The Titchfield Canal IV – Was the canal really built in 1611?

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Te possible date for the construction of the canal rests on an entry in the Parish Register which seems to indicate that they estuary was closed off in 1611. From this it has been inferred that the canal must have been completed by that date.

John Mitchell, in a paper published in 2011, re-examined the evidence and came to a different conclusion.



John Mitchell 2011


There is a man-made watercourse to the west of the River Meon in Hampshire, known generally today as The Titchfield Canal, which links the village of Titchfield to the northern shore of the Solent. Many publications, websites and even Fareham Borough Council documents claim that it “…is one of the oldest canals in the country…”1 and reiterate the local tradition that it was constructed around 1611 for the 3rd Earl of Southampton. There is a further local tradition that a Dutch engineer was brought in to carry out the work. The canal was deemed to have been a failure and was later used to feed water meadows. Until recently, despite decades of research by local historians, no solid information has come to light regarding the construction of this feature and adherents to the traditional story can only invoke assumption, coincidence, conjecture and imagination to support their views.
The absence of an Act of Parliament has been used to support the arguments of both proponents and opponents of this traditional view. This is totally irrelevant. These Acts were required in cases of linear transportation links such as canals, roads and railways to establish way leave; the right of access across the properties of a number of landowners. In the case under consideration the whole of the watercourse was located within land owned by one person and hence, any such Act would be unnecessary.
There are several documents in existence which are of interest in relation to this matter but they are, based upon the currently accepted interpretation, mutually incompatible and do not support the locally held traditional views. They are the Titchfield Parish Register for 1589 – 1634),2 the Indenture of 1620 setting up the original Earl of Southampton’s Trust3 and the transcript of the subsequent court case of 1742, Attorney General v William Churcher.4 The incompatibility may be removed by a reinterpretation of the meaning of the remark in the Parish Register. This, together with later archival evidence leads to the conclusion that the watercourse may well have been constructed over half a century later and for a different purpose than traditionally supposed.

The Parish Register

Figure 1

The comment in the Titchfield Parish Register for the 24 June 1611 that “the same day Titchfield Haven was shut out by one Richard Talbotts industrie under gods permisione at the costs of the right honourable the Earle of Southampton” is the one piece of evidence which underpins the whole of the story. This comment has always been taken to mean that the mouth of the estuary of the River was shut off from the sea as regards navigation by coastal trading vessels. An assumption followed that the watercourse to the west of the River must have been a canal constructed by the 3rd Earl of Southampton at about the same time in order to maintain a waterborne transport link between Titchfield and the Solent. This is not borne out by the contents of the Indenture of 1620 and is totally contradictory to the contents of the transcript of the court case of 1742, both of which will be examined in due course. An alternative interpretation can be made which does accord with these later sources.

The Parish Register comment stating that”…Titchfield Haven was shutt out …” is a strange way of conveying the meaning which has been assigned to it, but it becomes a very simple, clear statement if the location which was called “Titchfield Haven”, at that time, was different from the region so named today.  A reduced scale copy was published by Hampshire Field Club of a tracing by Wilberforce Cobbett in 1894 of the Titchfield Estate Map.5 The date of the original map is often stated as 1610 although it is now thought that the date could have been at any time between 1605-10 since it refers to an area as “The copps felled in Anno 1605”. The relevant section of this map, Figure 1, indicates a bifurcation of the exit from the estuary with a generally east-going channel in which there are depictions of two single-masted coasting vessels of the time. The east-going branch would be the main river outlet, deflected by the prevailing longshore drift which has built up a spit on the seaward side. The south going branch is probably a breach in the spit caused by scour during periods of high discharge in the river during the winter months; during dry-weather flows in the summer the onshore and longshore movement of gravel by wave action would tend to form a bar at the seaward end which would be scoured away during the next winter. Whilst this variability in depth would preclude the use of this branch for reliable access to the river it could have provided a useful, sheltered mooring area off the main navigable channel, ie. a haven.

