In 1994 Ken Davies published a pamphlet about the Port of Titchfield and the Canal. He made some useful comparisons with similar short canals. The text, but not all of the photographs, is reproduced here.
The Lost Port of Titchfield and its Canal by K. Davies
WHY TITCHFIELD? AN INTRODUCTION
My first chapter points out the undeniable home truth that quite a few residents of Titchfield are not aware that the canal that originates in the village is actually the second waterway to have been built in Britain and once enabled seagoing vessels to bring trade to the community living there. Its remains can be seen today, but they give little indication that a thousand years ago the village was a thriving port.
At first I found this surprising as it seemed that these two facts were by definition not unique but of some historical importance. It has to be said that the village is not a place that hits the headlines frequently even in the local press and considering its location between Southampton and Portsmouth its contribution to the nation’s development has gone largely unnoticed.
Having given this matter some thought I decided there had to be a reason for this and started to delve to find out why. What emerged from my research were two facts. The first of these was very negative, the almost complete lack of records about the subject I was looking into. The second being that over the centuries there was a common factor, that everybody seemed to have by-passed Titchfield, effectively putting it on the road to nowhere.
Going back two thousand years the Romans by-passed the spot where Titchfield is now, the Normans gave it a passing mention in the Domesday Book and a little later an Abbey was built there because of its access to the sea and the Norman’s ‘French Connection.’
Henry VIII all but destroyed what we now call a place’s infrastructure when he dissolved the Monasteries and Abbeys then by selling off or giving away their lands. Titchfield was lucky in this respect as most of the local estates came into the possession of a family whose head became the 3rd Earl of Southampton. The Earl made great efforts to rejuvenate the trade for the area which had been in steady decline for some time. One of the causes for this was without doubt due to the river Meon which was getting progressively more and more difficult to navigate because of silting.
Titchfield’s ups and downs in trade were almost continuous in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and certainly not helped by the repeated outbreaks of the Plague. By-passing the river by building a canal then did something to offset the difficulties that were afflicting the trade of that time.
The Earl also took an interest in the building of the iron works at Funtley which was later to give the village an entree to the Industrial Revolution.
However, the Railway Mania in the early decades of the nineteenth century which was one of the Revolution’s main products once again bypassed Titchfield leaving it to its own devices.
In the twentieth century the Roman’s example has been followed with the motorway and its by-passing of the village by a mile or so. The trunk road A27 does the same albeit by only a few hundred yards. Even the great new conurbations of Hedge End, Locks Heath, Titchfield Common, Fareham, Stubbington and Lee-on-the-Solent that now fill the gap between Southampton and Portsmouth have not encroached on Titchfield, held at bay by the most recent manifestation of the by-pass syndrome, the Titchfield By-pass.
I have in a light hearted manner entitled one of my chapters ‘Titchfield BC’ and another ‘Titchfield AD’ indicating the periods before the Canal (BC) and after the Dyke or Dam (AD). Perhaps, in view of the above I should finish by suggesting that those responsible for the village’s development should be given a posthumous and honorary degree, shall we say an MA for Motorway Avoidance?
The question of what happens now is often asked and the answer that most hope for is ‘not a lot’ because what we are left with is a delightful ‘time warp ’ that hides its excellent modern facilities beneath what on the surface is a preserved medieval village.
Some of the less desirable features of a life style gone by which look so picturesque in artists representations of the past have been replaced with a sensitivity not often shown these days. Gone also are the features that would put most present day folk off, such as open drains and lack of care for the ailing and elderly.
There are some of the more obtrusive signs of present day life such as the lack of off road parking, overhead telephone wires, television aerials and a Co-op, but these do little to detract from the general atmosphere of present day living at ease with the past.
Which brings me to the main purpose of these pages, to provoke an interest in its neglected waterway and see if any reader can fill in some of the obvious gaps in the story of Titchfield’s existence as a port and the use of its connection with the sea before Southampton and Portsmouth put these phases in its history so far behind it that they are lost for ever.
