis also brought in great Plenty from the River Dee, which is not far off, and which abounds with a very good Kind.... There is no doubt but the Cheapness of Provisions, joined with the Pleasantness and Healthiness of the Place, draws a great many Families thither, who love to live within the Compass of their Estates."

Archdeacon Plymley speaks of Shrewsbury as having been, "chiefly from the advantage of the river, for several centuries past, a sort of metropolis for North Wales."

Bewdley, which had obtained its charter from Edward IV., was another Severn town which developed an extensive trade in the exportation not only of Welsh flannels but of timber, wool, leather, combs and sailors' caps. All these were sent down the river to Bristol, whence the Bewdley dealers received, in return, imported groceries and other commodities for distribution throughout Wales and Lancashire. Bridgnorth also attained to considerable importance as a convenient point for the transport to Bristol, via the Severn, of goods brought by road from a Hinterland extending to Lancashire and Cheshire.

There was, again, much traffic to and from towns situate on the Warwickshire Avon, which enters the Severn at Tewkesbury after passing through Stratford, Evesham, [ 116 ]Pershore and other towns. Defoe says of this affluent of the Severn: "The Navigation of this River Avon is an exceeding advantage to all this part of the Country and also to the Commerce of the City of Bristol. For by this River they derive a very great trade for sugar, oil, wine, tobacco, iron, lead, and in a word all heavy goods which are carried by water almost as far as Warwick; and return the corn, and especially the cheese is brought back from Gloucestershire and Warwickshire to Bristol."

The Wye, which enters the estuary of the Severn below Chepstow, after passing through or along the borders of the counties of Montgomery, Radnor, Brecknock, Hereford, Monmouth and Gloucester, was, with its own tributary, the Lug, not made navigable until 1661, when an Act (14 Car. II.) was passed, the preamble of which set forth that—

"Whereas the making Navigable, or otherwise passable for Barges, Boats, Leighters, and other Vessels the Rivers Wye and Lugg and other Rivulets and Brooks falling into the said Rivers in the County of Hereford and other adjacent Counties, and so navigable into the River of Seaverne, may (with God's blessing) be of great advantage, and very convenient and necessary not onely to the said Counties, But also to the Publick, By import and export of Corn and encrease of Commerce and Trade, and improving the yearly value of lands in the parts near adjoyning thereunto, besides the great and extraordinary preservation of the High-ways, and most profitable and necessary to and for the City of Hereford for conveyance thereby of Coles, fuel and other necessaries to the said City, whereof there is now great scarcity and want, and far greater hereafter like to grow, if some Help therefore be not made and provided. Be it therefore," etc.

That the merchants of Bristol derived great advantage from river as well as from sea transport is well shown by Defoe. Not only, he tells us, did they carry on a great trade, but they did so with less dependence on London than the merchants of any other town in Britain. He says:—

"The shopkeepers in Bristol who, in general, are all Wholesale Men, have so great an Inland trade among all the Western Counties that they maintain Carriers just as the London Tradesmen do, to all the principal Countries and Towns, from Southampton in the south to the Banks of the Trent, [ 117 ]north, and though they have no navigable river that way yet they drive a very great trade through all those counties."

The "two great rivers," the Severn and the Wye, enabled them, also, to "have the whole trade of South Wales, as it were, to themselves," together with the greater part of that of North Wales,[2] while the sea gave them access to Ireland, where they were carrying on a trade which, says Defoe, was not only great in itself but had "prodigiously increased" in the last thirty years, notwithstanding the greater competition of the Liverpool merchants.

The transport facilities offered by the Severn were a further material factor both in the local development of great coal, iron and other industries, at a time when like industries were still in their infancy in the north, and in the increase of the general wealth of the western counties. In regard to Shropshire, Archdeacon Plymley writes that the inhabitants of the county, having such ready communication both with the interior of the country and with the sea, had opened mines of iron, stone, lead, lime, etc., and had, also, established very extensive iron manufactures. As the result of all this enterprise, much capital had been drawn into the district; a great market had been opened for the agricultural produce of the country; the ready conveyance of fuel and manure had enabled the cultivation of the soil to be carried on even beyond the demands of the increasing consumption; and all had so operated together as to increase the wealth and well-being of Shropshire in general.

