Fringe Box



Life On The Wey Navigations

Published on: 27 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 27 Feb, 2012

David Rose takes a look at the history of the waterway than runs through St Catherine’s.

The Godalming Navigation of the River Wey that runs through St Catherine’s was once an important transport link to London via the Thames. It forms part of the Wey Navigations that begins at Thames Lock in Weybridge and ends at Godalming Wharf. In fact, the stretch of the River Wey to the north-east of Guildford can lay claim to some of the first pound locks in Britain and was one of the first to be canalised.

Davis lime works: The Davis family once excavated a chalk quarry for lime off the Shalford Road and loaded it into barges at their wharf which is now the site of Guildford Rowing Club. This view dates to the late 19th century. Picture courtesy of Guildford Museum.

However, the first people to alter the course of the River Wey were millers, who by the 13th century had cut artificial channels to divert water to their mills.  It is possible that this was going on around what is today known as the Town or Millmead Meadow, part of the open space that forms today’s Shalford Park. Walk along the towpath towards Guildford and you will notice that the meadows are actually at a lower level that the waterway itself. Farmers, too, began damming river channels to flood winter pastures creating a warmer and more fertile soil to produce lush grass for their dairy cattle for the following spring.

Sir Richard Weston.

Sir Richard Weston, of Sutton Place, between Guildford and Send, was born in 1591 and educated in Flanders. He was impressed at the way pound locks were used in the Low Countries to control the flow of water and to make rivers navigable. He was particularly interested in ways to improve agriculture and so in the 1630s he built a pound lock at Stoke on the River Wey to the north of Guildford. He then constructed a channel about 5km long known as the Flowing River that enabled him to control the water around the meadows of his estate, thus flooding them when necessary.

His next idea was to make the River Wey navigable from the Thames at Weybridge to Guildford. With the help of the Earl of Arundel he received a commission from Charles I in 1635 to proceed with a survey of the river and to carry out the work. The plan was delayed by the Civil War, but afterwards, on June 26, 1651, an Act of Parliament was granted to ‘Guildford Corporation and others to make the Wey navigable at their own expense’.

Sir Richard enlisted the help of James Pitson, a former major in Oliver Cromwell’s army, to construct the waterway. Pitson raised capital and negotiated with landowners through whose land it was to be built. Richard Scotcher, from Guildford, was another important person in its construction. Pitson made him foreman and treasurer of the project, but he ended up in prison over debts that mounted up. While serving his sentence he wrote an essay entitled The Origins of the Wey Navigation, in which he pointed a finger at Pitson for certain financial irregularities and dealings.

A boating party at Stoke Lock.

The navigation was one of the first inland waterways in the UK and was completed in just two years. It comprised nine miles of canal, with 12 locks and 20 bridges. About 200 men were employed in its construction. They included the navvies who dug ‘the cut’, blacksmiths, carpenters, masons and turfers. Although it cost only £16,000 (about £1 million today) the project ran up huge debts.

Scotcher recorded these and it seems that a large number of employees and suppliers had not been paid. Sir Richard died in May 1652 and did not live to see his waterway completed, but his family felt the backlash of the scheme – they were left with the all the debts. Pitson persuaded one of Sir Richard’s sons, George Weston, to act as foreman and to provide further financial support. He too was soon in financial difficulties, was sent to prison and forced to sell his family’s remaining shares in the project. Pitson, who then had almost total control of the waterway, snapped these up. The Weston family received no profits at all from the scheme.

Even when the waterway was opened in 1653 and ready for business, the financial situation still dragged on. The canal’s water level became dangerously low following several dry years with the result that laden barges were unable to move. Scotcher, however, still had to dig deep into his own pocket to pay the bargemen’s wages. A commission was appointed to investigate the running of the navigation and sort out the problems. However, the situation did not really improve until Charles II was restored as monarch in 1660.

A second Act of Parliament with regard to the Wey Navigation was passed in 1661 and handed control to six trustees. By this time Richard Scotcher was dead, but James Pitson went on to become a justice of the peace and a county commissioner. He also spent some time in prison, but retired to Leapale House in Stoke-next-Guildford and died there on May 1, 1692.

Slowly the navigation prospered and so did Guildford as barge traffic increased taking agricultural produce, flour, paper, wooden items and even beer, to London. By the 1720s it carried an average of 17,000 tons of produce per year, generating about £2,000 revenue by its tolls.

From its opening, one hundred years passed before the navigation was extended from Guildford, past St Catherine’s, to reach Godalming in 1764. As a producer of clothing, Godalming soon benefited from having a waterway to export its goods. And the gunpowder, made at the mills in Chilworth, were then loaded onto barges at Stonebridge Wharf at Shalford – meaning the explosive cargoes no longer had to go long distances along uneven roads and through towns and villages.

Stonebridge Wharf in Shalford pictured in about the 1870s. Gunpowder made at Chilworth was loaded here on to barges that went to London via the Wey Navigations. The gunpowder was then shipped to wherever in the world it was required by the British Army. Picture: David Rose collection.

