The River Ouse as a Highway

Ever since Mesolithic and Neolithic man the river Ouse was used as a highway in to the Weald. (1) In later years the Ouse had always been used for commercial transport but only in its lower reaches where it was navigable at Seaford and Lewes. A river or canal would always have been a cheaper way to transport goods and materials instead of using the atrocious roads of Sussex.

An Act was motivated on the 18th May 1774 (2) for improving the River Ouse from Lewes bridge at Lewes to the Hammer bridge at Cuckfield. The Ouse was to be improved through Ardingly Parish, altering the banks, making bridges and locks and deepening the river. There was to be a lock at Lindfield bridge, Fullers farm, Testers and Upper Ryland bridge. (see sketch taken from 1841 Tithe map) . The Upper Ryland Bridge lock was the 18th lock and was far as the canal was taken. Here the Balcombe Wharf was built in 1812 ( see sketch and photographs) with a dock so that construction materials brought up the Ouse could be unloaded into carts and then carried to the foot of the railway viaduct that was being built to carry the London to Brighton South Coast Railway. The viaduct was completed in 1841. It has 37 arches, is 96 feet high and 1,475 feet long. It would have taken a lot of bricks and materials.

The Act for the canalisation of the Ouse stipulated that the canal was to be used for the carrying of timber, soil, chalk, clay, gravel and stone. Towpaths were to be constructed. Compensation was to be paid to land owners for the cuts which straightened and deepened the Ouse.

The Ardingly Tithe map of 1841 depicts very clearly the large amount of straightening that took place, leaving some farmers with land on the wrong side of the canal.

Map Ouse 2 is a sketch of the wharf at Upper Rylands bridge with the turning bay for barges. The wharfingers’ cottage was built in 1812 and still in existence with some slated roofed, red brick cottages for the workers on the viaduct.

The Ouse improvement contract was given to Pinkertons and by April 1793 the river had already been improved as far as Sheffield Bridge, but the contractor fell into financial difficulties and the navigation was put in the receivers hands. By 1805 an extra one-and-a-half miles and two more locks had been built as far as Freshfield. In 1806 there was another Act of Parliament (3) enabling the raising of £30,000 and the navigation was completed as far as the lock at Lindfield bridge in 1809. It took three more years to complete the navigation as far as the Upper Rylands bridge in 1812.

The total length of the navigation was now 22 miles with 18 locks. These locks measured 53 feet 8 inches by 13 feet 6 inches wide, so making room for barges of up 18 tons.

As far as Ardingly was concerned, the Ouse navigation meant easier and cheaper transport for agricultural purposes. Upstream most of the traffic carried chalk, coal and stone for road repairs. The tow path was on the North side of the river making easy access. Corn and other agricultural products would be sent down stream to the market at Lewes. This was such a strong factor in agriculture that, on a sale advert in The Times for Great Saucelands in the 1820s, it noted that the Ouse navigation was so close as to offer easy transport fo agricultural goods.

Most of the upstream traffic was boosted by the need for materials for the construction of the London Brighton Railway and in particular for the huge viaduct being built. The railway became the alternative mode of transport which was to cause the canals demise. M. Beswick in his Brickmaking in Sussex (4) pp 55,56 and 178-9 writes, “there was a number of brickmakers in Barcombe, but it reasonable to suppose the majority of bricks came through Lewes“. The demand for bricks was so great that an advert was placed in the Sussex Advertiser 26th July 1790 “River Ouse Navigation, brick moulders wanted immediately…apply to Mr. Pinkerton, Bear Inn, Lewes“. Bricks were also made on locations near the Ouse in Ardingly (5) Brickfield, south edge of Rivers Wood, also Brick Plot and Brickyard Wood on the north bank of the Ouse.

At a meeting of the Ouse navigation Company in 1822 (6), the surveyors of Balcombe were asked to repair the roads because they used bad materials. The traffic was so heavy for the transport of railway materials for the Balcombe viaduct that in 1837 the Committee asked for all barges to be measured, and that the weight and tonnage be marked on a graduated scale so as to show the weight of freight. In January 1839 new lock gates were ordered for Lindfield bridge, and the wharf from which coal was unloaded.

Once the railway had been completed, trade was very much lacking on the Ouse navigation, so much so that the tolls were reduced: corn and flour to be charged at 1½d per ton instead of 3d, but coal was raised to 1d per ton. The last order in the minute book was dated 1859 (7). This coincided with the opening of the railway branch line between Lewes and Uckfield. The reduction in tolls failed to recover traffic lost to the railways.(8) The navigation ceased to be used above Lindfield in 1861 and the last barge barge to Lindfield in 1868. The Ouse Navigation was very useful to Ardingly from 1812 to 1861 although it never made large profits for its investors, who included many locals such as the Rev. Timothy Brown, rector, William Newnham and Joseph Peyton of Wakehurst.

It’s a pity it fell into disuse. It was a blessing for a short time to the local farmers who had access to comparatively cheap transport for their products for markets as well as materials brought in. It was also a cheap way to get to Lewes.

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  1. A J MacLEAN “Assessment of Rock Shelters at Tilgate, Wakehurst and Three sites of Hunter Gatherers using waterways as highways.” Dip.Landscape Studies; Sussex University 1996. (unpublished dissertation)
  2. East Sussex Record Office; AMS 577/11
  3. ibid
  4. M.Beswick; Brickmaking in Sussex; Middleton Press 1993
  5. ibid
  6. East Sussex Record Office; Add Ms 675
  7. ibid
  8. PAL Vine; Kent & East Sussex Waterways; Middleton Press 1989.