Navigation of the Medway 1500-1840

See also:

Flooding –  Leigh and the Medway 1600-present day
The Great Flood 1880


Navigation of the River Medway 1500-1840 

Until Elizabethan times, the Weald had been forest, but the needs of the Elizabethan Navy, as well as the ever-expanding iron industry, saw the gradual depletion of the forest for timber.  At this time, navigation on the Medway was limited and so this timber was taken by road to Chatham, often using up to 24 oxen to transport the logs.  This situation made already poor roads worse, and rain and constant flooding, particularly in winter, made them impassable.  The state of the roads, therefore, increased the call for another means of transportation, namely the river Medway.  Yet Parliament Acts were passed to improve the roads, rather than the river.

The river Medway itself had long been navigable from Penshurst to Maidstone for smaller craft and barges.  However, farmers and landowners – whose responsibility it was to maintain both river banks and weirs on their land, often allowed the river banks to break down and weirs to remain in disrepair: Acts of Parliament to enforce maintenance were ignored and when there was heavy rain, the river would inevitably flood.

Even the needs of the Navy and iron industry, and the risk of flooding due to poor maintenance of the river, did not put navigation of the Medway on the agenda in the 16th century, despite the advantages that might ensue; although there was a Commission appointed by Elizabeth I to look into this question, nothing much materialized.

In 1627 there was another attempt to make the river navigable, again due to the demand for timber at Chatham.  This time Charles I appointed Commissioners to look into this.  The Commission was to make the river navigable from Penshurst to Maidstone but was forbidden to change the course of the river.  The 52 members of the Commission met at The Bull in Tonbridge in 1627 and they appointed Michael Cole (Coale) to head the work.  He was to make the river navigable for boats of 4 tons – at his own cost.  He would be responsible for ensuring there was no flooding along the river, he could not make locks or sluices and he would have to pay compensation if the river flooded.  However, for 33 years he would have the monopoly of the income from trade and also passenger use of the river.

Cole did make a start on the work and by 1630 small barges could reach Yalding.  Yet he faced opposition from landowners and over time interest and the project itself died.

The matter arose again in 1660, with the accession of Charles II, who was interested in a Dutch type of canal system, and yet again another Act of Parliament was passed for works to be carried out to make the river navigable from Forest Row to Maidstone.  Again, the opportunity slipped by.

Therefore, the terrible flooding continued as did the calls to make the Medway navigable: however, for nearly 200 years from the reign of Elizabeth I to George II little more than talk was achieved – only during the reign of the George II’s reign (1727-1760) was progress made.

It was John Hooker, Lord of the Manor of Tonbridge and owner of Tonbridge Castle, who had success.  He formed a ‘Company of Proprietors’ and after an Act of Parliament dated 30 April 1740 to make the river navigable from Maidstone to Forest Row, Sussex, his Company – “The Upper Medway Navigation Company” – set to work.

The Company raised capital by issuing shares, unusual in those days.  There were 300 shares of £100 each and John Hooker took the maximum number of shares, i.e. 10 shares.  During the initial work on improving the Medway, regular calls would be made on the shareholders – or subscribers as they were called – for additional money.  The subscribers could not sell their shares until the river was open for navigation as far as Tonbridge.

Construction work began at Maidstone in September 1740 and was completed in sections.  Locks were built from oak, although it is said that John Hooker also used some of the masonry from Tonbridge Castle.  Wharves were also built, initially at Branbridge and Tonbridge.  The Tonbridge wharf was built on land called the Outfield Mead.  The house adjoining the Great Bridge obtained a licence for an Inn, “The Six Bells”, more familiarly known as “The Castle”.

In total, the enterprise cost £11,419, with additional funding for wharves.  There were 14 locks in total.  However, there was no horse towpath: this work was to be done by men.  These men who pulled the coal barges up to Tonbridge were called ‘hufflers’.  They would work in gangs of three, starting from Maidstone: at Branbridge a fresh gang would take over.  They pulled the barge upstream using tow ropes attached to their bodies   Landowners used to have fences right down to the river’s edge: the hufflers had to climb right over the fences with the rope attached to their bodies:  there were over 100 fences on the journey.  With no towpath in times of flood the men often waded through water up to their chests.  They were paid just £1 between the three of them as and when their services were needed.

Tolls had to be paid to use the river.  The tolls charged on the river were 4d per mile for every ton – from Maidstone to Branbridge; 6d per mile for every ton, Branbridge to Tonbridge.  However, the tolls were not charged until the navigation was open for boats carrying 40 tons as far as Branbridge.  Some craft were excluded from paying tolls, such as fishing boats and pleasure craft.

Although cargoes began to use the river from March 1743, the official opening of the river took place on 5 August 1744 with a grand feast held at the Rose and Crown Hotel in Tonbridge.

When the River Medway opened in 1744, the economic life of Tonbridge was boosted. The main goods brought upstream were coal, timber, lime and stones; freight going downstream included timber, hops and other farm produce from the Weald.

The Upper Medway Navigation Company undertook other activities, such as selling the coal it carried up river.  In effect, it operated a monopoly as toll owners, carriers and merchants.  It traded in road stone for the turnpike roads.  As the Company prospered, it established lime kilns at Tonbridge wharf and sold lime.  It also moved into buying and selling iron.  In 1807, it introduced vessels to convey goods from Maidstone to Tonbridge.  A barge was fitted to carry general goods, food and ironmongery, calling at places between Maidstone and Tonbridge – a form of mobile shop which left Maidstone every Monday.  An arrangement was set up for goods to be delivered at London wharves where the Maidstone hoys called and transhipped at Maidstone for delivery upstream.  In 1824 the Thames and Medway Canal was formed, which operated a weekly service between Tonbridge and London.

The Upper Medway Navigation Company’s success encouraged similar schemes.  In March 1787 the Lower Medway Navigation Company was formed for navigation of the Medway below Maidstone.  There were also talks to dig canals to Portsmouth and Dover, to make a canal from Rye to Sedlescombe, for a canal from the Medway to the Rother and one from Tonbridge to Arundel.  Many of the schemes never materialized.

One scheme of interest was that planned by James Christie – to build a canal from Tonbridge to Penshurst.  He formed the Penshurst Canal Company.  He began building the canal in 1829 along the route we know as “The Straight Mile”.  This area had been a necessary back stream to carry water away from Tonbridge and avoid flooding.  Christie intended to make the Straight Mile navigable, but in so doing his work caused flooding.  When he drew water out of the Tonbridge town pen in May 1830 it resulted in barges coming upstream being grounded.  At one point Christie’s actions caused the middle of the three streams in Tonbridge to dry up, leaving only the two crossed by the Great and Little Bridges: this increased the risk of flooding.  Christie hoped that once his canal to Penshurst opened he could control the amount of water going into the river and so the Upper Medway Navigation Company refused to connect the canal to the river.

James Christie nearly achieved his objective, despite strong opposition.  But he went bust in 1832.  His creditors tried to force the Upper Medway Navigation Company to take over the Penshurst Company’s half-built canal and to stop its monopoly.  In fact, the Upper Medway Navigation Company did face petitions against its practices during its heyday – against its high tolls, its refusal to built tow paths and its monopoly of certain trades between Maidstone and Tonbridge which inhibited individual trading on the river, but these met with little success.

At the end of the day, it was the arrival of the railway – the Redhill line and later the Sevenoaks line – which put an end to the Medway barge traffic, and in turn meant the decline of Tonbridge as the centre for trade in heavy goods in West Kent.


Joyce Field (Parish Magazine Articles: Oct 2005, May and June 2006)