Ipswich Icons: River Gipping unlocked vital trade route through Suffolk

A row boat on the River Gipping

A row boat on the River Gipping - Credit: Archant

There is evidence that the Gipping has been used for navigation since the 13th Century but it is likely that only flat bottom boats of very shallow draft were using the river until the Act of Parliament of 1790, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Bridge over the River Gipping

Bridge over the River Gipping - Credit: Archant

There is a rumour that the Abbey at Bury was built with Caen stone transported along the Gipping and its tributary, the River Rat, as far as Rattlesden.

This is unlikely, not only because the upper reaches of the waterway were shallow and meandering but most of the stone was likely sourced in Barnack, Northamptonshire and moved into Bury along the River Lark. There is a good reason why cathedrals and other medieval religious houses are situated next to navigable rivers.

Stowmarket, in the 18th Century had aspirations to become the county town of Suffolk; it was certainly situated in the middle of the county. Thus a proposal to canalise the Gipping in 1719 created concern, in particular with the Ipswich Dock Commissioners. A direct link from the sea to Stowmarket might lead to the demise of the Port of Ipswich. Stowmarket was only 17 miles upstream, about eight hours by horse-drawn barge. Then, in 1720 the South Sea Bubble burst and speculative investments went out of favour. Thus nothing became of this idea but by the second half of the 18th Century canals were being dug to serve almost every industrial centre in the country.

The farmers of mid Suffolk and the manufacturers and merchants of Stowmarket were all hampered by the lack of a supply route for heavy and bulky goods, particularly coal. The Act of 1790 granted permission to canalise the river, including the construction of 15 locks, a total rise of some 90ft with a specification for minimum width and depth. The river had been used as the power source for a number of watermills and the changes improved the output of the mills that continued to operate into the 19th Century.

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The navigation was opened in 1793 and was fairly profitable although getting barges into Ipswich Wet Dock was a challenge, the lock being set at an angle away from the Gipping. The main cargo was manure which travelled toll free, whereas coal, gun cotton, corn and hops which were charged at one penny per ton per mile, about three pounds ten shillings for a 30 ton load. The canal was profitable for 50 years but after the coming of the railway in 1846 trade declined.

The directors negotiated with the railway company who took over the responsibility of the waterway and then allowed it to fall into disrepair. There was a duty on the railway company to keep the canal navigable but trade beyond Bramford (Fison’s and Packard’s premises) ceased and only the four lowest locks were maintained (Handford, Chantry, Sproughton and Bramford Locks). In 1888, at the end of a lease, the canal was returned to the navigation company but by now it was a long way short of being profitable. By 1932 the company was effectively bankrupt, being unable to afford any of the essential repairs and the bed of the river was returned to the riparian owners. The flow of water became the responsibility of the Environment Agency whose main concern was flood control and anything that hindered flow was removed.

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The Ipswich branch of the Inland Waterways Association, The River Gipping Trust, started restoration work on the river in the 1970s. They have carried out repair work to sluice gates and lock structures at Bosmere, Baylham, and Creeting about midway between Ipswich and Stowmarket. Most notable however is the restored towing path from Stoke Bridge to Stowmarket, a footpath that mainly follows the banks of the River Gipping.

See more from John Norman here

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