The Estate Map specifically refers to the south-going branch as “Titchfield Haven”. Later maps apply this designation to the whole of the region upstream of the tidal gates. It appears that the bank which the 3rd Earl had constructed was an extension of the end of the spit, which narrowed the exit to a single east-going channel and cut off flow to the south-going branch, identified as “Titchfield Haven”. A sketch plan in the Hampshire Records Office of unknown date, but thought to be mid 18th century (Figure 2), indicates this with the remark “The bank first made for shutting out the sea”.6 The statement in the Parish Register now becomes very clear and precise: the south-going branch, known at the time as “Titchfield Haven”, was shut out (from the River) thus concentrating the whole flow of the river through the east-going branch. There are several possible reasons for doing this: reclamation, fisheries and to alleviate sedimentation at the entrance.
It is clear that reclamation of the edges of the estuary, particularly in the south­west, was taking place at this time: a lease granted to Richard Tamye in 1614 refers to ” … a piece of beech ground lately enclosed and 20 acres of ground lately recovered from the overflowing of the sea, on the west side of the said Haven, aboundeth upon the Com’on of Meane … and upon other the lands of the said Earle lately also recovered from the overflowing of the sea on the North side”.7 This suggests that reclamation had been going on for some time if reclaimed areas were in a state fit to be leased out. It is also interesting that the western boundary was given as Meon Common not as the Canal which would have been the case had it existed at this time. On the mid-I 8th century plan referred to above there is a dotted line with the remark, “The Bank before the Breach was made”: this may be a reclamation bank and the breach may have been made in the great storm of 26 November 1703.

A reason which has been given for the Earl’s alleged actions was an assumption that the estuary was silting up. This seems w1likely since chalk streams such as the Meon carry negligible sediment loads into their estuaries; despite passing through Tertiary deposits south of Wickham, the river runs very clear. Also, the waters of the Solent are low in suspended sediment content. There may have been a reduction in mean sea level associated with the long term lowering of tempera­tures during the “little ice age” but it is likely that the greatest problem affecting navigation in the estuary was, as is still the case today, a partial blockage of the entrance due to continuing extension of the river spit. Closing off the south-going exit would concentrate all flow through the east going channel and would maxim­ise the scouring effect of the out-going flow, to maintain the largest possible chan­nel cross-section to facilitate navigation.

There is a dearth of names relating to fluvial features on the Estate Map: “Titchfield Haven” is one of very few exceptions and relates to a relatively insignificant feature. Since this map was drawn up only a very few years prior to the completion of the works, the 3rd Earl must already have formulated his plans and started on preparations for the w ork. It seems likely that the identification of this particular feature was a very conscious action.

Richard Tallbotts, who was identified in the Parish Register entry, was apparently from a local fam ily, other members of which appear in the Parish Register. He continued to live within the community, married a local girl in February 1625 and died in April 1629, apparently of natural causes: he was still referred to as “… the Sirvayer of Water Woorkes at Meenelane end…”. He was clearly not a Dutchman but, if the construction of the watercourse was much later, Dutch influence could be a possibility.

There are a number of references in Estate account books held in Hampshire Record Office to works carried out on unspecified sluices in the area during the latter h a lf of the 17th century. Sluices and other water engineering works would be essential in land drainage and reclamation; they do not necessarily indicate the presence of a canal.

It is worth noting that there is no reference, direct or indirect, in the Parish Register to the construction of a canal or to any of the many labourers who would have worked on it. Furthermore, there is no reference in the Titchfield Parish Registers up to the year 1763 to any persons involved in the utilisation or maintenance of a canal.

Earl of Southampton’s Trust

Under an Indenture dated 18 M ay 1620 made between the 3rd Earl and a group of 18 Trustees, all inhabitants of Titchfield, properties were leased to the Trustees for 500 years with the intention that they should be utilised in support of employment of the poor in a woollen cloth industry for which “… The Town being situate near the Sea Coast was very commodious…”.

It seems inconceivable that the Earl would have made such an investment if, only nine years previously he had been responsible for the closure of the estuary for navigation, and equally improbable that, had he spent huge sums of money on the construction of an innovative canal, he would not have advertised the fact.

Although provision was made in the agreement for replacing the original trustees when they died, this did not appear to take place and the leaseholds eventually devolved to the last surviving trustee, Robert Churcher, and then through a series of his and his descendants’ executors to his great-grandson, William Churcher.

Attorney General v William Churcher

On the 9th July 1742, a court action was brought by the Attorney General against William Churcher before the Master of the Rolls. The account of this court action is the most significant piece of evidence that refutes the traditional story that a canal was built for the 3rd Earl of Southampton in 1611; it is very strange that arguments put forward by proponents of the traditional view ignore the existence of these documents entirely!

The Defendant was required to account for the fact that the properties leased by the 3rd Earl had been with in the trusteeship of several generations of his family without any of the monies derived from their usage being passed on to the Overseers of the Poor of the Town. At two points in the transcription it states, unequivocally, that the River remained navigable from the Town to the sea and was thereby useful in carrying on the woollen trade to advantage at the demise of the Earl and until the death of his great-grandfather Robert Churcher. He states that at some time after the death of his great-grandfather the River was diverted by the Earl’s heirs or assigns “for their benefit” and the consequent loss of the River brought about the rapid and total loss of the woollen trade and a collapse in the revenues derived from it. At no point in his testimony, which covers the period from 1620 to 1742, does he mention the existence of a canal facilitating water borne transport between the Town and the sea. This testimony was given under oath and accepted by the two leading judicial officers in the country.