K. Davies Hampshire, 1994
Some of my knowledgeable friends claim that they have never heard of the Titchfield Canal when I talk about it and many who have written on the subject of the canals of the United Kingdom have never mentioned it, yet, have a look at an OS map of the area and there it is !
Go and look for it and you could have a problem Finding it, but the Hampshire County Council Transportation Department no less, have just completed a very creditable restoration of the ‘Sea Lock’ at Meon Shore on the canal. Their efforts are publicised with large notices on the approaches from each direction on the road from Hill Head to Titchfield clearly saying that here is the ‘Meon Shore Sea Lock Restoration Scheme’ as carried out by the Hampshire County Council Transportation Department in 1993 and giving their name and telephone number for all to see. As a matter of interest for some who seek the canal the road itself is clearly marked in one direction ‘No access to Titchfield’ which it manifestly has!
All this is in spite of the fact that only the local History Society seems to know much about it and proudly claims that it was the ‘second’ canal to have been built in the British Isles. Apart from what appears to be not much more than an overgrown ditch there is little to indicate to the casual passer by that this stream which flows from just north of Titchfield Village to a point at Meon Shore near Hill Head, in a straighter line than the average river, that there might ever have been a navigable canal.
Local historians admit that information is scarce and some tend to believe that it might not really have been a navigable waterway at all, but nothing more than a drainage ditch built to satisfy a rich man’s whim.
So strong is this feeling that it has given rise to an annual event in the village festival by a group known as the ‘Bonfire Boys,’ who mark the feelings of the villagers nearly four hundred years ago when the Earl of Southampton built the dyke across the Meon’s mouth by burning his effigy each year.
The fact that trade on the Meon would have died anyway was not realised at the time and would have done little to reduce the intensity of feeling even if it had been. The date the canal was created is fairly well known, but why it was cut is less well defined in records. What we seem to have is a story without beginning, not reached an end and very little in between.
To put the story in some sort of chronological order of what is known and create a basis from which further research is possible the following chapters will tell the story and try to give the reasons for the waterway ever being cut, and what remains to he seen today.
There have been at least two other similar canals that were created one before the Titchfield Canal and the other, two centuries afterwards. The first of these was the Exeter Canal which when built was of a similar nature to the one at Titchfield, but grew into a ship canal that is still navigable.
The other was constructed much later to serve the town of Tavistock and still exists much as it was when built, but is now just a decorative waterway that also still serves a purpose not envisaged at the outset.
Because the information available about the Titchfield waterway is more than a little vague I may have posed more questions than I have answered, so, the best I can hope for is that I have created interest that will encourage others to seek more. For instance, is this really a lost canal, or was it only intended as a drainage ditch?
This chapter’s title is a bit tongue in cheek because so little is really known about Titchfield as a seaport or if it really existed as such a thousand years ago. Some assumptions have to be made and deduced from the fragments of evidence that prove that there were people around in the area then and before that time, but if they were a true community when Titchfield was in embryo form is not known. However, what we do know is that over a thousand years ago the River Meon had a wide estuary that was navigable at least up to a point above where Titchfield church now stands and probably a little further.
It is this period that is chosen to introduce the story because we know the ‘Canal’ was not built until some five hundred years after the Normans landed. We do have considerable knowledge of the intervening period which led up to the cutting of the canal and its effect on trade that had built up over a five hundred year period. Hence the title of this chapter of ‘Titchfield BC’ which is to be construed as ‘Titchfield, Before Canal.’
The Domesday Book records the community, then known as ‘TICEFELLE,’ as a place of some substance which included a mill worth 20 shillings and a market and tolls worth 40 shillings.
A point that is often taken into account is that Titchfield or ‘Ticefeile’ as it was then known was regarded as a part of the smaller manor of Meonstoke which was probably due to the fact that before the year 1000 the whole of the Meon Valley was a Jutish kingdom and to consider it in that way would have made the collection of taxes and tolls an easier matter.
It is known that in Norman times, some twenty years after William the Conqueror landed at Hastings, his son William Rufus gave the estate of Titchfield to a Norman nobleman Payn de Gisors. This was not exactly an altruistic act because he, William, had just taken over large tracts of the New Forest as his own hunting forest and didn’t want any of his noblemen to take umbrage, as this would be counter productive to his exchequer.
