Site Search by PicoSearch. Help
About Us
News & Events
East Anglian Waterways
The Easterling
North Walsham and Dilham - Updates
North Walsham and Dilham - Then and Now
Work Party
Join & Donate
And now have your say in the EAWA Forum
NEW! With General Forum for you to chat!



An outline history by Alan H. Faulkner.

Even today the Lark is often known as the Coal River; for many years coal was easily the most important commodity handled, being brought into the port of King's Lynn from northern collieries by ship and distributed over a wide area by craft trading up the river. Bury St. Edmunds is the largest town on the Lark which then flows down through Mildenhall, Isleham and Prickwillow to join the Great Ouse about midway between Ely and Littleport.

There have been several major changes to the lower reaches of the Lark. Originally the river took a more westerly course downstream from Isleham and joined the Ouse much nearer Ely. Later a nearly straight artificial cut was built from Isleham to Prickwillow which, at that time, stood on the Ouse. In 1830 the Ouse was diverted between Ely and Littleport into Sandy's Cut and its former course between Ely and Prickwillow became extinct. Below Prickwillow only part of the course was still used by the Lark as a new outlet was built to link up with Sandy's Cut.

In many respects the Lark is very similar to its parent river. Boats have been able to use both to some extent for centuries and both were made fully navigable in the late l600s or early 1700s. Then for nearly 200 years the rivers were in the same ownership. Like the Great Ouse a major rebuilding programme was carried out on the Lark in the l830s and 1840s resulting in a mixture of locks and staunches. Like the Great Ouse these works fell into disrepair in the face of railway competition. Like the Great Ouse they were fully and expensively repaired in the early l890s; like the Great Ouse this restoration was short lived. And whilst the Great Ouse has almost been restored, once again, through to Bedford - interest in a scheme to restore part of the Lark is now increasing.

The lowest reaches of the Lark have been used for navigation since the earliest recorded times. Then the Great Ouse was tidal, at least to Ely, as was the Lark to Isleham. Small sea­going ships used to trade quite far inland but later, with the building of Denver Sluice in 1651, the trade was handled by fenland lighters.
In 1700 Henry Ashley junior of Eaton Socon, a barrister but also described as a surveyor and engineer, commenced on extending the navigation from Mildenhall to Bury St. Edmunds under the powers of an Act of Parliament (11 and 12 William 111, Cap 22 - Royal Assent 11 April 1700). After much difficulty the work was eventually completed in 1732 although only to a basin just off the Fornham All Saints road and just outside the borough boundary.
The intended terminus was Eastgate Bridge but the Act provided work could only be done within the borough boundary with the borough's permission. This was steadfastly refused as it was felt local trade could suffer. Henry Ashley died a few years afterwards and the river passed, in time, to his grandson Ashley Palmer. He married Susannah Cullum in 1775 and eventually the river was inherited by Sir Thomas Gery Callum, their nephew.

Cullum spent a considerable sum of money on virtually rebuilding the entire navigation. Even now many of the locks, staunches and buildings still bear stones engraved with his initials and the date. Indeed most of the main features of the river today seem to have derived from the Cullum era.
After the rebuilding the river finished up with 15 staunches and 10 pound locks. But these figures are debatable. For instance at Mill Heath, Cavenham, there are two staunches only 94 yards apart. Together they could really be termed a lock. The same applies at the two Mildenhall West staunches. It seems probable that originally there may only have been staunches on the Lark with no pound locks at all. It is also probable that over the years the siting of various staunches has altered considerably. In fact the staunch furthest downstream, at Isleham, did not belong to Cullum whose jurisdiction commenced at Lee Brook. It was controlled by what became the Ouse Drainage Board. Later the staunch was replaced when Isleham Lock was built and a loop of the river was bypassed by a new cut.

The standard Lark pound lock was 88 feet in length, 11 ½ feet wide and comprised a rectangular brick chamber with mitre gates at each end. However the lock chamber at Lackford is virtually unique in this country in that it is crescent-shaped; it seems likely it was originally two staunches.
As rebuilt the Cullum staunches were about 11 ½ feet wide and were fitted with one pair of mitre gates. These were unusual in that they were hung on pintle hinges - an enlarged version of the normal farm gate hinge. To open the staunch the boatman had to haul on a chain attached to the mitre post. This could be a somewhat perilous operation. The gates were also fitted with paddles. In many cases the Lark is so narrow, especially in its upper reaches, that the staunch occupied the full width of the river. In such cases surplus water simply cascaded over the gates. Lower down there was usually a weir alongside the staunch as the river was wider.

During this time coal remained the staple traffic on the river. The second most important traffic was in grain - for instance quite large tonnages of barley were taken to maltings at Bury. Considerable tonnages of stone were carried - over the centuries much of the stone used in Bury's older buildings had been transported in this way from places such as Barnack near Peterborough. Wine was also brought up to Bury from King's Lynn. A feature of the Lark trade was that upstream cargoes far outweighed downstream traffic. There were barge building yards at Mildenhall and Isleham.