Some interesting facts as to the conditions under which the navigation of the Severn was conducted in 1758 are given in a communication published in the "Gentleman's Magazine" for that year (pages 277-8) from G. Perry, of Coalbrookdale, under the heading, "A Description of the Severn." The following passages may be quoted:—

"This river, being justly esteemed the second in Britain, is of great importance on account of its trade, being navigated by vessels of large burden more than 160 miles from the sea, without the assistance of any lock. Upwards of 100,000 tons of coals are annually shipped from the collieries about Madeley [ 118 ]and Broseley to the towns and cities on its banks, and from thence into the adjacent countries; also great quantities of grain, pig and bar iron, iron manufactures and earthen wares, as well as wool, hops, cyder, and provisions are constantly exported to Bristol and other places, from whence merchants' goods, &c., are brought in return. The freight from Shrewsbury to Bristol is about 10s. per ton, and from Bristol to Shrewsbury 15s., the rates to the intermediate towns being in proportion.

"This traffic is carried on with vessels of two sorts; the lesser kind are called barges and frigates, being from 40 to 60 feet in length, have a single mast, square sail, and carry from 20 to 40 tons; the trows, or larger vessels, are from 40 to 80 tons burthen; these have a main and top mast, about 80 feet high, with square sails, and some have mizen masts; they are generally from 16 to 20 feet wide and 60 in length, being, when new, and completely rigged worth about 300l."

Their number having greatly increased, he had "an exact list" taken of all the barges and trows on the Severn in May, 1756, and this list he gives. The total number of owners was then 210, and the total number of vessels was 376. Among the places mentioned are the following:—


TOWN. OWNERS. VESSELS.
Shrewsbury 10 19
Madeley Wood 21 39
Broseley 55 87
Bridgnorth 47 75
Bewdley 18 47
Worcester 06 21
Tewkesbury 08 18
Evesham-upon-Avon 01 02
Gloucester 04 07


Of the disadvantages that attended navigation on the Severn I shall speak in chapter xv, in connection with the decline of river transport in general.

What the Severn group of rivers, with Bristol as the headquarters of their navigation, were on the west coast, the Wash group and the port of Lynn were on the east coast.

The Wash group comprised: (1) the Bedford Ouse and its tributaries, with a main outlet at Lynn; (2) the Welland, [ 119 ]with Spalding for its inland port; and (3) the Witham, which passes through the Fens and into the Wash by way of Boston. There is abundant testimony available as to the former great importance of these rivers.

Defoe says of Lynn: "There is the greatest extent of Inland Navigation here, of any Port in England, London excepted. The Reason whereof is this, that there are more Navigable Rivers empty themselves here into the Sea, including the Washes, which are branches of the same Port, than at any one Mouth of Waters in England, except the Thames and the Humber."

Nathaniel Kinderley, in his work on "The Ancient and Present State of the Navigation of the Towns of Lynn, Wisbeach, Spalding and Boston" (2nd edition, 1751), speaks of the Bedford Ouse as having five rivers emptying themselves into it from eight several counties; and he says that it "does therefore afford a great Advantage to Trade and Commerce, since hereby two Cities and several great Towns are therein served, as Peterborough, Ely, Stamford, Bedford, St. Ives, Huntington, St. Neots, Northampton, Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds, Thetford, &c., with all Sorts of heavy commodities from Lyn; as Coals and Salt (from Newcastle), Deals, Fir-Timber, Iron, Pitch and Tar (from Sweden and Norway), and Wine (from Lisbon and Oporto) thither imported, and from these Parts great Quantities of Wheat, Rye, Cole-Seed, Oats, Barley, &c., are brought down these Rivers, whereby a great foreign and inland Trade is carried on and the Breed of Seamen is increased. The Port of Lyn supplies Six Counties wholly, and three in Part."