It so happened that the Gisors family were merchants of considerable influence and wealth as well as being nobles. This probably made the deal of Titchfield for a chunk of New Forest attractive as they saw it as a good base to add to others they used for cross Channel trade.
They wouldn’t have been so pleased if they could have known that one of their descendants John de Gisors founded the town of Portsmouth almost exactly a century later as its growth certainly eroded the trade of Titchfield in which they had invested much time and money. This fear, had it existed at the time would have been justified over the next four or five hundred years because the growth of Portsmouth did play a large part in the demise of Titchfield as a port.
As it turned out John made the mistake of backing Prince John while the Prince’s brother King Richard 1st was away on the Crusades and lost property both at Titchfield and Portsmouth to the Crown when Richard returned. In modern parlance ‘John had started something!’
Early in the thirteenth century Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester, asked a group of Premonstratensian canons from an Abbey he had previously founded at Halesowen to start a similar community at Titchfield. It is thought that the reason for the choice of Titchfield for the site of the new Abbey was that it would be convenient as a respectable guest house near to Winchester. An added attraction was probably that the Meon Estuary was handy as an embarkation point to France as the Norman influence was still strong even the best part of a hundred and fifty years after the invasion.
This is not intended to be a history of the Abbey but it is significant that the choice of its site was probably influenced by the fact that the Meon estuary as a seaport was already established. Quite apart from the use for the purposes the canons envisaged it was possible to use the waterway for the import of stone from Dorset, the Isle of Wight and Normandy for construction of the Abbey and many other purposes. It is also possible that the Gisors brought in the stone by this method for the fine Norman West doorway they added to the church some hundred and fifty years before.
It is also a fact that the Abbot seemed to act as a sort of ‘travel agent’ making arrangements for those wishing to have journeys by river or sea. There does not seem to be record of charges that would have been made for those services, but it is an interesting thought of what was in it for the Abbey. Did they also have licence to exact tolls and duties from shipping using the port? This is not such a far fetched thought as the rights to run ferries twice a day from the Isle of Wight at Ryde to Portchester was in the keeping of the manor of Ashey and holding such a licence was much prized in those times.
We know that a number of mills had been established, some in Saxon times, along the Meon and elsewhere in the Titchfield parish and there is no doubt that their products were sold in the local market and the surplus exported by sea via the river estuary.
The population of Titchfield was probably about 150 prior to the foundation of the Abbey. This certainly increased by virtue of the developing trade created in its building and later running supporting facilities. This increase did not just stand still, but the population of Titchfield was certainly about six hundred when building of the Abbey was complete and as trade grew, so did the population.
The market at Titchfield had existed since early Norman times and much of the trade established must have passed through the port. Tidal waters reached Titchfield in Medieval times and it was not unknown for some high Spring Tides to lap the doors of cottages around the area known as the square. Vessels of some size would have been able to reach this far up the river which would have added to the importance of what was then considered to be a town.
As we shall see later it never did grow into more than what we call a village today as the development of Southampton and Portsmouth overshadowed it over the centuries. Even so, the present village is considerably bigger than it was in Medieval times and yet little remains of buildings and creations that owe all to its time as a port.
For instance, the tannery was situated at the waterside to the north of the village which served two purposes in the process of preparing the hides that had previously been carried out by individual families for domestic use. Water was required in the curing process and all obnoxious wastes were discharged into the river at high tide so that it would be carried downstream on the ebb. It is a good job the environmentalists of today were not about then!
Even so the tannery was still working in 1955 after six hundred years of near continuous production with the attendant smells added to by those of a brewery and gasworks which were built much later.
One present day villager tells of the garden of the house in which he lived as a child, now turned into a pleasant area for relaxation behind the old vicarage and church, which is known as ‘Skin House Garden’ and was where skins for the tannery were brought from far and wide up river for curing.
