The course of the River Orwell has shaped the history of Ipswich and the surrounding area as much as it has the rock, sand and soil that it flows through. In this post, I wanted to investigate what part the river has played in the town’s past and uncover a little of the history that has elapsed on the eleven miles of waterway from Ipswich to the coast.
In the first place, Ipswich is only where it is because of the river – it developed where the fresh water of the River Gipping meets the salt water of the River Orwell, presumably for the duel benefits of access to fresh drinking water for townspeople while maintaining proximity to the coast and the waters beyond.
Ipswich is likely the oldest of all English ports, with an almost continuous record of maritime trading activity, since about the year 600 – all facilitated by the Orwell. As an important port town, along a strategically placed river that led out to the coast facing the European mainland, Ipswich was well connected from an early point in England’s history to the rest of the continent. This led to the early adoption of a reasonably complex economy in Ipswich as one of the few points at which goods were flowing into and out of the rest of the country.
It would be tedious to go into too much detail in this post about the centuries of trade connections Ipswich was able to form with the rest of Britain and mainland Europe through its river commerce, but for a snapshot of what was going on it’s worth referring to some examples provided by Nicholas R. Amor in his book Late Medieval Ipswich, Trade and Industry. Amor tells us that during the 1400s Ipswich was trading with countries across the continent: from Bilbao in the Iberian Peninsula for iron, woad, dyestuffs, oils, soap and sweet wine, to Danzig in Northern Europe for naval stores, wooden products, flax, linen, fish, fur and potash. For its part, Ipswich established itself as one of the very few ports through which wool was exported to Europe.
Largely due to the location of the town along the river in an area distant from the country’s principal centres of power, Ipswich has always tended to be a place of trade and commerce more than a military stronghold, and this has shaped its historic character. For one thing, the focus on river trade enabled the emergence of an established merchant class by the late medieval period, along with all the wealth and fine housing this allowed for, particularly along the waterfront. In consequence, levels of education for prosperous families rose too. Not just material goods, but ideas, were brought to the port along the River Orwell. Ipswich was ideally placed to smuggle reformation texts into the country from Europe, and found willing receivers in Ipswich’s literate merchant class. The embracing of reforming Puritanism that followed, in turn helped to set the town’s political course during the 1600s.
Like most rivers, the Orwell has seen its fair share of smuggling in centuries past. During the 1700s particularly, smuggling was a way of life for many people in the villages bordering the river, and the community found a unique way of signalling whether the coast was clear: the story goes that a family living in a small white cottage (Cat House) along the river, decided to have their cat stuffed after it died and placed it in the window where the cat had formerly loved to sit. However, there was more to this tale than might first appear – for it seems the cat always disappeared from its favoured spot whenever the Preventive men of the district were more than ordinarily vigilant. Cat House still stands today by the river in the small village of Woolverstone.
Keeping the River Navigable
Of course, when a river is instrumental in the prosperity of a place it becomes important to maintain its flow. There are many examples in England’s history where the silting of a river has led to the ruin of an urban population, a nearby example is Aldeburgh, which was a thriving fishing and boat building town until the silting up of the River Alde. You can read a previous, more in-depth, blog post I wrote about Ipswich’s efforts to keep the Orwell navigable here.
Ship Building and Naval History
The River Orwell’s location also encouraged ship building from early on – according to Robert Malster, the tradition of building wooden vessels in Ipswich dates back to at least the 13th century. By the 18th century ship building was reaching its pinnacle along the Orwell with the work of John Barnard, a shipbuilder with yards in Ipswich and at Harwich by the mouth of the river. Barnard built a succession of both merchant class and Royal Navy ships at ship yards on the river. In addition to Barnard’s successes, at the end of the 18th century Stephen Teague launched the warship Cruizer from the river’s Halifax yard, which went on to give her name to one of the most numerous class of warships built in the age of sail.
The dockyards of the Orwell continued to churn out a continuation of first-class ships during the 19th century, particularly, during the first half of the century, under the Bayley family, who, across generations, were responsible for building warships, East Indiamen and even wooden steamers.
The Orwell has occasionally played a military role in the nation’s history, but when I tell you that perhaps its finest hour came in 1340, when King Edward III mustered the English fleet just above Harwich harbour, you’ll gain some perspective on its status as a military backwater. Having said that, in the event, Edward did go on from this to win an astounding victory against the French in the battle at Sluys, which secured the English Channel for many years to come, but it might be pushing it a bit to attribute that to the River Orwell.