The 3rd Earl of Southampton died 10 November 1624 and Robert Churcher was buried on 4 June 1643; this would put the earliest possible date for the diversion of the River in the second half of the 17th century. Support for this conclusion appears in the history of a lease granted to the Stares family for “Meene Farm”. The acreage of the property decreased at some time after it was referred to in a survey of 1632 due, according to a letter written in 1756 from Clement Walcot, the Receiver to the Duke of Portland for his Hampshire Estates, to John Lucas of the Inner Temple, London, to the cutting of the New River.

Evidence from Naval Charts

The charts of Greenvile Collins (1693)8 and Dummer & Wiltshaw (1698)9 utilise conventions for displaying the mouths of rivers and streams which are clear and totally consistent. They show the high and low water lines. They do not show the courses of freshwater streams either in the intertidal zone or inland of the high water mark and, possibly, for this reason do not show the New River. They do not show the presence of a canal but indicate that the entrance to the estuary was still open and navigable, even including navigation marks; this would be surprising if the New River was a navigable watercourse. They name the lower part of the estuary as “Titchfield Lake”. This does not necessarily indicate a body of fresh water since the term “Lake” is frequently used on charts of this area for naming navigable tidal channels; there are several examples of this usage in Portsmouth and Langstone Harbours. At the mouth of the estuary there is a detached area of land which may be the area of reclamation previously referred to. There is a narrow channel, connecting to Titchfield Lake, separating the area of land from the western high water mark, which appears to be crossed by a structure which looks like a bridge but may incorporate a sluice gate; the channel does not appear to flow continuously as it has not cut through the intertidal zone. The reason for this narrow channel is not clear; it may have been part of the drainage of the reclaimed area or it may contain one of the three flood hatches whose presence is stated in a schedule of works dated 1740.10 It is possible that this channel formed a weak point which led to the later breach. A detail of the Dummer & Wiltshaw chart of 1698 is shown here in Figure 3. The area identified as “v” is named as Titchfield Lake.

The earliest cartographic representation of the New River, so far discovered, is a chart by Joseph Avery of 1731,11 which clearly shows the watercourse, but does not name it, with the Breech and the original river exit to the East closed off. The watercourse is referred to in 1740 in a letter from Clement Walcot to John Lucas, concerning land boundaries,12 as the New River, not the Canal. This letter also identifies the structure at the lower end of the watercourse as hatches, not as a sea-lock; this term being used consistently on a number of sketch maps drawn by Clement Walcot during the 1740s. It contains further items of interest such as the reference to clap gates, probably an early form of the tidal flaps at the head of the present harbour at Hill Head.

Other Accounts

There are two other accounts of interest, both by past Vicars of Titchfield.
On 13th May 1899, the Hampshire Chronicle carried a report on a visit by members of The Hampshire Field Club to H ill Head, in which the Rev. R. A. R. White was quoted:

“… they were standing on what was one of the largest earthworks in Hampshire -all the ground for some distance was artificial. The valley was at one time tidal, and there was nothing but a sea route, Titchfield itself being in those days a little seaport. There was an old map belonging to the Delme family, formerly hanging in Cams Hall, on which ships were shown alongside the road leading to Gosport, which crossed the valley close up to Titchfield, while local tradition asserted that ships went up as far as Place House. When the monasteries were dissolved the trade of Titchfield decreased very rapidly; then the Earls tried what they could to revive the trade, and started woollen manufactories, which failed. Then they taught the children of the poor to weave, but that failed, and then they thought of a great work to encourage agriculture – they erected that earthwork, put in flood gates, and reclaimed the land for two and a half miles inland to Titchfield, and it was now valuable grazing land.”

This account supports the general chronology proposed above and does not include any reference to the existence of a canal at any time.

In a little history of St Peter’s Church, published in the late 1940s, the Vicar of Titchfield from 1936 – 47, the Rev. Frank Edward Spurway stated: “The river- mouth was closed in the reign of Charles II,” ie between 1660 – 1685. Unfortunately the Rev Spurway does not state his evidence for this statement but a recent discovery, by Keith Hayward, in a volume of presentments at the M anorial Court ofTitchfield in 1676 includes two complaints by residents of Posbrooke that the acreages of their copyholds had been reduced by the cutting of the New River. This suggests that the New River had been completed or was in an advanced stage of construction by that time. The Lord of the Manor responsible would have been Edward Noel, the 1st Earl of Gainsborough.