The same person also tells that when the A27 road was built dividing Titchfield’s ‘Mill Lane’ into two, there were timbers found that would indicate a wharf or similar on the Meon’s banks. This together with iron hoops such as were used to bind ships’ masts and other metal items of maritime origin have also been found in the area. It is always possible that some of these may have come from the Iron Works at Funtley, but it is more likely that they were representative of nautical bric-a-brac found around any deserted harbour area.
Even so in the fourteenth century the whole area was rich by agricultural standards producing flour from the mills, grain, wool, meat as well as hides from the cattle. The cattle gave food for those around as well as work for the butchers of which there were quite a few known to be in trade at that time. Once they had carried out their ‘bit’ the hides were supplied to the local tannery who in turn could sell their products in a wider market and export the surplus thus enhancing the area’s prosperity.
Fish was not only available from locally established ‘fish ponds,’ but also from those caught around the coast and nearby rivers. Some places on the shoreside like the stretch between what is now Lee-on-the-Solent and Hill Head lent themselves to the production of salt which was then a very valuable product. This variety of produce from the area enabled a good trade to be built up in exchange for the import of stone which we have already mentioned as well as timber and lime for the tannery.
Roads of that time were not only dangerous but impossible to use for large parts of the year. Pack Horse traffic was limited in the loads it was capable of carrying which left waterborne transport as the cheapest and most practical method of getting large loads over any distance. Therefore, it was to be expected that areas which were accessible by water, no matter how difficult, were the ones that prospered.
Titchfield, was for all practical purposes, at the head of a navigation on the Meon estuary and this together with diabolical roads made it an important port long before Southampton or Portsmouth attained any size.
It is worth a mention that many other ports developed because they were at the head of a river’s navigation and attained their importance because of this geographical feature. When this coincided with major road crossings left by the Romans, trade developed that much faster and usually lasted longer for example at Lancaster and Exeter.
Titchfield didn’t have this advantage as the nearest routes known- to have been used by the Romans were those between Winchester and Portchester which by-passed Titchfield some miles to the north. However, it was able to gain its prosperity by being a productive and fertile area with easy access to the sea via the comparatively sheltered waters of the Solent.
The fourteenth century had an import that was not by any stretch of imagination welcome, namely the Plague, or ‘Black Death’ as it became known. Titchfield was one of the first parts of the country to be afflicted. It is generally accepted that it spread from Asia across Europe and was first noted in England at Weymouth in June 1342. it was beginning to take its toll in Titchfield by the September of that year and thought that it probably arrived direct from France by sea and not overland, although this is not conclusive it does seem likely.
Outbreaks over the following two hundred years decimated the population and caused a decline in trade. Some of those who survived became richer because there were fewer to share in what did remain. However, records of the time are scarce and the effects on seaborne trade can only be deduced from facts we can glean about other loosely related events which led to the sudden rise and decline of the Titchfield Canal.
MAKING THE CUT
Indirectly it was probably the dissolution of the Abbeys that was the cause of the creation of the Titchfield Canal. In 1537 the land that included Titchfield Abbey was given to Thomas Wriothesley who by the age of 32 had served Henry VIII well. For some reason he displayed an interest in dissolving the monasteries by taking up other ex monastic lands at Quarr on the Isle of Wight, Beaulieu and Winchester.
He remained a loyal servant of the Crown and was Knighted for his services in 1544 becoming the Earl of Southampton three years later. His son Henry was only five when he himself inherited the title. Marrying at the age of twenty he became involved in various Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth I and was lucky to have died in his bed at Titchfield albeit at the early age of 37 as others involved in these activities who were caught lost their heads in the Tower.
Henry had a son, also a Henry, who like his father became involved in various Catholic plots against the Queen, but family luck held because he escaped with nothing worse than a couple of years in the Tower and loss of his possessions before being released by King James I after the Queen died.
Henry, the third Earl of Southampton, was the one who most influenced Titchfield in spite of his association with Shakespeare and obvious interests elsewhere. He wasn’t altogether popular as he was inclined to be impetuous and had a restless character. This did not stop him building an Ironworks, the market hall, Stoney Bridge, as well as commissioning a full scale survey of the area and preparing a map of the results.
