Wisbech: Port, Nene outfall, canal

Pages 263-265

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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The original combined outfall of the Ouse and Nene, by Wisbech, had been diverted along Well Creek into the present Ouse outfall by 1300, though it was temporarily diverted back again soon afterwards by the blocking of the Creek. (fn. 1) No attempt seems to have been made to reopen the Nene channel until about 1480, when the flow of water was improved by cutting Moreton's Leam. Bishop West spent £200 on a new sluice, which was broken by a sea flood in or before 1523, (fn. 2) but by 1566 there was a certain amount of activity in Wisbech port. In that year there traded from Wisbech 13 keels and other vessels of 3 to 12 tons. They were used for the corn and coal trade by 7 owners employing 12 watermen. (fn. 3) In 1576 there was a proposal, supported by the Corporation, for a new sluice to be erected at Leverington at the cost of Wisbech hundred, but it was rejected by the Privy Council and local landowners as too expensive. (fn. 4) An undated 'breife description of the notable or most famus rivers fallinge into the Fennes' in a volume of collections towards a history of the Fens made by Maurice Johnson in 1710 sums up the situation admirably: 'Wisbech river . . . hath an indifferent descent and the outfall reasonable good but may be muche bettered . . . [by] an apt and straight course to reteyne the waters descending from Peterborough by Thorney, Whittlesey and Wisbech'. (fn. 5) The great flood of 1613, probably the worst since that of 1236, (fn. 6) brought matters to a head, and a special commission was sent to the Fenland by the Privy Council to investigate the problem. The commissioners found that the level of the river bed had been raised 6 ft. or more by silting, so that the inland water was no longer able to flow down the channel from Guyhirn, but rather the other way. The town of Wisbech asked that the county should provide a sluice at the Horseshoe, and that the river should be widened from 40 to 60 ft. (fn. 7) The commissioners, however, thought that if the outfall was sufficiently improved to carry away the upland waters, the channel would be so deepened as to undermine the proposed sluice. They recalled the fate of a previous one which was 'blowne up by the tyde' after a life of seven days. (fn. 8) Orders were, however, issued by the Privy Council for a sluice at the Horseshoe at the cost of occupiers whose lands would be thereby drained. (fn. 9) This sluice was finally constructed by Vermuyden in 1631 at a cost of £8,000, by a 'little Army of Artificers venting, contriving and acting outlandish devises'. (fn. 10) Seven years later the first attempt to improve the flow by straightening the Nene Outfall was made, by constructing a 2½-mile cut. (fn. 11)

In 1680 the trade of Wisbech had increased sufficiently for the port to be reckoned independent and no longer a member of Lynn. (fn. 12) In 1710 the Corporation was licensed to buoy the channel for the first time. By 1718-19 the customs amounted to £4,000 a year. The exports consisted of 1,000 tons of oil (fn. 13) and 40,000 quarters of oats, carried in 30 ships 'of burden' and 30 smaller vessels of 20 to 30 tons. In this year 241 ships were cleared. (fn. 14) About this time Charles Kinderley proposed to embank the Nene for 7 miles downstream from Wisbech to Peter's Point. This would have given a 5-foot fall, but the Corporation opposed the scheme on the ground that it would make navigation difficult, filed a petition in Chancery to stop it, and spent £150 in demolishing a bank that was part of Kinderley's improvements (1726). (fn. 15) By 1751 it was possible in a dry year to walk across the river bed under Wisbech Bridge (fn. 16) and vessels of any size had to unload at Foul Anchor or Cross Keys, 6 or 8 miles downstream respectively. Spring tides produced only a 4-foot rise and neaps did not reach the town at all. The silting of the river also resulted in disastrous floods, the upland water not being able to get away to sea. Such floods occurred in 1763, 1765, 1767, and 1770. (fn. 17) In the face of these disasters the Corporation became more accommodating and withdrew its opposition to the straightening and embanking, provided navigational interests were safeguarded. (fn. 18) 'Kinderley's Cut' was finally made in 1770-2 at a cost of £10,000, straightening the river down to Gunthorpe Sluice. (fn. 19) Further straightenings and improvements in the channel were effected in the early 19th century. Among these may be mentioned the Paupers' Cut off ¾ mile at Woodhouse Marsh, (fn. 20) and another cut from the end of Kinderley's Cut to Crab Hole. The latter cost £130,000 towards which the Corporation contributed £30,000. (fn. 21) The cut, with the contemporary embankment to carry the Lynn-Spalding road over Cross Keys Wash, caused much local uneasiness. The Corporation, always apprehensive about the effects on navigation of bridges below Wisbech, decided in 1820 to oppose the embankment if the bridge were to be at Gunthorpe Sluice, but to offer no objection if it were at the Washway (Sutton Bridge). (fn. 22) John Wing, writing to Lord Lansdowne on behalf of the Commissioners for the Nene Outfall and the local Justices, stated (20 September 1827) that the countryside was at the mercy of the navvies employed on the schemes. Of these 200 had already arrived and 800 more were expected. He recommended the dispatch of a military force. (fn. 23)