The 3rd Earl of Southampton’s second son succeeded to the title in 1624 and died in 1667 leaving no male heir to continue the Earldom. His estates were divided up in 1669 between his three daughters; Titchfield went to Elizabeth Wriothesley, (1636-80), eldest daughter of the 4th Earl, who married Edward Noel, 1st Earl of Gainsborough.

It is interesting to note that Rachell Vahan (2nd daughter of the 4th Earl of Southampton) married William Russell on 10th August 1669. This was her second marriage; William , Lord Russell was the 3rd son of the 4th Earl (1st Duke) of Bedford. Three generations of the Earls of Bedford had considerable interests in the major drainage works in the Fens carried out by the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden culminating in the completion of the Bedford New River in 1651.

William may have encouraged his brother-in-law Edward Noel to carry out the extensive water engineering works at Titchfield, including the N ew River and the local tradition of Dutch involvement in the enterprise may suggest that one of the Dutch engineers brought over by Vermuyden planned and supervised the work.

When was the first reference to it being a canal?

The earliest instances of the terms Titchfield Canal and Sea Lock have not been established but White’s Directory of 1859, when describing the watercourse, states that it was “chiefly for the purpose of drainage and irrigation, and not now used for the navigation of barges”. This is not proof that the New River was built originally for that purpose.

In other parts of the country, such as the Somerset Levels and the Fens, man­made channels have been utilised for local transport of produce even though this was not their original purpose, eg. peat for fuel, osiers for basketry and reeds for thatching, and indigenous watercraft have been developed such as the Somerset Turf Boat and the Withy Boat of the Cambridgeshire Fens, usually propelled by poling or tracking.

There is anecdotal evidence that farmers in the upper reaches of the River Meon utilised the river for the transport of farm produce. Water meadows required considerable maintenance and it is quite likely that the New River was used for tire transport of men, tools and materials between them and Titchfield Village and perhaps for carrying the hay from the meadows.


There is not one shred of evidence to supportthe traditionally held views regarding the origin and purpose of the New River; any such views are based totally upon speculation, unless any real evidence is discovered to support them.

Proponents of these traditional views seem to totally ignore any evidence which contradicts their ideé fixe.

The available evidence suggests that the 3rd Earl of Southampton was not responsible for shutting off the mouth of the Meon from the sea, causing the cessation of maritime trade to the town of Titchfield, nor for the construction of a canal. His action, reported in the Register for 1611, was to facilitate reclamation with in the estuary of the river and possibly to maintain the main navigable channel. Evidence indicates that the river remained navigable from Titchfield to the sea up until at least the second half of the 17th century. The reason that considerable effort by many local historians has failed to unearth any evidence relating to a canal constructed for the 3rd Earl is simply that no such canal ever existed; it appears that, from the available evidence, this watercourse, called The New River, was constructed in the latter half of the 17th century by the 1st Earl of Gainsborough to facilitate the extension of the reclamation of the western side of the estuary and was eventually used to supply the extensive water meadows developed over this area.

1 Fareham Borough Council. A Local Biodiversity Action Plan for Fareham.
2 Hayward, K.ed., 1998. Titchfield Parish Register 1589-1634. Titchfield History Society.
3 Earl of Southamptons Grant of Severall Lands & c to the Towne of Titchfield for 500 years dated 18th May 1620. Archives of Earl of Southampton’s Trust.
4 Copy of Order on Hearing of Attorney General against Churcher dated 9th July 1742. Archives of Earl of Southampton’s Trust.

5 Hants Field Club, 1894. The Titchfield Estate,From A XVIIth Century Map. Reprinted 1983. Winchester: Hampshire Field Club.
6 Hampshire Record Office 1M46/1. Plan of Titchfield Haven, 18th Century.
7 Hampshire Record Office 5M53/331
8 Collins, Capt. Greenvile. 1693. Chart of the Solent, including the coast of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in Great Britain’s Coasting Pilot.
9 Dummer, E. and Wiltshaw, Capt. T., 1698. Chart of The River of Southampton in A Survey of Ports on the Southwest Coast of England from Dover to the Lands-end
10 Hampshire Record Office 5M53/1110/51. A Particular of ye Repairs at Hillhead.
11 Avery, J. 1731. Chart of The Sea Coasts from Arundel to St Albans, including The Solent and coast of Hampshire.
12 Hampshire Record Office 5M53/1110/9.

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