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The River Gipping

Your historic waterway through Suffolk

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The River Gipping rises from a small spring near the radio mast at Mendlesham but it gets its name from the village of Gipping close by. It is joined by several small streams and the larger Rattlesden River at Stowmarket. It becomes the tidal River Orwell at Ipswich.
 
According to the first edition of Hollinshed's Chronicles dated 1577 the river from "Bacton Urus" near Hartismere all the way to the sea was originally named the Ure. Legend has it that mariners knew of a very deep pit or well in the river at Ipswich which they called the Ure-well. This pit is believed to have been near the present docks. Joan Blaeu's Atlas Maior of 1665 names the river from Rattlesden to the sea as the Orwell but gives the name Gipping to the stretch above Stowmarket.

The village of Ratesdana (Rattlesden) was named from the Danish rates meaning boat and doenas meaning Dane suggesting that the Ure was navigable at least from the 9th century. The Saxon Chronicles for AD 866 state:-  This year ..... came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East- Anglia, where they were soon horsed; and the inhabitants made peace with them.

This area features again in the Anglo Saxon chronicles because in the year AD991 we read :-
This year was Ipswich plundered; and very soon afterwards was Alderman Britnoth slain at Maidon. In this same year it was resolved that tribute should be given, for the first time, to the Danes, for the great terror they occasioned by the sea-coast. That was first 10,000 pounds. This money became known as Danegelt and was, in effect, protection money. It didn't help much because the same thing happened again around the Ipswich area in AD993 and AD1010.

It has been suggested that Caen stone was brought from Normandy, up the Orwell and then to Bury St. Edmunds to rebuild the Abbey over the period 1070 to 1095. In his History of Stowmarket (1844) the Rev AGH Hollingsworth quotes from the English poet John Lydgate (c1370 - c1451) as follows :-

In seyne and twenty wynters ye may seen
A new church he did edifye.
Ston brought from Kane out of Normandye
By the se, and set up on the strande
At Ratlysdene, and carried forth be lande.


Lydgate wrote this verse in the year 1434, some 350 years after the alleged event. The stone for the abbey was actually procured from the fine quarries of Barnack, Northamptonshire, which belonged to the abbot of Peterborough, through the direct mandate of William the Conqueror, who also ordered that the usual tolls should be remitted for its conveyance. In any case, if it had come from Caen it would have been far easier to move the stone from Normandy via the Great Ouse and the River Lark rather than the Orwell.

In 1567 Sir Thomas Gresham built what he called the 'Burse' in Cornhill, London, designed to rival the 'Bourse' in Antwerp. This building was renamed the Royal Exchange by Queen Elizabeth in 1570. The roof timbers for this building came from trees felled on Sir Thomas's estate at Ringshall. The trees were taken to Battisford Tye common and sawpits dug out in order to create the timbers for the roof structure. This roof framework was taken by water to London.

In 1634 the river was used to transport one of the bells of Stowmarket church from Ipswich after it had been recast. This particular bell weighed 5 cwt. (250kgs).


The first modern attempt to make the river navigable occurred in 1719 when
'the chief Inhabitants of the Town [of Stowmarket]..... and several Justices of the Peace, Gentlemen, Tradesmen and Freeholders' presented a petition to Parliament seeking leave to introduce a bill in the next session.. At the same time three other petitions from the great and good of Ipswich were presented against the navigation. Parliament decided to remit all these petitions to a committee for a final decision. Interestingly, the Stowmarket petition has the following words included - 'the River Orwell, which runneth from the said Town of Stowmarket to the Town and Port of Ipswich ....... anciently a navigable River' which reinforces the notion that the river was called the Orwell all the way from the sea.

It should be borne in mind that the petition from Stowmarket was made at the height of the financial fever known as the South Sea Bubble. Investors were desperate to place their money in any sort of undertaking and in 1719 there were numerous bills proposed to make rivers navigable. In fact, the only one that failed to make its way through the Parliamentary process was the one for the Orwell and perhaps this was no bad thing as the South Sea Bubble collapsed in spectacular fashion in 1720 leaving thousands penniless as they had borrowed vast sums in order to buy South Sea shares.

In 1789 a new bill was introduced into Parliament and this time it was successful. In 1790 a Board of Trustees was appointed to administer the Stowmarket Navigation after the Act of Parliament had received the Royal assent. The act authorised the trustees to raise £14,300 and an extra £6000 just in case. Following the discovery of numerous errors in the original survey and poor workmanship by the first contractor (who was sacked) John Rennie was asked to carry out a fresh survey in 1791. He found that three locks had already been constructed with turf and timber and recommended that the remainder should be brick and stone. He estimated the total additional costs to be £12,350 so the trustees had to seek Parliamentary approval to raise a further £15,000 to complete the work.

The total rise of the river from Ipswich to Stowmarket
is 90 feet and 15 locks were constructed to overcome it in the 16 miles of navigation. 


The Navigation was opened on the 14th September 1793 but several parts were found to be poorly built and damage caused by severe flooding in the winter of 1794 meant a lot more work (and more money) was needed to finish the job properly.

Whilst producing his report in 1791 John Rennie was also asked to give his opinion on a proposal to extend the Navigation from Stowmarket to the River Lark at Bury St Edmunds but nothing more was heard of that.

A tonnage charge of 1d per ton per mile was levied for use of the navigation from Stowmarket to Ipswich but a halfpenny per ton per mile in the opposite direction.  There was a minimum charge equal to a 35 ton load thus making the charge for a round trip £3 -10 shillings (£3.50p). A 30-40 ton horse drawn lighter completed the journey in about 8 hours. The main cargo was manure which travelled toll free, coal, gun cotton, corn and hops. In the first full year of uninterrupted trade (y/e July 1795) the total tolls received were £937 50p and the estimated expenses for that year were £380.

The effect on transport costs between Ipswich and Stowmarket following the opening of the navigation were dramatic, with the carriage of a chaldron of coal reduced by four shillings (20p). A London chaldron held about 1.4 tonnes.
 
In 1846 the railway arrived and with it a large decline in water-borne trade. The Trustees sought Parliamentary approval to lease the navigation to the Eastern Union Railway for 42 years. In 1888 when the lease ended the navigation was returned to the Trustees along with £2000 compensation as it was in such a poor condition. After 1932, with no income to meet their maintenance liabilities under the Act that established the navigation, the Trustees applied for a Revocation Order. The business was wound up at the final meeting of the Trustees in 1934. At this time all navigation rights were extinguished and the river bed was passed back to the riparian owners along the waterway. The Environment Agency look after the water course but their primary responsibility is flood control.

After closure in 1934 there followed many years of neglect, which resulted in the navigation becoming impassable and in some places, little better than an open drain.

Ipswich Branch of the Inland Waterways Association started restoration work on the River in the 1970s, assisting with the establishment of The Gipping Way, a public footpath from Ipswich to Stowmarket which follows the navigation towing path.

In 1994 work commenced to restore Bosmere Lock followed by Creeting Lock, work that took ten years.
The continuation of this work is now being undertaken by the Trust and work on the lock next to Baylham Mill is now complete apart from the installation of lock gates.

We have recently been working at Pipps Ford, restoring  the accomodation bridge over the lock tail. The next job at Pipps Ford is to start restoring the original river course round the lock, rebuild the bridge over the river and restore the weir below the bridge. We will return to Baylham to complete the task of rebuilding the sluice gates that were used by the miller to control the flow of water to the mill. Water levels are too high at the moment to complete that task.