The river as far upstream as Winchester was probably used by various small craft from time immemorial by such peoples as the Romans and Saxons. The river channel in these times would have been less silted or obstructed allowing tides to run much further inland than at present.
In Roman times, Winchester (Venta Belgarum) was a regional capital and by the 3rd Century had become the fifth largest town in Roman Britain. However, when the Romans finally left Britain around AD410 the town was deserted. The Saxons started to re-settle the town during the 7th century and by the 10th century the population may have reached 8,000.
The earliest documentary reference we have to the River Itchen by name is in an Anglo-Saxon charter of AD701 for Alresford when it is called Icene and the name Icenan appears in a charter of AD932.
A charter of AD960 relating to Bishopstoke (near Eastleigh) mentions a staithe (or place for unloading boats) on the west bank of the river. Certain improvements to the course of the river may have been made as there are references to a 'New River' in the lower Itchen valley in two charters about South Stoneham manor (in the area around Wood Mill) dating from AD990 and AD1045.
The Normans would have found the river very useful for communications and trade between their capital of Winchester and their homeland. It is believed that stone for Winchester Cathedral, some of which came from Caen in France, was transported by water right up to the city since this would be far easier than trying to carry it overland.
Chesil Street, Winchester, takes its name from being the site of the chesil or gravel bank on which the boats laden with timber and stone, etc coming up the Itchen from Southampton were grounded in medieval times.
Around the end of the 12th Century, the Bishop of Winchester, Godfrey de Lucy, established fulling and weaving mills at New Alresford. Although discounted by some modern researchers, tradition has it that the Bishop made the Itchen navigable between Alresford and the sea in order to carry his goods. Old Alresford Pond was certainly constructed at this time by erecting an embankment about 400 yards long and around 20 feet high forming an expanse of water about 200 acres in extent (now much reduced by silting). Contemporary documents refer to the pond as the bishop's 'great fish pond'. In the Middle Ages fish were usually eaten on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays as well as throughout Lent. The embankment, or Great Weir, also carried the London to Southampton road until 1753. The head of water would have been useful also to the mills and possibly to navigation. It has been claimed that Old Alresford Pond was England's first canal reservoir. If there was a navigation to Alresford, it was not successful and, apart from the Pond, nothing remains today that can be recognised as having been built at this time.
Further attempts appear to have been made to improve the river but around the beginning of the 14th Century the prosperity of Winchester, which was based on the wool trade, began to decline. This was aided by the laws forbidding the import and export of wool, by the plague and the Hundred Years War.
It was during the 17th Century that demands for "restoration" began to be made to revive the cloth trade of Winchester. In 1617, the City of Winchester agreed to pay the expenses of a Mr More of Farnham for a survey of the river between Southampton and Winchester but the idea of a navigation met with bitter opposition from Southampton. In 1660 a petition from the Mayor and Citizens of Winchester pleaded for finance for the restoration to provide work for the poor and bring increased trade to Winchester. This eventually led to the first Act of Parliament relating to the Navigation in 1665.
The 1665 Act invested powers in a group of seven 'undertakers' to make the Itchin or Itching 'Navigable and Passable for Boats, Barges, Lighters and other Vessels'. It also granted the power to make other rivers navigable: the Test and Hamble in Hampshire, the Mole, Ravensbourne and Wandle in Surrey and the Great Ouse in the Bedfordshire area. However, the powers given by this Act for these other rivers seem not to have been exercised. In return for their investment and work, the seven grantees were to be allowed to operate a monopoly of the carriage of goods upon the waterways. Work was supposed to be completed by 1671 but various extensions of the time limit were allowed as a number of lawsuits and other conflicts with landowners and millers delayed work. However, in about 1710 trading commenced.
Over the years the Navigation provided a useful trading link, but disputes arose about various matters.
By 1767 one Edward Pyott had purchased the waterway and was alleged to be operating it to benefit himself. It was said that he was charging exorbitant rates, giving preference to barges carrying his own goods and even refusing to carry others' commodities when this would affect his own business as a dealer in coal and other heavy goods. So three Winchester merchants obtained an Act of Parliament in 1767 appointing a new body of Commissioners who were to ensure fair treatment, resolve problems and set rates for the use of the waterway.
Several changes in ownership and management seem to have taken place over the next few decades. By 1795 James D'Arcy, a Barrister, owned the Navigation but the running of the waterway was mostly left to George Hollis who was a solicitor. Because of an increase in trade, James D'Arcy obtained a third Act in 1795 granting various powers. He was to be allowed to extend the Navigation works downstream from Woodmill to Northam (the transhipment point between coasting vessels and the barges) by the construction of locks and other works but these powers were never exercised. The Navigation was deemed to consist of 160 shares which D'Arcy then sold in order to raise capital. Merchants had often made applications to the Commissioners over the rates charged and to avoid this inconvenience, in return for the right to sell shares, D'Arcy undertook to fix the rates then in force and to hold them at this level for ever. He apparently did not imagine that the French Wars would lead to inflation and an enormous increase in running costs.
In 1800 with the aid of a sleeping partner, Harry Baker, George Hollis had acquired all of the shares in the Navigation and assumed control. In 1802 yet another Act of Parliament was made law. This went into great detail about carriage rates, work to bring the waterway up to standard and the way it was to be operated. Possibly the most important provision was that which changed the Navigation from a Monopoly to a Public Navigation. This means that, whilst the waterway itself was still operated by whoever owned the shares, the public ". . . shall have, use and lawfully enjoy the free Passage upon the said River, . . . and also have and use the towing or haling paths, Wharfs, Quays, and all other necessary Powers for navigating the same and carrying on the Commerce of the said River, for the Benefit of the Public, without any Let, Hindrance, or Obstruction from any Person or Persons whomsoever, upon Payment . . ." to the proprietors such duties and rates that they were allowed to charge (as detailed later in the Act) in order to maintain the Navigation.