The association of a family by the name of Stevens and the navigation goes back four generations to William Stevens I (1777-1856), who was a carpenter by trade. In 1812 he became the Triggs Lock keeper, between Sutton Place and Send. He had married Harriet Chandler whose father, Stephen, was the master carpenter on the navigation. It was he who most likely fixed William up with the lock keeper’s job.

In 1822 he secured the important job as lock keeper at Thames Lock, Weybridge, where he learned to make accurate records of the cargoes being transported on the waterway. Three years later he became wharfinger at Guildford.His eldest son, also named William (1810-1890), became a carpenter and by 1840 had built his own barge, Perseverance, and was trading on the navigation.

One of the horses used by Stevens in the latter years that it operated barges on the Wey Navigations. Picture courtesy of the National Trust Wey Navigations and previously published in David Rose’s book Guildford Our Town (Breedon Books 2001).

By 1847, William II had a new barge, Reliance, and by 1857 owned three more and had seven men working for him.
He had been employed part-time by his father as assistant wharfinger at Guildford and after his father had died, took up the position full-time. He too named his first son William (1844-1936), and like his father and grandfather before him he too trained as a carpenter, and with his brother John, joined their father’s business.

Fred Legg on one of the characteristic Wey barges from about the 1950s or early 1960s. They were much wider than the traditional narrow boats found on other British waterways. The picture is by the late F. C. Saunders. He was a talented amateur photographer, part of whose collection of photos was donated to David Rose by Age Concern Guildford. Mr Saunders was a volunteer there for a number of years.

Trading as William Stevens & Sons, by the 1890s it had a fleet of eight barges and a monopoly of the navigation. An opportunity had arisen in 1889 to buy more shares in the Wey Navigation. Although William II was wary, the two sons went ahead and made the purchase.

Finally, in 1902, they gained overall financial ownership and the majority of the tolls. By this time the company was flourishing and also ran a coal merchants business and undertook maritime civil engineering as well as having steam tugs on the River Thames.

Another photo by Mr Saunders. The location is unknown, perhaps someone can identify it? The sharp right turn of the navigation that can be seen to the top of the picture suggests it may be Bowers Lock at Burpham. To the writer’s knowledge, these two photos have not been published before.

The fourth generation of Stevens to work the navigation was William III’s son, Harry (1887-1970). He took over the running of the business in 1929 and in 1964 transferred ownership of the navigation to the National Trust in order that the waterway be preserved. The last commercial load was carried in July 1969.

The National Trust acquired the Godalming Navigation from its commissioners in 1968. Today the National Trust looks after the 20-mile stretch of waterway from Godalming to Weybridge, calling it the Wey Navigations. In the closing years that Stevens operated its barges, they would ply their trade between the London docks and corn mills such as Coxes near Addlestone and Bowyer’s at Stoke, Guildford.

Harry Stevens: the fourth generation of the Stevens family who worked the Wey Navigations. Picture courtesy of the National Trust Wey Navigations and previously published in David Rose’s book Guildford Our Town (Breedon Books 2001).

Wheat from Canada was loaded into the wide Wey barges moored at either Victoria or Surrey Docks in the East End of London. The loading usually took place at night and when fully laden the crew (often just the skipper and his mate) would row the barge out of the dock to where they would moor up again, this time to a buoy, until daybreak. A tug would then tow the barge, in convoy with perhaps six others, up the Thames to Kingston or Brentford.

Another tug would then tow the Wey barge to Thames Lock at Weybridge where the crew would wait overnight before embarking on the journey back along the Wey Navigation. For this part of the journey the barges were always drawn by horses. Other cargoes carried included timber, as far as Moon’s at Guildford, and sulphur that was loaded at Shalford. It had come from Cranleigh and was taken by barge to London.

It was important not to let rainwater saturate the wheat. Although the barges had thick tarpaulin, it did sometimes get wet and could be refused by the miller. Soiled wheat would end up as animal feed. The horses used to pull the barges knew every inch of the towpath. They knew when to stop at the approach to locks and when to go slow or fast. Never were two new horses paired together, always one with an older horse until it had learned the lie of the towpath, which it usually did within a few weeks.

Town Wharf: View from the Town Bridge looking downstream in about the 1880s. The tall building on the right was the offices of the Guildford town wharf. On the left is Crooke’s Brewery which is now the car park beside the George Abbot pub. In more recent times it was the Farnham Road bus station. Picture courtesy of Guildford Museum.

Harry Stevens had his office on the ground floor of a building at the wharf in Guildford. Today it is the open space sandwiched between the gyratory road system and the river, that is opposite the car park beside the George Abbot pub. A statue of a bargeman is there now along with the preserved wooden building that houses a treadwheel crane.

However, Harry Stevens did not spend all his time stuck in his office. Evidently, once a week he cycled the whole length of the towpath to see what was going on along his beloved waterway.

Wharf now: The same view today from the Town Bridge. You can see the preserved wooden building that houses the treadwheel crane and the Bargeman statue. David Rose collection.

This story is an updated and abridged version of a chapter in David Rose’s book, Guildford Our Town, published by Breedon Books in 2001.

David Rose and Martin Giles offer a guided walk along the towpath at St Catherine’s, followed by an illustrated talk at Ye Olde Ship Inn, with more fascinating stories about the Wey Navigations, as part of their Dragon History Walks. Click here for details.

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