A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.
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The Anglo-Saxon port appears to have been at Old Heath, called from the 12th century Old Hythe, where a 7th-century pot of Belgian origin has been found. (fn. 1) There was still a landing place there in 1341, and a tradition that ships had once sailed up a channel or creek to unload there was apparently known to old men in 1630, but by the mid 12th century the main port was established at the Hythe or New Hythe. (fn. 2) The new harbour had presumably been made, or improved, by deepening and straightening the river above Rowhedge. Until the 20th century the borough boundary preserved the line of a former channel, once presumably the main stream of the river, which led towards Old Heath. (fn. 3) The removal of the river into a new and straighter channel leading towards Colchester would have greatly improved the navigation to the Hythe. Nevertheless, the Hythe was probably never accessible to large ships except perhaps at spring tides. As early as 1327 wheat for Newcastle on Tyne had to be carried in small boats from the Hythe to Brightlingsea because the water was too low for sea-going vessels to get any higher up the river. (fn. 4)
By the 13th century weirs and piles, some of them presumably associated with the oyster fishery, were being erected in the river; in 1285 there were as many as 23 weirs between Colchester and the sea, all said to have been there from time immemorial. Navigation was also impeded by the dumping of ballast into the channel. (fn. 5) In 1353 there were further complaints that the channel was obstructed by weirs, mills, staves, palings, and kiddles, and in 1362 Lionel of Bradenham, the prior of Mersea, and six other men were ordered to remove at least 3 'enclosures' and 28 weirs which had so reduced the water in the channel that even small boats could hardly reach the Hythe. (fn. 6) Edward IV's charter of 1462 provided that no one should make weirs, kiddles, or other 'engines' without the bailiffs' licence, (fn. 7) but the provision may have been designed as much to protect the fishery as to maintain the navigation. In the late 15th century the abbot of St. John's, and in 1582 a miller, were accused of placing piles in the river. (fn. 8)
Thomas Christmas (d. 1520) left £20 for the repair of the 'creek' at the Hythe, but the money was not paid until 1548-9; in that and succeeding years the borough raised a further £290 to repair and scour the channel. (fn. 9) The early 16th-century work may have included making a new channel for the river for at least part of the distance between Colchester and Wivenhoe. A 'new channel' recorded in 1629 had been dug so long before that the details of its construction had been forgotten. (fn. 10) Henry VIII inspected Colne Water in 1543 and thought it a better harbour than the Stour at Harwich, but, apart from building a blockhouse to defend its mouth, the government seems to have done nothing to improve the river. (fn. 11) In the 1570s it was usual for sea-going ships to moor at Wivenhoe or Rowhedge and transfer their cargo to small boats for carriage to the Hythe. (fn. 12) A bill for the repair of the harbour and channel, prepared by the borough c. 1585, came to nothing, but in 1592 the borough assembly agreed to allow £10 a year for the repair of the channel and appointed four overseers of the channel to supervise expenditure. The borough carried out some work on the channel in 1603, and in 1614 made another unsuccessful attempt to get an Act for its improvement. (fn. 13)
An Act for the improvement of the channel was obtained in 1623, when the river was said to be impassable between Rowhedge and Hythe mill. The bailiffs or their deputies were empowered to raise money for the maintenance of the channel and the harbour by taking toll for 15 years from ships using the port, (fn. 14) but no provision was made for any major improvements. In 1629 the river at the Hythe was still only c. 3 ft. deep at an ordinary tide, although it might be 5-6 ft. deep at a spring tide. Thus although ships of 40-60 tons loaded could reach the Hythe at a spring tide with a favourable wind, at other times the river was navigable only by small boats. (fn. 15) In 1641 and 1685 the borough assembly promoted other bills for 'cutting the channel', alleging in 1685 that the existing channel was 'filled up and almost useless', (fn. 16) but no Act was obtained until 1698. The new Act provided