Various schemes were mooted during the French Wars to link the River Itchen with the inland waterways system of England. These were prompted in the main because the passage of sailing vessels up the English Channel was made more perilous by the presence of French privateers who would capture ships and their cargoes. However, the difficulty of building a canal across the Downs to, say, Basingstoke and the lack of available water on the way unfortunately meant that such schemes were not built. One proposal for a canal in the area that did get 'off the drawing board' but for various reasons was not completed was the Southampton and Salisbury Canal. A branch of this was built across the open fields from Southampton to Northam but it is extremely unlikely that any trade was conducted along it (or even that it was completed).
In 1811 and 1820 further Acts of Parliament were passed; the main concern of which was the increase in the charges on the Navigation to counter the effects of inflation. A provision was included in the 1811 Act allowing riparian landowners the right to open sluices in the event of a bank giving way. An agreement was also entered into with the owners of Shawford Park House and the Malm House, Shawford, to permit them to draw hatches (sluices) should it be necessary to prevent flooding. Draining and irrigating the adjacent water meadows as well as navigation had been recognised as functions of the waterway since its inception, but until 1811 this had always been in the hands of the proprietors.
During the 1830's Southampton became actively interested in a scheme which was to compete directly with the Navigation and eventually bring about its downfall. This was the London and Southampton Railway which was later to be renamed the London and South Western Railway. This crosses the waterway in two places to the north of what is now Eastleigh. The railway embankment came so close to Allbrook Lock that this had to be rebuilt by the railway company at its own expense which partly explains its comparatively good condition today. George Hollis sold his shares in the Navigation in 1839 but his son, Francis Hollis, stayed on as manager. The section of railway from Southampton to Winchester was officially opened on 10 June 1839 and this section was linked to Basingstoke and beyond on 11 May 1840. It was from this time that the fortunes of the Navigation started to go downhill.
In1841 William Whitear Bulpett, a Winchester banker and a major mortgagee of the Navigation, became manager. It seems that improvements and repairs were carried out well during the next few years but the decline could not be stopped. In 1861, Francis Hollis who claimed to hold three quarters of the shares demanded that the Navigation be put in the hands of a Receiver. A report was made by Turner P Clarke on the condition of the Navigation and this presents a good picture of the waterway at this period. There were only two barges left in use, the tolls from which brought in about £250 per annum. £121 10s 0d (£121.50) came from letting Warehousing, Stables and the Malthouse at Blackbridge Wharf in Winchester and £20 per annum was paid by Winchester College for the privilege of bathing by the scholars. Various other small payments brought in around £20 making the total about £410 a year. However, Hollis' attempt in High Court to remove Bulpett failed and Hollis was bankrupted in the process.
The last barge to carry a cargo to Winchester tied up at Blackbridge Wharf in June 1869 loaded with coal, and from this time the Navigation and its works started to moulder away. There is some reason to believe that barges may have continued to use the waterway from Woodmill up to Gaters Mill near Mansbridge for a few years. Certain payments for rents etc continued to come in but water transport was finished. The Southampton Gas Company paid £100 in 1872 to be allowed to cross the Navigation with pipes. The Southampton Waterworks Company was caught stealing water in 1865 probably thinking that an agreement for the sale of water made in 1854 absolved it from informing Bulpett. Some of the bridges over the Navigation which were supposed to be maintained by Bulpett were becoming unsafe. In 1879 he was asked to pay for remedial work carried out on Shawford Bridge by the Highway Board but Bulpett had to state that the Itchen Navigation Estate was in "a perfect state of insolvency". The Highway Board seems to have taken over responsibility for the bridges in 1880.
On 20 January 1899, Bulpett died at the age of 92 and possession of the Navigation passed to his nephew Charles William Lloyd Bulpett. In September 1911, a meeting was held in Winchester by the sponsors of a company to reopen the Navigation. Patrick O'Carroll, a Southsea solicitor, had obtained an option to purchase the Navigation and an Itchen Navigation Company was set up capitalised at £20,000. However, there were various difficulties and as a result the company never traded. It was wound up in 1925. Soon after this C W L Bulpett emigrated to Kenya and has since died. At present it is not known to whom the rights in the Navigation have passed. Various claims have been made for ownership of portions of the waterway but the validity of such claims is open to question. Winchester College claim 'possessory title' to the summit pound; they, with others, have rowed this stretch for many years and have undertaken some maintenance to facilitate their own boating. Other riparian landowners along the Navigation claim 'squatters rights' over both the bed and banks of the waterway. However, all six Acts of Parliament are still on the Statute Book and as such their provisions remain the law of the land.
In the 1970's and 1980's two motorways were proposed which had effects upon the Navigation: the M3 at Winchester and the M27 on the northern outskirts of Southampton. After representations at the Public Inquiries into these motorways, the then Department of Transport recognised that the waterway was still legally navigable and took powers to divert the Navigation where motorway construction necessitated filling in sections of waterway. Whilst not actually constructing these diversions, the Department gave undertakings to build them if and when restoration ever took place.
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Page created 5 February 1999 - new layout 26 January 2010 - content updated 26 January 2010.