The River Little Ouse, a tributary of the River Great Ouse, once had more than one natural course. It also had several different names including the Rebech River, Brandon Creek and Brandon River though the Romans will certainly have had their own name for it when they canalised the lowest 5 miles. Much later Barnack stone was carried upstream to build Thetford Priory giving evidence that the river has been navigable for hundreds of years.
1670 Although the river had always been navigable it would appear that its upper reaches were far from satisfactory. An Act was passed to allow the navigation to be made better from Brandon to Thetford (about 10 miles) but, after gaining the Act, which included the appointment of commissioners, Thetford Corporation found they couldn’t afford to do the work. The Right Honourable Henry, Earl of Arlington, took on the work and then acquired the rights to the tolls in 1677 when the navigation was opened throughout. A few years later, when Henry died, he left the waterway to his daughter Isabella.
1696 Thetford Corporation regained control of their river for free when Isabellas’ husband died and she relinquished her right and interest in the navigation.
1742 All the rivers which are tributaries of the River Great Ouse are rapped up in the parent river’s problems with water shortage, lack of tides and the fight with the Bedford Level Drainage Corporation – who didn’t like boats. Like all the other tributaries, the River Little Ouse was struggling to stay navigable so Thetford Corporation built a staunch below the town to regulate water flow.
1750 A petition was put to Parliament by just about everybody connected with the river because the navigation had no commissioners left, the original ones having all died by this time. The petition claimed that fights over rights of way (among other things) had become common and something needed to be done. An inquiry was set up and it was found that boats were often being detained while landowners demanded fees for use of their land as haling-ways.
1751 An Act was passed solely to allow a new set of commissioners to be appointed. However, this was enough to encourage the corporation into making some improvements and 7 new “stanches” (staunches) were built; these were Thetford Middle, Turfpool, Croxton, Santon, Brandon and Sheepwash. Later an eighth staunch was added at Crosswater.
1789 It had been noticed that the river tradesman of Brandon had – for many years – been reaching their town withoutpaying a penny in tolls because there had never been an Act allowing tolls to be charged on the new staunches downstream. Thetford Corporation soon put this right! They applied and obtained an Act allowing them to charge for use of all the staunches. The Act also allowed the commissioners to borrow money in order to improve the navigation though no improvements were actually made for several decades. In fact, the river was described as being “mismanaged and neglected” during this period.
1827 A superintendent was appointed to look after the river and, over the next 8 years, all the staunches were rebuilt. The river was doing well – or at least Thetford did well out of it. The corporation’s total income for 1833, for instance, was 1,054 of which 955 came from the river. However, the corporation were soon to lose this healthy benefit…
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1835 The Municipal Reform Act was passed and from then on all income from the river had to be put into its own account, separate from all other corporation income.
1843 The commissioners sacked the navigation’s superintendent (and toll collector), William Aldridge, and appointed John Chambers Roe in his place. Mr. Roe may well have been pleased with his new job but the pleasure he had in seeing through his first duty was not so pleasing for the navigation’s future prospects – Roe was asked to observe the construction of the first railway bridge to cross the waterway! Fearing the worst, Thetford Corporation were now forced into thinking about saving money. One measure they took was to sell their river maintenance boats and simply hire them when needed.
1845 The Norwich to Brandon railway line opened in direct competition with the navigation. On the very same day Eastern Counties Railway opened the Newmarket to Brandon extension line. The people running the navigation were obviously fighting hard at this stage because the river recorded its highest ever income from tolls at the end of this year.
1846 Following the navigation’s best ever year, the opening of the railways caused income to drop by more than 50% within just 12 months. Tolls were reduced in an attempt to compete but – like elsewhere in the country – this did little to improve matters.
1850 The navigation tolls were put up to be leased, the decision was made that all future repairs should be done by tender and superintendent Roe – with no tolls to collect or maintenance to oversee – should be paid off. The tolls were taken on by Mr. & Mrs. George Godfrey and J.W. & G. Gill, all of whom ran a weekly vessel to Kings Lynn and also owned other boats and a wharf. Once this was done, Thetford Corporation were able to appoint a new superintendent, John Farrent (at a much reduced wage no doubt) but soon afterwards Farrent decided that he wanted to emigrate. He asked the navigation committee for a grant of 10 to allow him to make the move. They were so cash-conscious that they refused his request.