In spite of the forebodings of the Corporation, these improvements brought new life to the port of Wisbech. A custom-house was built in 1801. (fn. 24) In 1825-6 1,209 ships, all but 45 of them coastwise, cleared the port. The gross tonnage amounted to 70,320 and the customs to £29,531 15s. 9d. (fn. 25) The tonnage increased fairly steadily to a maximum of 167,442 in 1847. (fn. 26) Railway competition caused a rapid decline to 88,082 in 1854. (fn. 27) After this the tonnage remained fairly constant. Thus in 1910 it stood at 89,333, which represented 92 'foreign' and 502 coasting vessels. (fn. 28) This was a slight increase on the tonnage for 1909.

The exports in the early 19th century were mainly corn and rape-seed. Coal was imported and, from 1824, timber. In the period of high farming Wisbech was the biggest corn-shipping port in the country. A high level of 283,094 quarters was achieved in 1845, and though the opening of the railway shortly afterwards was a severe blow to this trade, (fn. 29) another 'peak' export of 67,782 quarters was handled in the autumn, winter, and spring of 1870-1, (fn. 30) After the First World War, however, the export of corn fell to an average of about 16,000 quarters a year, and was replaced by that of potatoes, of which 18,000 tons were shipped in 1931. (fn. 31) The imports of timber have also dropped from 76,968 loads in 1897 to 23,316 loads in 1932. (fn. 32) The expansion of the brickmaking industry at Peterborough and elsewhere in the East Midlands has led to an outward trade in bricks. (fn. 33) The total value of imports and exports was respectively £144,072 and £4,049 in 1894, (fn. 34) when the port was perhaps at the lowest ebb of its fortunes. A revival in the present century brought the figures up to £236,798 (imports) and £80,640 (exports) in 1937. At this date the chief imports were timber, seed potatoes, grain, cattle, foodstuffs, and petroleum, while potatoes, scrap iron, and wheat were exported. (fn. 35)

A certain amount of shipbuilding was carried on at Wisbech in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Between 1778 and 1850 21 ships were launched, 12 of them in the last 10 years of the period. The yards were on the right bank of the river near the present petroleum depot. (fn. 36) In the period of greatest activity, between 1831 and 1856, 213 vessels were registered at Wisbech and Sutton Bridge, but by 1909 there were only 2 steamboats and 12 fishing-vessels on the books. (fn. 37) The greatest Wisbech shipowner was Richard Young (1809-71), who had at various times 43 boats operating from the port. Young was a man of more than local celebrity, and was M.P. for South Cambridgeshire from 1865 and Sheriff of London in 1871. (fn. 38) He was Mayor of Wisbech from 1858 to 1862. (fn. 39)

Various proposals were made during the 19th century for the construction of docks. The only outcome was a dock at Sutton Bridge, which was undermined by a subsidence shortly after its opening (1881) and. has never been repaired. (fn. 40) Under the Wisbech Corporation Act (1889), however, new quays and a swinging berth were constructed at a cost of nearly £30,000 and the port was made available to ships of 245 ft. length, gross tonnage of 1,250 and draught of 17 ft. (fn. 41) Since 1940 the reconstruction of the quays has been accomplished for £103,000, (fn. 42) and a petroleum depot has been established. Wisbech is now accessible to ships carrying 1,700 tons cargo. (fn. 43) 'It is somewhat refreshing to observe that, while many of the smaller ports of the Kingdom are finding it difficult to keep up their business, Wisbech has succeeded in increasing its trade during the past few years.' (fn. 44)

There was formerly some passenger traffic upstream, the fare from Wisbech to Peterborough in 1756 being 2s. 6d. (fn. 45) In 1820 there was a service three times a week each way in the summer and twice a week in the winter. (fn. 46) As recently as 1938 a sea-going vessel, the Constance H, sailed as far as Peterborough, clearing Guyhirn Bridge by 1 inch. (fn. 47) In 1951 some sea-going barges, laden with corn, sailed from the Thames to Peterborough. (fn. 48) In 1850, 1851 and 1887 the river was the scene of regattas for sailing, rowing, and swimming. (fn. 49)

The former Well Stream was canalized under an Act of 1794 (34 Geo. III c. xcii). In the early 19th century it carried some traffic in coal; 2,508 tons in 1838 and 29,562 ten years later after the tolls had been reduced. (fn. 50) By the end of the 19th century the canal had become unremunerative owing to the competition of the Upwell tramway, (fn. 51) and it is now disused. The ownership of the canal was vested in the Corporation in 1944. (fn. 52)


