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River Lea, the Smeaton Plan – Part Two

The river Lea, the Smeaton Plan

Location: River Lea

Part One of the River Lea history can be found here.

The Problems

Now, since the New River was built for water extraction in 1633 there were three groups of people who had primary interests in the River Lea. They were the millers, the watermen and the water extraction company.

Of course there were disagreements when they all wanted fundamentally different things from the river. The millers wanted it a constant flow at high levels to power their waterwheels so they could grind their grain. The watermen wanted to be able to move their barges along the river which involved changing the water levels every time they went past a lock. The water extraction company wanted to take water away so that it could be used for drinking water in London.

To try to reconcile all the different viewpoints a petition was presented to Parliament. This resulted in the Act of 1739 which enshrined in law the right for the water company to extract water, but also the rights of the millers and the bargemen.

At Manifold Ditch, where the construction of the New River meant that the watermen had to use the mill stream to get along the river (causing a lot of conflict along the way) the New River company bought the mill and stream and they designated it a public right of way. (The things you can do when you have money.)

The Smeaton Plan

At other points along the river there was still conflict going on so they got together and they asked John Smeaton to come up with a plan that would solve all their difficulties. (They must have had a lot of faith in him).

To try to solve their problems John Smeaton first went to survey the river. He found that there was a lock at Ware, tidal gates at Bow, and 18 staunches which restricted the flow of the river. He put his thinking cap on and came up with a plan. His plan was to replace all the staunches with pound locks and to make some new canal cuttings.

The plan was widely accepted but there was some opposition from, Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills, West Ham Waterworks, and the owners of the Shoreditch to Enfield turnpike road. They opposed the plan because they thought that it would take away their rights.

The trustees took the plan to Parliament and they got it granted on the 29 June 1767. The works were going ahead. The next job that the trustees had was to appoint someone to oversee the work.

After a little deliberation, on the 1st July, Thomas Yeoman was the man entrusted with the job.

The second job of the trustees was to raise money to pay for the works. The first (and only) thing that they did was to place an advert in in London Gazette and other newspapers saying that they needed to raise £35,000. They did not need to take any other measures because the response that they got from these adverts was huge. They had offers from people totalling over £161,000! To choose the investors the trustees held a ballot to make it fair.

The Work

Meanwhile Thomas Yeoman was starting work creating new canal cuttings. By the time he had finished the canal cuttings there was new canal from Flanders Weir at Chingford to the mill stream at Walthamstow (known as the Edmonton Cut), from Lea Bridge to Old Ford (known as the Hackney Cut) and a new bypass from Limehouse to to Bow which avoided the Isle of Dogs and was a much shorter route (known as the Limehouse Cut).

The Limehouse Cut started at Dingley’s Wharf and ended at the Bow tidal gates and Mr Dingley who owned the wharf and was a trustee as well was given part of the contract. His workers were not the best in the world because it was supposed to open on the 2nd July 1770 but some of the brickwork failed and had to be repaired before it could be opened. Also in December of that year a bridge collapsed. When it was built the Limehouse Cut was getting so much traffic they had to widen it to allow two barges to pass each other along the whole cut. This widening was finally finished on the 1st September 1777.

The Smeaton Plan changed the River Lea foreverClick To Tweet

Meanwhile Thomas Yeoman was busy setting out tow paths, designing roving bridges (where they are in a sort of spiral shape so the horse towing the boat can walk over the bridge and not have to be unhitched from the boat when changing sides of the canal), and building lock gates for all the new locks that were being built. He was such a busy man that he was being overworked. The trustees recognised this and they appointed Edward Rubie as his assistant in February 1769. This helped matters.

Later that year the new cuts and pound locks were opened at Waltham Abbey, Edmonton and Hackney. The big changes had begun. In total there were 11 miles of new canal cuts, and 12 new locks (some on the new canal and some to replace the old flash locks) and 35 roving bridges built.

In July 1771, with almost all the work done according to the Smeaton plan (they kept to a tight schedule) Thomas Yeoman resigned. There does not seem to be a record of why this is so.

We have a lot to be thankful for to Thomas Yeoman, and also to John Smeaton. They allowed a lot of work to be done to improve the canal to make it almost what it is today.

Part One of the River Lea history can be found here.

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