This map which was drawn up in 1610 and was one of the more revealing documents of the time. The parts that are left to us are the only known indication of what the Meon estuary was like before the dyke was built across the river mouth at Hill Head.
As was the custom of those times maps were largely pictorial and this one clearly shows drawings of sizeable vessels moored or beached each side of the river mouth and another with a mast shown at what is presumed to be a wharf near Little Posbrook.
A very positive move by the third Earl to improve the declining trade of Titchfield brought about by repeated outbreaks of the Plague was to introduce iron making by building a water powered forge at Funtley about 1605. Without knowing the Earl’s other connections this venture would be hard to understand, but as we have mentioned he had lands and interests at Beaulieu as well as Titchfield. At this time and a few miles down the Solent Ironstone from Hengistbury Head was being smelted at a blast furnace at Sowley between Beaulieu and Lymington.
This furnace was located on the seaward side of the large pond at Sowley built by the monks at Beaulieu for the purpose of raising fish. This pond can still be seen today beside the road from Bucklers Hard to Lymington.
After the dissolution of monasteries the pond’s waters were used to provide power for the works that made the iron anchors for the navy in Nelson’s time when many of the ships were built at nearby Bucklers Hard.
Much of the story of the Titchfield canal came about because of the dissolution of the monasteries and the Wriothesley family’s purchases a sidelight on Sowley pond is interesting. There is a legend about it which would have us believe that the monks at Beaulieu Abbey hid gold and valuable items from the Abbey in it to prevent them falling into undesirable hands at the time of the dissolution. Needless to say there is no record of this and none of any treasure ever being found.
It would be pure speculation bordering on present day ‘tabloid journalism’ to even suggest that the Wriothesleys knew anything of this when they took such an off beat interest in abbeys and monasteries. However, there remains the possibility that it could have been the seventeenth century equivalent of ‘insider dealing.’
By 1605 iron making at Sowley and Titchfield was very much a ioint venture with the pig-iron from Sowley being shipped to Titchfield for conversion to wrought iron. This was probably via Iron Mill Lane through Fareham although the waters of the Meon provided a power source that was more reliable than the limited supply available from the pond at Sowley. Once processed it was again shipped out, some think to America where the Earls of Southampton were known to have interests.
Although this is not intended to be the story of Titchfield’s industries it will be seen that passing mention of facts such as the above have quite a bearing on the story of the Titchfield canal. In the Titchfield History Society’s book ‘TITCHFIELD, a history’ there is a reproduction of a painting of the Iron Mill in the eighteenth century which clearly shows the Iron Mill with a wide river and small boat or barge moored nearby. To suggest that this was evidence of the ability of seaborne goods to navigate this far upstream is probably stretching artist’s licence too far, or maybe the canal could have been used !
The title of this chapter reflects what was probably the biggest single event to change the course of Titchfield’s fortunes and that is the building of a dyke or dam across the mouth of the Meon closing the estuary completely.
The work was carried out by Richard Talbottes and paid for by the Earl of Southampton for a number of reasons none of which are quite clear, but do influence all development after the dyke was built the story now becomes, ‘Titchfield AD’ (After Dyke).
Today, there is still remarkably little information about the canal or the reasons for building it or the dam that gave rise to the necessity for building either of them. So it is worth while looking at possible reasons for these projects and a glance at what was done at other places for similar reasons. Before doing that to sum up what we do know and possible reasons stemming from them may well give an indication of why the events which took place were even considered.
Firstly we know that trade and some industries had been established at the head of the River Meon’s navigable waters. We also know that a young river (the part nearest the source) tends to flow faster and cut deeply into the surrounding countryside bringing with it quantities of sediment and these reaches are seldom navigable in any commercial sense.
The map of 1610 shows that the Meon downstream from Titchfield was at this stage and the waters were depositing the sediment from upstream causing silting and making navigation of the estuary more and more difficult. Many modern day ports rely on expensive dredging to keep them open and where the expense of this exceeds the value of trade through the port it closes.
Titchfield was clearly shown to be such a case from the map prepared in 1610 for the Earl. Many believe that the very preparation of this now lost map was a deliberate survey to enable a decision to be made as to the wisdom of building a dyke or dam and where to put it if it was to be done.
