The River Lea 1571-1767: a river navigation prior to canalisation
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In pre-industrial England river navigations were subject to improvement by canalisation, the introduction of artificial navigation cuts and pound locks. Along the Lea this did not happen until 1767. Before that the navigation, except for one short period, relied upon a less efficient technology, the provision of flashes from fishing weirs, turnpikes and mills. Yet the river was still an important transport route, particularly for the supply of grain, meal and malt to London. It had been this during the mediaeval period, but not by the middle of the sixteenth century. Then in 1571 the City of London sponsored legislation to construct a canal from the Lea to London. Parliamentary opposition thwarted the original ambitious scheme, so two cheaper, shorter canals were considered, but never built. Instead an ambitious and unique river improvement scheme was successfully implemented. This experimental navigation (reducing reliance on flashes to a minimum) survived 20 years, before persistent and violent opposition from land carriers closed it. A Star Chamber case upheld the rights of the bargemen, but the experimental navigation was not restored. Instead the traditional flash-lock navigation re-appeared, and was to last, with only minor improvementg until 1767. In the intervening years the navigation continued to expand and prosper., This despite the admitted problems of relying on flashes and tides, and despite a series of major disputes with the New River Companyq the millers, fishermen and riparian land-owners. Conflict there certainly was, but also compromise. Ultimately all parties were prepared to accept the conflicting rights of other users, provided they could defend their own. commissions of Sewers provided an effective administrative forum to effect and authorise such compromise, even after the appointment of a body of Trustees in 1739. That the Lea was an adequate navigation before canalisation, despite a 'second-best' technology and an unpaid part-time administrative structure means' that a valid comparison with the concept of Appropiate Technology, discussed in modern-day development theory, is possible.
AuthorsFairclough, Keith Roland
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