Artistic connections and inspirations
The river Orwell has also made its impression on many artists over the centuries. John Constable painted ships on the Orwell near Ipswich (shown here) and even Thomas Gainsborough spent several years in Ipswich painting the scene around the river when he could get away from his more lucrative career as one of the country’s most celebrated portraitists. In the world of literature too, the Orwell is no stranger: It has been well argued that Eric Arthur Blair took his famous pen name (George Orwell) from the river as he spent a lot of time in Suffolk during his 20s and 30s. Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, loved spending time on the river so much that he set one of his much-loved children’s books there called We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea.
An interesting footnote:
The Orwell Park House estate, which borders the river, was the seat of Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) twice mayor of Ipswich, who was responsible for the introduction of the drink and word ‘grog’ to the navy. The admiral took to wearing a cloak aboard ship made of a French material called gros grain, this became corrupted in the mouths of sailors and they came to refer to him as ‘Old Grog’. At the time, drunkenness in the navy was a real problem and the measure Admiral Vernon took to curb this was to water down the rum, hence it came to be called ‘grog’.
Ipswich has been a port town for well over a thousand years and its docks as a consequence have a history all of their own far too long to cram into any single blog post. What I’ve decided to do therefore is pick out one significant transition in its history and explain why this was of such key importance to the quay.
Left: The Ipswich wet dock at present.
In the 18th century, Ipswich, and particularly its docks, was in a slump. This must have been very disappointing to the locals, especially as the previous century had been a time of such great prosperity. During the 17th century Ipswich had become a large centre of trade for grain and cloths and had also established itself as one of the only ports in the country through which wool was exported to Europe.
The problems of 18th century Ipswich were largely caused by the state of the River Orwell as it ran through and near the town. The twists and turns of the river near to the town had become a real problem for some of the merchant ships using the docks and were putting many off from using the port. Perhaps more importantly, the docks themselves were becoming increasingly silted up to the point of preventing many vessels from reaching the quayside, particularly at low tide.
Left: A plan showing the twists and turns of the river Orwell with the proposed new channels to be cut to straighten the rivers course.
William Chapman was the first man to suggest improvements that ought to be made to save the town from chronic decline due to the reduction in the rivers navigability. Chapman laid out his plans in the latter half of the 18th century, but unfortunately his ideas were largely left unheeded for quite some time.
By the beginning of the 19th century the ‘Committee of Subscribers for the Improvement of the Port of Ipswich’ could drag their heels no longer and accepted that they had to act. They began to take some of Chapman’s plans more seriously and even invested in a “steam dredging engine” (one of the first in Britain). This was used to begin the ongoing process of clearing the heavily silted areas of the docks, apart from the times when it was broken and in for repair when instead “Mud Men” were employed to dig it out by hand. Let us hope that didn’t happen too often, because as far as I’m concerned standing up to your knees in a gigantic mudflat, holding a spade, and being told you need to clear the whole lot asap sounds like one of the most daunting jobs in recorded history.
Once the mud had been dug up it found a use as ballast in ships that had unloaded their cargo in the port. It’s an interesting fact that most vessels of the period were built to actually be unstable when not weighed down by their goods. So it was that during the Victorian era perhaps Ipswich’s biggest export was the silt from its river, much of it ending up on the banks of the Tyne, as one of Ipswich’s largest trading partners at the time was Newcastle.
The twisting of the river Orwell near to the town was neatly solved by cutting new straighter bypasses for the water to flow through in the 1830s and immediately made the port a more attractive prospect to merchants.
Left: 1830 plans for the Wet Dock and New Cut.
Finally, and most importantly, the Wet Dock along with the New Cut were built by workmen during the late 1830s and early 1840s, under the instruction of David Thornbory who was hired by the port committee. The New Cut allowed the river Orwell to bypass the Dock itself giving the dock a stable water level, while allowing vessels to enter and exit through a lock system. At the time of its construction the Wet Dock, at 33 acres, was the largest of its kind in Britain.
Right: A modern day ariel view of the wet dock/new cut lock gates.
Although the construction encountered some difficulties and proved more time consuming and more expensive than its original proposed cost of £65,178, it soon brought in huge amounts of money for the town – as much as £10,000 a year in port dues by 1855, most of which was ploughed back into further improvements for the docks.
Above: The new cut at low tide – you can see parts of the riverbed, while over in the wet dock the water level remains unchanged.
And so it was that the people of Ipswich were able to turn their economic failings into profit (at least for a while) with a little investment, planning, elbow grease and, of course, mud.