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About the Trust

History of the
Sussex Ouse Navigation

Maps of the
Sussex Ouse Navigation


Destruction of
Fletching Mill Weir

Future Plans

Restoration Needed

Working Parties




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About the Trust

The River Ouse rises in the high land of the Sussex Weald and flows across attractive, gently undulating countryside. At Lewes it passes through a gap in the South Downs and out into the wide Ouse Valley before reaching the sea at the south coast port of Newhaven.

The Sussex Ouse Restoration Trust believes the river can be a priceless asset to its surrounding communities. We aim to promote a greater awareness of the benefits that the river can bestow on these communities and are working with other interested agencies for the:

  • conservation of the ancient structures associated with the river’s history,
  • restoration of navigation to the river above Lewes,
  • protection of the river’s banks and wildlife, and
  • improvement of opportunities for educational and leisure use.

If you would like to help us you would be made very welcome. We especially need people who could: advise on environmental issues; help with fundraising; be part of the publicity team; be a potential restoration “navvy”; make a financial donation; or join us as a member and tell others about the work we are planning to undertake.

If you would like to become a member of the Sussex Ouse Restoration Trust, there is a downloadable Membership Application Form which can be printed out and sent to us.

History of the Ouse navigation

For hundreds of years boats have navigated on the tidal reaches of the river from the sea up to Lewes and beyond to Barcombe Mills. 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 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 at Isfield was completed in 1792 and measured 52’ 6” x 12’ 6”. 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.

Isfiedl Lock (or Sutton Hall Lock as it is often called) served the paper making industry of the Ouse Valley between 1812 and 1850. Other paper mills were operating at Lindfield, Sharpsbridge and Lewes. At Isfield in 1841, according to the 1841 census returns, the site was home to a population of over 40. By 1851 papermaking had ceased and the mill and workers cottages were sold off and demolished. Nothing remains today to give any clue as 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.