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Navigation of the River Wye

It is fair to infer that in the early days of iron mining in the Forest of Dean and south Herefordshire there was some attempt at navigation of the Wye, but up to now there seems to be no authentic relic of any vessel used for this purpose. No doubt coracles were used by fishermen; there is one in Hereford Museum made by William Dew of Kerne Bridge no later than 1880, and used by him until about 1910. It was called a "truckle" by the maker.

What has often been inferred as the earliest record of Wye navigation is the statement recorded in H.C. Nicholls' "Iron Making in the Forest of Dean" that Edward the Confessor demanded from Gloucester 36 dicres of iron and 100 iron rods for the King's ships. The supposition is that the iron came from the Forest and was taken via the Wye to Gloucester.

The Pipe Rolls give another possible instance of navigation, for it is stated that in 1171, for the invasion of Ireland by Henry II and Strongbow (Earl of Pembroke), horse shoes and nails were sent from the Forest of Dean. Again in 1172 and 1191 these articles were sent as well as iron for the King's ships. It is more certain that the forges at Bicknor, Lydbrook, Monmouth and Carey Mills must have sent their products down the Wye from the 13th century onwards.

A common right of Wye navigation was recorded in the time of Edward I (1271-1307), when it was stated that no weirs or other obstructions were to be erected, and any already in existence were to be removed. In 1296 the household accounts of Joan de Valence, countess of Pembroke, show that a barrel of venison was taken by boat from Bristol to Monmouth and thence by road to Goodrich, the messenger being away for seven and a half days.

Prior to 1527 there existed four mills and weirs on the Wye about a quarter of a mile below Hereford, but they were demolished by that date. In 1555 by an act of Philip and Mary the Dean and Chapter of Hereford were allowed to re-erect them and claim fishing rights together with paths leading to the mills and weirs. They were allowed eight years to re-build them.

According to the Patent Roll (Chancery) 4 Elizabeth, Part 6 4th January 1561/2, a grant was made to Blanch Aphary (Blanche Parry) of the lordship and manor of Fawley, fisheries on the Wye, a water mill, the weir and meadow in Mordiford called Wye mill, and other items not related to the river. On the 11th October 1571, an act of Elizabeth granted a lease of Abbotannels mill and fishery with other items.

In 1662 the counties of Gloucester, Hereford and Monmouth and the City of Hereford petitioned the Privy Council that a Commission of Sewers might proceed with its work of removing obstructions to navigation and fishing. The Lord Keeper had ordered the Commission not to meddle with weirs held by the King and in the possession of the Lord Privy Seal. There is no evidence of the Commission being put into action.

A survey from 1647 shows that the Lord of Striguil was entitled to a toll at Chepstow of 4d. for every pair of millstones and 4d. for a load of grindstones and quernstones passing down the river from Redbrook.

In 1662 Sir William Sandys of Ombersley Court, together with Henry and Windsor Sandys, obtained powers to make navigable the Wye and Lugg, as well as their tributaries in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire. Power was granted to make a path four feet wide on either side of the river for hauling boats. They were also empowered to collect tolls and use barges, except that all previous rights of persons to use barges and carry passengers should be maintained as freely as had been customary for time out of mind. Power was also granted to cut new channels, remove impediments, make locks and wharves, also to make weirs and make and repair bridges. Twenty commissioners were appointed to determine questions arising from the Sandys' activities - ten from Hereford, and five each from Gloucester and Monmouth. Boats were to go weekly from Hereford to Bristol with accommodation for passengers in addition to goods, and the price of carriage was not to exceed two-thirds of the lowest rate taken for carriage either by land or water that was charged in July 1660.

An opening 16 inches wide and 12 inches high was to be left in the bottom of each weir, lock or pen, to permit the passage of salmon or other fish. It was stipulated that the work was to be finished before the 29th September 1665. The Sandys took over the sum of £1,300 already collected for the scheme. The scheme was to use weirs and locks on a flash lock system similar to that already carried out by the Sandys on the Avon, a significantly more sluggish river than the Wye. It would involve numerous weirs to keep the differences of water level as small as possible, and building locks in artificial cuts beside the weirs, a hopelessly costly and impracticable plan on a fast-running river, being in effect the treatment of the whole of the length of the river between the weirs as a lock.

In 1668 a new plan was promoted by Lord Coningsby of Hampton Court, Herefordshire, whereby the Sandys' unfinished scheme was to be abandoned. The locks were to become derelict, all mill weirs and fishing weirs were purchased and pulled down and the river bed deepened.

In 1675 a report on the state of the river was that the "hazard of keeping and mainteyning the Lockes makes the passage of Boates so chargeable that it takes away the profitt of the river". It was proposed "that it should become an Open and Comon River" and that the "Owners of Mills and Weares" should be bought out by a tax on the county

Michaelmas Session, 1675, dealt with the building and maintenance of eight barges, six of ten tons and two of eight tons each, maintaining a stock of 200 tons of coal at Leadbrooke, providing all necessaries such as beams, scales, weight, barrows and baskets. It was estimated that Hereford would consume 3,650 tons per annum and that navigation would be feasible on about 200 days of the year. These proposals were considered at the Easter Sessions of 1676 and it was recommended that the river be let on a lease for six years to anybody willing to employ eight boats for bringing coal to Hereford and to sell it there for not more than fifteen shillings per ton.