The fact that the navigation bad never reached its intended point in Bury was always a vexed point and several attempts were made to remedy matters. In 1855 the Bury St. Edmunds Navi­gation Company was formed by local businessmen to take over the river and to extend the navigation to Eastgate Bridge. In fact the attempt failed but another, soon after, succeeded in extending up to the railway. This necessitated a new lock at Tollgate Bridge. The railway had reached Bury in 1846 when line from Ipswich was opened. Despite the extension of the navigation into the town the railway soon had an adverse effect. Traffic above Mildenhall was hard hit and eventually ceased altogether with the result that the locks and staunches quickly became impassable. Below Mildenhall some traffic survived with much farm produce being sent out for transshipment to the railway at such places as Ely and Littleport.

In 1889 there was a major development when the Eastern Counties Navigation & Transport Company Limited was formed with its headquarters at St. Ann's Port, King's Lynn and an office at Mildenhall. Lord Bristol of Ickworth was its chairman; he was also the Member of Parliament for Bury.
The company bought the navigation rights above Lee Brook and set about improving the river up to Mildenhall and restoring it upstream from there to Bury. Below Mildenhall the main works were the abolition of the two West staunches, which were only 120 yards apart, and the deepening of the river up to Mildenhall staunch. Here a set of bottom gates was added to enable boats to surmount the cill of the staunch and creating the present turf-sided lock.

Above Mildenhall the works mainly comprised rebuilding and regating the locks and staunches. Several of the latter had their gates removed and slots were installed in the brick­work down which planks could be dropped to. form a temporary dam. One significant new work, however, was to make the small stream to Tuddenham Mill navigable. To achieve, this a new staunch was built about half way up the 1 ¼ mile branch, whilst the stream was generally straightened and deepened.

Not only did the company repair the locks but it actively set about finding trade for the river - something Cullum had never done - and an extensive fleet was built up from the early l890s. Basically the fleet comprised several gangs of fenland lighters, which were towed by steam tugs. It is believed the tugs were built at Thetford by Burrells.
But the company traded solely on the river, but its craft became a familiar sight on all the fenland waterways - to Cambridge, Peterborough, Wisbech and King's Lynn. The lighters were either numbered or given girls names. One well-known boat was the NANCY, a steam barge that traded regularly between King's Lynn and Cambridge.

In all the company spent about £40,000 on the works which were completed in September 1894. Unfortunately the capital resources were inadequate and a Receiver and Manager was appointed in December on behalf of the debenture holders. He continued to manage the river and operate the tugs and barges for several years until the fleet was disbanded and sold by auction at Mildenhall. But the river above Icklingham rapidly fell into disuse.

In 1898 income totalled £3,194 including £3,054 from freight as carriers. Expenses amounted to £3,469 making an overall loss of £275. The main traffics were granite, phosphates, pyrites, slag, wood and coal, but small quantities of oil, grain, earthenware, glass and sugar were also carried.

Thereafter traffic declined still more and ceased altogether above Mildenhall by about the end of the First World War although isolated stretches, such as at Icklingham, continued to be used for pleasure boating. The river remained in the bands of the Receiver for several years but eventually it passed to a milling company - Parker Bros. (Mildenhall) Limited.
By 1928 it had been transferred to Mr. William Parker and from him it was acquired by the River Great Ouse Catchment Board whose successors, the Great Ouse River Division of the Anglian Water Authority, administer the Lark today. It was the Catchmerit Board which restored Icklingham Lock just before the Second World War, but it remained isolated and unused.

One of the last traders on the Lark was E.W. Diver of Isleham. For a while he operated the steam tug BURY - he also ran gangs of fenland lighters that were horse-drawn. He ceased trading in the l920s. The last traffic included sugar beet taken to the factory at Ely. This finished in 1959. Previously beet was also taken to the Wissington factory.
The tanker barge SHELLFEN made occasionally sorties up the Lark supplying fuel oil to various pumping stations below Isleham until the early l960's. Previously when these pumps were steam powered coal was brought by lighter. Then there were a few trips by craft carrying gault clay which was used to maintain the river banks.

Today increasing numbers of pleasure craft use the 10 miles of river up to Judes Ferry which is the effective head of navigation. The staunch below this point is no longer in existence and there is usually insufficient depth to go any further. But the possibility of re-opening over 2 miles of river up to Mildenhall is now being actively considered. Above Mildenhall the problems would be far greater - the river has been culverted at Barton Mills where the London to Norwich trunk road crosses, whilst there are doubts if there is sufficient water in the river today to provide for navigation. Water shortages bedevilled the navigation throughout the 19th century -only time will tell.