This may or may not have been so, but the map did show that the Meon was in a late stage of life between Titchfield and the Solent at Meon Shore. It was clear with hindsight that navigation was getting more and more difficult as time went on and that if trade wasn’t to suffer then something drastic had to be done about it.
The result of this silting would not only have affected navigation because the lower reaches of the river were tidal and the wide areas of silt and mud would have flooded with salt water at high tide rendering the banks useless for almost any purpose and disguising the narrow twisting navigable channel.
It matters little what the Earl’s reason was for going ahead because the effect of the dam, dyke or barrage whatever you call it was to flood what was the estuary with fresh water the depth of which could be controlled by opening a sluice gate in the dam at low tide. The silt and sediment brought down from the upper reaches of the river would then be deposited to form large areas of fertile agricultural land known as ‘Water Meadows.’ This system was well known to the Low Countries where irrigation by controlled flooding was a common practice. The result was a greater production of grass and hay as feedstuff for cattle once the contamination of the river banks by salt had been effectively eradicated.
There can be no doubt that if the above was the reason for building the dyke then the aims were achieved. However, the answer to one problem inevitably led to another problem to be solved, that of restoring the traffic to the iron works, tannery and other enterprises that had in the past brought trade to Titchfield which the dam would cut off. The best answer was deemed to be a canal or navigation as they came to be known.
A hundred or so miles to the west was the River Exe with a silted and winding channel but provided navigation from the sea to the City of Exeter. The considerable trade, mostly in wool, from Exeter had to pass the small port of Topsham on the way down river. The Earls and Countesses of Devon were by ancient decrees entitled to charge tolls and duties on all goods passing through the port of Topsham. A long standing dispute between the Exeter City Fathers-and the incumbent Countess of Devon at Powderham Castle ended with the Countess having a weir built across the river just above Topsham and about five miles south of the city which prevented any shipping sailing up to the city and forcing it to load and unload at Topsham.
The citizens and city fathers of Exeter took umbrage at this and in 1563 employed John Trew to build a canal from Matford just south of the weir to Exeter. This canal was 16 feet wide and 3 feet deep with locks that enabled navigation to Exeter to be resumed when opened in 1566. The Exeter Canal therefore became the first artificial waterway with locks in England. Its size was a demonstration to others of the practicality of such an enterprise which must have influenced the engineers employed by the Earl of Southampton in the building of the Titchfield Canal.
The dates also confirm the local belief that the Titchfield cut was the second to be opened in England. The only reservation I can find to that claim is that it was certainly so far a canal with locks. The big difference is that the Exeter Canal after many improvements over the last four hundred and fifty years is still navigable by reasonably sized seagoing vessels. It is also a matter of interest for canal buffs that the area near the entrance to the present canal is known as ‘Countess Weir’ to this day.
The real point to note from the above remarks is that in those days a waterway of that size was a practical proposition. So the size of the Titchfield Canal, or New River as it was then called, would have been quite normal as proven by the Exeter Canal and not necessarily just a drainage ditch as has been suggested locally. It also substantiates the claim that the Titchfield Canal was probably the second to be cut in England.
Having established these probabilities a further look at what actually happened becomes more revealing. The mouth of the River Meon and its estuary was about half a mile wide from a point just north west of Hill Head to the other bank at Meon Shore before the dam was built across it.
A little to the north west of Meon Shore was another smaller inlet and the route chosen for the canal was from this inlet following a line to a point just to the north of the present Titchfield Parish Church quite near the present A27 road.
This cut could not take seagoing vessels, but smaller barges, such as those described later, built for use on the Tavistock Canal would have been able to navigate it with reasonable ease. Their capacity of about four tons would have been quite adequate for the volume of trade of the time.The entrance was through a sea lock which consisted of a strong single gate which would have been opened to admit shipping when tne tide equalled the height of water in the canal. This would have been supplied by a conduit from the River Meon via the Mill race.