for the widening, deepening, and straightening of the river, the work to be paid for by tolls to be collected by the mayor and commonalty for 21 years. (fn. 17) It also appointed commissioners for the channel, who included the mayor and aldermen of Colchester and the justices of the peace for the eastern division of Essex. Work began in 1699, and by 1701 some points of land between Wivenhoe and the Hythe had been cut through to make a 'canal', and floodgates had been erected at the Hythe, but the work does not seem to have been completed, perhaps for lack of funds. (fn. 18) An Act of 1719 extended to 1740 the period during which the borough might collect customs, but halved the duties to be collected. It also provided for the making of towpaths on either side of the river between Wivenhoe and Fingringhoe and the Hythe. The commissioners apparently used their powers and revenues under the Act to build a lock just below the Hythe. (fn. 19)
Later Acts for improving the navigation and paving the borough streets, obtained in 1740, 1749-50, 1781, and 1811, further extended the term of the Acts of 1698 and 1740, and vested in the Commissioners, then called the improvement commissioners, most of the powers held until 1742 by the corporation. (fn. 20) Most of the money raised was spent on the town's streets; what was spent on the channel was used mainly to pay for routine dredging and the repair of the river banks. The channel does seem to have been deepened, however: by the mid 18th century it was 9 or 10 ft. deep at spring tides, and 5-7 ft. deep at neap tides, and vessels of c. 90 tons loaded could reach the port. (fn. 21)
Despite such work, the river in 1829 was still so winding that shoals formed quickly, and a report recommended straightening it, making a new cut between Wivenhoe and the Hythe, and removing the lock at the Hythe. Some work, apparently including the making of an new cut below New quay, had been done by c. 1846, although in 1840 the navigation committee of the improvement commissioners had declared themselves unable to make any major improvements because of insurmountable difficulties, presumably financial. (fn. 22) In 1842 the committee rejected a plan by Peter Bruff for a new cut and a new dock at the Hythe, but in 1846 they agreed to spend £6,000 as economically as possible. (fn. 23) An Act was obtained in 1847 empowering the commissioners to construct a floating basin with the necessary wharves and quays and to make a new cut or channel between Wivenhoe and the Hythe. Admiralty commissioners reported that year that only about a third of the money raised in duties between 1827 and 1846 had been spent on the river, which was in a 'most defective and neglected state', but they opposed Bruff's plan for the construction of a weir controlling a new cut to the Hythe, as it would interfere with the tidal scouring of the river. (fn. 24) Funds did not permit the construction of the canal and floating basin, but some work was carried out between 1847 and 1857, including the removal of the lock and the widening, deepening, and straightening of the river between New quay and the Hythe. (fn. 25)
In 1880 Colchester traders complained that some ships took as many as 5 or 7 days to get from Wivenhoe to the Hythe, but by 1883 the commissioners had bought a steam dredger and claimed to have deepened the channel by up to 2 ft. over the previous 25 years. In 1887 for the first time a vessel of 325 tons, drawing 10 ft. of water, reached the Hythe. (fn. 26) In 1888, however, the commissioners concluded that they had insufficient powers to develop the port and river, and in 1892 management of the navigation was transferred to the corporation. (fn. 27)
In 1892 the c. 3,000 vessels using the port each year were mainly Thames barges; larger ships, including small coasting vessels and small cargo steamers, drawing 9½ ft. could reach the Hythe at spring tides and those drawing 5½ ft. at neap tides. A recommendation of 1894 to deepen the water by at least 4 ft. at the Hythe and 3 ft. lower down the river was not carried out. (fn. 28) In 1907 further proposals were made for erecting a barrage at Rowhedge, making a basin at New quay, and deepening the channel from Rowhedge to Hythe bridge. The council rejected the barrage and the basin, but agreed to widen and deepen the upper part of the river. Work, mainly dredging but apparently including the making of a swinging dock, was carried out between 1909 and 1912. (fn. 29) Further improvements, including the enlargement of the swinging dock and the removal of some bends in the river, were made between 1920 and 1924, and in 1925 a ship of 750 tons was able to reach the Hythe. (fn. 30) Major improvements, including those proposed in 1894, were again considered in 1935 and 1937, and the swinging dock was further enlarged in 1938, but work seems to have been abandoned on the outbreak of the Second World War. (fn. 31)