Another writer of the same period, Thomas Badeslade, who published in 1766 a "History of the Ancient and Present State of the Navigation of the Port of King's Lyn and of Cambridge and the rest of the trading Towns in those Parts," took up the argument that the number of inhabitants, the value of land, the trade, the riches and the strength of every free State were great in proportion to their possession of navigable rivers; and he went on to declare that "Of all the Navigable Rivers in England the River of the Great Ouse is one of the chief, and Lyn sits at the door of this river, as it were the turnkey of it."

The various large and populous towns (as already mentioned) [ 120 ]which stood either upon the Ouse itself or upon one of the other rivers connecting with it were, he proceeded, all dependent on its navigation, and all of them were supplied by the merchants of Lynn with what he described as "maritime commodities." "Their Exports and Imports," he declared, "enrich and Furnish the Country; and raise a great Revenue to the Government, and in all National advantages the Port of Lyn is equalled by few Ports of this Kingdom." But, owing to neglect of the Ouse, there was the risk that the river would "in a very short time" be "lost to navigation," and all, he continued, agreed that "If something be not done this Country will be rendered uninhabitable, and the Navigation of the Port of Lynn will be lost, and the University of Cambridge, and all the great Towns situate on the Rivers for the benefit of Navigation must with it decay and become impoverished; and the Customs and Duties of the State be in Consequence thereof greatly lessened."

Happily our national well-being has not depended on navigable rivers, as Badeslade thought it did, and, though the condition of the Bedford Ouse has got far worse than it was when he wrote, the University of Cambridge and the various towns in question still, happily, survive. But even in Badeslade's time the Ouse was beginning to get, as he says, "choaked up," and he recalls the year 1649 when "keels could sail with Forty Tun freight 36 miles from Lynn towards Cambridge at ordinary Neip-Tides, and as far as Huntingdon with Fifteen Tun Freight. And Barges with Ten Chaldron of coals could sail up Brandon River to Thetford; and as far in proportion up the Rivers Mildenhall, &c., &c. By all which Rivers the Port of Lynn was capable of the most extensive Inland navigation of any Port of England."

How Lynn served as the port for the great quantities of foreign produce and, also, for the hops and other commodities sent from London and the south-western counties for the Sturbridge fair at Cambridge has already been told (see page 24). It was, also, through Lynn and Boston that a large proportion of our commerce with Normandy, Flanders and the Rhine country was conducted; and Lynn, especially, grew in wealth and importance, and further developed, as Defoe found, into a town having considerable social attractions.

Concerning the Witham, Joseph Priestley says, in his [ 121 ]"Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals and Railways of Great Britain" (1831), it has been thought that previous to the Norman Conquest the river was a tideway navigation for ships to Lincoln. That it was navigable at a very early period he thinks may be inferred from the fact that the Fossdike Canal, "an ancient 'Roman Work,'" was scoured out by Henry I. in the year 1121 for the purpose of opening a navigable communication between the Trent and the Witham at the city of Lincoln in order that that place, which was then in a very flourishing condition and enjoying an extensive foreign trade, might reap all the advantages of a more ready communication with the interior.

Another most important group of rivers, from the point of view of inland navigation, was the series which have their outlet in the Humber. This group includes the Yorkshire Ouse and the Trent, both naturally navigable.

The Ouse (York) is formed by the confluence of the Ure and the Swale sixty miles above the Trent Falls, where, after passing through York, Selby, and Goole, it joins the Trent and forms the Humber estuary. Under a charter granted by Edward IV., in the year 1462, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of York were to "oversee and be conservators" of this river, as well as of the Aire, the Wharfe, the Derwent, the Don, and the Humber, all of which are connected with it. Of the city of York, as he found it in or about the year 1723, Defoe says:—

"No City in England is better furnished with Provision of every Kind, nor any so cheap, in proportion to the goodness of Things; the River being so navigable and so near the Sea, the Merchants here trade directly to what port of the world they will; for Ships of any Burthen come up within thirty Mile of the City, and small Craft from sixty or eighty Ton, and under, come up to the very City."