When considering the apparent constricting factor of the canal of only being able to take smaller vessels than before, it is worth remembering that it was some time not too long after its construction that efforts were being made to improve roads. Better land communication would have offset to some degree the limits of the new waterway and certainly have been cheaper than improving the waterway. This, when added to the advantages brought into being by the increased productivity of the water meadows would indicate that the changes were by and large beneficial to the area.
Considerable researches have been made to discover the type of vessels that would have used the new canal without success. Mention is made later of the Tavistock Canal and the distinctive ‘tub boats’ or barges built for trade on it. As that canal was similar in dimensions to the Titchfield one it is reasonable to conclude the boats using it would have been of similar size.
The Titchfield canal had at least one advantage over the Tavistock one in that it did not have a tunnel to contend with and the tow path was useable over its entire length.
Reproduced with permission of Estate Publications.On the question of size and capacity of the craft used they might have been similar in design to the familiar long boats of today, but not quite as long as there is no evidence that there was space to turn them at the inland end. It is also probable that this restrictive feature would have dictated a special canal barge that was double ended.
All the probabilities are that craft to be practical would have been between thirty and forty feet long, about five to six feet wide and probably had a capacity enabling it to carry a useful load of between five and fifteen tons.
Two of the major users of the waterway would have been the Iron Works and the Tannery and craft of the above description would have served both well. Other bulk cargoes uneconomical to transport overland, or those shipped in to the harbour by sea would have been able to use the canal to great effect as hauling the vessels with horses was quite possible. This feature would also have made the transit time from Meon Shore to Titchfield a more predictable affair as once the cargo was in a canal boat and on the waterway itself there were no tidal considerations to contend with.
All this is surmise as there are virtually no records to say if the canal was actually navigated or even if it was, what cargoes were carried on it. However, we do know the Meon estuary became a very different place after the dam was built and the mud fiats and marshes were drained away. The recovered land became fertile and productive and the small harbour not unlike the one we can see today to the north west of Hill Head would have been usable if needed.
The hundred and fifty years following the building of the canal saw a sudden and sharp rise in the trade and prosperity of Titchfield followed by a slow decline for which there was no single reason.
What can be said with a degree of confidence is that this downward trend and changing pattern of trade caused the decline of the canal’s usefulness and was not caused by the waterway itself.
This is a statement that needs some clarification and a quick glance at the facts with the benefit of hindsight can tell us a lot. The canal was ‘opened’ in 1611 about the time that serious efforts were being made to improve roads followed by the beginning of the industrial revolution and creation of turnpikes a century or so later. It was also just over two hundred years before the advent of the Railway mania which put an end to the economic use of most of our canal system of which the Titchfield cut was one of the pioneers.
One particular event peculiar to this waterway was that about a hundred years after its opening a great storm breached the shingle bank that prevented sea water from entering the old estuary forcing the building of another dam.
This second dam was put up roughly where the beach huts on Meon Shore are today. This prevented access to the canal via the little inlet at Meon and forced the waters of the canal to be directed onto a course that turned sharply left to the outlet to the east at the present day sluice nearer Hill Head.
There is little doubt that this and other financial drains on the estate made the upkeep of the canal uneconomical. However, all was not entirely lost as sluices enabled the water levels at various points along the waterway to be controlled with greater ease. These made for better irrigation of the water meadow system which pleased those trying to improve their agricultural output, but must have put an end to any practical navigation.
Similar, but larger, sluices to these were built on the Thames a couple of hundred years ago where they were known as ‘flash locks.’ The system on the Thames used to allow vessels to await upstream the opening of the sluice gates when they would be carried down by the flow of the waters. It must have been a dodgy business and had all thrills of shooting the rapids.
Going downstream with the flow demanded that some skills were needed in the control of the craft, but going upstream just called for brute strength in hauling them against the flow. This was not an ideal system, but the best they had and we are not sure that it was ever used to navigate to Titchfield.
A reason for so little being on record about the building of the Titchfield waterway about a century and a half before ‘canal mania’ is a little puzzling until it is realised that it was constructed entirely on the estate of the Earl of Southampton.
Because of this the Earl as the land owner would have had no need to get a private act to authorise any construction and it was several centuries before the day when planning permission would be required for any major building or alteration to any property.
