Canterbury: The river Stour

Pages 135-139

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1800.

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The river Stour

AS TO THE RIVER STOUR, which runs through this city, the Britons are said, in general, to have called their rivers by the name of dour, which, in their language signified water; whence this city was called by the Romans, Durovernum; though it is written by Bede and others, Dorovernia, and Dorobernia; all names, however, of the same import. Leland has a singular conjecture, that this river was in the Britons time, named Avona, and that the Romans from thence, though corruptly, called the city Duravennum, for that of Dorand Avona, it should rather have been called Doranona or Doravonum. (fn. 1)

In the early time of the Saxons, it was frequently both called and written Æstura, Æstur, &c. (fn. 2) no doubt from the Latin word æstuarium, an æstuary, or arm of the sea, having, as is conjectured, flowed up, where the course of this river is, over the level on which part of Canterbury now stands, and as high up as Ashford beyond it. (fn. 3) A circumstance rendered probable, by the situation of the place, the history of former times, and the several criteria and tokens which have corroborated it. (fn. 4) When this æstuary ceased to flow, leaving the lands dry, and this river to its present course, is not, however to the purpose for me to enquire into here; but to return to the name of the river. It was afterwards written by the Saxons, Stur, as appears by one of their codicils, so early as the year 686; and by another in 814, it is written by its present name of Stour. It was afterwards written both Stur and Stura, and so Leland has it in his Itinerary, a name not singular to this river only, as there are others in different parts of England called so likewise. (fn. 5)

The rise and course of this river has been already so fully described in the former parts of the History of Kent, that there can be no occasion to repeat them here; I shall therefore continue my discourse of it, by observing, that the advantage this city derived from it was not attended without inconvenience, for it was subject, from its nearness, to frequent inundations; an inconvenience hardly worth mentioning, and of little consequence, as it has happened but rarely for a long time past, nor indeed can it happen, but upon very extraordinary floods, and then only in the very lowest or western part of it, as the city stands now so much higher than it formerly did, having been from time to time much raised, as well by the devastations made of it in the time of the Danes, as the several fires that have happened in it. (fn. 6)

Leland writes thus of the Stour, in his time. "The river of Cantorbury now cawled Sture, springeth at Kingges Snode, the which standeth southe, and a lytle be west from Canterbury, and ys distant of Cant. a xiiii or xv myles. Fro Kinges Snode to Assheford, a market towne ii myles of on the farther syde of Sture. Fro Assheford to Wye, a market towne iiii myels of on the farther syde of Sture; to Chartham, a villag iiii myles; to Cantorbiry iii myles; to Fordwic, on the farther side, wher as yet ys a poore mayr; to Sturemuthe, a faire village iiii myles be water; to Richeboro, on the farther side ii myles or more; to Sandwic, super Ripa a myle and so withyn a dim myle yn to the mayne se.

"The water of Stur breaketh a lytle above Cantorbiri into ii armes, of the which one cummeth be Westgate, and the other thorough the cyte under S. Thomas hospitale, and meteth agayne yn one botom beneth the cyte, a this side… ford, being half a..

"The river yn one place runneth thorough the cite walle, the which is made there with ii or iii arches for the curse of the streme." (fn. 7)

This stream continues the present course of the Stour, which, owing to the mills built on it, and other obstructions, is not navigable in any shape, higher than the town of Fordwich; but from thence, passing on the inside of the Isle of Thanet, by the haven of Sandwich, to the sea it is navigable for lighters, most of which are employed in the conveyance of heavy merchandise, such as coals, wood, stone, lime, bricks, fir timber, &c. between those places, though the stream is in different parts so shallow, and swerved up, especially about Sandwich haven, owing to want of proper management and attention, that the lighters find frequent obstructions in passing along it.

It should seem, that in very early times, the chief of the two branches of this river which runs through Canterbury, was that by King's mill, through the midst of the city; but the archbishops, to promote the advantage of their mill at Westgate, caused much of the stream to be diverted that way, so that the branches at this time are nearly equal. (fn. 8)


  • 1. Itin. vol. vii. p 144.
  • 2. Thus in Domesday, the hundred of Westgate, and the manor of Westgate-court, a principal one, belonging to the archbishop, are called the hundred and manor of Esture, and Stursæte, from their situation near this river; and the manor of Esture, or Esteward, as it is vulgarly called, lying on this river likewise, about nine miles from Canterbury higher up, certainly took its name from it.
  • 3. See Somner's Chartham News, in Battely, p. 188.
  • 4. Mr. Somner, as corroborating proofs, mentions the parcel of strange teeth and bones found by him almost close to this river at Chartham, about 17 feet deep, supposed by some to have belonged to an hippopotamus, or river-horse; and as these are an instance on that side of the valley for the probability of the sea's quondam occupation of it, so there is one, not less remarkable from the other or opposite side of it; for at Westbere, about 3 miles below Canterbury, north eastward, lying under the brow of the hill, stretching out by Upstreet as far as by the west end of Sarre wall, there were found in his time, as was related by credible assurance, on the same occasion as at Chartham, (the sinking of a well) at a very great depth, store of oysters and other like shells, together with an iron anchor, sound and unimpaired; and the same was told of another anchor dug up likewise in his days at Broomdown, on the same side of the level somewhat above Canterbury, westward. See Battely's Somner, Chartham News, p. 188.
  • 5. Battely's Somner, p. 20.
  • 6. That the scite of a great part of this city was in very antient time made on raised ground, appears by the remains of foundations on foundations to a very considerable depth, and the ground for supporting superstructures in several places often stuck and stuffed with piles of wood, or long poles and stakes forced into the ground, as has been frequently experienced by those who have dug wells, vaults, cellars, and the like. Many instances of subterraneous works occur. A strong piece of stone-work, about five feet under ground, was met with in digging a cellar in St. Margaret's parish; it was indented, and so firm, that it resisted the very strong blows of the workmens' tools. In sinking a well in Lamb-lane, within about two rods and an half of the current of the river, the labourers were stopt at about 15 feet deep, by a piece of timber that lay across the place, until it was sawn asunder; it appeared by the mortices in it to have been the groundsel of some old building, and on their continuing to dig deeper, they came to a spring arising from a gravelly or stony soil, the water of which seemed mineral, so far as gall or oak leaves could give a proof of it. Upon the digging of a cellar on the west side of the gate going into Christ church, near the market-place, about 10 feet under ground, a well was discovered about twelve feet deep, with a kirb to it; a little within St. George's gate, in digging a cellar for a new house, the workmen came to an arch firm and solid, which they broke to pieces; and in a garden near adjoining, there was found a pavement of broad free stone, several feet under ground; in Mercery-lane, in digging a cellar, an oven, with wood coals in it, and wood by it, was found about seven feet under ground, with two large stones not far from it, lying one upon another, and in the middle of the upper stone, a mortice-hole; in Lamb-lane above-mentioned, in a well just by the river side, there were two stones, laid there in former ages by art, so firm and heavy, that they could not be removed; many other instances besides these, no doubt, could be produced, and to these I may add, that at the back of Kingsbridge hospital, which adjoins the river, the ground has been in course of time so raised, that the capitals of some pillars close to it, are now nearly even with the surface of the ground.
  • 7. Itinerary, vol. vii. p. 145.
  • 8. This caused many dissentions between the archbishop and the citizens. Archbishop Peckham was charged by the citizens with the diverting of the river by certain cuts or trenches, for the bettering of his mill at Westgate, which the jury found to have been done before, partly in the archbishop Kilwarby's time, and partly in that of archbishop Boniface. Battely's Somner, p. 21.