1859 An extraordinary battle began within Thetford Corporation.After seeing how well the toll lease was doing and how well maintained the Godfreys and Gills were keeping the navigation, the corporation decided to transfer the navigation’s latest profit of 320 from the navigation fund to the town’s finance committee. The Mayor, Cornell Fison, protested and deemed the move illegal under the conditions of the Municipal Reform Act, he demanded that the money be given back to the navigation – the corporation refused. A number of attacks and counter attacks ensued over the following months. At first the corporation took a vote on whether it should keep the money, not surprisingly it voted “yes”. The matter was taken to court but the corporation made a counter attack at Fison in order to have him drop the case. He and his brother had a number of boats on the river, they also owned sawmills and a flour mill which were dependent on the river (they later became the well known Fisons manure company). The corporation tried to hit back at the brothers by putting up the tolls, claiming this was necessary to pay for the legal proceedings. They thought the Fisons would back off when faced with personal losses caused by increased tolls. Instead, they fought back with a claim against the decision, saying the navigation’s Act only allowed tolls to be charged at reasonable rates in line with the state of the river’s maintenance, and as the river was in a perfect state, the tolls should not be raised. The power of the corporation was able to swamp the Fisons’ objections and they won the battle – but not the war. Mr. John Horshor entered the fray and took the matter to the Court of Chancery. This was a big attack with the possibility of much larger repercussions. He wanted the corporation to present all records of funds from the navigation since the Act of Parliament in order to show whether or not they had been complying with the rule that navigation profits should not be used by the town council for any reasons other than those related to the waterway. He demanded that any such transfers should be repaid (with interest). The corporation took fright, lowered the tolls and repaid the 320.
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1863 A report was made stating that several of the staunches on the River Little Ouse were in desperate need of repair. The corporation told the lease holder, Mrs. Godfrey, that if she paid the estimated £135 cost, they would take over the river’s maintenance when the toll lease expired later that year. Whether Mrs. Godfrey paid up is unclear but within just a few months of the corporation taking over, six actions were filed against them for allowing the river to flood adjacent meadows!
During the next few decades the navigation continued to do fairly well.Fisons were one of the main carriers with flour from their mill. Coal and coke were among the items coming upstream from King’s Lynn and there was a prosperous boat building company at the head of navigation in Thetford. Even passenger services were doing well in this period despite most other navigations having completely lost all passengers to the railways. Packet boats travelled to Ely, Kings Lynn and Wisbech.
1890 Repairs and maintenance were once again urgently needed but the corporation couldn’t afford to carry out the work. They now turned to the Fisons company for help! The corporation asked for a 50 advance in return for maintaining the river and keeping it open. Fisons agreed to this but some people tried to have it stopped, claiming it was illegal under the conditions of the navigation’s Act. The objections were overruled and Fisons gave the corporation the advance and subsequent others when needed.
1900 By the turn of the century the navigation was totally dependent on Fisons advances as other toll income totalled just 42 per year. Clearly this was not enough, the navigation was unable to pay its rates and the superintendent had to be paid off.
1904 The author, Henry de Salis, who made numerous reports for the government during this period on the state of navigations found that this navigation was indeed in a state! The sections under Thetford Corporation’s jurisdiction were said to be all but derelict with staunches failing to hold water.
Downstream it was a better story. The 13 (lower) miles had never been in the hands of Thetford and had always been toll free. For many decades this section was under the control of the Bedford Level Corporation – who were interested only in land drainage – and they had kept the waterway in good condition. Crosswater Staunch, the boundary between the two jurisdictions, was also kept in good order by the South Levels Drainage and Navigation Commissioners.
1914 Trade on the river had dropped to a bare minimum after the turn of century and the start of WW1 saw the end of all commercial traffic on the River Little Ouse.
1925 The top 3 miles of the navigation, from Thetford to Two Mile Bottom were abandoned. Five years later a further 4 miles, from Fisons works at Two Mile Bottom to Brandon, were also closed.
Over the years the Great Ouse Catchment Board removed a number of the old staunches and replaced them with sluices. After WW2 the River Great Ouse and all of its tributaries (including the lower Little Ouse) became very popular with pleasure boats.
1977 When the book Canals of Eastern England was published it reported that the River Little Ouse was still navigable for the first 13 miles, taking it just below Brandon. It reported that the route above Brandon to Thetford was still in good condition and still looked after by Thetford Corporation. It added that when the financial climate was right, it would not take much to restore the full route.
