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Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation

Chelmsford and Maldon, United Kingdom




120 years




United Kingdom
Project achievements

Used engineering skill

Placed several culverts underneath the navigation

Area improved

Allowed the town of Chelmsford to grow

Making River Chelmer navigable

Andrew Yarranton first proposed a navigation between the towns of Chelmsford and Maldon in Essex in 1677. Yarranton had made his career turning several rivers into navigable waterways.

A wagon and four horses could carry 2 tons (1.8 tonnes), whereas a barge on a canal or navigation drawn by one horse could carry 25 tons (22.7 tonnes).

After over 100 years of anticipation, and despite protests from the town of Maldon, construction began in October 1793. The first ship, carrying wine from Oporto, passed through the lock at Heybridge Basin in February 1796.

The last stretch to Springfield Basin opened in June 1797, coming to a total length of 13 miles (20.9km) and 13 locks, including Heybridge.

The navigation was looked after the Company of the Proprietors of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation Ltd until it went into administration in 2003.

Then, Essex Waterways Ltd took it over in November 2005 for day-to-day running as a subsidiary of the Inland Waterways Association. However, ownership remained in the company’s hands.

Today the navigation is used by pleasure craft, including three boats, which run one-hour trips from Paper Mill Lock near Chelmsford or Heybridge Basin, a village in Maldon.

Did you know …

  1. The navigation has several culverts underneath. These tunnels, uniquely called chunkers, carry drains under the river.

  2. The largest, the Elms Farm Chunker, partially collapsed in 2005, causing the navigation to leak into the ditch, putting 230 upstream properties at risk of flooding.

  3. It was replaced in 2010 by Jackson Civils with a 1.2m diameter pipe & headwalls, designed by Royal Haskoning DHV. The £750,000 cost was funded by the Environment Agency.

Difference the navigation has made

The canalisation of the river allowed Chelmsford to grow from a small market town to the important centre it is today by taking advantage of nearby railways.

The navigation facilitated the transport of cheap coal, which led to Chelmsford’s first gas works in 1819, the second in Essex.

It was in use commercially until 1972, with timber from coasters at Heybridge Basin taken up to Chelmsford sawmills.

Then, in 1973, the Inland Waterways Association held a rally of boats at Chelmsford, to inaugurate the opening of the waterway to pleasure craft.

How was the navigation made possible?

In 1727, the citizens of Essex wanted the River Chelmer to be made navigable. They met in London to sign a petition to Parliament, but the opposition from Maldon town prevented the project from moving forward.

Engineer John Hore carried out a survey for two schemes in 1733, and again Maldon objected.

In 1762, surveys were carried out by John Smeaton & Thomas Yeoman. The proposals were supported by Chelmsford and again opposed by Maldon.

Yeoman produced another plan in 1765, which became the basis for a bill to Parliament, passed in June 1766. It was dependent on Yeoman's plan being carried out within 12 years, which proved impossible due to insufficient funds.

The proposal was set out again at a meeting in Chelmsford in August 1792. But a survey, directed by John Rennie, found that Maldon’s main quay wasn’t deep enough for the construction they had in mind.

The expense of deepening the channel to Maldon was unjustifiable, and the navigation was relocated to Collier’s Reach, with a lock at Heybridge on the Blackwater (what is now Heybridge Basin). It joined Chelmer River upstream of Beeleigh Mill, also in Maldon.

Meanwhile, Maldon had meetings to oppose the scheme and prevent the Heybridge connection. Still, the bill passed in June 1793 and construction began in October.

People who made it happen

  • John Smeaton & Thomas Yeoman
  • Lord Petre
  • John Rennie & Charles Wedge
  • Royal Haskoning DHV, Jackson Civils, Environment Agency