RIVER LARK:     Distance Table.   M F
Northgate Dock, Bury St. Edmunds (ultimate terminus) 855653 0 0
Bury St. Edmunds Bypass Bridge (A45 Ipswich to Cambridge Road) 854653 0 1
Tollgate Lock No 1 853661 0 5
Tollgate Bridge, Bury St. Edmunds (Al34 Thetford road) 852661 0 5
Junction with short branch to Fornham Dock (original terminus basin) 849663 0 6
Bury St. Edmunds Staunch No 2 (Canal Staunch, or Babwell Clough) 849665 0 7
Fornham Staunch No 3 (Mill Farm Staunch) 847674 1
Fornham Park Lock No 4 (just above road bridge) 842676 1
Causeway Bridge, Fornham All Saints (B1106 road) 841678 2 0
Ducksluice Farm Lock No 5 (Duck's Lock) 834685 2
Hengrave Bridge (Hengrave to Culford road) 831690 3
Hengrave Lock No 6 (Grange Farm Lock) 850694 3 3
Chimney Mill Lock No 7 821699 3 7
Flempton Lock No 8 (West Stow Lock) (just above road bridge) 817704 4 4
West Stow Bridge (Flempton to West Stow road) 816704 4 4
West Stow Staunch with accommodation bridge over (Royston Staunch) (No 9) 812706 4
Fulling Mill Lock No 10 (West Stow Heath Lock) 806709 5 2
Fulling Staunch No 11 (Lackford Staunch) 800711 5
Cherry Ground Lock No 12, Lackford 973711 6 1
Lackford Bridge (A.1101 Mildenhall to Bury St. Edmunds road) 788711 6 2
Mill Heath Upper Staunch (No 13 ) Cavenham 782714 6
Mill Heath Lower Staunch (No 14 )Lock 782714 6 7
Farthing Bridge, Icklingham (Cavenham to Icklingham road) 773726 7 6
Icklingham Lock No 15 and Icklingham Mill Bridge 769729 8 0
Temple Bridge 758729 8
Temple Bridge Staunch No 16 757729 8 6
Jack Tree Staunch No 17 754733 9 0
Junction with Tuddenham Mill Stream 733738 10 4
Junction with Cut Off Channel 731739 10 5
Barton Mills New Bridge (A11 Norwich to London road) 726738 10
Barton Mills Lock No 18 725739 11 0
Barton Mills Old Bridge (former main road) 725739 11 0
Barton Hall Staunch No 19 (Jeffries Halt Staunch) 720740 11 3
Mildenhall Gas Works Lock No. 20 (Old Lock) 711743 12 1
Mildenhall Bridge (B.1102 Fordham road) 709744 12
Mildenhall Turf Lock No 21 (New Lock - staunch until l890s) 709743 12 2
Mildenhall West Upper Staunch No 22 (eliminated 1890s) 701744 12 7
Mildenhall West Lower Staunch No 23 (eliminated l890s) 702744 12
Wamil Hall Bridge, Worlington (accommodation) 695742 13 2
King's Staunch No 24 (Cow Gravel Staunch) 691744 13 5
West Row Bridge, Judes Ferry (Freckenham road) 677748 14 4
Freckenham Gravel Staunch No 25 (West Row Staunch or New Staunch) 671749 15 0
Junction with Lee Brook 664751 15 4
Isleham Staunch No 26 (replaced by Isleham Lock) 649757 16 6
Isleham Lock No. 26 649761 16 4
Prickwillow Bridge (B.1382 Ely road) (former junction with Great Ouse) 597825 22 4
Railway Bridge (Ely to Norwich line) 596828 22 6
Junction with River Great Ouse and bridge (Littleport to Ely back road) 575844 24 5
Tuddenham Mill Stream:
Junction with the river Lark 733738 0 0
Tuddenham Mill Stream Staunch No 1 732729 0 6
Tuddenham Mill (terminus of branch) 733718 1 2

This table has been compiled from a wide variety of sources and the author would appreciate anyone contacting him who can add to, or correct, this list in any way. Wherever possible alternative names for locks and staunches have been given since these often changed significantly over the years. There may well have been another staunch actually in Bury between Tollgate Lock and the terminal basin by the railway.

In preparing this short account I have drawn on material contained in Flashlocks on English Waterways, a comprehensive study undertaken by M.J.T. Lewis, W.N. Slatcher and P.N. Jarvis and first published in 1968. Information has also come from the Royal Commission Report on Canals & Inland Waterways (1907 and from Bradshaw's canals & Navigable Rivers 1904 and 1928). Then, apart from my own fieldwork, I am grateful to David Weston and George Stebbings who have both done much work researching into the history of the river.

A.H.Faulkner 6.2.1977

Flempton Lock (Lock No. 8), River Lark.
The road is the Road from Flempton to West Stow.

© Copyright Ivan Cane, East Anglian Waterways Association.

MORE INFORMATION:       The River Lark and its Navigation

A recommended external link to the excellent St Edmundsbury Chronicle 2000 pages: The Lark and its Navigation

- a wealth of information including historic documents, surveys and an extensive photographic library.