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History of the Ouse navigation

For hundreds of years boats navigated the tidal reaches of the river from the sea up to Lewes. But by the end of the 18th century "canal mania" was gripping the country, the national economy was booming and people were looking for new ways to improve efficiency and productivity. Some prominent local landowners saw in the River Ouse an opportunity to invest and modernise.

An engineer of national repute, William Jessop, was asked to survey the river in 1787, with a view to extending navigation right up to Slaugham. Three years later the Upper Ouse Navigation Act was passed, a company of proprietors was formed and work began. Progress was slow and costs quickly exceeded initial estimates. Eventually, about 1812, work finally finished with the river made navigable up to Upper Ryelands Bridge, near Balcombe, a not inconsiderable 22 miles and 19 locks above Lewes.

The Sussex Ouse was a rural navigation and, unlike many of its contemporaries in the the Midlands and the North, served no large industrial towns. Its hinterland was the clay land of the Weald and so trade consisted mainly of the carriage of lime, chalk and manure for soil improvement, aggregates for road improvements and coal for the lime burning process and domestic use.

In 1801 there were 51 barges registered as trading on the river, 21 of which worked the river above Lewes. As a commercial undertaking the navigation was never a huge success. Management became lax, essential structures were not maintained properly and tolls were not collected effectively.

The lock that SORT has restored at Isfield was completed in 1792 and measured 52ft 6in x 12ft 6in. To create the head of water required, the weir upstream from the lock was built. It remains a good example of such a structure and was also designed by Jessop.

A paper mill was built in 1810 beside Isfield Lock together with a wharf and workers' cottages. Other paper mills were operating at Lindfield, Sharpsbridge and Lewes. According to the 1841 census returns, the site at Isfield was home to a population of over 40. By 1855 papermaking had ceased and the mill and workers cottages were sold off and demolished. Little remains today to give any clue to the activity that once surrounded the lock. The same can be said for most of the other locks along the Navigation.

The arrival in the 1840s of the railway to Brighton, Lewes and Newhaven, and later to Uckfield, struck the final blow to the fortunes of the navigation company. Attempts were made to attract more trade by reducing tolls, but this had little effect and by 1868 all trade above Lewes had ceased, although boats continued working on the Lower Ouse to Lewes right up to the 1950s.

Today the Ouse is managed by the Environment Agency and is utilised as a source of drinking water and as a conduit for treated sewage as well as providing drainage for the surrounding area. It has reverted to its tidal state up to Barcombe Mills and its banks have been raised in an attempt to stop flooding.

From Barcombe Mills to the sea the river has long posed a problem with flooding, as was so forcefully demonstrated in 1960, and more recently in October 2000. With current trends in weather patterns, this tendency to flood is being carefully examined. We believe that peace of mind for all who live and work in the Ouse Valley must be secured.

There is little recreational activity on the river at present, partly due to the strong tidal current in the lower reaches and to inaccessibility in the higher reaches. In Lewes the river is often forgotten, except when it floods. However, some attractive walks can be taken where public footpaths exist. The remains of most of the old locks are still visible, although all are now slowly deteriorating.