  • 1. H. C. Darby, Medieval Fenland, 96, 98-99; Cal. Pat. 1321-4, 386.
  • 2. L. & P. Hen. VIII, ii, no. 1733; iii, no. 3476.
  • 3. Fenland N. & Q. vii, 95.
  • 4. H. C. Darby, Draining of the Fens, 15; Acts of P.C. 1575-7, 134-5; 1578-80, 190-1; E 134/21-22 Eliz./M. 33.
  • 5. B.M. Add. MS. 35171, f. 193b (modern numeration).
  • 6. Acts of P.C. 1613-14, 265-7, 299. This flood was commemorated by an inscription on the wall of the church. The text is given in Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 372-3. The inscription was largely destroyed in 1750, but some remains of it have been revealed during recent alterations (Wisb. Soc. Ann. Rep. (1951), 9).
  • 7. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1611-18, 538-41.
  • 8. Acts of P.C. 1618-19, 295.
  • 9. B.M. Add. Chart. 33106, 33117.
  • 10. Darby, Draining of Fens, 42, quoting B.M. Lansd. MS. 213, f. 316a.
  • 11. Ibid. 60 n.; W. Dugdale, Hist. Imbanking, 414.
  • 12. A. A. Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River (1933), 3. There is an extra illustrated manuscript copy in Wisb. Mus. The merchandise carried in ships entering and leaving Wisbech is first entered separately in the Lynn Port Books in 1678 (E 190/438).
  • 13. Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River, 3.
  • 14. There were seven mills crushing oil from seed in Wisbech in 1735; one had been established as early as 1553-5 (C 1/1365/47).
  • 15. Corp. Rec. v, various dates between 1719 and 1729; Darby, Draining of Fens, 137-9.
  • 16. N. Kinderley, Anct. and Present State of the Navig. of . . . Wisbech (1751), 70.
  • 17. Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River, 112-13.
  • 18. Darby, Draining of Fens, 142.
  • 19. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 174.
  • 20. Constructed in 1830 at a cost of £5,000 to relieve unemployment (Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River, 6). A gravel walk along East Field Bank was laid out in 1824 (Diary of Rev. J. Jackson, 22 Oct. 1824 (Wisb. Mus.)).
  • 21. Watson, Hist. Wisb. (1833), p. 74.
  • 22. Diary of Rev. J. Jackson, 8 Sept. 1820 (Wisb. Mus.). By 1825 £12,000 of the £35,000 needed for the scheme had been subscribed. (Ibid. 28 Nov. 1825.)
  • 23. H.O. 52/4. The former winding course of the river below Wisbech is still shown on many maps, since until 1934 it formed the boundary between the Isle of Ely and Norfolk.
  • 24. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 426.
  • 25. Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River, 5.
  • 26. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 427. The customs in this year were £25,000.
  • 27. In 1862 George Dawbarn, a Wisbech merchant, stated that 'the railways have almost annihilated the coal trade' (Fenland N. & Q. i, 330).
  • 28. Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River, 6-7, 11- 12.
  • 29. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), p. 593.
  • 30. Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River, 14.
  • 31. Ibid. 12, 22.
  • 32. Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River, 19, 21. The 1932 figure included 3,879 loads of aspen logs for the local 'chip' fruit-basket industry.
  • 33. Personal observation. Four vessels were cleared during the middle fortnight of August 1948.
  • 34. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 152.
  • 35. Sir D. J. Owen, Ports of the U.K. (1939), 200.
  • 36. Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River, 55-56.
  • 37. Ibid. 61.
  • 38. He was the son of a Norfolk farmer, and acquired his mercantile interests through his appointment as Keeper of the North Level Sluice (1830) and Superintendent of the Nene Outfall Works (1833).
  • 39. Fenland N. & Q. i, 327.
  • 40. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 135-6.
  • 41. Ibid. 138-44.
  • 42. Wisb. Advertiser, 10 Apr. 1940 (describing the start of the scheme).
  • 43. R. W. L. Melbourne, 'The Function of Wisbech in relation to its geographical setting', 1 (unpublished M.A. Thesis, Univ. Lond., 1939).
  • 44. Owen, Ports of U.K. (1939), 200.
  • 45. Oldham, Hist. Wisb. River, 19.
  • 46. Fenland N. & Q. v, 115.
  • 47. Wisb. Advertiser, 19 Jan. 1938.
  • 48. Infm. the late E. J. Rudsdale.
  • 49. Oldham, MS. Hist. Wisb. River, 170.
  • 50. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 498.
  • 51. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 163.
  • 52. By the Wisb. Corp. Act of that year (Municipal Yr. Bk. 1950).