The late George Watts was a fine historian and a leading figure in the study of history in Titchfield. This first article in the series was first published in 1984. It is well-reasoned and draws upon the available historical evidence and it can still stand today as a plausible account of the construction of the canal.
THE CANAL – George Watts
The most ambitious of the third Earl’s projects for the development of his estates was the closing of the Meon estuary and the replacement of the navigable tidal channel by a canal. This canal, once called the New River and in recent times just “the river”, runs to the west of the old winding channel from just below the Titchfield corn mill past the parish church and Great Posbrook to the sea near Meon beach. Visitors can follow the towpath from the footbridge behind the parish church to the former sea-lock at Meon Bridge.
The works were completed in 1611. In that year the parish register noted on 23rd June that “Titchfield Haven was shut out by one Richard Talbottes industry under God’s permission at the cost of the Right Honourable the Earle of Southampton”. Village legend has it that Dutch engineers were hired for the undertaking. This may well be true, but the Talbots were a local family, and no Dutch names appear in the parish registers.
A shingle bank was built across most of the mouth of the estuary but leaving two exits. One, to the east, was controlled by a large sluice gate which regulated the flow of water from the enclosed and now fresh water Haven into the small harbour at Hill Head. The other, to the west, originally permitted the tide to flow into a small inlet and up to a point below Meon hamlet where a sea-lock was built (SU5 32027). The remains of this lock suggest that it was a “staunch” lock, with a single pair of gates. Vessels passing back and forth would have waited until the tide reached the water level in the canal, when the gates would have been opened; the lock could not therefore, like more modern locks, have been used at all states of the tide.
We are still uncertain about the main purpose of the whole project; remarkably few documents exist which reveal much about it. There is no doubt that it was at least in part a water meadow system. Water meadows – the controlled flooding or irrigation of meadows for the production of more hay and grass – were a continental development and in 1611 only a recent introduction into England. A regular series of small sluice gates along the canal, most of them destroyed in living memory, permitted the water in the canal to be used in this way; White’s Directory in 1859 in fact says that the canal was “chiefly for the purpose of drainage and irrigation, and not now used for the navigation of barges’’. Presumably it was intended that with increased fodder the whole estate would carry a larger number of cattle and sheep, providing meat, hides and wool.
On the other hand, the third Earl, as we have seen, was also interested in shipping. He was a very active sponsor of the exploration and development of North America. Closer to home his enthusiasm was once illustrated by his advice to a friend that Titchfield was the best place on the mainland from which to take a ferry to the Isle of Wight and it is inconceivable that he would have willingly given up the capacity which even the muddy old channel had provided of bringing heavy goods up to Titchfield. Indeed, the siting of the canal, with its broad, fairly straight channel leading up to just below the com mill (grain, flour), next to the tannery (lime, hides leather), past the church (stone) and with a bridle path to the market square (wool) is too deliberate to be an accident.
But there is a third possible motive for the project. The Earl and his friends were very enthusiastic sportsmen – fishing, shooting and hunting animals of all kinds. The newly enclosed area around the Haven was, as it still is, rich in wild life, and it is not impossible that this wealthy and still fairly young man was deliberately creating an expensive playground. Indeed it may be that the intended multiple uses of this project were one reason for its failure: it is possible that neither the navigation nor the irrigation were efficient enough to make the expensive maintenance of the lock and the sluices (and perhaps at first a swing-bridge on the Crofton Road) worthwhile.
Inevitably too the Earl and his successors had to contend with the forces of nature – floods, high tides, currents and storms. A map in the Hampshire Record Office, undated but apparently from about 1750, makes it clear that sometime in the early eighteenth century the original shingle bank had been destroyed by the sea and a second bank had to be built (the bank on which the beach huts now stand) about two hundred yards seaward of the first, and a new sluice constructed to drain the Haven about a hundred yards inland from the original sluice (parts of which can still be seen). The upkeep of the whole system was obviously an endless drain on the estate’s resources.
At the same time the value of the trade in and out of Titchfield declined as from 1650 to 1750 the little town went through perhaps the lowest point in its prosperity. Eighteenth century maps show us that a permanent bridge was built at the end of Bridge Street, and farm bridges near Great and Little Posbrook, which would have made navigation difficult if not quite impossible. More important the width of the lock at Meon was filled by two small arches and the whole structure changed into a bridge. Of the present Meon Road only the old lock gates remain as sluice gates.
Further works took place in the early nineteenth century, the brick bridge carrying the turnpike being built across the head of the canal below the mill, and the farm bridges near Great and Little Posbrook being replaced by twin- arched brick bridges. The little tidal inlet which had once carried boats up to the lock still remained, and Ordnance Survey maps of the mid-nineteenth century still mark the old lock as “Highest Point to which Ordinary Tides flow”. But the diaries of James Hewett of Posbrook (now in the Portsmouth Records Office) show that in the 1870’s its mouth was being closed by shingle drift. Hewett in fact obtained Board of Trade permission to dig a new outlet to “Posbrook Haven” but his efforts evidently failed. “Posbrook Haven” is now the area of stagnant water and reeds immediately behind the beach huts. In the 1890’s a new brick sluice was constructed above the lock to control the water from the canal into the main Haven and thence into the sea at Hill Head.
Those visitors to the site, however, who look beyond the modern tarmac can still see the masonry of the Earl’s original lock, its stone almost certainly taken from demolished abbey buildings and its method of construction very similar to that of its contemporary. Stony Bridge near the abbey. This may have been a relatively small and ultimately unsuccessful project; but it was fifty years earlier than the Itchen Navigation and 150 years earlier than the Duke of Bridgewater’s famous canal at Manchester.