In 1691 there were six fulling mills at Hereford as well as three corn mills, one mill each at Fownhope and Hancox, two at Carey, three at Foy and two at Wilton. All these had weirs and presumably loading facilities, which were removed and the owners compensated later under an Act of 1695.

In 1695 an Act was passed (by William III) for "Making Navigable the rivers of Wye and Lugg in the County of Hereford". This act made the rivers "free and common rivers for all to make use of for carrying and conveying of all passenger goods, wares and commodities by boats, barges, lighters and other vessels whatsoever". The Act also passed the powers previously granted to the Sandys family to a committee of local men.

It seems there had been problems with the water levels of the Wye and one objection before the above Act was passed was "... the water above Monmouth is so small that at the best time in the year a boat cannot get to Hereford but when there is a flood occasioned by rains. And Mr. Sandy, who was practised in such works found Weirs and Locks to be of absolute necessity and was fain at fords to make stoppages to supply the place of weirs, the shallows and fords in summer being so low that men may step from stone to stone and go over dry, in particular near Rotherwas".

At times in the months of January and February (the usual times for high water) boats could not pass without great floods and sometimes had to wait for one, losing their Hereford market. This was often the cause of boats having to return with their cargo of fish unsold, having arrived too late for the Lent market.

In 1696 Monmouth petitioned against the bill for Wye and Lugg navigation, saying that the mayor of Hereford had prevailed on William Williams, a poor boatman, and several other poor men of Monmouth, to subscribe a paper approving making the Wye and Lugg navigable (Journal of the House of Commons, xii 387, 389). They also said that since corn was brought to Monmouth on horseback the market would be destroyed as boats would pass through without stopping.

Some use was made at times of the Lugg, a tributary of the Wye. In 1714 a sum of £1,200 was raised and £900 paid to a Mr. Chinn, who, instead of building locks at proper places, put up gates where bridges crossed the river. He built a wharf and basin at Eaton Bridge, Leominster, and barges conveyed goods to and from the town. The church bells were sent to Chepstow to be recast and returned with much navigational difficulty (Mr. Chinn is said to have absconded and his security was forced to repay some of the money).

After 1756 no further attempts were made at navigation from Leominster, though for a time cordwood and timber were conveyed downstream from Hampton Court. Coal was carried as far as Lugg Bridge mills in 1811 and when Tidnor Mill was to be sold in 1812 one of the main features was the facility of water carriage from the forge door via the Lugg and Wye to Chepstow and Bristol.

Through the notes of the meetings of the Committee for Improving the Navigation of the river Wye we can get some idea of the trade between Hereford and Gloucester. Imports to Hereford included cheese, coal and grates from Coalbrookdale; ironmongery from Birmingham and Sheffield; from Manchester goods and tea; from London, Bristol and Worcester goods, salt pottery, hemp, tiles, glass, bottles, deals, mahogany, wine, spirits and a variety of other goods to the extent of 15,700 tons. Exports from Hereford were wool, corn, meal, cider, timber and bark, 27,500 tons, all to Gloucester. In addition 9,000 tons of corn and meal with 2,000 tons of cider went to Bristol.

Piracy - or something like it - was not unknown on the river Wye. In March 1796, some barges carrying corn from Wilton to Bristol were boarded at Lydbrook by men and women from the Forest of Dean. After some negotiation the barges were allowed to continue the voyage, but one barge was detained near Joyford in the Forest of Dean and a large quantity of wheat and flour was carried off.

In March 1800, a mob stopped a barge at Redbrook, seized its cargo of wheat and flour, and sold it locally at 10s 6d per bushel.

A pleasure boat from Fownhope to Ross, Monmouth and Chepstow was also in operation, with fares from Fownhope to Ross being £1 5s 0d, Fownhope to Monmouth £2 12s 6d and Fownhope to Chepstow £4 4s 0d (Hereford Journal, 4th June 1806).

The Hereford Journal for 28th August 1805 mentions a meeting at Ross to consider a plan for a tow path along the banks of the river. In the same year another plan by Henry Price shows the river from Hereford to Tintern for presentation to Parliament when requesting powers for improving the river. In 1809 an Act was passed giving power to a corporate company to make a towing path between Hereford and Lybrook and to take tolls not exceeding 6d per mile for each horse. Prior to the path the produce for Hereford had been brought up by barge after a time of flood. The barges were flat bottomed, drawn by a string of men, and had a square sail for use in favourable winds. Those neglecting to pay the tolls were liable to a fine of £5.

In March 1809 a barge sank five miles from Ross but fortunately no lives were lost as another barge was nearby. Ten years later, at the end of December 1819, a barge capsized near Fownhope and three men lost their lives, along with a cargo of 25 tons of coal.

The navigation of the river Wye would have been a tempting prospect as it was an ideal route from the county town, Hereford, to the iron-rich areas in the south of the county and then over the border. However, the strong tides and unpredictability of the river meant that no navigation scheme on this river was ever truly successful.

(Information taken from I. Cohen, "Ship Building on the Wye", in Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, Volume XXXVI Part I, 1958 pp. 75-79)

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]