1995 The National Rivers Authority, who now looked after the River Little Ouse,built a lock just below Brandon. On July 27th the lock opened allowing boats into the old Thetford Corporation section for the first time since WW1. The lock cost 280,000 to build but became the subject of many complaints. It was built just 40 feet long, restricting its use to short cabin-cruisers only. Narrow boat users and barge historians were not pleased at being “locked” out of the reopened waterway. New moorings were provided abouta mile upstream at Brandon bridge and it was now possible to cruise upstream for a further 2 miles where water conditions became too shallow to venture any further. It was hoped that the remaining 8 miles to Thetford would soon be restored.
1996 Complaints continued about the length of Brandon Lock. A spokesman for the Environment Agency (National Rivers Authority renamed) said the length of the lock had been determined after a survey which “suggested” that 90% of the boats on the river were less than 40 feet long. Even the owners of boats that did fit through the lock had plenty to complain about. The lock had been fitted with “potentially dangerous obstructions” along its walls and the river above the lock had not been dredged, making access to Brandon very difficult. The Environment Authority bowed to pressure and put this right but refused to admit that it had made a mistake in building such a short lock. They claimed it would not have been fair to spend tax payers money on a longer lock. This did not go down well with the tax payers who owned boats over 40 feet long or with the numerous local companies and projects who had donated thousands of pounds towards the lock – “tax payers money”?
So, for now, the River Little Ouse story is unfinished. The final 8 miles still need restoring and the Brandon Lock saga will continue – but at least boats can reach the town of Brandon, a total of 13 miles from the River Great Ouse.
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There are very few roads to allow access to the River Little Ouse and even fewer towns and villages along its length. It begins at a junction off the River Great Ouse, near to the Ship Inn, at a spot known as Brandon Creek, which is on the A10 about 2 miles south of Southery.
The first 2 miles of the route head south easterly to the settlements of Little Ouse and Brandon Bank. Minor roads lead to each of these settlements, which are on opposite banks of the river, but there is no bridge across the waterway. Unlike its parent river (the River Great Ouse), the River Little Ouse allows good views of the fenlands because it is situated higher than the surrounding land.
The route continues south eastwards for a further 4 miles, with no roads or villages nearby. At the end of the stretch is a junction with Lakenheath Lode which is now unnavigable but used to allow access to the town of Lakenheath, about 3 miles to the south east.
Past the junction the River Little Ouse swings north of east, travelling for about 4 miles to the B1112 which is carried across the river by Wilton bridge. On this stretch of the river is the site of Crosswater Stanch (staunch). There were 8 staunches on the original navigation, Crosswater was the last to be built and is in the best state of ruin today with both of its piers still intact. Staunches used to have 2 sets of piers, one set on the river bank and the other in the river. A large oak guillotine gate would be fitted between the piers to create a primitive form of pound lock. The boatman would have to climb a ladder at the bank-side piers to reach a massive spoked wheel with a diameter of about 13 feet. He would turn the wheel by standing on the spokes and stepping up it like a moving ladder or treadmill. Chains were attached to the wheel and these would lift or drop the heavy gates. Alongside each staunch there was a weir to maintain water levels in the river above.
Since turning north east the river has left the artificial course created by the Romans and entered a more natural, meandering river course. Just past Wilton bridge the route passes the Cut-Off Catchment Drain on an aqueduct with guillotine gated flood lock on top of it.After passing the drain, the river becomes noticeably more shallow.
After another 2 miles, the Ely to Thetford railway swings alongside on the south bank and about a mile further on it crosses the route. One mile past the railway bridge is the new (1995) Brandon Lock. There are new moorings just below this 40 feet long lock which has a guillotine gate on one end and mitre gates on the other. Brandon itself – and the A1065 bridge – are justa mile further on.
It is (apparently) possible to navigate for a further 2 miles though there is no village (or anything else) at the head of navigation. These 2 miles bring the river to the end of its north easterly course. It takes a sweeping curve to the right and then heads south east past Santon Downham. The river from here to Thetford is very narrow and shallow but full restoration is hoped for. At Thetford (5 miles from the current head of navigation) there is an old Priory by the water’s edge, a restored navigation would end at an old mill pond in the centre of town.