Suffolk Industrial Archaeology Society
The River Gipping Trust has recently published 'The Ipswich to Stowmarket Navigation - John Rennie's First Canal Project', written by lan Petchey.
Professionally printed by the Tuddenham Press of Ipswich, this is a good quality production featuring maps, pictures and photographs in its 100 pages.
Between the covers can be found the history of the river from Roman times, with the bridges, mills and industry of the river all given their place.
This paperback book of 103 pages, 215 x 175mm, has many photos and print reproductions, and at £10 would be a valuable addition to anyone interested in canals/navigations and John Rennie’s early work on them. I believe this is the first book specifically on the Ipswich to Stowmarket Navigation.
In 1789 six local gentlemen engaged William Jessop to survey the River Gipping valley to provide proposals for a navigation. A survey by Isaac Lenny, a Norwich surveyor, endorsed by Jessop, led to an Act being passed in 1790. It entailed works on the river from Stowupland Bridge, Stowmarket, to Handford Bridge, Ipswich and the upgrading of the River Orwell between Handford Bridge and Stoke Bridge in Ipswich. Having steered the bill through Parliament and provided general drawings and specifications, Jessop’s involvement ceased. Work started in 1790 using Jessop’s plan with locks made from turf and timber. However after one month their legal representative was sacked and the contractors were dismissed for trespassing on land which did not belong to the trustees. Legal action followed and work stopped at the Ipswich end, preventing transport of materials up river. The dispute was resolved in late 1791, but Jessop’s plan to complete the canal in a year saw only a two mile stretch near Stowmarket with just three locks completed. The lack of progress led the Trustees to call John Rennie in to resurvey the river in December 1791 and step in to continue the works.
Rennie had surveyed other canals previously, but had not led a canal construction. He produced his report in December 1791 followed by estimates in April 1792. His plan along the route showed every landowner and their river frontage, to avoid any future legal dispute. The new plan included estimates for the remaining 12 locks and recommended applying for another Act to raise more money, which passed in April 1793. Rennie appointed his own surveyor, Richard Coates, with his knowledge of bricklaying and masonry work, to supervise the building of the locks in brickwork rather than turf, as well as the bridges. Work proceeded rapidly thereafter, and the navigation opened on 14 September 1793. Richard Coates went on to work on the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation, under Rennie again. At just under 16 miles long, rising 90feet through 15 locks, the Ipswich & Stowmarket Navigation was suitable for barges of 3ft 4in draught.
The book describes the early machinations of building the navigation and Rennie’s background, with many early images and photos through its history. Also described are the various industries that came and went with the fortunes of the navigation. Emphasis is particularly paid to Rennie’s insistence on good workmanship on the brickwork to the locks (apart from the three early turf ones) and the bridges, some of which are still extant. Indeed the Chelmer & Blackwater bridges appear identical to the Ipswich & Stowmarket ones.
When the Ipswich to Bury St Edmunds railway was built in 1846, following a line close to the river, the Stowmarket Navigation Company decided to lease the canal to the railway company for 42 years. The railway neglected the canal and undercut its tolls, leading to its decline. When the lease expired in 1888 it refused to renew, by which time the upper part was in so poor a state with little traffic, the last barges travelling up to the explosives factory in Stowmarket in 1910. The navigation closed in 1934.
One chapter covers the more recent restoration work by the River Gipping Trust and the Inland Waterways Association, with other chapters covering the locks in more detail, the nine watermills along the navigation, the River Gipping downstream, Wright’s boat builders, river bathing places and clubs, and the Ipswich waterfront/wet dock. The book concludes with John Rennie’s notes from December 1791. Mention should be made of several reference sources by Peter Cross-Rudkin, whose John Rennie biography has been published recently.
Ian Anderson - 17 Nov 2022
I really enjoyed this well-illustrated 100+ page book written by Ian Petchey in conjunction with the River Gipping Trust. It tells the story of the River Gipping Navigation completed in 1793 from Stowmarket to the tideway in Ipswich using a mix of written records and landscape features, many illustrated with photographs. I love this ‘industrial archaeology’ approach and the book will inform my next and future outings north into the River Gipping valley.
Subtitled ‘John Rennie’s First Canal Project’ it has interesting content on this early Scottish engineer at the start of his career in the 1790s. This was indeed his first project, and he announced (at the age of only 31) that ‘the ground for the foundation of the Locks should be bored which will enable me to point out the proper mode of laying down the foundation of each’. He also insisted that the bridges and locks should be built from brick rather than timber and earth. A progressive Georgian engineer indeed and no wonder we still have so many of his structures intact including the East and West India Docks, Waterloo Bridge, Southwark Bridge and London Bridge.
The chapters are organised for the most part in a topical rather than geographical way, so you can dip into ‘Some original bridges along the canal’; ‘Water mills along the Gipping’; ‘Industry along the canal’; ‘The Gipping and the oldest photo in Suffolk’ (about our early Ipswich photographer John Wiggin) – and thus theme your trips into the Gipping valley.
The last fifteen pages, however, are about the geographical end of the Navigation, the River Gipping in Ipswich. The Alderman Canal/Little Gipping area of our town, so difficult to work out in the field, is explained for us and there is an interesting section on Wright’s Boatyard in Cullingham Road. Entry to the tideway was problematical. John Rennie was concerned about lack of water depth under Stoke Bridge (his notes from the National Library of Scotland are transcribed in an Appendix and this topic takes up a full page out of the four reproduced) and by the early 1880s the plans for the new Ipswich wet dock caused great consternation among the Trustees of the Navigation when they realised they would not have access to the new dock directly from the river, but would have to go downstream to the lock.
This book is a valuable addition to literature on the landscape and history of Suffolk and the Ipswich Society is pleased to have contributed towards its cost.
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