In the later 20th century the amount of traffic using Colchester port, including wharves at Rowhedge and Wivenhoe, increased steadily; in 1984 a total of 2,501 ships carrying over 1 million tons of cargo docked there. The proportion of ships reaching the Hythe declined, however, from 46 per cent of the total in 1980-1 to 18 per cent in 1985-6, as shipping companies made increasing use of larger ships which could not reach the upper quays. Despite extra dredging in the later 1970s, the maximum draught for ships using the Hythe in 1986 was 3.7 m. at a spring tide and 2.7 m. at a neap tide. (fn. 32) Trinity House pilots, first appointed in 1819, were available to all vessels and compulsory for foreign ships using the river. (fn. 33)
Both coastal and continental trade from the Hythe was important in the Middle Ages and later. By 1637 there was a regular weekly service by hoy from the Hythe to London, perhaps by two ships as in the 1650s, and by 1714 two packets made the journey weekly. (fn. 34) Steam replaced sail in the 1830s and 1840s, reducing the journey time to 7 hours, and a twice weekly service was maintained throughout the 19th century. Steam packets apparently sailed thrice weekly in 1910 and 1912, but the service had been reduced to twice weekly by 1917 and seems to have ceased soon afterwards. (fn. 35) In the earlier 19th century there was also a regular service to Hull and Gainsborough. (fn. 36)
There was a granary at the Hythe in 1327. Between 1339 and 1342 the bailiffs leased 5 plots of land for new quays and buildings behind them, the building to be done by the tenants, and in 1352 a merchant owned a quay with a house, presumably a warehouse, on it. The 1462 charter gave the bailiffs control over the making of wharves and cranes, and the town built a new quay in 1548-9. (fn. 37) There was a crane, apparently newly built, by 1387, and a second one had been built by 1396. The borough collected an aid for making a new crane in 1495. (fn. 38) By 1610 or earlier the quay, warehouses, and crane were normally maintained by the water bailiff, the borough officer in charge of the port, although the borough itself seems to have carried out major repairs, as in 1738 when the chamberlain spent c. £30 on repairs to the crane. In 1623 the water bailiff was required to rebuild the warehousing as a brick building of 2½ storeys with a tiled roof. (fn. 39) Private quays were the responsibility of their owners who were presented in the borough courts for allowing them to fall into disrepair. (fn. 40)
In 1680 there was one legal quay, which extended c. 177 yd. along the west bank of the river from the end of Middle Row, a short way below Hythe bridge. It was leased in sections by the town, the tenants being responsible for maintenance and repair. A lease of the northern part in 1685 provided for the building of a new crane. (fn. 41) In 1690 Giles Sayer, a glazier, built a new quay and warehouse c. ½ mile below the Hythe and refused to pay rates or duties to the town for goods loaded and unloaded there. The town was unable to dislodge him, and his quay was recognized by the Act of 1698. The operations between 1699 and 1701 to straighten the channel seem to have left Sayer's wharf high and dry, and in 1701 the borough leased to him the land between his wharf and the new navigation channel, presumably for a new wharf. In 1724 the wharf was called Giles Sayer's wharf; by 1846 it was the New quay. (fn. 42)
By 1823 the quays at the Hythe extended along both sides of the river. The former town quay on the west bank, called the common quay, was 195 yd. long; north of it, immediately south of Hythe bridge, was the Ordnance Arms quay, 37 yd. long. On the east bank of the river was Grocer's quay, 235 yd. long. (fn. 43) Under the Act of 1847 a new quay c. 230 ft. long was built in 1857 at Lower Granary Hythe, between Hythe bridge and New quay. (fn. 44) By 1907 the quays were inadequate, and between 1910 and 1912 a new quay, King Edward quay, was built below Hythe quay on the west bank of the river; it was extended in 1925. A third public quay, Haven quay, was built below King Edward quay in the late 1930s. (fn. 45) By 1975 all but one of the private quays on the east bank of the river were disused. There were then 1,350 m. of working quay, but Hythe quay, above the turning bay, was not much used. Haven quay was extended by 40 m. in 1983. (fn. 46)