Many would still have one believe that one of the objects of the canal and the irrigation system was that it was constructed to provide sporting facilities for the Earl and his friends. lie was known to be a great hunting, shooting and fishing person as many of the landed gentry of today still are.
However, to say that this was the main purpose of all the Earl’s efforts is stretching credibility too far as it is on record that he did at one time make a point that he thought Titchfield Harbour would make an ideal place from which to start journeys to the Isle of Wight.
It probably was that the increase in the popularity of the sport of hunting and developments along the Meon did give him extra facilities in the area, but these would have just been a plus factor for the Earl and others who also enjoyed a day out hunting and shooting.
When bridges of a more permanent nature were built across the canal’s waters in various places such as Meon, Little Posbrook about half way up towards Titchfield and a further three at Titchfield itself these put an end to further thought of navigation by more than a rowing boat or punt.
Better roads, the development of railways and growth of Southampton and Portsmouth put an end to any aspirations of a seaport at Titchfield or Meon leaving the Earl of Southampton’s efforts to serve as an irrigation and drainage ditch.
There are other canals with many similarities to the one at Titchfield, for instance the one at Tavistock which was of similar size, but had more uses than just navigation. Its original design was by a John Taylor to link Tavistock with the medieval port of Morewelham on the Devonshire bank of the Tamar five or six miles west of Tavistock. Apart from the trade link it provided, its main purpose was to power machinery at the various mines that were opening along its proposed route.
It was opened in 1817 just over two hundred years after the Titchfield canal and could cater for barges (tub boats) about 31 feet long, 5 foot wide, with a draught of 214 feet and able to carry about 4 tons of goods. Trade prospered for a short while with a modest profit being made for thirty or forty years when the South Devon and Tavistock railway opened killing off most of the trade with the town.
There were two inhibiting features of the canal that contributed to the loss of trade, one was the fact that at Morwelham the canal came to an end over 200 feet above the riverside quay and goods were lowered down an incline powered by waters from the canal.
The other feature which rather limited the use as a cargo carrying waterway was the 2,500 yard tunnel which took thirteen years to complete and had the smallest cross section of any canal tunnel in Britain and no tow path. The barges were allowed to go through with the flow, but had to be legged upstream, a back breaking process.
The canal closed for navigational purposes in 1875 but was never filled in which is where the interesting comparison with Titchfield canal becomes obvious. The Tavistock canal was intended as more of a water supply rather than for navigation and today still serves that purpose. Minor changes were made after its closure to traffic and today the waters still provide Hydro Power at Morwelham.
Those that believe that the Titchfield canal was intended for irrigation purposes and a drainage ditch were not entirely correct as it is known that by the eighteenth century records tell that no navigation was possible leaving it serving as an irrigation ditch only. This makes its story similar to the younger waterway at Tavistock. Another point is that to this day they both draw their water from the adjacent river as they did the day they were built!
It is where the Tavistock canal actually flows through the town that could be of interest to Titchfield for in Tavistock where it flows through what is now a park it has been cleaned up, cleared of weeds and provides a very pleasant waterside leisure area through the town.
This is even more interesting for as these chapters are being written a grant of some £2,000 has been made to help towards restoration of the Titchfield canal in a way that will give the village an acceptable amenity. A lesson could well be learned from the Tavistock Canal for apart from the attractive, but not authentic restoration of the ‘Sea Lock’ at Meon the rest of the old waterway is a messy overgrown ditch for most of its length.
Matters of opinion have no real place in history, far better to have matters of record be they of interest or not. However, the Titchfield canal is historic in that regardless of why it was built it was the second known canal to have been built in this country and therefore worth preserving.
Not only will it provide a pleasant local amenity which the Third Earl of Southampton never envisaged, but it has probably also served at least two other purposes that have been of benefit to the community over the centuries.
It doesn’t really matter if we know little about its origins if it is useful today, but even this lack of knowledge may give pleasure to those who enjoy delving into the past. If they are successful in finding out more, they in turn will have achieved two further benefits from Titchfield’s past. They will have given themselves satisfaction and contributed something educational for others to learn from.