River Lea – a history, Part One

Location: River Lea/Lee

Very Early History of River Lea

I am going to take you on a journey, back in time, back to when the river was young. This river runs from Wells Head in Leagrave to Bow Creek which runs in to the mighty River Thames.

The name of the River Lea has several different possible sources, one is the Anglo-Saxon word lug which means light or bright. Also the name of one of their gods was Lugas so the name could have been river of Lugas. Another source could have been the Welsh Li which means flow or current.
The River Lea near Ware
The River Lea near Ware
There is evidence that the River Lea has been used for navigation since the Bronze age as a canoe was found that was dated to that time. But there is also evidence of a Neolithic settlement in the Leagrave area which is near the source of the River Lea. There have been several flint arrowheads found in the area and the whole dig site is now a protected monument.

Romans and Anglo-Saxons

Running forwards in time, in 54 BC it is reputed that Julius Ceasar defeated Cassivellaunus (one of the British tribal leaders) at a battle at Devils Dyke, near Wheathampstead. This is disputed by some historians. It was Julius Ceasar’s second invasion of Britain.

In about 50BC the Belgiums invaded and set up settlements around Wheathampstead. There is evidence for them being found around Devils Dyke. This was just before the Romans started their invasion of Britain.

In the time of the Romans, the river had a settlement grow around it at Old Ford, it was the main crossing place of this wide, fast flowing river. The crossing was part of the old Roman road that stretched from what is now Oxford Street to Colchester.

In the time of the Anglo-Saxons the river had purpose. It was swift flowing and as such formed part of the boarder between King Alfred the Great (British) and the Danes. For a long while there was peace as King Alfred and Guthrum wrote a treaty laying out who had land where.

When, in 895 AD, the treaty was broken by the Danes sailing up the River Lea and setting up a fortified camp, about 20 miles north of where London is now. King Alfred saw a great opportunity to get back at the Danes. He drained the river at Leamouth leading the Danes to be trapped upriver. Another consequence was that the river had an increased flow and the tidal head of the river moved to Old Ford, further downriver.

Dark Ages

In 1110 Queen Matilda, the wife of Henry I fell over when she was crossing the ford on her way to Barking Abbey. So that that would never happen again she ordered a three arched bridge to be built, at Bow, over the river, and it was to be bow shaped. It was the first bridge that looked like that, that had ever been built.

The Abbey at Waltham is right by the River Lea and in 1190 the Abbot of Waltham did some work to improve the river so that transport along it would become easier.

In 1221 a pipe laid across the river which had to be protected from the oars or poles of the watermen. I can’t find out what this pipe was for, but it must have been an important one.

In the Middle Ages, water mills at Temple mills, Abbey Mills, Old Ford and Bow supplied flour to bakers who baked bread for the city of London. Channels for these mills caused Bow Back Rivers to be cut so that each mill could have its own water channel to help with the grinding of the flour.
The River Lea nearing the Bow Back Rivers
The River Lea near the Bow Back Rivers
In 1425 improvements were made to the river and tolls were levied on the watermen by landowners for the work. These improvements were sanctioned by Parliament. This was the first Act of Parliament for the navigational improvement of a waterway.

Plantagenet, Tudor and Stewart

After a Private Members Bill in Parliament for an extension to the River Lea there were riots with people protesting about all the work to be done, nevertheless the work went ahead. There were new cuts dug and new towpaths laid. The improvements came thick and fast and by 1577 the first pound lock created at Waltham Abbey. This was probably the second lock built in England and the first on a river. The river was then managed for navigation. The rest of the locks on the river were single gates within weirs which boats were pulled through against the current.

1630 New River was created to take clean drinking water to London, this reduced the flow of the river. By 1767 locks were created below Castle Weir on the canalized part of the River Lee. In 1766 work began on Limehouse Cut to connect to the River Thames at Limehouse Basin.

The Story continues with part two – The Smeaton Plan.


  1. Jenn November 26, 2018
  2. Amandachuter November 28, 2018
  3. froleprotrem May 21, 2020

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