Colchester port was, for the purposes of the royal customs, a member of Ipswich from the 14th century or earlier, and by the later 17th century Mersea, Brightlingsea, Wivenhoe, Maldon, and Burnham were part of Colchester port. (fn. 47) In the 14th century Colchester port included South Geedon and Parrock fleet (part of Pyfleet channel) creeks, Hamford Water, East Mersea and Brightlingsea; similar limits were claimed, apparently successfully, in 1587. (fn. 48) In 1680 the port boundary ran southwards from the Naze point along the coast to a point of land at or near Tollesbury, then westwards, inland, covering all the creeks and streams flowing into the Colne as far as Colchester itself. In 1823 the bounds extended slightly further south towards the Thames estuary, to meet those of the port of London, but otherwise they were the same as those of 1680. In 1884 the limits of the port were extended still further southwards to Havengore Creek. (fn. 49)
From the 14th century or earlier there were both royal and borough officials of the port. Deputies to the king's butler and to the serjeant at arms for the east coast ports, including Colchester, were recorded from 1334, and one for Colchester and Maldon in 1353. A collecter of customs for Ipswich and Colchester was appointed in 1350, and a controller of customs for Colchester and Maldon in 1399. (fn. 50) Most of the medieval officers recorded later served both Ipswich and Colchester, presumably from Ipswich with deputies in Colchester, but a searcher of ships at Colchester and Maldon was recorded in 1445. Some officials, like the weigher ordered in 1341 to take the weighing beam from Ipswich to Colchester to weigh cloth there, moved from one port to the other. (fn. 51) In 1455 the bailiffs were accused of trying to prevent the packers of wool and cloth from exercising their office, perhaps an early instance of the friction between the two sets of officials recorded again in the later 17th century. (fn. 52) From the later 16th century or earlier a customer and controller, a searcher, and a surveyor for Colchester were appointed regularly, as were a collector of customs, landwaiters, tidewaiters, searchers, and boatmen from 1670. (fn. 53) In the mid 18th century the customs employed a comptroller, a surveyor, 2 landwaiters (at the Hythe and at Wivenhoe), a supervisor of customs, 3 riding officers, 4 coal meters, and 1 corn meter. There were still 10 customs officers in Colchester in 1985. (fn. 54)
The chief borough officer for the port was the water bailiff, recorded by that name from 1504, although the profits of the office were leased by the bailiffs from 1399 or earlier. He had charge of the crane or cranes (which all ships loading or unloading had to use) and warehouses, and was responsible for weighing and measuring merchandise and for collecting borough customs and toll, and quayage and wharfage fees. A measurer at the Hythe, presumably the water bailiff's assistant, was among the borough officers elected in 1373. (fn. 55) By 1705 the water bailiff was also responsible for overseeing the oyster fishery and the fish market at the Hythe. (fn. 56) In 1592 the borough assembly agreed to appoint 4 overseers of the channel, and in 1622 the serjeant of Colne Water was appointed beaconager to set up beacons. (fn. 57) The Act of 1623 and the following Acts empowered the bailiffs to appoint collectors of tolls or channel dues. In 1657 the assembly laid down rules for the appointment and behaviour of 4 meters or measurers at the Hythe, and 16 porters or carriers to assist them, all of whom were to swear to deal justly between buyer and seller. (fn. 58) The Act of 1847 empowered the commissioners to appoint a harbourmaster (in addition to the borough harbourmaster); they also appointed meters or measurers of coal and corn. (fn. 59) When sole control of the port passed to the council in 1892 the former commissioners' harbourmaster became deputy harbourmaster. Under the Act of 1892 the chairman of the borough Navigation Committee assumed the title of portreeve. (fn. 60) The borough still employed a harbourmaster and deputy harbourmaster in 1987.