The navigable Trent was for many centuries the chief means of communication between south and north, and Nottingham, as the capital of the Trent district, became a place of great importance. It was along the Trent that the King's messengers passed on their way to York, in preference to braving the dangers of the road through Sherwood Forest. The burgesses of Nottingham were required to take charge of them as soon as they came to the river and conduct them safely to [ 122 ]Torksey, whose burgesses, in turn, had to take them to the Humber, and so on up the tidal Ouse to York.

To the town of Burton-on-Trent by packhorse or waggon, down the Trent by barge to Hull, and thence by sailing vessel along the east coast and up the Thames, was once a favoured route for the consignment of cheese from Cheshire to the London market. In Defoe's time the quantity of Cheshire cheese thus passing along the Trent, either for London or for east coast towns, was 4000 tons a year. Owing to the state of the roads the Trent route was the only practicable alternative the Cheshire cheese makers had to what they called the "Long sea" route to London, "a terribly long, and sometimes dangerous Voyage" (says Defoe) by way of the Mersey, Land's End, the English Channel and the Thames. In describing the conditions of navigation on the Trent he tells us that, "The Trent is Navigable by Ships of good Burthen as high as Gainsbrough, which is near forty Miles from the Humber by the River. The Barges without the Help of Locks or Stops go as high as Nottingham, and further by the Help of Art to Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire. The Stream is full, the Channel deep and safe, and the Tide flows up a great Way between Gainsborough and Newark. This, and the Navigation lately, reaching up to Burton and up the Derwent to Derby, is a great Support to and Encrease of the Trade of those counties which border upon it."

In speaking more fully of Nottingham Defoe says: "The Trent is Navigable here for Vessels or Barges of great Burthen, by which all their heavy and bulky Goods are brought from the Humber and even from Hull; such as Iron, Block-tin, Salt, Hops, Grocery, Dyers Wares, Wine, Oyl, Tar, Hemp, Flax, &c., and the same vessels carry down Coal, Wood, Corn; as also Cheese in great Quantities from Warwickshire and Staffordshire."

From an article "On Inland Navigations and Public Roads," by William Jessop, published in the Georgical Essays, Vol. IV. (1804), I gather that merchandise was carried on the Trent at a cost of eight shillings a ton for a distance of seventy miles, and that "in point of expedition" vessels frequently made the journey of seventy miles and back in a week, including the time for loading and unloading—a degree of despatch which Jessop evidently regarded as very creditable, since he adds, [ 123 ]"This has been done by the same vessel for ten weeks successively, and would often be done if they were not obliged to wait for their lading."

One of the affluents of the Trent, the little river known as the Idle, joins it at Stockwith, 21 miles from the junction of the Trent with the Humber; and seven miles up the Idle is the once-famous "port" of Bawtry.

This particular place fulfilled all the conditions of what I have already described as the ideal port of olden days. Not only was it far inland, bringing a considerable district into communication with the sea, but it was situated—eight miles south-east of Doncaster—on the Great North Road, at the point where this road enters the county of York. Until the navigation of the Don was improved, under an Act passed in 1727, the Hull, Trent, Idle and Bawtry route was preferred to the Hull, Ouse, Aire, Don, and Doncaster route alike for foreign imports into Yorkshire and for Yorkshire products consigned to London or to places abroad; and Bawtry, known to-day, to those who know it at all, as only a small market town in Yorkshire, was at one time of considerable importance.

In the reigns of Edward III. and Edward IV., as told by the Rev. Joseph Hunter, in "The History and Topography of the Deanery of Doncaster" (1828), the lords of the manor of Bawtry were "of the prime of English nobility," while the market established there dated from the beginning of the thirteenth century. When the sovereign or any members of the Royal Family travelled in state to the north, they were usually met at Bawtry by the sheriff of the county and a train of attendants.

More to our present purpose, however, is the fact that, down to the opening of the second quarter of the eighteenth century this inland port of Bawtry was the route by which most of the products of Sheffield, of Hallamshire, and of the country round about, destined for London, for the eastern counties, or for the Continent, passed to their destination. From Sheffield to Bawtry was a land journey of twenty miles, and thus far, at least, packhorses or waggons had to be utilised over such roads as there then were. The Idle is described by Defoe as "a full and quick, though not rapid and unsafe Stream, with a deep Channel, which carries Hoys, [ 124 ]Lighters, Barges or flat-bottomed Vessels out of its Channel into the Trent." In fair weather these vessels, taking on their cargo at Bawtry, could continue the journey from Stockwith, where the Trent was entered, to Hull; but otherwise the cargo was transhipped at Stockwith into vessels of up to 200-ton burthen, which were able to pass from the Humber along the Trent as far as Stockwith whether laden or empty. By means of this navigation, to quote again from Defoe:—

"The Town of Bautry becomes the Center of all the Exportation of this Part of the Country, especially for heavy Goods, which they bring down hither from all the adjacent Countries, such as Lead, from the Lead Mines and Smelting-Houses in Derbyshire, wrought Iron and Edge-Tools, of all Sorts, from the Forges at Sheffield, and from the Country call'd Hallamshire, being adjacent to the Towns of Sheffield and Rotheram, where an innumerable Number of People are employed. Also Millstones and Grindstones, in very great Quantities, are brought down and shipped off here, and so carry'd by Sea to Hull, and to London, and even to Holland also. This makes Bautry Wharf be famous all over the South Part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, for it is the Place whither all their heavy Goods are carried, to be embarked and shipped off."

One can thus well credit Hunter's statement that there appear to have been several persons residing at Bawtry in the Middle Ages who had been enriched by the commerce of "the port," as the place was, in fact, described in the Hundred Rolls; but when one thinks of the great extent of the industries of the Sheffield district as carried on at the present day, it is certainly interesting to learn of the conditions under which they were developed, and the circuitous route by which their products once reached London and the markets of the world.

The industries grew, however, in spite of all the difficulties in transport. The iron trade had existed in Hallamshire since the reign of Henry II. (1154-1189). Sheffield cutlery was well known in the Middle Ages. It was in high repute in Queen Elizabeth's time. In the early part of the eighteenth century the industries of the district were increasing at a greater rate than ever. In 1721 the weight of Hallamshire manufactures sent in the direction of the Humber was 13,000 tons; and the greater proportion of this quantity must have [ 125 ]passed through the port of Bawtry and thence along the river Trent.

The Thames, England's greatest river, does not, so far as it serves the port of London and facilitates the immense trade there carried on, enter so much into consideration from the point of view of strictly "internal communication" as some of the lesser rivers already mentioned, the position alike of London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Southampton, etc., relating to ports, docks, harbours and commerce in general rather than to the particular forms of inland transport here under review. One must not forget, however, that, above the port of London itself the navigation of the Thames was, from very early times, of the greatest advantage to a considerable extent of country, and that the value of these services was further increased by various tributaries of the Thames.

The fact that settlement originally followed the course of rivers is abundantly shown by the number of cities, towns, monasteries, abbeys and conventual establishments set up of old in the Thames valley. The convenience, also, of water transport must have had much to do with the locating of a University at Oxford, on the Thames, just as it did with the establishment of a University at Cambridge, on the Cam, each being thus rendered accessible to scholars from Scotland and elsewhere who would have found it impracticable to make so long a journey under the early conditions of road travel. The Thames became, further, the main highway for the various counties through which it flowed, included therein being some of the most fertile districts in the land; and, though London may owe its pre-eminence mainly to foreign trade, passing between the port of London and the sea, the facilities for communication offered above the port of London by the Thames for the full extent of its navigable length were, in the pre-railway days more especially, of incalculable advantage both to the districts served thereby and to the Metropolis itself.

This advantage becomes still more striking when we take into account the rivers that form important tributaries of the Thames.

The Lea was described in a statute of 1424 as "one of the great rivers, which extendeth from the town of Ware till the water of the Thames, in the counties of Hertford, Essex and [ 126 ]Middlesex"; and along this river there was carried at one time a very considerable quantity of produce and merchandise. The history of Ware goes back to, at least, the ninth century, when the Danes took their ships up to the town but were outmanœuvred by King Alfred, who diverted the stream, and left the vessels stranded. Not only was the founding of Ware on the spot where it stands due to the convenience of water communication, but Ware itself was one of the ideal ports of the time, inasmuch as it was so far inland, and was in convenient reach of several counties.

The navigation, as far as Godalming, of the Wey, which falls into the Thames at Weybridge, opened up a great part of Surrey and the adjoining counties to water communication with London. In recording his visit to Guildford, Defoe says of the Wey that a very great quantity of timber was carried along it, such timber being not only brought from the neighbourhood of that town, but conveyed by road from "the woody parts of Sussex and Hampshire above 30 miles from it"; though he significantly adds that this was done "in the Summer," the Sussex roads being, as I have already shown, probably unequalled for badness, and especially in the winter, by those of any other county in England. Defoe further says in regard to the Wey that it was "a mighty support" to the "great corn-market" at Farnham. Meal-men (as he calls them) and other dealers obtained corn at Farnham, and brought much of it by road to the mills on the Wey, a distance of about seven miles. In these mills it was ground and dressed, and it was then sent in barges to London, "as is practiced," Defoe adds, "on the other side of the Thames for above fifty miles distance from London."

The Medway was another means of communication between a considerable extent of country and the Thames. It was utilised, not alone for sending timber from the woods of Sussex and Kent to the port of London or elsewhere, but, also, for the distribution of general produce. Defoe says of Maidstone, the chief town on the Medway, that "from this Town and the Neighbouring Parts London is supplied with more particulars than from any single market Town in England."

In addition to these great groups of rivers, many single and minor rivers led to the opening up of inland ports which served in their day a most useful purpose.

[ 127 ]The Exe allowed of Exeter carrying on a considerable foreign trade. Defoe tells of the "vast quantities" of woollen manufactures sent from Exeter direct to Holland, as well as to Portugal, Spain and Italy. The Dutch, especially, gave large commissions for the buying of Devonshire serges, which were made not only in Exeter but at Crediton, Honiton, Tiverton and in all the north part of the county, giving abundant employment to the people. Defoe speaks of the serge-market at Exeter as, next to that at Leeds, "the greatest in England." He had been assured, he says, that in this market from £60,000 to £100,000 worth of serges had been sold in a week.

In the neighbouring county of Somerset, Taunton was the inland port to which coal conveyed in sea-going vessels from Swansea to Bridgwater was taken in barges along the navigable Parrett. Heavy goods and merchandise from Bristol—such as iron, lead, flax, pitch, tar, dye-stuffs, oil, wine, and groceries of all kinds—were received there in the same way. From Taunton these commodities were distributed, by packhorse or waggon, throughout the county.

Whatever the original capacity of rivers naturally navigable, there came a time when, by reason either of their inherent defects or of the use of larger vessels, they required a certain amount of regulation; and there came a time, also, when it was deemed expedient to render navigable by art many rivers that were not already adapted thereto by nature. In this way the necessity arose for much river legislation, together with much enterprise in respect to river improvement, in the days when the only alternatives to river transport were the deplorably defective roads.




  1. Salisbury.
  2. "Wines and groceries," says Archdeacon Plymley, "are brought up the Severn from Bristol and Gloucester to Shrewsbury, and so on to Montgomeryshire."